Advent Series: The Surprises in Jesus’ Genealogy: Tamar

An account of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.  From Abraham to David: Abraham fathered Isaac, Isaac fathered Jacob, Jacob fathered Judah and his brothers, Judah fathered Perez and Zerah by Tamar. 

So read the first three verses of Matthew’s Gospel.

The statement about Tamar is straightforward enough.  To understand how she wound up in Christ’s genealogy is another story.  For this, we need to travel back in Genesis, to a series of events in the life of Judah, one of the twelve sons of Jacob.

These events of Tamar inject themselves into the middle of the account of Joseph, the boy with his coat of many colors, carted off as a slave to Egypt.  The storyline switches to take us into a bit of a sordid tale.  Now, you can skip the chapter revolving around Tamar, and the surrounding narrative will still flow without a hitch.  So, why did God insert the twists and turns of Tamar in this exact spot, in Genesis 38? 

Consider the opening statement of this wayward chapter. The fourth son of Judah and Leah leaves his home.  So, everything begins with one son forsaking the unity and sanctity of God’s chosen people to do his own thing.  Alerted to this, we can expect things to turn squalid all too fast—and they do! 

With Judah leaving town, the line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob shows signs of disintegration.  The problems only worsen.  The next verse reveals, “Judah met the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua and married her.  After, he slept with her” (Genesis38:2). 

The marriage of Judah and Shua results in three sons—Er, Onan, and Shelah.  Like father like son, with their oldest, Er, also marrying a Canaanite, named Tamar. For two other cities also receive mention, which anchor Tamar to the foothills near the Philistine plain, all Canaanite land. 

So, the first woman named by Matthew in Jesus’ genealogy is Tamar.  By including her, Matthew breaks the pattern of so-and-so is the father of some son, which comprises most of the genealogy.  Now entering the family line is the unexpected mention of the mothers of Jesus, of whom Tamar is the first.  How remarkable, for no woman, including Mary, appears in the genealogy of Luke’s Gospel (Luke 3:23-38).

So, Tamar, a Canaanite woman, is married to a half-Canaanite man, Er.  Both young, and Er dies.  A husband provides for his wife, but whathappens when he dies?  Like today, thehusband often dies before the wife.  In a time before life insurance, social security, and outside employment for women, without someone to care for her, meant hard times, at best.  At worst, a life of indignity, privation, andpossible death. 

The Law reflected this reality.  So, if a husband died and the wife bore no son, the dead brother’s husband is to marry her.  To follow what God laid down, Judah tells his second son, Onan, to fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law.  So, Onan and Tamar marry. 

Though all appears well on the outside, Onan is greedy and wants Er’s inheritance for himself.  (Remember, the first son receives half; the other brothers split the rest.)  Now, we think, “How does this involve inheriting anything?”  Here’s how.  By Law, Tamar’s son will be her first husband’s son, not Onan’s, which will allow her son to receive everything Ermeant to pass down to him. 

So, if Onan wants to swindle his older brother’s inheritance, he needs to make sure Tamar never becomes pregnant.  Oh, he didn’t mind enjoying some sex with her, but he “released his semen on the ground to avoid fathering offspring for his brother” (Genesis 38:9).  Unless Tamar reports his actions, she will appear to be infertile. 

So, Onan works to defraud Er’s property, lands, and accrued wealth from his rightful heir.  Suppose Onan dies.  In this situation, his sons are under no obligation to support Tamar, for they are not her sons.  Though they may choose to do so, only biological sons must provide for their mothers, not stepsons.

So, if Tamar outlives Onan into old age, she might become penniless.  Another will inherit the accrued prosperity of earlier generations, from which she is supposed to benefit.

Remember the Old Covenant is different.  In a public way, God blessed His people when they walked in His ways but punished them when they did not.  With such abuse and the flouting of His Law, God takes away Onan’s life, all to give Tamar a fighting chance.  For another son of Judah can provide for Tamar.  Ponder whatGod tells us when He punishes Onan like this—He is resolute about His people caring for others as He desires!

With Onan’s death being such a brash and bold statement from God, you might think Judah will teach his youngest son, Shelah, to love and nurture Tamar.  With Shelah still too young to wed, Tamar remains under the care of Judah until Shelah marries her.  All is well—if Judah will live in faith and follow God’s Law.  Of course, this doesn’t happen because he considers Tamar as cursed. 

