Genesis 38, NRSV
It happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers and settled near a certain Adullamite whose name was Hirah. There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua; he married her and went in to her. She conceived and bore a son; and he named him Er. Again she conceived and bore a son whom she named Onan. Yet again she bore a son, and she named him Shelah. She was in Chezib when she bore him. Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn; her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death. Then Judah said to Onan, ‘Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her; raise up offspring for your brother.’ But since Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, he spilled his semen on the ground whenever he went in to his brother’s wife, so that he would not give offspring to his brother.What he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also. Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, ‘Remain a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up’—for he feared that he too would die, like his brothers. So Tamar went to live in her father’s house.
In course of time the wife of Judah, Shua’s daughter, died; when Judah’s time of mourning was over, he went up to Timnah to his sheep-shearers, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. When Tamar was told, ‘Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep’, she put off her widow’s garments, put on a veil, wrapped herself up, and sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. She saw that Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him in marriage. When Judah saw her, he thought her to be a prostitute, for she had covered her face. He went over 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?’ He answered, ‘I will send you a kid from the flock.’ And she said, ‘Only if you give me a pledge, until you send it.’ He said, ‘What pledge shall I give you?’ She replied, ‘Your signet and your cord, and the staff that is in your hand.’ So he gave them to her, and went in to her, and she conceived by him. Then she got up and went away, and taking off her veil she put on the garments of her widowhood.
When Judah sent the kid by his friend the Adullamite, to recover the pledge from the woman, he could not find her. He asked the townspeople, ‘Where is the temple prostitute who was at Enaim by the wayside?’ But they said, ‘No prostitute has been here.’ So he returned to Judah, and said, ‘I have not found her; moreover, the townspeople said, “No prostitute has been here.” ’ Judah replied, ‘Let her keep the things as her own, otherwise we will be laughed at; you see, I sent this kid, and you could not find her.’
About three months later Judah was told, ‘Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the whore; moreover she is pregnant as a result of whoredom.’ And Judah said, ‘Bring her out, and let her be burned.’ As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, ‘It was the owner of these who made me pregnant.’ And she said, ‘Take note, please, whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.’ Then Judah acknowledged them and said, ‘She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.’ And he did not lie with her again.
When the time of her delivery came, there were twins in her womb.While she was in labour, one put out a hand; and the midwife took and bound on his hand a crimson thread, saying, ‘This one came out first.’ But just then he drew back his hand, and out came his brother; and she said, ‘What a breach you have made for yourself!’ Therefore he was named Perez. Afterwards his brother came out with the crimson thread on his hand; and he was named Zerah.
Preached Sunday, December 17, 2017 at Westfield Church by the Rev. Jonathan Chapman as part of our Advent series on the women in Jesus’ genealogy.
Tamar wasn’t really a household name in my family. We Chapmans liked to stick to the easy names of Biblical women: Mary, Hannah, Elizabeth, Sarah—names that were familiar to our Anglicized tongue and had tidy stories that made Sunday School easy. But you and I both know that humanity isn’t always neat and tidy, and neither are all of the stories in the Bible.
This Advent, we’ve been considering some of the women found in Jesus’ lineage listed in the first chapter of Matthew. We started off learning about Ruth, whose faithfulness was inspiring. Then, we chatted about Rahab, a woman of Jericho who got the reputation of being a harlot. But rather than picking apart her sexual history, we admired her courage and deep yearning for justice. And this week, we encounter Tamar.
Tamar’s story isn’t neat and tidy, it’s not all that PG, the whole of it. And frankly, it’d be easy for us to get bogged down in muck of what offends our modern sensibilities, marital ethics, and sexual mores. So before we get into any of that, let’s start here: the culture of Tamar and the others in this story is not our culture.
The primary way that’s apparent to us is the custom of marrying a childless widow to the brother of her dead husband in order that she might bear her dead husband children and continue his line. That custom is at the core of the story today. In fact, it happens twice. A coincidence that’s not lost on Tamar’s father-in-law twice over, Judah. He’s got one more son who, according to the law, should be married to Tamar since the first two marriages to his other two sons ended in their deaths without children, but he doesn’t want his third son to die as the first two sons had. So, he refuses to give his third son to be Tamar’s third husband in the family. It’s like an ancient Hebrew soap opera. Did you follow all of that?
Now, it might not seem like that should be such a big deal—not marrying the third brother— but really it put Tamar in a bad place. Women had no standing on their own. Women could be wives or mothers or both. But not being either meant she had absolutely no status in the community. What’s more, she had no way to care for herself. There was no stability or future. So Judah, who was trying to protect his son from the person he thinks is cursed and has killed his two other sons (which, for the record, Scripture tells us their deaths were their own faults), Judah is doing more than keeping the “cursed” woman out of his family. He essentially exiling her from society, and sense of livelihood, and dooming her to a grim life.
