(Genesis 38, Deuteronomy 25:5-10; Matthew 1:1-3)
To many modern eyes, it seems strange that Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy; but it didn’t seem strange at all to his Jewish audience. For them, genealogies were very important, because they told you who you were, and showed you your place in God’s chosen people. That’s why Matthew goes back to Abraham, because he was the ultimate ancestor of the people of God. The interesting thing, though, is that unlike every other genealogy of his time, Matthew includes women in his genealogy of Jesus, highlighting five women whom God used as part of his plan to redeem the world—and the women he highlights aren’t exactly conventional Jewish heroines. So why does he mention them? Well, thereby hangs a tale; and it all begins with Abraham.
When God told Abraham to move to Canaan, promising him that his descendants would be a great nation, he was 75, his wife Sarah 65. The move wasn’t easy, but they made it, then waited for God to fulfill his promise . . . and waited . . . and waited . . . and waited. A quarter-century passed, and still no son; and then one day, the Lord appeared again and told Abraham, “This will be the year that Sarah has her son.” Sarah laughed at that, but it happened just as God said; they named their baby boy Isaac, which means “laughter.” Isaac in turn had twin sons of his own, Esau and Jacob; and though Jacob was the younger, God chose him over Esau to be the ancestor of his chosen people.
This wasn’t the first time God had chosen the younger over the older—Isaac had an older half-brother, Ishmael, and God had favored Abel’s offering over Cain’s—and it would happen again among Jacob’s twelve sons; his oldest, Reuben, would disgrace himself, and God’s choice would fall on his younger brother Judah. The chosen kings of Israel, David and his descendants, would be from the tribe of Judah, and from David’s line would come Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, the Savior of the World.
Of all the unlikely people God chose to use, though, Judah was perhaps the unlikeliest. Jacob and his family were living in Canaan, but though God had promised them the land, they were a small minority among the idol-worshiping natives; that’s why Abraham had sent a servant back to his homeland to find a wife for Isaac, and why Isaac had sent Jacob back when the time came for him to marry. Judah, though, didn’t care about that; instead, he went out and married a Canaanite woman, and clearly spent more time with his pagan neighbors than he did with his family.
What’s more, he was a cold, selfish man. You see, Jacob fathered twelve sons (and some number of daughters) by four women, but he only loved one of those women—his second wife, Rachel—and he favored her two sons, Joseph and Benjamin, far beyond the others. In Genesis 37, Joseph’s neglected brothers (who despised him) ambushed him and threw him into a pit. They were going to kill him, but Reuben persuaded them not to; Judah took advantage of this while Reuben was away, convincing his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery for twenty pieces of silver. They followed this up by taking Joseph’s fancy robe—a special gift from his father, of course—dipping it in the blood of a goat, and taking it to their father to convince him Joseph had died. This was the kind of man Judah was.
We can see this in our chapter this morning. First, all we’re told about Judah’s wife is that he liked her looks, he had sex with her, and she bore him three sons. Clearly, this is all Judah really cared about, except probably that she put dinner on the table every night. Second, while Judah felt free to choose his own wife, he had no intention of allowing his sons to do so—and when the time came to choose a wife for his oldest son, Er, he simply grabbed another Canaanite woman. Third, he obviously didn’t do much of a job raising his sons. Er was so bad that God killed him off young; after that, his younger brother Onan selfishly refused to do his family duty, so God killed him off too.
In case the nature of his duty is unclear to you, the idea here is the same as Deuteronomy 25. This practice had two purposes. One was to ensure that the widow was remarried and thus provided for—widows were extremely vulnerable in that day and age. The other was to ensure that the dead brother had legal heirs to carry on his name, which otherwise would be forgotten. Of course, in Judah’s version, he doesn’t tell Onan to marry Tamar—he really doesn’t care a whit about providing for her; he just wanted an heir for his dead son. Onan, however, doesn’t want that. As the situation stands, he’s the oldest son and only has one brother to split the inheritance when Judah dies; but if he does his duty and Tamar gets pregnant, his share goes down dramatically. So, Onan sleeps with Tamar—he didn’t seem to mind that part—but practices birth control to ensure that she never gets pregnant. He probably figured he’d get away with it because Tamar would be afraid to expose him. What he doesn’t seem to have known, given the way Judah raised him, was that God was watching and wouldn’t tolerate his behavior. He might get it past Judah, but he wouldn’t, and didn’t, get it past God.
