Author Note: A Sermon delivered to Orange City United Methodist Church (Orange City, FL) on November 7, 2021.
Every part of the Bible screams “Gospel”; some just need to be squeezed harder than others. That’s what one of my professors told me, anyway. This passage strikes me as one that needs quite a bit of squeezing. Specifically, when we read this passage, our modern sensibilities conflict with ancient customs—and this is exacerbated by the offending customs being the driving motivations behind this passage. We simply cannot grasp this passage without acknowledging our cultural differences. We are beginning a new sermon series this week, where we will look at the women mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus; the first is Tamar.
It is my hope and intent this week to move us from a place of discomfort with the content of the text into a better understanding of it—although I don’t believe one sermon is enough to become completely comfortable with this passage. Once we have reached a place of better understanding of the content, we will grapple with the interpretation and implication of the passage. As we do this, I hope to move us to a place of discomfort once again. To summarize, we move from discomfort to comfort with meaning, then return to discomfort with implication. You have been warned.
This passage primarily concerns bloodline, birthright, and inheritance. Nowadays, some of us might acknowledge a twinge of regret upon discovering a family which had five adult daughters also lost a son, meaning most likely that last name will not see another generation. But for the most part, these concerns do not really affect our lives. Thousands of years ago, this was a much larger issue. Preserving the bloodline was massively important. In part, this is why there are so many genealogies in the Bible—to know where one came from is also to know who one is. The ethnicities of the Bible are generally named after a common ancestor, for example: the Israelites, the Edomites, the Moabites, the Ammonites. (Contrast again to our modern Western thinking, we are fiercely independent generationally. For many of us, our goal is to become as little like our parents as possible; few things lead faster to nights on the couch than telling a spouse they’re like their parents.)
And so there developed a practice in the ancient world—and this was not limited to the ancient Israelites—called levirate marriage, an early form of which is referred to in this passage. When a married son died before producing any offspring, the brother-in-law would take on the widow as a wife. The first child they had would be considered the child of the deceased. This was to both preserve the bloodline, maintain the family inheritance, and protect the widow in an extremely patriarchal society. (That is, the widow who had become a marginalized person by losing her desirability for marriage and her primary status as an affiliate to the husband. Again, these are ancient ideas that might continue to hold some influence on our thinking, but are generally subsidiary to other concerns and values.)
This idea: producing an heir for a deceased brother, is why Tamar is given to Onan after the firstborn Er dies. While the idea still gives us the heebie-jeebies, consider the manner this is described in the passage: verse 8 says “perform your duty as a brother-in-law to her.” This is an acknowledged and expected duty for the brother-in-law to fulfill—a family responsibility to care for the family name. There is nothing strange about this for them.
But the problem of not having an heir is compounded by the actions of Onan, who shirks his responsibilities to the family and does not produce offspring, and then ends up receiving the same fate as his brother. There’s one important detail the Bible doesn’t elaborate on I think is implied by the passage: no other wife is mentioned for Onan, which means Tamar was Onan’s first and only wife. Therefore, if he had a child with Tamar, although it would have been his firstborn, it would have counted as his brothers’. Furthermore, having an heir for his brother would decrease the inheritance he was set to receive from his father; that heir would receive his brother’s inheritance. No wonder he was hesitant to fulfill his responsibility! As an important side note, this passage has traditionally and historically been used to condemn certain intimate practices, ones which take their name from the brother in question: onanism. This is frankly a gross misinterpretation of the passage. Onan’s evil is that he is willing to use the law to repeatedly gratify his desires, but refuses to fulfill his responsibilities to the same law. Onan’s evil takes advantage of the marginalized person Tamar. Onan’s evil harms the family unit at the expense of the individual. Onan’s evil conflicts with God’s promises to build a great nation from Abraham and Israel. Onan’s evil is not that he used ancient birth control.
With Onan dead too, Judah has only one son left. Forget Er’s bloodline; Judah’s bloodline is now under threat. Maybe if Judah had another son he might’ve given Tamar to Shelah, but once his wife died, even Tamar could deduce this was not going to happen, despite Judah’s lies. Judah assumed there must be something wrong with Tamar—it couldn’t possibly be his sons’ fault.
Consider Tamar’s perspective, though. She should be the wife of Judah’s firstborn and the mother of Er’s children; with the death of Judah’s wife, she should be the matriarch of Judah’s household. Her children should be inheritors of God’s promise to Israel. Yet those who have power and who are supposed to take care of her continuously fail her.
