Note: This year, for Advent, we are focusing on four women who are named in Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Today’s sermon is on Tamar, and her story can be found in Genesis 38.
Genesis 38 & Matthew 1:1-3a
So, you may have noticed that we’re doing something a little bit different for Advent this year. I bet some of you are looking around at each other and wondering how, if this story is in the Bible, you have never heard it before. It’s not the kind of story that’s easily told in mixed company. Those of us who went to seminary are fascinated by the story and why it ended up in the Bible, and we talk about why the storyteller may have put it there, and we have all kinds of theories as to what it means, but we still shy away from preaching it. As we anticipate celebrating the birth of Jesus in a few weeks, and even more importantly, as we anticipate his second coming, it’s helpful to examine the family tree that Matthew provides for Jesus in the first chapter. And the fascinating thing about this genealogy is that, unlike all other genealogies of Jewish families in this time, Matthew includes four women. And these are not just any women: these are the ones with stories that are difficult to tell, that cause us to stop and scratch our heads in puzzlement, and that make us want to ask Matthew why he mentioned them at all. These women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, are some of the skeletons in Jesus’ closet: you know, those people in our family that we talk about in hushed tones, or that we mention with some embarrassment and shaking of our heads. And there are several theories out there about why these women are included in an otherwise royal pedigree, but here are two that I would like us to think about during this sermon series. First, these women and their stories can tell us something about who Jesus is. Second, it shows that Jesus became fully human for our sake, and being fully human means coming into our messy lives and having messy family stories.
So, let’s take a look at Tamar. The story starts out simply enough: Judah, one of Jacob’s twelve sons, moves away from the family and takes a wife. He and his wife have three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. The sons grow up, and Judah finds a wife for the firstborn son, Er, by the name of Tamar. This is where things get complicated: Er dies. We don’t know why other than that “he was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death.” That’s it; that’s all the explanation we get. We don’t know how long Tamar and Er were married before he died, but what is clear is that, however long it was, they had no children. Now here’s where things get even more complicated: there was a law that said that if a man died and had no children, it was up to the man’s brother to sleep with his brother’s wife so that she could have children. In our modern society, we don’t understand the reason for this law, and we probably think it’s kind of creepy, and we’d be right. But in ancient Israelite society, this made sense. It was important for a man’s line to be carried on to the next generation, and it was important for a woman without children to be protected. The son that would be born to the woman and her brother-in-law would be counted as the dead man’s heir, would inherit the property due to the dead man, and would give his mother standing within the clan, as well as the protection of the clan. But, in this story, the dead man’s brother, Onan, refuses to give Tamar the son that she needs, thinking to claim Er’s inheritance as his own. And so for this refusal to do what is right, Onan dies as well.
So now Judah is worried. He only has one son left, and he now thinks Tamar is one of those suspicious women, maybe a witch of some kind, who kills her husbands. Notice he never thinks to ask Tamar for her side of the story. And so he gives Tamar an excuse: Well, my last son isn’t old enough yet, so go back to your father’s house and live as a widow. I’ll send for you when he’s ready to do his duty. So Tamar is in a limbo status here: even though dressed as a widow, she’s not really a widow, because she’s not free to marry again. Her father has another mouth to feed, even though she’s not a “productive” member of his clan. And so she waits for Judah to summon her when his last son is grown.
But of course, Judah never does, and Tamar notices one day that Shelah is grown up and Judah has not sent for her. So, she does something that we in modern society would think is even creepier than having to sleep with your brother-in-law: she disguises herself as a prostitute and sets out to seduce her father-in-law. The law said, after all, that if there were no brothers available to do their duty by the one who had died, then the closest male relative could do the job. Tamar knew that Judah wasn’t going to bring her together with his son, Shelah, and she boldly set out to see that justice would be done: she was going to get the son that was due to her from this family that she had married into, so that she could have the status in the clan that was her right and the protection that a son would give her. She was not going to live in limbo anymore. And in the end, when Judah recognizes that he is the father of Tamar’s children—for God blessed her with not one, but two sons—he proclaims that Tamar is more righteous than he. What Tamar did was not done as any kind of deliberate immorality, but was instead done as a desperate measure to claim what was rightfully hers.
So, why on earth would Matthew include this woman in Jesus’ genealogy? What does Tamar tell us about who Jesus is? In his commentary on the genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew, scholar Richard Swanson speaks of Tamar as having “no-face.” When Tamar was wife to his son Er, and when she was with the clan when Onan was supposed to have been “doing his duty” and giving Tamar a son, Judah did not seem to notice who she was or anything about her. After all, when he saw her on the road in disguise, he did not recognize her, even though one would think that a veil is a pretty flimsy disguise and that Judah should at least have recognized Tamar’s voice. To him, she is simply someone he can use to fulfill his needs. Later, then, when his daughter-in-law who is supposed to have been living as a chaste widow turns up pregnant, Judah now has a reason to say, “See how wicked she is! I knew she killed my two older boys and I was right not to give her to my third son.” Only when Tamar presents proof that Judah is the father does he recognize her and realize she was in the right and he was in the wrong.
Jesus, who probably heard this story of this woman in his earthly family tree, would have heard the injustice of the situation and would have realized that every person that God has created has worth. No one should be treated as someone who has “no face”; whether that person is Jewish or Gentile, man or woman, black or white, or whatever other category we might think to put on a human being. Matthew records Jesus teaching, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (5:12). And in the Gospel of Matthew, while we see Jesus tightening up a lot of laws, he also speaks of God’s desire for mercy: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (9:13). And in one of his blistering criticisms of the Pharisees, Jesus accuses them of following the smallest details of the law but neglecting “the weightier matters . . . justice and mercy and faith” (23:23). For while Tamar may have made some questionable ethical decisions in her story, in the end she was commended by the one who had wronged her for being more just than he was.
In the past, the season of Advent was a season of fasting and repentance, just as Lent still is today, and this is why churches were decorated in purple during Advent just as in Lent. As we reflect on Tamar’s story, this is a good time for us to examine ourselves and ask questions: Do we truly do unto others as we would have them do unto us? Do we look upon others with mercy, or do we jump to conclusions as Judah did and condemn others for violating the law, without first asking why they did it or looking at how we may have violated the law ourselves? And is our desire for God’s justice only for ourselves, or do we desire that others may know God’s justice as well? And do we even understand that God’s idea of justice may be very different from our own?
The color of blue came into use for Advent as the church decided that it wanted to emphasize the idea of hope during the liturgical year as well. During Advent, we also hope: of course we are anticipating celebrating Jesus’ birth on Christmas, but we also hope for Jesus’ return to set all things right. And we see hope in the story of Tamar and Judah as well: when Tamar sends Judah proof that he is the father of her children, he does not deny what he has done. He admits his deed, confesses that Tamar acted more righteously than he did, and spares her from death. And that is the hope that we hold out as well: that when our deeds are shown to us, God will give us the ability to acknowledge them and confess where we have done wrong, and work to make amends and to bring God’s mercy and justice to others.
Tamar was zealous in going after the justice that had been denied to her. Jesus, too, was zealous in his ministry as he spoke for those who had been denied justice and even more so for those who had been denied mercy. Are we, his followers, as zealous in seeking out justice and mercy that have been denied to those around us? Or are we only zealous for ourselves? Part of our preparation in Advent for Jesus’ return should be to examine ourselves and ask God to show us where we can do better. May God show us those places; may we be humble enough to recognize them; and may we be brave enough and determined enough to go where God leads us. Amen.