So here we are: Judah’s first two sons are dead—and you notice, he doesn’t mourn them at all? Their deaths are extremely inconvenient, but there’s no sign of grief—the problem is, they’re dead, and he still has no grandchildren; and instead of blaming them for their deaths, he blames Tamar. The way things were normally done, he should have kept her in his house and taken care of her—it was his responsibility, in that culture, as her father-in-law—but instead, he sends her back to her own father’s house, telling her to remain a widow until his third son, Shelah, grows up a little more. That is to say, she’s to consider herself betrothed, not free to marry anyone else, and to wear only the clothes that marked her as a widow in mourning. Unfortunately for her, Judah has no intention of keeping his word. Unfortunately for Judah, she figures that out—and lays a trap for him. Once Judah’s wife dies, she puts her plan into action.
The important thing to realize as we consider her plan is that under the laws of her society, it was probably perfectly ethical. Deuteronomy just says, if a man dies and he has an unmarried brother, he has to marry the widow and give his dead brother an heir; that responsibility doesn’t extend to their father. In the law codes of other cultures in that part of the world, however, it did, if the father were no longer married. Tamar is probably doing something perfectly acceptable by the ethical standards by which she was raised, whether Judah would have considered it so or not. Certainly, the fact that she waits for the death of her mother-in-law to carry out her plan indicates that she is trying to act rightly and morally, as best as she understands it.
In order to make her plan work, of course, she needs good information, and so she has an informer somewhere in Judah’s household. When the time is ripe, the informer tells her that Judah will be going up to Timnah to oversee the shearing of his sheep (and, probably, to enjoy the partying that always went along with it). Tamar takes off her widow’s garments, dresses up, puts on a veil (to ensure that Judah won’t recognize her), and sets herself up where he’ll be sure to see her. He does, and likes what he sees—and once again, that seems to be all that matters; taking Tamar for a prostitute, he goes over and asks to have sex with her. She plays along and asks him, “How much will you pay me?”
At least he makes her a good offer: a young goat from his flock. She accepts, on one condition: he has to leave a pledge with her to ensure that he’ll actually bring the goat—and the pledge she demands is steep. The seal was a disk or cylinder worn on a cord around the neck; on letters or official documents, it would be pressed or rolled into a piece of soft clay, and that would serve, in our terms, as an authorized signature. The staff was Judah’s symbol of authority, and had the mark of his seal carved into the head. These were things he could not afford to lose; in our terms, it’s as if he’d given her his driver’s license, passport and Social Security card. Still, Judah accepts her terms, takes what he wants, then goes on his way; and unbeknownst to him, she does the same, returning to her father’s house and going back undercover, so to speak.
We may imagine that Judah sent that goat as quickly as he could; notice, though, that he doesn’t take it himself, but sends it with his friend Hirah. Hirah gets to the place Judah described, and—no one there. So he asks around; only to keep Judah (or himself) from looking bad, he dresses things up a bit: “Where is the temple prostitute who was sitting by the road here?” After all, sleeping with a temple prostitute was an act of worship, nothing to be embarrassed about. However, putting things that way made the question rather ridiculous, because temple prostitutes worked in the temples, not along the roadside; and so the people Hirah asks look at him like he has a screw loose and say, “There haven’t been any here.” So Hirah goes back to Judah and says, “I couldn’t find her, and no one I talked to had seen her.” This is a problem for Judah—but as he sees it, the biggest problem isn’t the loss of his ID, but the fact that if this gets out, if people hear that he was played for a mark, he’ll be a laughingstock; so he tells Hirah to give up the search. Keeping this quiet is more important than getting the seal and staff back.
Now, Tamar had to know that if her plan worked, her pregnancy couldn’t stay hidden for long; and since she was carrying twins, she had even less time than she might have expected. About three months later, someone figured it out and took the news to Judah. Does Judah react with grace? What do you think? She’s betrothed to his son Shelah (whether or not he ever actually intended to let them marry), and so she’s guilty of adultery—and worse, of making his family look bad. These are not crimes he’s prepared to take lightly. Little does he know, of course; and so, as she’s being dragged out to be burned alive—rather an extreme punishment, that—she sends a message to her father-in-law: “The man who owns this seal, cord and staff is the man who got me pregnant. Rec-ognize them?”
