by Doug Ward

The Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus, establishing that he is "the son of David, the son of Abraham" (Matt 1:1). This genealogy is the first point in Matthew's argument that Jesus is the Messiah whose coming is promised throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.


Behind each name in the list is a story of how the messianic line continued for another generation. The stories give a powerful testimony of God's faithfulness to his people, and they chronicle the exploits of a number of heroes and heroines of faith.


The first heroine mentioned is Tamar, the mother of twins Perez and Zerah (Matt 1:3). Tamar's story is told in Gen 38. When we examine this account, we will see that Tamar plays a significant part in the outworking of the messianic promise.


Running Away from the Past

The story opens in Gen 38:1, where we read that Jacob's son Judah "went down from his brothers" to go into business with his friend Hirah the Adullamite (see v. 12). The phrase "went down from his brothers" may imply that Judah was alienated from his family. It was Judah who had persuaded his brothers to sell their brother Joseph into slavery (Gen 37:26-28). With Joseph gone, their father had fallen into deep despair, and Judah's brothers may have held him responsible for the situation. Judah seems to have left home, in part, to run away from what he had done.


Judah soon married a Canaanite woman and fathered three sons named Er, Onan, and Shelah (Gen 38:2-5). When Er reached adulthood, Judah arranged for him to marry Tamar. The marriage had hardly begun, however, when Er "was wicked in the sight of the Lord" and was struck dead for his sins (v. 7).


Because Er had died without leaving an heir, it fell upon the next brother, Onan, to have a son with Tamar in order to carry on the line of Er (v. 8). Onan knew that this role of "kinsman redeemer" was not to his personal economic advantage. Er's heir would receive the inheritance of a firstborn son, an advantage that Onan would enjoy otherwise. To prevent the birth of such an heir, Onan verbally agreed to take on the responsibility but only pretended to carry it out. For his deception he soon was struck dead himself (vv. 9-10).


At this point Judah sent Tamar back to her father's house, ostensibly to wait until Shelah reached adulthood. In reality, though, Judah had no intention of allowing Shelah to have contact with Tamar. Unaware of the reasons that Er and Onan had died, he feared that she somehow might cause Shelah's death (v. 11). Since Tamar could not marry outside of Judah's family until an heir for Er was born, Judah had left Tamar in a kind of limbo.


While Tamar waited in vain for a kinsman redeemer, Judah's wife also died (v. 12). Unless something changed, Tamar would remain a childless widow and there might never be a "tribe of Judah."


Then Tamar took action. Judah's time of mourning for his wife had ended, and Tamar heard that he was going to attend a sheep-shearing event at Timnath (v. 12). Changing out of her widow's garments, she headed toward Timnath herself and waited at a crossroad for Judah. The Bible does not tell us precisely what Tamar had in mind as she waited at the crossroad. She may have planned to question Judah about the fact that Shelah had made no attempt to fulfill the responsibility of kinsman redeemer. Perhaps she was going to request release from her obligation to Judah's family if he had no intention of continuing the line of Er. It is also possible that she hoped to seduce Judah, though this would seem to be a riskier plan. (How could she be sure that Judah would not recognize her?)


As it turned out, Judah did not recognize Tamar when he saw her at the crossroad. Mistaking her for a prostitute, he offered a kid from his flock for her services. Tamar decided to take advantage of this opportunity. (If Shelah was not to be a kinsman redeemer, then Judah himself was next in line for the position.) She accepted Judah's offer, taking his identifying signet ring and staff as a pledge for the promised kid.


Facing the Future

Afterward Judah was not able to locate the woman he had met that day (vv. 20-23). Then three months later he learned that Tamar, the one he blamed for the deaths of two sons, was pregnant. Judah was apparently a local judge, and he ruled that Tamar be put to death for her crime (v. 24).


When Tamar was brought forward for her execution, she could have confronted Judah publicly with the evidence she possessed. Instead, she chose to have Judah's identification sent to him privately, thus sparing him a great public humiliation (v. 25). Placing her life in the hands of Judah (and God), she exercised tremendous faith. (Tamar is greatly honored in Jewish tradition for sparing Judah's reputation, a kindness held to be tantamount to saving Judah's life.)


Three lives and the future of the messianic line hung in the balance as Tamar's messenger carried the evidence to Judah. (One midrash says that Satan stole the pledges from the messenger, but the angel Gabriel promptly retrieved them.) When Judah saw his belongings and the accompanying message, he realized the truth, both about Tamar and about the life he had been leading. The wording of the message ("Please identify whose these are .... ") reminded him of what he and brothers had said when they showed Joseph's bloody coat to Jacob (compare Gen 38:25 and 37:32). It would have been easy for him to spare himself embarrassment and continue with the execution. But in a life-changing moment, he chose to face up to his sins and the truth. He stopped the execution, acknowledging, "She is more righteous than I" (v. 26).1


Judah went on to rejoin his family and take his place as leader among his brothers. Tamar's faith and courage helped Judah turn his life around and preserved the line of the Messiah. We can see why Matthew gives her a prominent place in his genealogy of Jesus, which, in the Master, has become our family tree as well.


1According to one Jewish tradition, Judah's saving of three lives was later rewarded by God with the rescue of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the fiery furnace. See the book Biblical Seductions: Six Stories Retold Based on Talmud and Midrash by Sandra E. Rapoport (KTAV, Jersey City, 2011), p. 225.

Issue 29


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