'The Women in Jesus' Past - week 1: Tamar' by Owen Lynch - December 2nd 2018
What does Jesus' family tree reveal about God, ourselves, and what we can look forward to this Christmas?
Jesus was raised in a Jewish community, living Jewish culture, reading the Hebrew Bible that we call the Old Testament, loving and praying to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
As we enter Advent, a season of preparing to celebrate Jesus' arrival, we need to understand that Jesus' followers and writers of the New Testament saw Jesus as the fufilment of everything promised in the Old Testament.
In this series of talks, we will look at the lives of four women listed as Jesus' ancestors by Gospel writer Matthew - Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Mary.
4:10 Why start a book with a genealogy?
This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham:
Abraham was the father of Isaac,
Isaac the father of Jacob,
Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,
Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar... (Matthew 1:1-3)
This does not seem like the best way to hook readers into reading a book until we realise how the Jewish readers of Matthew's account saw stories behind each name, each forming a part of the big story of God's relationship with the descendants of Abraham.
Matthew's list is unusual for including five women, four of whom were non-Jews (Gentiles). In this way, Matthew could show Jesus to fulfill God's promise to Abraham that through his offspring, all nations on earth would be blessed (Genesis 22:18).
In writing his Gospel, Matthew's purpose was to show that Jesus had total authority as "King of kings". This included Jesus being King over all humanity, Jews and Gentiles.
10:42 The story of Tamar
At that time, Judah left his brothers and went down to stay with a man of Adullam named Hirah. There Judah met the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua. He married her and made love to her; she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, who was named Er. She conceived again and gave birth to a son and named him Onan. She gave birth to still another son and named him Shelah. It was at Kezib that she gave birth to him.
Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death.
Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death also. (Genesis 38:1-10)
This is a messy story - the Bible does not sugar coat or sanitise, but shares the reality of the human condition. In this case, a young girl has dreams of growing up, falling in love and having a family, but her life is a nightmare and it’s about to get worse.
Judah then said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Live as a widow in your father’s household until my son Shelah grows up.” For he thought, “He may die too, just like his brothers.” So Tamar went to live in her father’s household.
After a long time Judah’s wife, the daughter of Shua, died. When Judah had recovered from his grief, he went up to Timnah, to the men who were shearing his sheep, and his friend Hirah the Adullamite went with him.
When Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is on his way to Timnah to shear his sheep,” she took off her widow’s clothes, covered herself with a veil to disguise herself, and then sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that, though Shelah had now grown up, she had not been given to him as his wife.
When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. Not realizing that she was his daughter-in-law, he went over to her by the roadside and said, “Come now, let me sleep with you.” “And what will you give me to sleep with you?” she asked. “I’ll send you a young goat from my flock,” he said. “Will you give me something as a pledge until you send it?” she asked. He said, “What pledge should I give you?” “Your seal and its cord, and the staff in your hand,” she answered.
So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she became pregnant by him. After she left, she took off her veil and put on her widow’s clothes again. (Genesis 38:11-19)
It can be shocking that this is a Bible story, not newspaper gossip. But we also know from the Bible that God repeatedly warned Judah and the Israelites not to adopt the cultural habits of the Canaanites, which included shrine prostitution.
However, Judah's failure to keep his promise for son Shelah to marry Tamar was a breach of the law, leaving Tamar without value in her society and condemned to a life of poverty and insecurity.
Meanwhile Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite in order to get his pledge back from the woman, but he did not find her. He asked the men who lived there, “Where is the shrine prostitute who was beside the road at Enaim?” “There hasn’t been any shrine prostitute here,” they said.
So he went back to Judah and said, “I didn’t find her. Besides, the men who lived there said, ‘There hasn’t been any shrine prostitute here.’ ” Then Judah said, “Let her keep what she has, or we will become a laughingstock. After all, I did send her this young goat, but you didn’t find her.”
About three months later Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result she is now pregnant.” Judah said, “Bring her out and have her burned to death!”
As she was being brought out, she sent a message to her father-in-law. “I am pregnant by the man who owns these,” she said. And she added, “See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are.” Judah recognized them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not sleep with her again. (Genesis 38:20-26)
In this world, like ours, women were usually the victims of oppression. But in this case, Tamar outplayed Judah, who recognised that he had been wrong.
19:39 God's plans are bigger than our mistakes
Tamar probably saw her life as a huge tragedy, filled with a series of mistakes, problems, disappointments and betrayals, and wondered why she ever got involved with this Hebrew family. We can relate to her not living her dream.
But Tamar did produce a son who turned out alright and, after dozens of generations, had a son who is the Son of God.
22:10 It's not who goes before you but who comes after you that matters
We can identify with stories of dysfunctional families and wonder if we are going to make the same mistakes as our parents or grandparents.
We need to thank God for our parents, but also know that none of us are perfect, including us.
We don't fully appreciate our parents until we are parents and realise what they had to put up with.
But we may also have inherited habits, perspectives and behaviours that we consciously need to break from so that we don't pass them on. We may need some help with this.
Owen, Dan and Mal from Severn's leadership team recently went to a "Faithwalking 101" workshop where there was prayerful review of some formative experiences in life, and understanding of how responses to those experiences in the form of "vows" can prevent obedience to Jesus today.
26:08 This is our family
We can think that these stories and genealogies are not relevant to us because they are about someone else's family. But it is! God wants us to be fully adopted into his family.
So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. (Galatians 3:6-7)
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
God wants every human being to be in this family, defined not by their mistakes but by who God made them to be.
How does the Jewish context of Jesus’ life and ministry change the way you think about Jesus? (See reading list below for further references.)
Are you getting caught up and bogged down in the challenges of you facing? In what ways could you take a step back and gain God’s perspective on your life?
It’s good to reflect on the formative experiences of our lives and ask ourselves how these experiences have shaped the vows/principles that we live by now. What are your most important principles and what experiences both positive and negative, have formed them?
Do you have habits that prevent you from living in obedience to the teaching of Jesus (for example the beatitudes in Matthew 5). Which vows are behind these habits?