No way will Judah allow her to take his last son’s life.  Didn’t his first two sons die while married to her?  Yes!  Oh, he’ll give lip service to what God says, but nothing more.  To him, what now matters, is preserving his son’s life and passing on his wealth to him.

The first clue of an eventual betrayal is Judah sending Tamar back to live in her father’s house—not his—a colossal offense. Oh, he promises she will marry his third son when he is older, but his actions hint otherwise.  In her duty, Tamar, now waits, giving Judah the benefit, residing in her first home. 

Well, Shelah grows up, but Judah doesn’t arrange a marriage.  By Law, she isn’t allowed to become the wife of someone else because Er’s family is duty-bound to care for her.  So, if they don’t honor their pledge, she will be trapped, not free to unite in marriage but not cared for either—such a precarious dilemma. 

Now, a mention about Judah’s wife reaches Tamar, news of her death.  Weary of one insult after another, wounded by treachery and deceit, she takes matters into her own hands.  For all these years, Tamar adhered to the Covenant, wearing widow’s clothing, so others recognize she is a widow and promised to one of Er’s brothers.  No more!

On goes a distinct type of clothing.  ForTamar now moves with two motives.  First, she wants to test Judah about how well he loved his wife and if he is mourning her passing as she still mourns her first husband’s.  The second motive will unfold in the first. 

To shear some wool, Judah makes his way to his flock.  Not so fast, for Tamar will intercept him, in disguise.  Dressed in this way and hiding her face, she signals her sexual availability to him.  A respectable man will go past and leave her be.  Is Judah such a man? 

Without the social niceties one expects, Judah approaches her for sex like a deer in rutting season.  To compensate for her services, he vows to send her a goat.  Not the fool, Tamar planned for this, demanding collateral—in case he doesn’t follow through. 

Now, Judah thinks nothing of this.  No prostitute will fail to give back a deposit for fear of undesirable exposure, which will harm her ability to earn income. With the transaction completed, Judah is none the wiser.

After getting home, a servant leaves with a goat to pay her, but he cannot find her.  A few months later, Judah learns Tamar is pregnant because she “is guilty of prostitution” (Genesis 38:24).  Little does he realize the noose tightens around his neck. 

Furious, Judah lashes out and decides to punish her. Though he banished Tamar to her father, this reflects on him because she lived under his authorized care and protection. “Bring her out,” Judah fumes. “Let’s fry her over the flames!” (Genesis 38:24). 

Always bring your trump card with you.  Outcomes the collateral Judah gave her before he did the deed, thinking her a woman of pleasure.  Now exposed, he admits his guilt because the property is his. 

After so much unbelief and sinning, faith now enters the picture, “She is more righteous than I since I never gave her my son, Shelah” (Genesis 38:26).  The one who became the harlot for a day soon gives birth to twins, one of whom will be an ancestor of King David—andJesus. 

Don’t miss whom God spared.  Both Er and Onan died, not Tamar.  To top this, Judah confesses Tamar is more blameless than he is, admitting his failure contributed to her wrongdoing.  Tamar’s future well-being depended on bearing a child, but Onan refused his duty to her.  Later, Judah denied giving Shelah to her.  The sin in this story isn’t limited to Tamar’s sexual acts but also the causes leading to them—refusing to attend to others as God desires.

In the book of Ruth (another woman in Jesus’ genealogy), the people in her community approve of Ruth’s new husband Boaz: “May your house be the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah” (Ruth 4:12). Imagine, the Scriptures later cite Tamar as an example of fertility and goodwill, not as some shamed pariah, but a respected and admired woman of the past.  The grace and forgiveness of God, indeed, cleansed and redeemed her sinful past.

Within the lineage of the world’s Savior weaves deception, greed, and incest.  Not the usual skeletons, which darken someone’s family history—but they are throughout our Savior’s family line!  The saving news of Jesus insists His human ancestry sully itself with the messy history of humanity, for those are the ones He came to save. 

Tell me, who will God save through the One born of another woman, Mary?  The answer unfolds in His family tree.  For if Jesus can redeem someone like Tamar, He can do so for anyone, including you. 

The ancestry of our Lord isn’t a boring list of names.  No, the Gospel resonates in His genealogy!  Now, the story of Tamar is no longer distasteful but comforting. Through His son, God can turn the worst sin and work an eternal blessing, shown by this first woman in Jesus’ genealogy.  Amen.

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