Mothers of Jesus
We begin a short series designed to make room in your heart to worship Jesus, entitled The Mothers of Jesus. This isn’t going to feel like a Christmas series, but I promise you it is. I want to tell you a story a messy, gritty story about injustice, sex, and cover-up. It’s the story of a baby’s birth but it’s not immediately the story of the child born in Bethlehem. It’s also a story of grace in the midst of a mess and finding your way when all seems hopeless. And in the end, it’s a ripping good yarn as our friends from Britain like to say. There’s two main characters to our story: Judah and Tamar.
In the course of time the wife of Judah, Shua’s daughter, died. When Judah was comforted, he went up to Timnah to his sheepshearers, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. 13 And when Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep,” 14 she took off her widow’s garments and covered herself with a veil, wrapping herself up, and sat at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that Shelah was grown up, and she had not been given to him in marriage. 15 When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. 16 He turned to her at the roadside and said, “Come, let me come in to you,” for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, “What will you give me, that you may come in to me?” 17 He answered, “I will send you a young goat from the flock.” And she said, “If you give me a pledge, until you send it—” 18 He said, “What pledge shall I give you?” She replied, “Your signet and your cord and your staff that is in your hand.” So he gave them to her and went in to her, and she conceived by him. 19 Then she arose and went away, and taking off her veil she put on the garments of her widowhood.
20 When Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite to take back the pledge from the woman’s hand, he did not find her. 21 And he asked the men of the place, “Where is the cult prostitute who was at Enaim at the roadside?” And they said, “No cult prostitute has been here.” 22 So he returned to Judah and said, “I have not found her. Also, the men of the place said, ‘No cult prostitute has been here.’” 23 And Judah replied, “Let her keep the things as her own, or we shall be laughed at. You see, I sent this young goat, and you did not find her.”
24 About three months later Judah was told, “Tamar your daughter-in-law has been immoral. Moreover, she is pregnant by immorality.” And Judah said, “Bring her out, and let her be burned.” 25 As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, “By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant.” And she said, “Please identify whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.” 26 Then Judah identified them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not know her again.” (Genesis 38:12-26)
And you thought your family had issues .
Christianity is a religion the appeals to those who are down and out. While at times, Christianity has been the religion of the upper classes, Christianity’s has been embraced by people who are hurting and disenfranchised. In light of the news of our recent days, where rioters and looting have plagued the city streets of predominantly black community of Ferguson, Missouri following the controversial officer shooting of Michael Brown. A great deal of anger and frustration have grown in both whites and blacks over the incident. African-Americans feels the case is simply one more incident in a series of cases where justice plays out differently based on the color of your skin. Our story is going to set up the Christmas story in a unique way for us today. It will serve us as a call for justice for those who have none and an appeal for grace.
You’ve got to be patient with this story to see how God brings it back full circle.
1. A Frightened Teenager
She’s the hero in our story and she takes a great risk. She’s probably a teenager in the story and is twice a widow. Few people serve as more vulnerable than a defenseless teenage woman in biblical times. They had little to no rights at the time and men often walked right over them.
1.2 Tamar’s Husband
I started reading halfway through the story, but as we see the story open, we read that God kills her husband, Er, because he was a wicked man. The Bible doesn’t tell us specifically why God killed her husband, Er (Genesis 38:6) but we do know that he died because God couldn’t tolerate seeing Er’s wickedness any longer. So God took him off the earth. We know that God Himself took the life of many people in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah as well as during the days of Noah, both of which were earlier in Genesis. But this is the first recorded time that God Himself has taken the life of any one individual.
No sooner than Tamar’s husband died, than his brother, Onan, was asked by the father to sleep with Tamar. This was customary in the day though it seems very strange to our ears. And it was called levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). A wife had little rights and very little way of making a living in those days, so your husband’s brother would take you as a wife and make sure you had children in the absence of your husband. Tamar needed a child for status in her day but also for a livelihood. Please note that the Bible never actually records that Onan marries his brother’s wife, but he only takes her to “perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother” (Genesis 38:8b).
Throughout the story, Tamar is treated with little to no regard. Yet, Onan was deceitful and made everyone think he was fulfilling his duties but in secret he stopped short of doing what he was supposed to do. Had Onan and Tamar had a child, the child would have take the name of his deceased father – Er. But Onan didn’t want his brother to get an heir, he wanted this privilege for his name. The Bible says that he practiced deceit again and again: “But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went in to his brother’s wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother” (Genesis 38:9). And so God kills the second brother as well.
