“…And Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar…” Matthew 1:3
I sit back and think about the women that Matthew lists in his geneology of the line of the Messiah, of You, Jesus. I think about Rahab, and Ruth, and Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, and Mary. But I haven’t thought about Tamar or noticed her. But God chooses to notice her through Matthew. And if You choose to notice her God and point her out in this more than significant lineage, maybe I need to notice her a little more too.
So what is the story of Tamar. Actually, it seems like a kind of sordid soap opera. But is it really? I think most of the time we don’t read it and think of Tamar in a way that we want to know her more. If we knew Tamar, maybe we would even choose to say we didn’t really know her and choose to not be associated with her by the end of her story. But if that’s the right response to Tamar, then why don’t You shun her, Lord? Why is her name remembered in Your geneology? Why is her name important to You? Don’t you know what she did? (“If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:39))
The story starts back in the time of Judah. Well, actually I believe the story starts back before time began, when You started the story for us, Lord, but this is where we’ll go back to. Judah had three sons. His firstborn was Er and Tamar was given to him to be his wife. Now, I don’t know what it was, but all that God could see when he saw Er was wickedness. Whatever he was about, God saw it as so wicked in His sight that He put Er to death. That left Tamar a widow with no children, no male heir. Without a male heir, if she married someone outside the family, the inheritance would be lost to Er/Judah’s line. Holding on to your inheritance was important in these days. Besides that, it was part of God’s promise and belonged to God. So something needed to be done.
What follows seems strange to us in our day and age, but it wasn’t strange to the semitic people of this time. In Deuteronomy 25:5,6 You were teaching some ways to love God and love others in a practical way. Sometimes we miss the simple and You need to point it out for us. So You took this situation, and said, “If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her.” (Side thought- Am I my brother’s keeper? Seems so.) “And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.” And the following verses even go on to discuss if the brother refuses to do this duty, and refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel. Before the elders, the widow would pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face and say, ‘So shall it be done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’ And his house would be known as “The house of him who had his sandal pulled off.”
Now, let’s not take this lightly just because we don’t understand this culturally. Because everyone understood this then. How do I know that? Scripture tells me. Lots two daughters knew. It’s in their statement “Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to come in unto us after the manner of all the earth: come, let us make our father drink wine and we will lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father.” (Genesis 19:31-32) Now, maybe they were just talking about no more husbands being left on the earth. Maybe they thought God had rained destruction everywhere around them and they were the only three left. But the point wasn’t just to have husbands, but to preserve the seed of their father. It’s just that their worldview had been a “little” warped by their time in Sodom. And their God view was too small.
So, maybe you don’t like that example or know what to do with it. Well, I’m not sure how to fully look at it either. So I’ll let the Lord help me as I meditate on it and chew on it for a while. But the Sadducees of Jesus’ time were also aware and asked a question of this circumstance. They began by saying, “Master, Moses wrote unto us, If any man’s brother die, having a wife, and he die without children, that his brother should take his wife, and raise up seed unto his brother.” (Luke 20:28) Here the Sadducees were misinterpreting the outcome in the resurrection. But obviously, this was common knowledge, whether the knowledge was applied correctly or incorrectly.
So let’s erase the grossness from the idea and look at it as a way to care for one’s brother and all that is his and to protect God’s lineage through Israel. Does that shed a different light? Well, let’s look at the rest of the story. So Judah tells his son Onan to fulfil his duty to his brother’s wife, to go in unto her (have sex), to marry her, and to raise up seed to his brother. But Onan wasn’t concerned about his brother and his brother’s inheritance or his father’s lineage, or God’s inheritance, or anything else but his own seed. So when it came time to fulfill his duty, he “spilled” his seed on the ground, “lest that he should give seed to his brother.” Well, if you don’t fault him much for that, then you don’t see eye to eye with God either. This thing so displeased the Lord that He slew him also. What? For that? Why so great a punishment?
