Friday, November 12, 2010

Women in the Genealogy of Christ: Part One: Tamar

The Women in the Genealogy of Christ

Read Matthew Chapter 1:1-17

A genealogy is a list of descendants; a family tree. Could anything be more boring than reading a list of names of people long dead? Even our most recent person on the list, Mary, lived over 2,000 years ago. In the ancient world, only male descendants were listed in a genealogy. You see this in the early chapters of Genesis.

If it were only a matter of their importance or impact in the world, I’m sure many women would have been included, like Eve, the mother of all living, who gave birth to many children over 900 years; Noah’s wife, whose name we don’t even know, who was on the first sea voyage, that lasted a year. Sarah, who received the promised child, Isaac in her old age; or Esther, the queen who saved her people from slaughter.

However, that’s not how genealogies generally work, which is what makes the genealogy we find in Matthew so fascinating. It mentions five women as ancestors of Jesus Christ; Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary. If you wanted to boast about your ‘ancestors in the attic’, you probably wouldn’t list the scandalous, the scoundrels, or the low-lifes. Every family has skeletons in the closet; the children born out of wedlock, the dead-beat dads, the criminals, the drunks, and the unscrupulous.

Yet this genealogy rejoices in these women and their place in history as the forbears of the Messiah: Tamar, who posed as a prostitute to have an incestuous relationship with her father-in-law; Rahab, a Gentile prostitute who lied about hiding spies; Ruth, a poor widow and foreigner, who, according to the law, could not enter the temple for six generations, but became the great-grandmother of King David; Bathsheba, the woman who had an adulterous affair with King David, and Mary; a young teen, pregnant before marriage, in a culture that demanded she be stoned.

Why are these women included in the genealogy? Why boast about them when they have nothing to commend themselves? Or do they? Can their presence in such a noble family offer hope to those of us who feel we wouldn’t make the cut? Can we learn something from these women whose actions, both good and bad, led to the birth of the One promised to Adam and Eve when they fell?


The two main players in this story are Judah and Tamar.

What do we know about Judah?

Read Genesis 37-12-36

He was one of the sons of Jacob by Leah. (Gen. 29:35) He was the one who suggested they sell Joseph, rather than just kill him, in order to profit from him and be rid of him at the same time. Judah had fled to the land of Canaan to live after they had sold Joseph to the Midianites. He lived there many years. Judah married a Canaanite woman, who bore him three sons; Er, Onan, and Shelah.

What do we know about Tamar?

Read Genesis Chapter 38 She was a Canaanite. Judah chose Tamar for an arranged marriage to his eldest son, Er. She was probably very young, not much past the age of her first menstrual period. She was expected to produce sons. For a young girl, if she didn’t have a husband and sons, she’d be destitute. Er was evil, and we were told he was killed by God as a result. The tribe to which Tamar belonged prohibited a childless woman from remaining a widow. They did not want a man’s name to go into oblivion. Tamar remained under her father-in-law’s authority, so he needed to arrange her second marriage, as he had her first. He told his second son, Onan to marry Tamar and produce a son that would be heir of his brother, Er.

The idea of a brother marrying his brother’s widow was not yet established until the laws were given to Moses. At this point in history, the people of Israel were limited to one family. This was a Canaanite practice, but Judah would be anxious to extend his family line. He was aware of God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. However, the idea of the father-in-law impregnating the widowed daughter-in-law was a Canaanite practice that Judah would not have considered, had he not been tricked. We see this by the fact that he never again slept with Tamar after he took her under his care and protection.

Her marriage to Onan was in name only. Onan resented the fact that the children would not be his. He would not honour his dead brother’s memory, nor provide a future security for Tamar through the birth of sons. He purposely prevented the pregnancy. This displeased God, and he took Onan’s life as well. Tamar was now a widow for the second time, and still childless.

Why was Onan so reluctant to father a child on behalf of his brother, since only the first son would be Er’s and any subsequent children would belong to him? It wasn’t just the name, which would be the same as his. It was that Er’s inheritance would pass to his son, and Onan would have to share it. He was selfish. He didn’t care to build up the family line of Judah or give Tamar a future. He used her only for his own pleasure but deliberately avoided her chances of conception. This narrative raises issues of contraception that we’ll leave for another day.

Judah sent her back to the care of her father, promising her that she could marry his third son, Shelah, once he was older. Soon after, Jacob’s wife also died, so he was grieving the loss of two sons, and his wife. The death of his wife also meant he could have no other sons. He may have been superstitious, blaming Tamar for their deaths, rather than his sons’ own misbehaviour. (Gen. 38:11) He feared giving
her his one remaining son. Tamar waited. It was the only thing a widow could do. She couldn’t live an independent life. The months turned into years, yet she was never sent for, to marry Shelah.