Tamar makes an extreme decision and risks her life to rectify this injustice and restore the bloodline. Shrine prostitution was a worship practice of the Canaanites; it was thought that the actions of the prostitute would fertilize the ground and guarantee a good harvest. That Judah participated in the worship traditions of the Canaanites is perhaps not surprising considering his separation from his brothers and family, as well as the fact that his wife was Canaanite. However, mimicking the religion of the Canaanites will become a chief concern when the Israelites return to the promised land some 500 years later; it is certainly not something God wishes for his people to do.
Following Tamar’s brilliant scheme, the climax and surprise of this passage is Judah’s response to learning that he is the father, “She is more righteous than I.” This is, notably, the first time the word righteous appears in scripture. My question to you is were Tamar’s actions right? Were Tamar’s actions morally commendable? A different version of the Bible than the one we’re using today transmits Judah’s claim as “She is right. I was wrong.” Is Tamar right or simply less wrong than Judah? Why do you think so? I will not answer this question for you.
Now take a large jump with me, more than one thousand years into the future. As Matthew writes his Gospel, he begins, “The record of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham: Abraham fathered Isaac, Isaac fathered Jacob, and Jacob fathered Judah and his brothers. Judah fathered Perez and Zerah by Tamar.” This leads me to my next question: What in the world was Matthew thinking mentioning Tamar and this scandalous story? How does this reference prepare us to receive Jesus as Christ? And don’t worry, we’ll do some speculation on this one together.
There are two mistakes we should avoid when considering this question. First, we should avoid completely allegorical interpretations—these interpretations look at a story such as Noah’s ark and say: Noah is Jesus, the Ark is the cross because both are made of wood, and the dove is the resurrection. For this passage such an interpretation might begin with, “Judah is Judas, they both betray people and look at how similar their names are!” Second, we should also avoid oversimplifying this passage into a single lesson as if we could easily summarize this story, such as: “The story is about Judah’s repentance.” Such descriptions are not wrong, but neither are they fully accurate; this story is as much about Judah as it is Tamar, and far more concerned about heritage and lineage than either character.
One commenter said the reason for mentioning significant births from dubious circumstances—remember Tamar’s children preserve Judah’s line of the future kings of Israel, including David—these mentions prepare the reader to see the similarity between Jesus’s scandalous birth from a virgin among pack animals. This conclusion seems a pitiful minimum to me. We can do better.
Tamar’s story reminds us how conventional power structures often fail to take care of marginalized persons. Judah and Onan both manipulated the systems of power for their own direct benefit and failed to care for Tamar. This is similar to how a jealous King Herod would force Joseph and his family to Egypt, or how the Sanhedrin would convict the Messiah as a common criminal.
Judah’s story reminds us how desperate actions from outsiders and extreme circumstances can awaken us to the truth. Tamar’s actions jar him into something of a confession. Just like how the death of the synagogue’s leader’s daughter sends him to Jesus for healing. Just like how the Earthquake and other phenomena as Jesus died led the centurion to confess about Jesus, “Truly, this was the Son of God!”
Their story begs us to awaken to systemic inequality in our own time, which seeks to maintain its consolidated power through keeping marginalized people in their place. It begs us to see desperate actions taken by the “other side,” whether this January or in summer last year, as a wake-up call for how we have failed to love our neighbor. Those are simply large-scale, corporate examples. Although I must also say, if your party is taking turns controlling this kingdom, you are not among the marginalized—and incidentally, neither am I. As an educated white male Christian citizen, I too am not a marginalized person, and probably about as far from it as possible. Like Judah, I have been confronted with my own selfish manipulation of power. It is a disturbing experience. More than likely, we can all think of a specific time we failed to care for someone not like us—or more accurately, harmed someone with less power than us in order to further our own. May God grant us the grace to be convicted of our shortcomings rather than silencing their accusations.
Ultimately, Tamar’s story mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus reminds us of the frailty and fault of human systems and the need for a Savior. This story invites us into the mindset of the Kingdom of God, to continue the Kingdom work here and now, and awaits its full glory later. The Kingdom where the first will be last and the last will be first, and where Jesus, who is first and last will compassionately reign in humble victory forever.
Photo: “A Veiled Beauty of Constantinople,” Frederick Arthur Bridgman circa 1890. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A-Veiled-Beauty-of-Constantinople-Frederick-Arthur-Bridgeman.jpg