Tamar and the Power of Perseverance

First in the series “Wonder Women of Advent”

Matthew 1:1-3a; Genesis 38

As someone with a passion for history, I’ve always been interested in genealogies. Maybe it’s because, as an adopted child with no knowledge of my birth parents, I don’t know my own history—where my family originated, what the stories are, etc. Some recent developments have helped, however. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania recently opened some old adoption records to allow people like me to apply to receive their original birth certificate, which I have sent away for. And, for my birthday this week, I received one of those Ancestry DNA kits which will tell you what regions of the world your DNA comes from. I’m hoping it will once and for explain why I love bagpipes! It’s exciting to learn about your ancestry.

Sometimes those stories can be surprising. Having done a lot of background research on Civil War soldiers, I’m always interested in learning when people have relatives who served. A friend of mine recently posted a picture of a family heirloom on Facebook—an 1860 US cavalry saber. I asked him if he knew anything about it and he said that one of his great great grandparents had brought it home from the war and it was a treasured piece of the family’s history. I asked for the name and possible unit where he served and then went to Bates’ History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, which was published after the war. Bates lists the muster roles for every PA unit and I found my friend’s relative. But what I found was surprising—his great great grandfather wasn’t a dashing cavalryman, but a common infantry soldier. And, next to his name, was a simple designator: Deserted. Instead of being a hero, my friend’s relative went AWOL! It took some delicacy to deliver that news to my friend!

Genealogies are like that—they express the wonder and the madness of the human condition. Every family has secrets and outliers in its past.

The genealogy of Jesus is no different. Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy that connects Jesus to the line of King David and to the patriarch Abraham. It’s a way of declaring Jesus’ messianic claims right out of the gate. It was pretty common for ancient biographies to begin this way. After all, your gender, your genealogy, and your geography were important markers for people. “Who’s your daddy?” was a vital question! Genealogies reminded Jewish people of God’s sovereignty in arranging marriages and providing offspring and sometimes explained why a person behaved a particular way. Most importantly, they were essential to document a person’s heritage as a pure Israelite, especially if they were from families of royalty or the priesthood. The records of those genealogies were kept in the Temple. After the Temple was destroyed in 70AD, anyone could have claimed to be a descendant of David, but the claims about Jesus were verifiable before that time. Matthew wants us to know that Jesus is the real deal.

But Matthew’s genealogy is different from a lot of other ancient lists, most particularly in that it lists five women. Three of them aren’t even Jewish—they are Gentiles (Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth) and a fourth was at least the wife of a Gentile if not one herself (Bathsheba, to whom Matthew simply refers as “the wife of Uriah the Hittite”). That’s curious, especially given the matriarchs that get a lot more ink in the Old Testament—women like Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel. And not only that, each of the women that Matthew names represent stories that are shocking in their moral sensibilities, especially to modern ears. They are PG-13 stories with lots of sex and intrigue.

But I don’t think that’s why Matthew names them. It’s not about exposing these women as examples of questionable sexual morality. Quite the opposite—it’s the men in their lives that get exposed in these stories. Rather, I think Matthew includes them as a way of expressing what God promised to Abraham from the beginning—that the blessing given to Israel was a blessing for all nations, including the Gentiles. Including these Gentile women in Jesus’ genealogy acknowledges this and shows that in spite of human frailty, God’s plan still wins out.

So, I’ve titled this series “Wonder Women of Advent” because in many ways they teach us how God can work even in tough circumstances. My original title was “Grandmas Gone Wild” because each of these stories has some racy content, but the more I studied the more I realized that missed the point. We can learn a lot from these women, who were victimized in some ways but refused to act like victims. They were strong, faithful, and moved the story toward Jesus.

In fact, I think this series is really timely, given the increasing number of news stories about high profile men in entertainment, news, and politics who are losing their jobs because of sexual misconduct. It’s a warning that something has gone terribly wrong in our culture. The sexual revolution hasn’t delivered on its promise that you can do anything you want with anyone you want with no consequences. The Bible is a wake up call to that falsehood. We need to recapture the value of family, sex, and love as God intended it, while remembering the lesson that God can redeem our past history of failure. In many ways, Jesus’ family is our family—and he is the one who can set things right.

That brings us to the first wonder woman mentioned in the genealogy. “Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar” (Matt. 1:3). There are three Tamars mentioned in the Bible, but this is a reference to the first one, who appears in Genesis 38. The story of Judah and Tamar is an odd one that has long baffled biblical scholars. It’s a story that has virtually no context, given that it is dropped without warning in to the middle of the story of Joseph, which runs from Genesis 37-50. Preachers won’t touch this text because it doesn’t seem to have any redeeming quality. It doesn’t appear in the lectionaries, nor does it look like a text for Advent. It’s one of those stories that we like to pretend isn’t in the Bible. But it is in there, and it was important enough for Matthew to revisit it briefly when telling the story of Jesus.

So, let’s look at the story. A warning up front—this story contains sexual content. Listener discretion is advised! It begins with Judah, one of Joseph’s older brothers, who moved away from the others and married a Gentile Canaanite woman. They had three sons together: Er, Onan, and Shelah. The eldest son, Er, married a Gentile woman named Tamar, but God considered Er to be immoral and thus the writer of Genesis says, “The Lord put him to death,” or at least that’s how he interprets it! (38:7).

Under the laws of Levirate marriage, that meant that Tamar was to be given to the next brother, Onan. While it sounds strange to modern ears, it was a way of dealing with the disruption in inheritance caused by the premature death of a man who had no heir. The next brother in line would marry his dead brother’s wife and any sons that they had would receive the dead brother’s full inheritance—in the case of Er, that meant two-thirds of the estate. It also meant that the widow, Tamar, would be provided for with both a household and the benefit of that inheritance. Think of it as an ancient version of a social and economic safety net, especially for widows who were extremely vulnerable without a connection to their husband’s family.