What’s at stake for Tamar isn’t losing a place to call home; it’s losing everything. And most women then, like many women today, were conditioned to just take the cards they were dealt. But Tamar, she isn’t having it. She’s not going to settle for what the world expects of her. And she’s certainly not going to settle for being an outcast. So she summons every bit of courage she has and comes up with a plan.
Now, this plan seems a little unsavory to our tastes. She pretends to be a prostitute and gets Judah, her father-in-law twice over, to sleep with her. Before he does though, she demands he give her some kind of payment—it’s a goat, for the record—and since he doesn’t have the goat on him (because, you know, who just carries a goat around to pay for sex), she insists he leave some kind of downpayment. And randy ol’ Judah is glad to give her just about whatever she wants, so he gives Tamar (at her request) his signet, his cord, and his walking staff. They get down to business, Judah leaves, and eventually sends a goat.
Three months later, word reaches Judah that Tamar has become a prostitute and is now pregnant. And Judah, who’s been ready to get rid of Tamar for years now, is ready to enforce the law (a law he was unwilling to abide by earlier, remember) and have her burned.
And here’s where it gets good—Tamar was ready for him, for ol’ Judah who she knew would come after her to burn. “It was the owner of these who made me pregnant.” And she pulls out the signet, cord, and staff. That’s the gasp-worthy moment of this soap opera. Judah realizes he’s been caught and confesses. Then he brings her back into the family, not as a wife, at least not according to Genesis although traditions differ on that point. And she bears twins—another generation closer to Jesus.
So what is it that we, on the Sunday before Christmas Eve, take from a story that features trickery, sex, masturbation if you read it closely—this ain’t your grandmama’s Bible story!, prostitution, death, superstition, twins, and a goat? Courage. Let’s talk about courage.
Tamar was a brave woman to defy the societal expectations that weighed so heavy on her shoulders. Does it ever feel like life’s unfair, like you just can’t get ahead no matter what you try? Like you’re playing by all the rules and still you just can’t catch a break? I bet Tamar felt that way. And it would’ve been easy for her to give up, to throw in the towel, and to fade into obscurity. But instead, she takes what she’s got and rails against the “way it’s always been” to make a better life for herself. Now, hear what I’m saying: I’m not telling you to pretend to be a prostitute to get back at someone. That’s not what I’m saying. But what I am telling you is this: sometimes, when it feels like you’re down and out and don’t have anywhere else to turn, it’s because we’ve decided that it’s easier to settle than to fight for it. And when that happens, make like Tamar and dig down into whatever you’ve got left and summon every ounce of courage you can—the courage that tells you that life can be different, better, more whole, more holy. And then use that courage as the gift from God that it is.
And that’s why Matthew makes a point to tell us Tamar is in Jesus’ family tree. She’s not a woman who used sex, trickery, and blackmail to get back into the community. She’s a woman who’s courage and bravery inspired her to use everything she had to liberate herself. And that is exactly who Jesus is—a liberator. In fact, we might call him the Great Liberator. Time and again, he liberated those he encountered from their illness, their addiction, their hopelessness, their hunger, their sadness, their very deaths. And he does the same for us today. Jesus liberates us. But he didn’t figure it out on his own. I think his Great Grandma Tamar had something to do with it.
Advent is a season of preparation. Usually, in Advent, we focus on the sweet things—preparing for God’s peace, hope, joy, love—you know—the meaning of the candles. Did you ever see that movie Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby? It’s a dumb Will Farrell comedy from, I dunno, 10 years ago. It’s about a race car driver trying to stay number one in his sport.
Anyway, there’s this ridiculous scene where he’s praying before a meal with his family. And he begins every single petition in his prayer this way: Dear Lord Baby Jesus. He does it so much that his wife calls him on it. “Hey, you know, sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him “baby.” It’s a bit odd and off-putting to pray to a baby.” And Ricky’s response is what I think ours tends to be during Advent and Christmas: “Well, I like Christmas Jesus best.” Neither one of them—Ricky or his wife—would let it go, so through the course of the prayer Baby Jesus gets smaller and smaller. Dear Lord Baby Jesus. Dear tiny Jesus. Dear 8 pound, 6 ounce newborn infant Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant and so cuddly, but still omnipotent, we just thank you.” That’s a direct quote. Like I said, it’s ridiculous. And funny. And a little bit true.
You know something, we like the little, baby Jesus. We like mangers filled with hay and stars in an angel-filled sky. That is part of the story. But Advent isn’t just a season of preparation, it’s a season of longing. And right now, I’m longing for a liberator—someone who breaks the bonds of poverty, hunger, racism, sexism, agism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, addiction, despair. In a word, the One who will break the bonds of oppression. How we need to be liberated from the this false belief that we’re so different from someone else who thinks or believes or loves or looks different from us. How we need to be liberated from the false belief that it’s us against them, whoever the hell “them” is. It’s us. It’s just us.
So this Advent and this Christmas, don’t just pray for hope and peace and joy and love. Pray for liberation—for others and for yourselves. Then look to Tamar for courage, and liberate.