1.4 Back to Tamar
In Tamar, we see a women who uses sexual entrapment and incest to make her way in this world. But before you pulverize her with judgmental eyes, please note she was treated as little more than a surrogate mother throughout the story. Not once do we see anyone treating her with compassion and care. After first two husbands die, she waits while the third brother grows up to be old enough for marriage. But she waits years in her father’s home and all she gets in return for her waiting are broken promises. She’s nothing more than an oven for these men to have their heir. And she would have been easy to run over in this time. Remember, she’s probably little more than a teenager. Not once, do I read that her father stepped in to stand up for her. Women weren’t able to get a job as they do in our day. Women’s status in this ancient society was to have children and run the family. She was a twice a widow and she is the most socially and economically vulnerable person in ancient biblical days. She’s a Frightened Teenager.
2. A Deceitful Man
Meet the second main character in our story, Judah. Judah is a man in charge of his life – he is making all the decisions in our story. He is the great grandson of none other than Abraham, the father of all who are faithful. Just to get a better grasp on the person Tamar is having to dealing with, you should know that Judah was the brother of the famed Joseph. Do you give you a little more feel for his character: it was Judah’s suggestion that the brothers sell his brother, Joseph, to a traveling band of traders for profit (Genesis 37:26-28).
2.1 Married to a Non-Believer
As we’re first introduced to Judah in today’s story, we learn that his married a woman from Canaan, a non-believing women. And this is the first of three sins we are witness to where each of the sins is progressively worse the farther along Judah goes. And though her father’s name is shared in our story, Judah’s wife is a nameless woman from Canaan. You can begin to appreciate Judah’s first sin by seeing how his fathers choose a wife. Judah’s great-grandfather, the “father of faith” Abraham, was greatly concerned that Judah’s grandfather, Isaac, not marry a women from among the people of Canaan (Genesis 24:3). Isaac was also very much concerned that his son, Jacob, Judah’s father, not marry a woman from among the people of Canaan (Genesis 28:1). But as soon as we meet Judah, we see doesn’t share the concerns that his fathers had. You’ll best see Judah’s sin by looking at his first two sons – again, both of which died at God’s hand because of their egregious sin.
2.2 Broken Promises
For those of you who know their Bible, do you remember the promise God made to Abraham? God said to Abraham (Genesis 17), “I’m going to save the word through YOUR family, Abraham. YOUR family. You will be the father of nations and kings shall come from you. It’s through your family that justice, peace, and truth will come.” And yet, Judah, Abraham’s great grandson, fails in every single aspect of this promise. It’s in the lives of his three boys, that we cultivate the fertile ground that grant Judah’s broken promise (his second sin) the best room to grow. While Judah felt free to choose his wife, he didn’t allow his sons this privilege. Judah choose his son’s wife for him – remember, he is making all the decisions in our story. You ask, “How did Er and Tamar meet?” and you’ll quickly discover the “dating” practices of Bible times were this: your parents picked your mate for you.
Judah is in denial over the tragedy that were his two oldest boys. Instead of seeing them for who they were, Judah blames Tamar for their deaths. Because he blamed her, he outwardly played the respectable father-in-law part for society but he inwardly and secretly deceived his daughter-in-law. Judah doesn’t want to admit what a mess his family is. He doesn’t want to face how his two oldest boys were corrupt and so thoroughly evil that God took both of them off the face of the earth.
Public school teachers know this facet well, don’t they? No parent comes to the school taking responsibility for junior; instead, it’s the school’s fault. It’s the coach’s fault that Johnny doesn’t play first-string defense. It’s the school failure that my child can’t pass algebra. Judah says is, “This woman somehow is bad news. If she marries my third son, he’ll probably die too. She’s the problem.” Judah needed to believe the worst about his daughter in law in order to justify in his mind what happened to his sons.
Judah made a promise; Judah broke his promise. Everything about this man says this: he’s a failure at being a man. This is third and most devastating sin finds Judah breaking his promise not only to his daughter-in-law but he also sleeps with a prostitute. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
3. A Surprising Result
Women are often smarter than men and somewhere along the way, Tamar realized the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. She woke up to realize that Judah wasn’t go to keep his promise to protect and provide for her. So when Tamar learns that Judah is coming her way, she instinctively launches an unbelievably bold and fascinating plan. When she hears her father-in-law is on his way to her neck of the woods, we’re told in verse fourteen, Tamar springs into action. It says, “She took off her widow’s clothes. She covered herself with a veil to disguise herself. She sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah.” Judah goes by, sees her, thinks she’s a prostitute, goes in, has sex with her, not knowing it’s his daughter-in-law, and leaves as a pledge against the fee that he promises his seal, cord, and staff. The seal was something only a wealthy man would have had; it shows he’s a man of promise. It was basically a kind of signet on a little cylinder, and it was what you used to put your insignia on things. It was a way of making contracts. It was tied to a cord and very often, perhaps, tied to a staff too.