And here comes the pivot point of the story, because this obviously hits Judah right between the eyes. NIV softens this, unfortunately, because what he actually says is, “She’s in the right, not I.” In other words, she acted rightly, and I’m the one at fault here; she was justified in her actions, and I wasn’t. This is completely out of character for Judah as he’s been to this point in Genesis. For the first time, he takes stock of himself and recognizes—and admits!—his fault; for the first time, he lets considerations of right and wrong guide his actions. For the first time, he really pays attention to someone besides himself. It’s the beginning of a critical character shift in Judah. Six chapters later, in Genesis 44, the man who callously sold his brother into slavery will do everything in his power to keep his youngest half-brother, Rachel’s son Benjamin, from suffering a similar fate, even offering himself as a slave in Benjamin’s place.
Now, from an Israelite perspective, Tamar isn’t an obvious hero. She was a woman, for one thing, and the heroes of the stories were more often men, though not as much more often as you might think. More importantly, she was a Canaanite—a foreigner, and a member of a people who were a real threat to the faith of the people of God. Finally, however defensible her actions might have been by her own standards, there’s no denying that they were, at the least, irregular by the standards of God’s law. And yet, she’s clearly the hero of this story, and just as clearly deserves to be. Despite her religious background, despite her decidedly problematic marital history, she is clearly the one person in this entire story who is faithful to God’s plan, and the one through whom God acts to bring that plan about.
There are a couple of reasons for that, I think. One is that she stays faithful to Judah’s family even when he is faithless to her. Why this is, we can’t say for sure, but the standard interpretation makes sense: even though Judah wasn’t paying a lot of attention to the God of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, Tamar could see the hand of God on him and his family, and had made a decision to cast her lot with them. That’s a plausible explanation because it makes sense of her clear determination to be a part of this family despite the ill-treatment she had received from them; while she had few if any legal options herself, her father and the rest of her family could have put considerable pressure on Judah, had she wanted to get free of her sham “betrothal.” Instead, all she seems to want is what she was promised: to bear a child to continue Er’s line.
This is a big thing, because for all Judah’s disregard of his family’s faith, his family was nevertheless identified with a God alien to Canaan; for her so decisively to choose Judah’s family over remarriage into another Canaanite family—to choose these outsiders over her own culture—was to choose their God over those of her own people. As such, though her deception is problematic in some ways, she was acting out of faith in the one true God, however imperfectly she knew and understood him. Yes, her act of faith was impure, tainted by her deceit, and her ethics didn’t come up to God’s standards; but are we any better? None of our motives are unmixed, after all, nor are any of our actions completely pure, and we have more reason to get it right than Tamar did.
There are a couple of lessons we might draw from this story. First, in a very real way, this marks the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s promise that in Abraham, all the nations of the world would be blessed. The fulness of that promise would come in Jesus Christ, of course, who would draw people from all nations into the family of God; but it begins here, with this Canaanite woman who chooses to stay with the people of God rather than take a place among her own people.
Second, we see the power of the transforming grace of God, who can use anybody to accomplish his purposes. At the beginning of the story, Judah is about as ungodly as a socially respectable man can be; he fails as a son, as a brother, as a father, as a father-in-law, and above all as a follower of God, acting with complete disregard for anyone but himself. Tamar, meanwhile, is an alien to the family, both ethnically and religiously. Neither of them is a faithful servant of the God of Abraham. Yet at the end, God uses just this improbable couple to carry out his will. Perez and Zerah are born, and through Perez, the line continues which will lead ultimately to the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Judah has been changed by this encounter, his incorrigible selfishness broken, beginning the movement toward his act of utter selflessness in chapter 44 on behalf of his father and youngest brother. And Tamar has earned herself a place in the litany of the heroes of faith—and a place of honor among the ancestors of Christ.
We might look at people like Judah and despair, for in this world, hate, and selfishness, and pride, and many other evil things are strong and mock the Christmas message; yet for all that, the message of the Christmas bells is true: God is not dead, nor is he sleeping, and his purpose will not fail. Judah’s position seemed impregnable, his hard, cold heart incorrigible, yet God worked through Tamar to shatter both. However powerful and clever the wrong might seem now, it is neither strong enough to overpower God, nor shrewd enough to outsmart him. In the end, no matter what anyone might do, God’s will shall be done.