I don’t remember hearing a sermon on Genesis 38. My first encounter with this story was during one of my ‘read the bible in a year’ attempts. And it immediately became clear to me why preachers tend to shy away from this story.
It is not a pretty story; it is ugly, and downright ugly. This is the story of a woman who was wronged, denied of what was rightfully hers and then left to rot in her father’s house. This is the story of Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law.
Judah had three sons. Er, Onan and Shelah. Tamar was married to Er, Judah’s eldest son, who died, leaving Tamar without a child. Judah gave Tamar to his second son, Onan. According to custom, if a man died, his brother married the dead man’s widow to ensure that the dead man had an heir. But Onan died too without giving Tamar a child. Again, the tradition was for a widow to marry the brother of her dead husband. So, Shelah was next in line, but he was still too young to marry Tamar. So Judah sent Tamar back to her father’s house to live as “a widow” until little Shelah is old enough marry her.
So the waiting game began for Tamar. Days turned to weeks, weeks to months and months to years, and there was no word from Judah, even though Shelah had grown up. Judah failed to honor his promise to Tamar. Judah suspected Tamar was a jinx and was responsible for his sons’ death. But according to the bible God had killed both his sons because they were wicked. Tamar remained an unmarried widow in her father’s house. It was very difficult situation for Tamar to accept because it was at a time when a woman’s worth was based on bearing an heir, a time when giving your husband an heir was a woman’s claim to fame.
Tamar found herself in limbo; stuck between a rock and a hard place, with cards stacked against her. What do you do when the cards are stacked against you? Do you give in or do you fight back? Tamar fought back by disguising as a prostitute.
After Judah’s wife died and his period of mourning was ended, he went to Timnah to shear sheep with his friends. When Tamar heard that her father-in-law was in town, she took off her widow’s clothes, covered her face with a veil, and sat on the roadway. When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute and negotiated for her services in exchange of a young goat. And since he did not have a goat with him, he gave her his signet seal, a cord, and his staff as a pledge toward later payment.
Later when he sent a friend back with payment (a young goat) to retrieve his items, the prostitute was nowhere to be found.
Three months later Judah was told that Tamar was guilty of prostitution and as a result was pregnant. Judah responded by saying, “bring her out and have her burned to death.” I believe Judah was looking forward to getting rid of “his problem” (Tamar) permanently, in a legal way. As she was being brought out, Tamar produced the staff, seal and cord, saying, “I am pregnant by the man who owns these.” And she added, “See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are.”
Confronted by the evidence, Judah had no choice but to acknowledge that he had been wrong, “She is more righteous than I, since I would not give her to my son Shelah,” Genesis 38:26
Tamar’s place in the family of Judah was secured. She gave birth to twins Perez and Zerah. A few weeks ago, my Pastor made a very interesting statement saying that, relationships can be a mistake but children born of those relationships are never a mistake. This statement resonates with this story, because God chose Perez to be the one through whom the Messiah was to be born, but that’s not the kicker. In the book of Matthew chapter 1, Tamar was given the honor of being the first woman included in the genealogy of Jesus Christ.
But how can that be?
Could it be that maybe the story of Tamar has less to do with her unconventional and scandalous way of doing things and more to do with the character of God. It shows us that God will accomplish His purpose despite man’s righteousness.
When God wants to use you to accomplish His purpose, people’s opinion of you do not matter. Because He knows that their opinion of you is nothing more than their interpretation of you. They do not know or understand you, and they are not privy to your story.
The story of Tamar is not a pleasant story. It includes broken promises, deception, and immorality. We see in the story of Tamar the scandal of grace. In fact the grace of God is so great in this story because today we know Jesus Christ as the Lion of the tribe of Judah.
The is the story of a woman whom in the face of extraordinary injustice done to her took extraordinary risk to redress that injustice.