3.1 The Sexual Double-Standard
Tamar brilliantly and ingeniously uses the sexual double standard of Judah and that society against him. What’s a sexual double standard? One standard sexually for men and one for women. You notice Judah has sex when he wants. How would Tamar know if he saw a prostitute on the road, he’d ask for her services? Centuries later, God speaks through the prophet, Hosea: “I will not punish your daughters when they play the whore, nor your brides when they commit adultery; for the men themselves go aside with prostitutes and sacrifice with cult prostitutes, and a people without understanding shall come to ruin” (Hosea 4:14).
Like a boomerang, Tamar tricks Judah just as he tricked her. Let’s look at the last part of the story now. She goes home and she has his stuff. By the way, verses 20–23 tell us he tried to send the goat, which he promised to the prostitute, to the prostitute, couldn’t find the prostitute, and just said, “Oh well,” and forgot it. In verse 24 we see these words: About three months later Judah was told, “Tamar your daughter-in-law has been immoral. Moreover, she is pregnant by immorality” (Genesis 38:24). In Hebrew there are only two words recorded as Judah’s reaction, “take, burn.” “Take. Burn. Take her out and burn her.”
The thing we miss as modern people, since so much of the Old Testament seems kind of brutal anyway. Ancient societies very often just seemed a little grittier than ours. We miss something the readers back then would have not missed, and that is what Judah does here is enormously hateful. It is disproportionately angry, because almost no one was ever executed through burning. She would have been stoned, not burned. Why was he so angry? Go back to his sons for a moment. Remember, Judah thought Tamar was the problem all along. He thought she was the reason they were dead. Judah needed to believe the worst about her in order to justify in his mind what happened to his sons. Just think of how dramatic it was when Tamar pulled out a package where his signet ring was included. Tamar says in effect, “By the way, the man who impregnated me who needs to go into the fire with me, of course, by rights … these are his. Do you recognize them?” she is not just saying, “Do you recognize your things?” She is calling him, she is forcing him, to fully recognize himself. She is saying, “Do you recognize yourself? Do you see who you are?”
3.2 Hope Out of Despair
The story of Judah and Tamar is one of tremendous despair. But, it’s the fertile ground where God brings tremendous hope. There are women in every generation of Jesus’ family tree. But it’s interesting that inside the genealogy of Jesus that begins the New Testament, God choose to highlight four women, that have no business being there: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. In Matthew 1, right before the Christmas narrative, Matthew gives a genealogy of Jesus, and the genealogy is a way to show who Jesus is and why he came.
“The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3 and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron…” (Matthew 1:1-3a)
The genealogy has something almost no genealogies back then had. It has a woman’s name, Tamar. Perez, the baby through whom Jesus came, and Judah, the man through whom Jesus came, and Tamar, the mother of Jesus, the woman through whom Jesus came. Why and how do Tamar and Judah point to Jesus? Do you know what Judah was doing to Tamar? He was punishing her for his sin. But the real Judah, the real Jesus, took the punishment for our sins.
3.3 Judah and Joseph
Eventually, near the end of the book of Genesis, there is a moment, an amazing moment, when Judah and all of his brothers are standing before the prime minister of Egypt. It’s their brother Joseph, who they sold into slavery, but they don’t recognize him. Just like Judah failed to recognize his daughter-in-law, Judah don’t recognize his brother Joseph. Joseph’s looking down at them and wondering if they’re still the incredibly hard-hearted, people they were when they sold him into slavery years before. So what Joseph says to them is, “I’m going to keep Benjamin here with me. The rest of you can go back to your father in Canaan.” Of course, they all know their father, Jacob, will just die if they lose Benjamin.
What does Judah say? [PAUSE] He looks up at Joseph and he says, “Take me instead. Let me be the slave. I’ll give up my whole life. I’ll give up my freedom for Benjamin’s sake and for my father’s sake.” That’s when Joseph says, “Do you recognize me? I am Joseph. Something has happened to you. God has been working in your life.” Judah needed an incredibly painful process of spiritual awakening so that eventually he could become the vehicle for Jesus Christ to come into the world. For him to become like Jesus Christ, one who was willing to give up his life for another, it took a very painful series of spiritual awakenings/ The Bible describes our despair just like this: “…where sin increase, grace abounded all the more…” (Romans 5:20b)
It is just like God to walk the streets of Ferguson, Missouri and bring hope from injustice. And it’s just like God to walk into the mess Judah created and bring hope out of despair. Then Judah identified them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not know her again” (Genesis 38:12-26). You see, Judah is the father of Jesus and Tamar is the mother of Jesus. Jesus came into the world through his loins, and for him to be a vehicle of Jesus Christ it took tremendous grace.
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