Bring on the Grandmothers: Tamar

Matthew 1:1-3
Genesis 38:1-26
November 27, 2016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

Introduction to scripture:

The gospel of Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus, starting 42 generations back with Abraham, the father of the Jewish faith, and traveling down from father to son to arrive at Joseph, because it is Joseph, and not Mary, who is descended from the house of David.  To be descended from the house of David gave a Jew living in first century Palestine street cred; kind of like someone today who can claim George Washington as their great-great-great-great grandfather.

“The story I’m about to tell you,” Matthew says, “is about a direct descendent of the royal house of David,” and so we hunker down ready to hear about a hero; a savior who will restore the Kingdom of David to the people.

As the names of Jesus’ ancestors roll forth, however, we notice some hiccups in the genealogy.  While Jesus’ line is traced through the men, Matthew breaks into the sonorous rhythm of “so and so was the father of so and so who was the father of so and so” to mention as an aside four mothers who figured in Jesus’ ancestry.  These four women aren’t necessary to prove Jesus’ relationship to David — in fact, they are probably all foreigners who married into the faith — nor are they the most famous of the women in our Bible.  Matthew doesn’t mention Sarah or Rebecca or Rachel, the mothers of Israel, in his genealogy.  Instead, he choose four grandmothers of Jesus whose character will tell us something about the kind of man Jesus will be for us.  While the grandfathers of Jesus guarantee his pedigree as a king, these four grandmothers foretell his call as a Savior of the people.  During the weeks of Advent, I will be preaching on these grandmothers of Jesus to ask why Matthew included them — how do their stories inform our understanding of Jesus?

Today I will begin with the woman who is a glaring stroke of scarlet right there at the beginning of Jesus’s staid genealogy.

Matthew 1:1-3 says, “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.  Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar.”

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The story of Tamar in chapter 38 of Genesis is a story about righteousness.  The bible tells us that we are to pursue the path of righteousness, clothe ourselves in righteousness, and God will reward us according to our righteousness.  When John is about to baptize Jesus in the Jordan River to inaugurate his ministry, Jesus says, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

Righteousness is central to our lives as Christians and Jesus himself declares that his ministry of salvation is grounded in righteousness, but what exactly is righteousness?  What does the word mean?  If you were to describe a righteous person — not a “self-righteous” person which has become a kind of condemnation in our language, but a truly righteous person — what words or images would you use?

To get at the heart of the meaning of righteousness, the book of Genesis presents us with a case study involving Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar.  Judah is one of the twelve sons of Jacob and a man whose descendants will give their name to the Jewish people: (the word ‘Jewish’ in Hebrew literally means ‘the people of Judah.’)  In other words, the covenant that God has made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will be perpetuated through the descendants of Judah, but in chapter 38 of Genesis, we see just how close the covenant came to evaporating when Judah’s sons failed to produce the necessary heirs.

At the beginning of chapter 38, we read that Judah has sired sons and the oldest, Er, has reached a marrying age so Judah chooses a Canaanite woman named Tamar as Er’s wife.  Not very long after the wedding, however, Er dies leaving Tamar a childless widow.  Now in those days, the only status a woman had in the society was conferred upon her through her husband or her sons, so when Er dies, Tamar is up a creek without a paddle.  She is not only alone without the protection of a husband but she has failed to fulfill her primary obligation as a woman which is to bear sons to carry on her husband’s name.  Fortunately, the law had a remedy for just this situation: the law stated that if a man died leaving his wife childless, the man’s brother must marry the widow and give her children, but the children would legally belong to the dead brother.  This way, the dead man’s widow would have her status restored, and his legacy would live on through the children.  Accordingly, when Judah’s oldest son Er dies, Judah instructs his second son, Onan, to marry Tamar.  The second son Onan grudgingly obeys but he really doesn’t want to spend a lot of money and energy raising children that will be considered his brother’s, so he devises a fail-proof method of birth control, deliberately “spilling his seed” every time he’s in bed with Tamar.  Tamar is not the only one who has a stake in becoming pregnant; God too has a stake in it intending to preserve the covenant through this particular paternal line so when Onan refuses to do his duty, the Bible says that God gets very angry and strikes him down leaving Tamar is a widow a second time.  Fortunately, Judah still has one son left but, as you can imagine, Judah is hesitant to marry off his only remaining son to Tamar who doesn’t have a very good track record with husbands, so Judah tells Tamar that his youngest son is still too young to marry.

