The Women of Jesus’ Lineage: Tamar

Scriptures: Genesis 38:6-26; Matthew 1:1-3

As we begin this series for Advent, on the genealogy of Jesus, and the women in the genealogy, or lineage, of Jesus, I want to note something that I’ve noted before. Let’s face it, the Bible isn’t safe. It’s not some G-rated book, or comic book – despite the fact that there is a graphic novel version of the Bible out there. It tells things like they really are, and people act like real people. What we see here is an honest presentation of a historical event, and the people involved acted, as the liturgist said, very much like, perhaps, some people would act today.

In fact, the story we just heard today is not one that is normally preached on. In fact, frankly, I’ve never heard it preached on before myself, and even at, where a lot of people submit sermons, there was a total of eight that dealt with this passage. And those preachers were probably very brave.

Part of the Bible’s honesty is its presentation of the bloodline of Jesus. Unexpected and imperfect people are being used by God to fulfill a perfect divine plan. Our first example, this week, is on Judah and Tamar. I’m going to focus more on Tamar, but I do need to explain some things to you, about the cultural understandings and some of the people involved.

Judah was a real good example of what not to do. He was the one who thought that his brother Joseph should be sold, so that they could make some money off him, and then presented the coat to his father, all blood-stained and torn, saying, “Your son was torn apart by animals.” He was the fourth son, and so there was really no reason for him to gain any inheritance from Israel either, in that particular way. There was no reason, except by God’s own choice, that he was the one who produced the lineage of the Savior.

He was also, as we noted, apparently a wayward son, because despite the warnings of God about trying to remain ethnically pure because of worship issues and idolatry, he went amongst the Canaanites, during the time that the family of Jacob was still up in the land of Israel, and he got a wife from those Canaanites

Not only that, but he found a Canaanite woman for his own firstborn son, another Canaanite. Remember, the Jews didn’t like interbreeding, as it were, and God had warned them against that because of the idolatry that inevitably occurred. And we see traces of that later on in the story.

Judah is going to the sheep shearing. It’s a party time. I know we have hog raised here. I don’t know if we have people who raise sheep. And I don’t know if, when you shear sheep these days, you have a celebration, but in those days, they shear the sheep, they drink a lot, they have fun.

And on the road there was what he thought was a cult prostitute, a shrine prostitute. Part of what the Canaanites did as part of their religion was not only sometimes sacrificing the firstborn children, but also, for the women, it was considered an act of worship to be a prostitute and have somebody have sex with you.

So that’s what Tamar was intimating. That gives you some of the cultural background of the story that the liturgist spoke of earlier. Judah was not a shining example of humanity by any way.

Now the reason why we include this story is that Tamar and Judah both – but I’m focusing on Tamar today actually – are in the bloodline of Jesus. And the Bible is honest in its presentation of the bloodline of Jesus. Unexpected and imperfect people are being used by God to fulfill His divine plan.

Tamar, as I noted, was a Canaanite. She was an alien, essentially. She was a widow, by God’s action. At first glance, it looks like Tamar might be a cunning, morally suspect manipulator who will do whatever it takes to get her way. But Tamar is really a victim who feels that she has run out of alternatives.

And we’re going to go through why. She was seeking justice and peace, both. The peace of knowing that the bloodline is continued, and the justice of the law, against Judah. Now, does anybody possibly remember what the Jewish law said about how you’re supposed to treat the alien and the widow?

You’re supposed to treat them with compassion. You’re supposed to treat them with care. Part of the reason that they would harvest in circles (even though they had square plots of land) was so that they left the corners for the widow, the orphan, and the alien or sojourner to gather from, so that they for could find something to eat.

You’re supposed to allow them to have an opportunity to make a life, to have some peace, to receive justice. The law is supposed to help support justice for the alien and the widow and the orphan as well. Part of that was something called the Levirate marriage.

This was in the laws of the Levites, which is in Leviticus, which is another boring part of the Bible for many people. What happened was, inheritance was extremely important to the Jews. They had their tribes, and when a husband dies before having a child, the closest male relative marries the childless widow (remember, they could have polygamy), in order to provide an heir, and it was designed to protect the widow.

But here, Tamar becomes the victim. Let me note in passing, one commentator said something very interesting. Tamar translates as “date palm,” which to us doesn’t mean a whole lot, but it’s also a tall willowy sort of tree with, shall we say, luscious fruits. And so his speculation is that Tamar was very appropriately named.

Many of the names in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, have specific meanings, so she was probably a great beauty. She and Er were married young. After Er was killed, Onan had an obligation, under the Levirate law, to produce an heir for Tamar. The heir would be considered Er’s, not Onan’s.

That meant, since Er was firstborn, that child would get a bigger inheritance than any of Onan’s own children. Because he was greedy in that way, he decided to try to avoid having a child. So Onan, after Er died, decided that it was OK to have sex with Tamar, but he wasn’t about to produce an heir. So Onan was totally willing to take advantage of Tamar, but not willing to give her the justice that she deserved, the peace that she wanted in her life. And God slew him too.

