A reflection on Matthew 1:3 & Genesis 38:1-30 for Sunday, January 10 at Mosaic Baptist Church
In course of time the wife of Judah, Shua’s daughter, died; when Judah’s time of mourning was over, he went up to Timnah to his sheep-shearers, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. When Tamar was told, ‘Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep’, she put off her widow’s garments, put on a veil, wrapped herself up, and sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. She saw that Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him in marriage. When Judah saw her, he thought her to be a prostitute, for she had covered her face. He went over to her at the roadside, and said, ‘Come, let me come in to you’, for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, ‘What will you give me, that you may come in to me?’ He answered, ‘I will send you a kid from the flock.’ And she said, ‘Only if you give me a pledge, until you send it.’ He said, ‘What pledge shall I give you?’ She replied, ‘Your signet and your cord, and the staff that is in your hand.’ So he gave them to her, and went in to her, and she conceived by him. Then she got up and went away, and taking off her veil she put on the garments of her widowhood.
When Judah sent the kid by his friend the Adullamite, to recover the pledge from the woman, he could not find her. He asked the townspeople, ‘Where is the temple prostitute who was at Enaim by the wayside?’ But they said, ‘No prostitute has been here.’ So he returned to Judah, and said, ‘I have not found her; moreover, the townspeople said, “No prostitute has been here.”’ Judah replied, ‘Let her keep the things as her own, otherwise we will be laughed at; you see, I sent this kid, and you could not find her.’
About three months later Judah was told, ‘Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the whore; moreover she is pregnant as a result of whoredom.’ And Judah said, ‘Bring her out, and let her be burned.’ As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, ‘It was the owner of these who made me pregnant.’ And she said, ‘Take note, please, whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.’ Then Judah acknowledged them and said, ‘She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.’ And he did not lie with her again.
When the time of her delivery came, there were twins in her womb. While she was in labour, one put out a hand; and the midwife took and bound on his hand a crimson thread, saying, ‘This one came out first.’ But just then he drew back his hand, and out came his brother; and she said, ‘What a breach you have made for yourself!’ Therefore he was named Perez. Afterwards his brother came out with the crimson thread on his hand; and he was named Zerah.
Genesis 38:12-30 (NRSVA)
…and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram…
Matthew 1:3 (NRSVA)
The Gospel of Matthew opens with a lengthy genealogy. It is hardly the most riveting start to the story of the world’s salvation.
At least not for some. In many more traditional cultures the line a person comes from can be very significant. This is the case for the Jewish culture.
And so Matthew – who tells the story of Jesus with the Jewish nation in mind – begins with an opening genealogical line that climaxes with the birth of Jesus.
This is no ordinary genealogy, however. There are surprises along the way – moments that cause those familiar with Jewish family trees to sit up in surprise. Chief among these is the naming of four women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba.
To be sure, this is not unheard of. It is, however, rare.
All four of these women have significant stories. They are stories of faith, failure, courage – and birth. In many ways their inclusion in this lineage prepares the reader to be open to the unusual circumstances surrounding Mary’s pregnancy and birth.
They also do much more than this. The highlighting of these women reminds us of the – sometimes controversial – faith displayed by Jesus’ ancestors. It reminds us of their shortfalls. It reminds us that the promise of a Messiah was – seemingly – at risk on more than one occasion and was often carried forward by the people least expected to do so.
Tamar is one of these women. Her story is one of oppression by men and the emergence of a ‘righteousness’ beyond legalism.
Tamar’s story (like Ruth’s) interacts with the call of the law of Moses to provide for widows. Although we would find it inadequate by today’s standards, the law required a brother of the deceased husband to marry and continue his line through his widow. It is an early way of ensuring that the widows of Israel were provided for And ensured of a secure future.
This practice, however, came with some financial commitment – and on a number of occasions in Jewish scripture is resisted by the families who would need to take care of these offspring.
In Tamar’s case, Er, her first husband passed away by an act of God. Then Onan, his brother, refused to raise children through Tamar. He too passed away – again at the hand of God. A third, much younger brother, Shelah, was promised to Tamar. When he was of age, it became apparent that Judah – the father of these three boys – had no intention of giving his remaining son in marriage to his daughter-in-law.
It is worth noting in all this that Tamar – in initially marrying Er – had married the firstborn. The Messianic line was always expected to follow through her. Tamar was always the one most likely to play this privileged role in this closely followed lineage.
And so – with everything on the line – Tamar, took things into her own hands, dressed as a prostitute, slept with Judah, and became pregnant by him. Judah refused to fulfil his promise – and Tamar took the initiative to ensure her future – and the spirit of the law – was fulfilled.
A pregnancy is hard to hide. Naturally – in time – the message came to Judah that Tamar had ‘played the whore’. He is enraged with a legalistic righteousness and prepares to inflict the full weight of the Mosaic law. He will embrace the unexpected opportunity to be rid of her. Tamar is bought out to be burned alive.
Our story reads as if Tamar predicted this behaviour. Her down payment for her sexual favour was Judah’s ‘signet’, ‘chord’, and ‘staff’. Although Judah sent a servant to get them back, Tamar was long gone – and kept the proof of parentage.
It is a brave woman who waits patiently for the right moment to prove her innocence. At any point the hero of this story could have produced this evidence. Tamar could have offered it privately and quietly – avoiding the predictable shame of public disgrace and the risk of a quick execution.
It seems that Tamar does not trust Judah – and rightly so. He has refused to voluntarily give her a future. It will take the disclosure of both her deed – and his – to bring her justice.
And so Tamar sends the evidence.
To Judah’s credit he does not deny his wrongdoing. Indeed, it is likely that Tamar’s trap has been so successful that he cannot. The items she demanded would have been unique and easily traced to their owner. They are sent via a mediator – a public presentation of the evidence to Judah.
What a scandal!
Tamar’s story clearly challenges a legalistic approach to the law. It insists that one can follow the letter of the law and fall short of the call to love, serve, and provide.
Righteousness is bigger – and more human – than legalism. In Matthew, this theme will be seen again in the person of Joseph. Because he is a ‘righteous man’ he does not follow the law’s provision to shame the newly pregnant Mary.
As if this is not enough – then there is the scandal of the birth of Perez – the one through whom Matthew’s line to Jesus is followed. His is a very odd firstborn indeed. Technically, Zerah was the first – with his thread of crimson. Yet this line is followed through Perez – the ‘second born’.
Clearly the one Matthew writers about – Jesus – is far from predictable – and has a long family history of scandal. The surprise inclusion of the story of Tamar in this ‘opening line’ is a pointer – a nod – in the direction to the God who God who has zealously pursued and protected the promises made.
Not even the scandalous, selfish, and legalistic behaviour of Judah could stop that. And God did it – unashamedly – through the faithful – and scandalous – courage of Tamar.
Tamar – as Matthew unfolds – is a name worth remembering.
What are the aspects that you admire about Tamar? What are the aspects you would not like to imitate?
Where do you see faith in the life of Tamar?
How do you understand ‘righteousness’? Is this a legalistic concept for you – or a more gracious and loving response to the world?