Am I to think that I will always understand why God has told me to do something? Am I to think that every action I make does not have eternal value or purpose before God? Am I to think that God knows less than me? Think about it. Tamar’s child is in the lineage of the Christ. Did Onan know that? Must he have known that to obey? Or is obeying, trusting God regardless of what we understand? And wasn’t he ignoring the call to love God and love others? Didn’t Jesus say, if we can’t love those we see and know on earth, how can we love a God we cannot see? Maybe faith is obeying despite what we see and despite what the outcome may be. Am I like Onan? How are You feeling about me right now, Lord?
So two sons are now dead and Tamar still remains a widow. One son remains but he is too young to be wed. Judah tells Tamar to remain a widow at her father’s house and when Shelah is grown, he will perform his duty to her. But I think that was just a ploy on Judah’s part to send Tamar away for fear of his son Shelah’s life. Here are his words, “lest peradventure he die also, as his brothers did.” But Tamar went to her father’s house and waited. And waited. And waited.
But Judah had no more intention to fulfil the promise. Then came the day that Judah’s wife died and in his sorrow he turned in to be with a harlot. Unbenounced to Judah, Tamar had heard of Judah’s traveling and had covered herself with a vail instead of her widow’s garments and sat in an open place waiting for Judah. Judah thought her a harlot, because her face was covered. He did not know it was Tamar. Now, Tamar is a wise woman. She asks what he will give her to go with him. He says a kid from the flock. But the flock is in the field. She asks again, “What pledge will you give?” “How will you solidify Your promise? What surety will you give me?” Seems pretty appropriate to ask of a man whose promises before have not been sure.
Do you wonder about the significance of the items she asks for? “Your signet, and your bracelets, and your staff that is in Your hand.” The signet was no insignificant item. It was what was used to seal official documents and orders and was a sign of authority. This was Judah’s signature and authority over all he owned. Again, his bracelets may have attested to his authority and his standing in the community. Also, the staff was a symbol of protection, power, and authority. It doesn’t seem trivial at all to me that these three items were left with a total stranger, a “harlot”, as a surety. Maybe Judah was not valuing his inheritance in the Lord as greatly as he should have and it had rubbed of on his sons. Maybe Tamar was the one who understood the value of the inheritance and was willing to sacrifice everything for it. I wonder who You, Lord, would see in the right?
So, the deal was sealed and the act completed. Tamar went home and put her widows clothes back on and Judah, with kid in arm, never found the harlot, and never found anyone that knew of her. But three months later a scandal comes forth. Tamar is with child and Judah wants to bring her forward to be burned. So she comes, and with her she brings the signet, the bracelets, and the staff. When Judah sees, what does he have to say? “She has been more righteous than I; because that I gave her not to Shelah my son.” Can you imagine that? Tamar’s act was righteous? No, no you say. It was just more righteous than Judah who wasn’t being very righteous so that only means it was a little more righteous. ” No, I’m pretty sure that’s an acknowledgement, plain and simple, of Tamar’s righteous act.
I don’t know much about Tamar, but Tamar knew this one part of God’s Word. She knew this one promise. She knew this one command, this one precept. And she was going to see that it was fulfilled. God, You are a radical God. You go to extremes. I don’t know why we think we don’t need to go to extremes to uphold Your desires. We tend to go to every extreme to uphold our own desires and don’t even realize it is to our detriment. But would we go the extreme that Tamar did for You? Maybe I’m giving her more credit than she deserves, but I don’t think so. What would I sacrifice to obey You? What would I give up to honor You? How much do I really love my brothers and sisters? How much would I esteem someone else over myself? How much do I really value You? Because it shows in how I treat others. It shows in how I honor Your words and Your commands. It’s not legalism to obey. It’s trusting that You know better even when I don’t understand or don’t agree. And I need to learn to trust more. And I need to be willing to go to every extreme no matter the cost to seek Your will. Help me, Lord. Help me. Let me be more like Tamar, and may pleasing You and trusting You be worth everything to me.