That meant that Onan was next up, but Onan didn’t want the inheritance to pass to any children he and Tamar might have. He wanted it for himself. So while he used Tamar sexually, he refused to get her pregnant. The result? The writer says that God killed him, too (v. 10)! That meant that there was one brother left, but now Judah, the father-in-law, thought that Tamar was bad luck and told her to stay with her own family until Shelah could grow up a little more. Judah saw Tamar as the problem, not realizing the problem was within his own family.

A long time passes. Judah’s wife dies. Shelah is all grown up, but Judah neglects to send for Tamar so that she can receive the benefits of the inheritance coming to her and the children she anticipates. She was in limbo, with no other marriage prospects because of her situation. She was in the most vulnerable place a woman in the ancient world could be—she has been wronged and put in a desperate predicament.

That’s when she decides to take matters into her own hands. She knows that her father-in-law is now single and she hears that he is about to go on a business trip to shear some sheep. So, she takes off her widow’s garments and puts on the costume of a Canaanite temple prostitute. This was a common practice among the pagans, who engaged in sexual rituals with cultic representatives of a female goddess in order to insure a good harvest or a successful season of shearing sheep. These women wore veils to hide their identity and to represent the goddess.

Tamar dresses like one of these cultic women, but she isn’t one. Instead, she waits along the road for Judah to come by. Seeing her, and thinking she is part of the pagan temple and thinking that intimacy with her will help his sheep produce more wool, he engages in a business proposition. “Sleep with me,” he says, and they negotiate a price, which is one kid goat. But Judah doesn’t have a goat with him, so she asks for a sign and pledge that he will pay (remember, he doesn’t realize that this is his daughter-in-law!). She asks for his signet ring (used to sign documents), his staff, and cord. Until her brings her the kid goat, she will keep these items as collateral.

Tamar becomes pregnant by her father-in-law. She puts her widow’s clothes back on. Judah sends the goat to the woman he thinks is a random harlot, but no one can find her now. What he does find, however, is that his daughter-in-law has become pregnant outside of marriage, which was a capital offense. He is indignant. “Bring her out so that she may be burned!” he says (v. 24).

But Tamar anticipated this. She says, “I’m pregnant by the man who owns these things,” and she produces the ring, the staff, and the cord. Judah is busted cold. When he recognized the items he said, “She’s more righteous than I am, because I didn’t allow her to marry my son Shelah” (v. 26). While Judah doesn’t marry her, she is now part of his household and she and her sons will receive the inheritance that guarantees their future. Twins Perez and Zerah and born and, as is common in the biblical story, it’s the younger son Perez who will become the ancestor of David and of Jesus.

Now I know what you’re thinking…all God’s people said, “What?” This story doesn’t seem heroic at all. Everyone seems to act reprehensibly. It’s a story that offends our moral sense, but notice that the writer of Genesis offers no moral judgment on the scene, especially on Tamar. This is a story primarily about the failure of Judah to care for a vulnerable woman in his family. Tamar, on the other hand, goes around the law in order to obey the law and, in doing so, she insures that the covenant line will continue.

It’s interesting that Jesus, the Messiah, would be known as “the lion of the tribe of Judah” (Revelation 5:5). Genesis shows us that Judah is not all that impressive a figure—he seems to have forgotten God altogether, consorting with pagan deities and engaging in immoral sexual behavior. He treats women with contempt. He refuses to risk his youngest son in marriage, even though by the standards of the time it was the right thing to do. He cares more about his own interests than that of the whole family and the whole community. That’s why in this text he is the one who makes the headlines for his misconduct—not exactly a patriarch to look up to.

Tamar reverses the power dynamic in this story. We don’t hold up her conduct as an example here, but instead I would point to her perseverance. We can certainly question her methods, but we can’t question her commitment to insuring the future no matter what it cost her in terms of reputation and risk. This is a tragic, terrible situation all around and yet, somehow, God’s plan advances in the midst of it.

But there’s a bigger context to this story and one that I think Matthew wants us to recognize—that the coming of Jesus will reverse some of the old categories. He brings forth a new norm—the norm that was intended from the beginning of Genesis when God created man and woman as partners who were to lift one another up. Sin marred that partnership and created a hierarchy instead. Male and female are different (despite our culture’s desire to eliminate gender) but they are equal and need to be treated as such.

Contrast the way that Jesus treats women versus his ancestor Judah. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls out the double standard of men by telling them that their lust is actually adultery. Women are partners, not playthings (5:27-30). He treated the woman at the well with dignity by speaking with her (a Samaritan) and got down in the dust with a woman caught in adultery (John 14, John 8). Women were part of his entourage of disciples and financed his ministry. He cared for widows and offered grace to women whom everyone else had rejected because of their past.

In other words, Jesus acted in a way that valued women as partners. We who follow Jesus, men and women, must take his example. While the story of Judah and Tamar causes us to shake our heads, we must be reminded that it’s part of a story that points us to Jesus, the one from whom we take our example.

#MeToo

We live in a world where plenty of stories like Tamar’s are emerging every day. There are so many that there’s actually a Twitter hashtag that says, #MeToo. Women are speaking out about how they have been used and abused. We need to examine our own attitudes and ways in which we have not held up the biblical vision of equality and the image of God. We need to insure that no one has to do what Tamar had to do in order to receive justice. The church needs to be a safe place and one that defends the humanity of all people in community.

Advent is the time when we prepare to celebrate the Lord who came as a human being, stepping into our human mess in order to redeem us. As we do, we remember these women—women like Tamar—through whom he came into the world.

They are a wonder!

 

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