“When Shelah comes of age,” Judah promises Tamar, “he will marry you and give you children.”

Several years pass, Shelah grows up, but Judah keeps finding reasons to put off the marriage.  Realizing finally that Judah has no intention of ever letting Shelah marry her, Tamar takes matters into her own hands.  Judah, now a widower himself, has begun to frequent the Temple prostitutes in the city so Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute, sits by the road outside the Temple, and waits for Judah to come along.  When he sees her, he doesn’t recognize her, so he solicits her services, asking her price.  She tells him that if he wants to have sex, he must give her his signet ring and staff.  He hands them over, they conduct their business, and three months later, the whole town can see that Tamar is pregnant.  Judah is outraged that the widow of his son has conceived a child out of wedlock.

“You have debased yourself,” he says to Tamar.  “You have been sleeping around with who knows what kind of trash, selling yourself as a common prostitute,” not realizing the irony of his charge.

“Let her be burned before the town for her sins!” he decrees, but before anyone can find a match, however, Tamar pulls out Judah’s own signet ring and staff and declares, “The man who owns these is the father of my child.”

As I said earlier, this story in Genesis is a case study on righteous, and so if this were a discussion group, we might stop here and ask, “Who was was the righteous one?”

We might be tempted to say:  “Neither.”  After all, Tamar prostituted herself before the Temple and seduced her own father-in-law, and Judah failed his duty to the covenant and law by refusing to give Shelah to Tamar in marriage.

As an aside, we have to understand that the fact that Judah was sleeping with prostitutes didn’t really enter into the discussion.  There was a glaring double standard back then when women could be burned for prostitution while the men enjoying their services were not even criticized which means that on the face of it, for the people originally hearing this story, Tamar’s sin seems much more grave.  She deceived her father-in-law, she debased herself in prostitution, and she trapped him in his own lie, shaming him before his community.  Though Judah was no moral hero, his sin appears easier to forgive, and so we are inclined to argue that he was the more righteous one.

What a surprise then when we read the conclusion to the story in verse 26:

“Judah acknowledged [that the ring and staff were his] and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.”

Judah proclaims Tamar righteous — Tamar who dresses as a prostitute, Tamar who flaunts herself on the streets and seduces her own father-in-law into getting her pregnant, Tamar who a minute ago was about to be burned alive for her disreputable behavior — this woman Judah declares to be righteous.

When I asked you to think of your definition of a righteous person, did your definition include a person like Tamar?  For most of us, we think of a righteous person as someone who stands up well when measured against an abstract moral code.  A righteous person is someone good and just, who is merciful, and who practices fair judgement.  In our minds, a righteous person is someone who doesn’t lie or steal, doesn’t commit adultery, keeps the Sabbath and reads their Bible, and overall is a person of honesty and integrity.  We have this idea that righteousness involves an abstract universal and unchanging moral code by which we can all be measured at any time in any circumstance.  We may debate the particulars of that code and recognize that some aspects of the code may come into conflict with other aspects of the code in certain situations, but in general we treat righteousness as a list of personal characteristics that remain constant regardless of the circumstances.  In this way of thinking, a righteous person would be a person with the inner strength to consistently adhere to a code of moral integrity wherever they are, whoever they are with, no matter how tempted they may be to do otherwise.  Righteousness thus something we imagine is contained within the individual.  If Fred, for example, is a righteous person, then Fred will be righteous whether he is with Susan or with Jose or with Tanya or with his dog or even if he is alone on a deserted island.  If Fred isn’t righteous in all of those places and with all of those people, then we assume that his righteousness isn’t real — it’s just a show to impress because in our minds, righteousness is something integral to one’s identity and doesn’t change when circumstances change.

