It always makes it more meaningful to a story to understand its setting, what came before to influence the story line and where and when the story takes place. One’s genealogy helps to do that for an individual. Today there is great interest in one’s genealogy, learning from where one’s ancestors hailed and interesting anecdotes about them. I’ve even had my ancestry checked out, only to find that I had a significant amount of ancestors from a country I didn’t even know figured into my life at all.
Matthew supplies that genealogy for Jesus in the opening chapter of his book in the New Testament. What makes Matthew’s genealogy so interesting is that there are four women mentioned as mothers. This was done at a time in Jewish history when women weren’t even considered a person but a thing by many men. Eugene Peterson reminds us that “In the regular form of morning prayer, a male Jew would give thanks that God had not made him a Gentile, a slave or a woman.” It’s really extraordinary that they are mentioned by name here considering that all were either immoral, or foreign. Pastor Tim Dilena of Times Square Church in NYC says, “Not only did Jesus associate with liars, cheaters, adulterers, murderers, and prostitutes—but Jesus had them in his lineage.” Regardless of your ancestry, God’s plan always prevails, and that’s good news for all of us. For the next four months we will be looking more closely at these four women.
The first mother mentioned is Tamar, the mother of Perez, a son of Judah. Tamar was a widow, and, like you, found out that there were battles and challenges after becoming a widow that overshadowed the death of her husband. While the pain of grief that accompanies the death of a spouse can be great, often that is only the beginning of the pain.
Let me quickly summarize the story for you to help you understand what led to Tamar’s depth of despair and hopelessness. (Genesis 38:5-30) Tamar was married to Judah’s oldest son, Er, but because of his wickedness, God caused him to die before Tamar conceived a child. Onan, the second son, was, according to Jewish tradition, to raise up a son through Tamar to keep the brother’s lineage alive, but he refused to do so and he too died at God’s hands. There was a third, Shelah, who was much younger, but Judah promised when he was old enough, he would give him to Tamar in marriage to conceive a child. This was in keeping with the custom of “kinsman redeemer” found in the book of Ruth. The closest of kin was to insure the line of the deceased husband. Once Tamar had married into Judah’s family, she was a part of it and he was legally her father. But he told her to go back to her own father and he would call for her when Shelah was mature.
Tamar remained a widow waiting for Shelah to become mature so that she could conceive a child. However, Judah, fearing that Shelah would also die, refused to give him to Tamar. It’s not an exaggeration to say that childless widowhood was shameful in those days. Yet she, with the promise of Shelah, the youngest son, waited in anticipation of an end to her widowhood and the shame of childlessness, only to realize that Judah had deceived her. This was a crushing blow to her as Shelah had been her last hope to fulfill her long-held desire for motherhood and an end to her shame. In fact, she considered it her religious duty to produce an heir from the tribe of Judah, and she was not going to her grave without one.
A plan began to foment in her mind, one that might appear devious, but took a lot of courage. She dressed in the veiled clothing of a temple prostitute and seduced, not Shelah, but Judah who had been recently widowed. Can you imagine the fear Tamar experienced attempting to conceal her identity by disguising her voice and making sure Judah didn’t catch a glimpse of her face? She deserved a medal for chutzpah, if nothing else. She became impregnated by Judah and bore twins, one of whom was Perez.
Tamar suffered greatly from the sins of her two husbands. Doubtless she was shamed by the wickedness of Er and humiliated and insulted by Onan’s behavior. But, since she was a woman, she had no rights of her own; no one cared about her opinions and certainly less about her feelings – except God. God knew that His son, the promised Messiah, would come from the tribe of Judah and I suggest that it was He who put a strong desire in Tamar’s heart for bearing a child.
Her story demonstrates how God can take the greatest disappointments, the deepest pain, even the failures and sins in our lives and turn them around for good. God gave her not just one, but two sons from the tribe of Judah. Finally, she was vindicated and recompensed all in one birth. Think about it, the law said that she deserved death, yet God gave her life and the privilege of being in the lineage of his son. That demonstrates His great love for and compassion toward her.
Ladies, no matter the situation in which you find yourselves, God’s grace is greater still and He will come to your rescue. He, as your loving, caring Father, will rescue you from your deepest pit and make those plans He has for you become a reality.
Next month we will look at the story of Rehab, the second woman mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy.