The Mothers of Jesus: Tamar

This advent, our sermon series is looking at the women in Jesus’ genealogy. In case you miss the sermons, or if you want to reflect a bit more, we’re posting summary versions here on the blog! (Find the audio of the full sermon here.)

There are four women listed in Jesus’ family tree: Tamar, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary. The first of these is Tamar. Genesis 38 tells her story.

In summary, Tamar is married to Judah’s son. That son dies, so Judah’s next son marries her. He also dies. Judah promises his next son to her, but doesn’t follow through. He sends her away to her father, saying he’ll call her back when his son is marrying age.

But he doesn’t. When Tamar realizes this, she waits till he is in a neighboring area and waits by the side of the road, where Judah sees her and, thinking she’s a prostitute, sleeps with her. As collateral for later payment, he offers his seal and cord and staff (kind of like a rich person leaving their wallet). He never realizes that it’s Tamar.

Soon after, his men go to make payment and retrieve the seal and cord and staff, but they can’t find the mysterious “prostitute.”

Later, Judah hears that Tamar is pregnant, and he is furious. He calls for her to be burned for her sin. When she is brought to him, she sends his seal and cord and staff, saying that their owner is the man who got her pregnant.

Judah recognizes his sin and acknowledges that Tamar is more righteous than he is. She gives birth to twins, and Jesus is descended from one of them.

What could this story possibly have to do with Christmas? What is the point of this story? It’s the same as the point of all Bible stories: it shows how the grace of God breaks into the lives of people who would otherwise sink under their own brokenness.

We’ll look at three breakthroughs in this story.

Tamar’s breakthrough

What’s going on in Tamar’s story? Tamar is probably around 15, and she’s already been widowed twice. Being a widow, especially at her age, was a vulnerable position. In that society, it was a family that gave a person, especially a woman, status, dignity, identity, and worth. Being a widow, especially a childless widow, meant you had none of those things.

To protect widows, there was something called levirate marriage. According to this law, the widow’s father-in-law is required to give his next youngest son to the widow as her husband. It guarantees her the protection and dignity of family and offspring. That’s why Judah marries his second son to Tamar after her first husband dies. And then, after that son dies, Judah promises his next son. Only this time, he has no plans to follow through.

Why? He is probably in denial. His sons were corrupt, and he doesn’t want to admit that. And he doesn’t want to admit his own failures. So he blames Tamar. He says “this woman caused the death of my sons. She’s the problem.” So he tries to get rid of her.

Tamar brilliantly uses the sexual double-standard of that society against Judah. He could have sex with whoever he wanted, because he was a man. She could not, because she was a woman. Tamar used the sexual double-standard to trap Judah into delivering justice.

The Bible is enormously concerned with the welfare of widows. Every society has vulnerable and marginalized people, and every society has people with wealth and privilege. When those with the resources and power refuse to help the vulnerable, God doesn’t call that greed. God calls that injustice.

Judah is the only one who has the power to give Tamar what she deserves, but instead he deprives her of her rights. He blames her for his sons’ deaths, so he chooses to condemn her to a dead-end life. He leaves her no choice but to pursue justice by the only means left to her.

Were Tamar’s actions moral? No. In some cases, a person who is oppressed might do things that are wrong, and they are still wrong. But get this: social injustice is a really big sin. So big that it can overshadow the personal sins of the people we might look down on.

Do you see oppression and social injustice as serious sins? At least as serious as personal morality? This is the breakthrough of Tamar.

Judah’s breakthrough

Judah calls for Tamar to be burned, a punishment reserved for the most horrible atrocities. Why? Because he needed to justify himself and shield himself from his own sinfulness. He needed to make Tamar out to be a villain. So when he learns that she’s pregnant, his evil hatred spews out: “I knew it! I knew she was evil!”

It’s easy to think Judah was just a terrible guy. But we’re the same as him. We all go to great lengths to protect ourselves from admitting our flaws. We say things like “they made me do it” or “I’m not as bad as that person.”

What changes Judah? When Tamar is being dragged toward her death, she sends Judah’s seal and cord and staff to him, saying that whoever owns them is the one who slept with her. She challenges him to recognize what he’s done. To recognize what’s in his heart.

And he does. This is his breakthrough. He has a spiritual awakening. You and I need that, too.

When we realize that we’re no better than the people we used to despise, that is when spiritual awakening happens. For some of us, that means realizing that we’re just as bigoted and narrow-minded as the bigots we despise. In our own way, we feel superior. For others of us, it means recognizing our self-righteousness and seeing that our lack of concern for justice is just as bad as all the immoral people out there.

Only when we start to look up to the people we used to look down on will we find spiritual awakening.

The breakthrough of the son of promise

It is through Judah and Tamar that Jesus comes into human history. We can see that both of them point to Jesus in a powerful way.

Tamar got her life back when Judah recognized that in spite of her actions, Tamar was righteous. Our lives are saved when Jesus judges us righteous. But he is the opposite of Judah. Where Judah wanted to punish Tamar for his own sinfulness, Jesus takes our punishment for ours.

Only when we find this grace and forgiveness will we be emboldened to pursue justice like Tamar or to repent of our sinfulness like Judah.