The story of Judah and Tamar, however, forces us to think of righteousness in a very different way.  The word “righteousness” in Hebrew could also be translated as “right relationship” and when you define it that way, righteousness can’t exist independently in a person.  If Fred is washed up on a deserted island, he can no longer be righteous or unrighteous no matter how well he contains his anger at this terrible turn of events because righteousness describes the relationship between two parties.  If there is no one else on the island for Fred to relate to, righteousness becomes irrelevant.  Righteousness isn’t a self-contained quality, nor is it measured against an abstract moral code: the righteous person is a person who respects the needs and claims that a relationship places upon him or her.

The story of Judah and Tamar which seems to our minds a tangled story of moral questions is actually a very simple one when we understand righteousness as right relationships.

Judah tried to escape his family obligations to Tamar.

Tamar fulfilled the obligations.

Ergo, Tamar was the righteous one.

When Matthew wrote his gospel, he knew that some of the things he was going to tell the readers about Jesus would shock and disturb them, so from the very first moment he put quill to scroll, he warned them about what was coming.

“This is an account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar.”

“A baby will be born who will be the Savior of us all, and Tamar, the woman who was willing to prostitute herself in order to ensure that her obligations to her dead husband were fulfilled, Tamar who took shame upon herself to force Judah into setting right the wrongs he had done to her and his family, Tamar who was righteous because she insisted on right-relationships even to the cost of herself, this Tamar was one of the grandmothers of Jesus.”

Jesus may have had his grandfather’s pedigree but he had his grandmother’s grit and determination, and a righteousness that insisted on reaching out to all who had been unjustly neglected by our society.

Be forewarned, the gospel says to us, for Tamar’s grandson will be your savior:

He will eat with sinners.

He will consort with tax collectors, known cheats and thieves.

He dare to cross unspoken lines to chat with prostitutes, to reach out to people with leprosy, to call to beggars on the street, to welcome Samaritans, and to bless disruptive dirty children.

He will be accused by the pious as unclean and unfaithful because he worries more about the lives of the people around him than about whether he stacks up well against some abstract moral code.

And he will be your Savior.

Jesus will set right your relationship with God by embracing you in love and mercy regardless of your past, your mistakes and failings, your status in life, or your worthiness in others’ eyes.  He will lift you up so that you may find your place in the family of God once again, and he will call you to follow in that same way of righteousness, doing whatever is necessary to set right the relationships between people.

Our lives are filled with relationships, from the intimate relationships of spouse, family, and friends, to the social relationships of community, church, neighborhood, country, and world.  It is within these relationships that we work out our salvation because it is in the bonds between one another that we discover Christ.  When we measure our righteousness by an abstract moral standards, we are so busy looking to that measuring stick and back to ourselves that we become blind to the needs of the people around us and we become increasingly isolated, unable to see anything but our own moral integrity.  Like Judah, we condemn and cast out others ultimately endangering our own salvation.  Jesus tells us that our way to God can only be found in the seriousness with which we take our obligations to one another.  When we insist on welcoming others into our sphere of concern regardless of their social standing or moral purity, when we practice mercy and compassion, and when we simply pay attention to what is going on in the lives of those we profess to care about, we will set right our relationships, and thus dwell in the righteousness of Christ.

In the book The Severed Wasp, by Madeleine L’Engle, the main character Katherine tries to help a neighbor but, L’Engle writes, “Katherine was not sure whether or not anything she has said to her neighbor was right.  Once again she had been plunged into a situation where she did not know what was right and what was wrong, and this had happened to her so often during her lifetime that surely she should be used to it.”  As she struggled with her moral confusion, Katherine remembers the words of her priest Cardinal Wolfi.]
“You do not have to be right,” Cardinal Wolfi had said [to her], “Only to care.”

This baby who is born to us at Christmas, this grandson of Tamar, will save us from our from the isolating effects of moral purity and free us to the peace of strong relationships.

Christ comes to us at Christmas to save us by setting us right with God and invites us to do same: to set right the relationships of our own lives that all may know peace.