Amazingly, the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew lists five women. In a patriarchal society governed by paternal lineage, that fact should jump out at us and cause us to take notice. What is God saying? What was He doing? How should we view that today?
We can gain insights by looking at the women who are listed. The first woman listed is Tamar. Her story is found in Genesis 38, and it is a wild one for people of polite sensibilities.
Tamar was the wife of Judah’s oldest son, Er. Judah was the fourth son of Jacob (son of Isaac, son of Abraham). It might seem odd that Judah, the fourth son, is the one from whom Jesus (the Messiah) descends, but that is only a minor oddity compared to the rest.
As the story goes, Er was “wicked in the Lord’s sight”, so God “put him to death”[A]. (Gen. 38:7) Judah directed his other son, Onan, to sleep with Tamar, in keeping with the custom of the time, so she would bear a child in the lineage of her deceased husband. Onan, however, refused to comply because the child would not be considered his (according to that custom).
Onan’s action were also considered wicked, and he also died. Judah, then, sent Tamar away to her father’s household to live as a widow until his youngest son, Shelah, grew up … or so he said.
Only, Judah didn’t keep his promise. That doesn’t sound very noble… , and it’s not!
Judah never followed through, as the custom of the time dictated, because Judah was fearful that Shelah would die also. He thought Tamar was cursed! Though, in retrospect, perhaps she was blessed, because God chose her to bear the child whose seed would produce David and Jesus.
But, here’s where it gets kind of messy.
Tamar, knowing that she had been overlooked, took things into her own hands. When she learned that Judah was on his way to her father’s place to get his sheep sheared, she took off her widow’s clothes, disguised herself and waited for Judah. (Gen. 38:13-14)
When Judah comes along and sees Tamar, he doesn’t recognize her. In fact, he thinks she is a prostitute! And he propositions her! Tamar plays along, asking, “What will you give me?” Judah responds by offering a young goat.
Keep in mind that Judah has already shown himself to be less than trustworthy to Tamar, so we shouldn’t wonder why she asked him for a pledge on that offer. She asked for Judah to leave her his seal, its cord and his staff, and Judah agreed. (Gen. 38:15-18)
After Judah returned to his home, he sent the young goat in exchange for the items he left as a pledge, but Tamar had changed back into her widow’s clothes. There was no prostitute to be found. Of course, there never was a prostitute. It was Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law that he thought was the prostitute. Judah was likely puzzled, but what could he do?
Meanwhile, Tamar was found to be with child, and when other people discovered her condition, they accused her of prostitution. When the news reached Judah, he must have completely forgotten his escapade. He didn’t connect the dots. He also had no mercy on his daughter-in-law because he sentenced her to death! (Gen. 38:24)
I imagine that he was still thinking that Tamar was trouble. Both of his oldest sons died after marrying and lying with her, and now it seemed that she was a prostitute. Judah might have thought that it was all adding up. Tamar really was cursed! And not only that, she was cursed because she was sinful!
Only, she wasn’t! She wasn’t cursed or any more sinful than Judah. In fact, the sinful ones in this story were Judah’s sons and Judah!
We think the Church today is hypocritical! Imagine poor Tamar, sentenced to death by her father-in-law for being a prostitute when it was her father-in-law who slept with her thinking she was a prostitute!
When Tamar sent the items to Judah that Judah left with her as a pledge, Judah put the pieces of the puzzle together. Judah knew that he was the father of the child, and Tamar had not prostituted herself after all. She was collecting on the promise and insisting that the tradition of passing on her dead husband’s line be observed, one way or another.
This custom seems strange and even immoral to us today, but Tamar was not at fault in this story. She had confidence in her right, and she was creative in seeking to have it fulfilled. Not that Tamar was a saint. We don’t know much about her other than this story, but the story beneath the story may be Tamar’s faith.
It would not be a stretch to imagine that Tamar knew the prophecy about Judah spoken by his father, Isaac. When Isaac, the son of Abraham, was near the end of his life, he gathered his sons together and prophesied their future legacy. Of Judah, he said. “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs [Shiloh]; the nations will obey him.” (Gen. 49:10) The word, Shiloh, meaning, “to whom it belongs,” has long been understood in Judaism as a Messianic title.