She believed God would vindicate her and provide justice. Yet she took matters into her own hands. She heard Jacob was nearby so she prepared to meet him. She concealed her identity with a veil, and exchanged her widow’s garments for those of a harlot. Notice she didn’t seduce or even proposition Judah; he approached her and demanded sex. While she waits for Judah, she doesn’t proposition other men who were on their way by. She doesn’t stay on afterwards. She doesn’t brag about her actions. She agreed to the price, but took some personal items to identify him, as a pledge that he’d send payment. At this point, she probably wasn’t sure he could be trusted to keep his word. She changed back into her widows garments and went home to wait and see how God would judge between Judah and herself.

The Bible often records events without commending or condemning the actions of those involved. It was a true record of what happened. Whether or not she should have done it, is debatable, but Judah’s willingness to use her for his pleasure is clearly wrong. The idea of the incestuous relationship itself, willingly done with Tamar’s knowledge is also a question we’ll leave with the scholars.

However, when Judah sends payment by his friend, they find there is no such woman in that town. Judah then feared for his reputation; something that had not been on his mind when he first saw Tamar. He hoped it would all be forgotten and he could get on with his life.

Three months later, he hears that Tamar is pregnant. He is indignant. As the widow of two of his sons and the ‘future bride’ of his youngest son, Judah must act to judge the actions of his family. Although he’s probably secretly relieved that this makes her marriage to Shelah unnecessary, without inquiring into the circumstances, he orders that she be burned for her actions. Did he have any feelings of self-accusation because of how he had treated her with regards to Shelah? Did he hope that her death would ease his conscience?

Calm and dignified, Tamar comes to her fate, but sends along the evidence of the paternity of her child. They didn’t have DNA tests, but the personal effects she had from Judah, proved he was the father. Notice Tamar asked a question rather than make a proclamation. “Do you recognize these?” Why do you think she did that? It gave Judah an ‘out’ to still deny it and save his reputation, even though it would result in her death. She would not bring shame to Judah.

In light of the evidence, Judah admits his sin. He had to confess with shame, that Tamar had vindicated the legal rights that he had kept from her. “She is more right than I am, because I refused to keep my promise to give her to my son Shelah.”

Judah had used a double standard and wanted to see Tamar killed for an offense he had also committed. Judah’s sin of hypocrisy is something with which all people struggle. In Romans 2:1 Paul condemns those who judge others for sins they themselves commit.

Judah never showed Tamar any pity; when she lived with the wicked Er, when she was defrauded by Onan; when he abandoned her to her father’s house; when he withheld Shelah from her. He blamed her for the death of his sons, feeling she was somehow cursed or a curse. He would have allowed her to die a horrible death without any feelings of remorse.

Meanwhile, Tamar did not publicly embarrass him by demanding her rights. She could’ve told how she tricked him and make him a laughingstock of his peers. Even after her pregnancy was exposed and she was condemned to die, she did not expose his sin, but returned his personal effects privately, through her servant, protecting his reputation. Tamar was a Canaanite, but she was honourable and loyal.

He then took her under his care again, but did not have sexual relations with her again. A marriage with Shelah was no longer necessary, as Judah had served as his replacement. Tamar hoped for a son, Judah hoped for an heir. What did God do? He doubled their blessing. She gave birth to twins, Perez and Zerah. Justice had been done. The promised seed would come through the line of Judah, by way of Tamar, through Perez. The Messiah is referred to as the Lion of the tribe of Judah. Tamar is the first woman mentioned in the genealogy of Christ. This does not mean that God approves of sin, but that He can draw a straight line with a crooked stick, as the Puritan saying goes. God uses even our sins to further His purposes, without condoning the sin.

Her story also shows us that God cares about injustice, and that his purposes will go forward in spite of men’s plans to the contrary.
This story has always seemed to me like an odd thing to include in Scripture. It brings up uncomfortable topics that are not usually discussed in polite society, let alone in church. Yet I’ve found that as I researched this story I’ve learned to have a new respect for Tamar. She was a brave woman who insisted on her rights. Her actions also brought Judah to the breaking point. He stopped trying to run from his guilty conscience and returned to his family.

Francine Rivers says,

“Judah then moved back to Mesopotamia and renewed his relationship with his father and brothers. When they were confronted by Joseph and he demanded that Benjamin be left as his slave, Judah stepped forward, claimed the disaster upon them was due to their own sins, and offered his life in place of his brother’s. Seeing the change in Judah, Joseph wept and revealed his true identity.”

God used this pagan woman to be included in the purposes of God in bringing the Messiah into the world. Her story offers hope for all those people who feel they’ve suffered injustice. Tamar’s story gains the proper perspective when the light of Jesus Christ shines on it. In spite of everything that can be said against her, she had the honour of becoming a mother in the early history of His earthly family.

Her Name is Woman Book 2 by Gien Karssen pg. 65-75
A Lineage of Grace by Francine Rivers pg. 14-118

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