Then Judah insults her. He sends her back home, to her parents. Remember, in marriage, the son leaves the parents, and the wife leaves her parents, and together they become one flesh and they become a new family.

Because of the patriarchal system of that time, which made sense at that time, they went to the parents of the father. They frequently would have extended multigenerational households, and it would be in the father’s household. The fact is that when Tamar became married to Er, she became Er’s responsibility, and thus Judah’s.

We see proof of that, because when she got pregnant, who did they go to? They didn’t go to her parents. They went to Judah, and said, “Your daughter-in-law has dishonored you by becoming a prostitute, and getting pregnant.” So Judah was responsible for her, but he didn’t want to take responsibility for her, so he sent her off to her parents who, again, were Canaanites, and were probably not followers of the Jewish way, and so probably would have been considered unclean.

So he took his own daughter-in-law who had married into the faith, as it were, and he sends her out to a place where she will continually be unclean, and have no support from the family that she supposed to have support from, and left her to her own devices.

Now, we know that Judah did it because he feared for the life of his son. After all, maybe he thought she was some kind of black widow wife. But the fact is, he basically washed his hands of her. So years pass. She can’t marry until he gives her Shelah. If she marries someone else, she’s committing adultery. Tamar is stuck, committed to a relationship where she is unwanted. She is childless and desperate.

I need to add at this point, we may not agree with Tamar’s actions, I certainly don’t condone prostitution and fornication but Tamar is only doing what she felt was right to obtain her Levirate law rights. And she deserved, if you will, a child. She had very definitely been mistreated as regards to that.

I’m not condoning her actions by any means. The ends don’t always justify the means. But I’m stating a fact. This is the way the law worked. Judah and his family were actually shirking the law. So she took the law into her own hands.

As we look at Jesus’ genealogy, no Israelite could take this record seriously without the a deep sense of humility. Israel’s roots, if you will pardon me for saying so, were rotten. They could not look back upon their ancestry with any feelings of smugness and pride. There were too many skeletons in the closet for that.

And instead, they must acknowledge that whatever good had come to Israel was the result of God’s grace alone. We see this grace in action with Tamar, somebody who was outcast, somebody who was a widow, somebody who was an alien, somebody who was outside the family of God.

Yet even then, in God’s plan, He was reaching out in His love and providing a way for Gentiles – that would be us – to be included in the family of God. The very lineage of Christ included outsiders, and outcasts. We’ll hear about another one next week. He was thus the Savior of all. When Jesus was born, in that mystery of the incarnation that we’re going to celebrate on Christmas Eve, it wasn’t just for the Jews. It was for you and for me.

Notice that she didn’t have children by the sons of Judah. She had a child by Judah himself. So the line was direct. And even though she was an outcast, an alien, and a widow, she was included in the line of Jesus. Normally they didn’t include women in the genealogies at all. And yet there she is. This is important for us to understand. This is why, I believe, she was included in Jesus’ genealogy (aside from the fact the prophecy said it would be of the line of Judah).

So we see that God, even at that moment, long before Christ came, was already including the alien, the outsider, the Gentile, if you will. He was doing the unexpected. It was a sign of the scope of God’s plan and, I believe, the scope of God’s love. He brought Tamar peace, and through her the Prince of Peace came to earth.

It’s an amazing story and uses a very unexpected person. But doesn’t God do that all the time? He uses unexpected people, ordinary people, to do extraordinary things. His plan goes beyond anything that we can understand. He takes our imperfections, our flawed beings, and He uses us ordinary people in extraordinary ways.

It’s an amazing thing, that should bring us to praise God. Because all of us have elements of Judah. All of us have elements of Tamar. We’re human beings, and I like to say that the Bible is as relevant now as it was back then, because human nature hasn’t changed. We’re people, fallen, and yet, by God’s grace, loved as His children, and used by His plan.

And sometimes, I have to tell you, as I read the Bible, as I look around today, I just shake my head and say, I don’t get this. I really don’t. If I was God, things wouldn’t work that way. But probably, thanks be to God, I’m not.

He has a purpose for each one of us. And through God and His plan, if we accept His plan, if we live out His plan for us, understand His purpose for us, His calling to us, just as Tamar knew what her purpose was, to provide an heir, and through that she began to know peace, then we too can know that peace, that peace which is the peace of God, as we fulfill God’s purpose for each one of us.

Seek His will. Follow through, as His disciple, and you will know peace. And whatever skeletons might be in your closet, they don’t matter, because you’re a new creature in Christ. And each day, all things are new.

Here in Advent, it’s a time of preparation, it’s a time of waiting. It’s a time where, even though we’re celebrating Christ coming the first time, it’s actually focused on Christ coming again. That’s what Advent means.

So we need to prepare ourselves, and trust that, ordinary as we are, God will use us in unexpected and extraordinary ways, as we seek to serve Him. And by doing that, we give praise to our Father who is in heaven. Amen.

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