Interestingly, Judah is no saint in the story of Tamar, though he repented immediately upon learning the truth, saying, “She is more righteous than I.” Significantly, the author of Genesis tells us that Judah did not sleep with Tamar again. (Gen. 38:26) Judah wasn’t really a bad guy, though he was flawed and sinful as we all are.
This story of wickedness leading to widowhood, broken promises and prostitution are not the kind of thing you would expect to find in the lineage of the Messiah, God’s sinless sacrifice and Savior of the world. But, Matthew makes a specific point of highlighting Tamar in the lineage of Jesus!
The idea of a widow sleeping with the brother of a dead husband is foreign to us, but it was the way people took care of widows in the culture of the time. Though Tamar “prostituted” herself to force Judah to make good on his promise (and what was expected of him), Judah was the culpable party. He failed to take care of Tamar, failed to keep his promise, solicited her because he thought she was a prostitute and then he was about to put her to death to add hypocrisy to his own sinful failings.
In the end, Judah admitted his wrongdoing and righted the wrong by vouching for her story, though he likely suffered great humiliation as a consequence. The statement that he never slept with her again seems to suggest that his repentance was genuine; that he didn’t take advantage of Tamar for his own benefit.
So, are we to laud Judah for being noble after being so obviously and painfully sinful? No, I don’t think so. Are we to laud Tamar for her creative, albeit, deceitful way of making sure that her husband’s line would continue? Maybe. She likely knew that the messianic line would come through Judah. With his two eldest sons dead, she stepped up in faith (perhaps) to lie with Judah, albeit deceitfully.
But, the story here is God, not Judah, and not even Tamar. God made His promises to Abraham, and Abraham designated Judah to bear the seed that would produce the messiah. In this story, we see God working to keep his promises and to fulfill them through the messy and complex situations of people. God fulfills his promises through people in spite of the problems these people pose for God and His promises!
The story of Jesus that we celebrate at Christmas is God’s redemptive work in the world that is chronicled in history. Jesus is the light of world who appeared in the midst of darkness, even among the “people of God”. He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him. (John 1:11) God’s light came to the world, but people loved darkness instead. (John 3:19)
Yet, God came anyway!
Judah failed to take actions to ensure the fulfillment of the promise Abraham made to him. He held back Shelah from Tamar. I suppose Shelah could have married someone else (and probably did) and had children with another woman, but God chose Tamar to be the one to pass on the line that would lead to David, and then to Jesus. We don’t know exactly why.
Significantly, though, Tamar is included in the lineage. In a patriarchal society, what is the point? “Mentioning a woman in a genealogy is almost unheard of in first century genealogies.” She is the hero of the story, while the men are all goats, including Judah, the exalted son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham!
I don’t think this is by accident.
It turns out that God may have always had a higher view of women than we give Him credit for, and He found ways to show it in spite of societal moors to the contrary. While we may think we are enlightened, and maybe we are, the enlightenment is nothing new for God. We are only just waking to what God has known all along.
In this story, God chose to work through Tamar, though Judah wasn’t pulling in the same direction as God. It turns out that Judah wasn’t on God’s page; but Tamar was! Ultimately God does what He promises in spite of our failings.
The story of Judah and Tamar is sandwiched in the middle of the much more compelling story of Joseph. Joseph was favored by Jacob, dreamed he would be over all of his brothers and was sold into slavery out of jealousy by his brothers. (Gen. 37) Joseph was taken down to Egypt where he rose from slavery to prosperity, was put in charge of the household of an official of the Pharaoh, only to be accused by the official’s wife and imprisoned there. Once again, though, Joseph rose to prominence and was given charge of the prison. (Gen. 39)
Joseph went on to interpret dreams (Gen. 40), including the Pharaoh’s dreams, and Joseph was freed from prison and given charge of the Pharaoh’s palace, and then all of Egypt! (Gen. 41) From that position of authority and influence, Joseph played a prominent role in God’s redemptive history by taking his family into the protection of the Pharaoh and saving them from famine. (Gen. 42)
In the middle of Joseph’s truly magnificent story, we find the messy story of Judah and Tamar. It seems insignificant compared to Joseph’s story, but it turns out it isn’t. Tamar would bear the child of Judah through whose seed the Messiah would come!
[A] Whether God really killed Er and how God did it we don’t know. In all likelihood, Er died, and people assumed God caused his death.