There’s a lot of family drama from Thanksgiving through New Years. Expectations are high. Feelings are worn on sleeves. With tensions running high, one wrong word can be like a lit match in a room with a gas leak. In the soft glow of holiday lights, where all is supposed to be calm and bright, families are sometimes blown apart and the pieces are never put back together.
I’ve heard several of those sad tales during this recent holiday season. I was actually thinking today, as I started rereading the Book of Matthew, about how families are the seedbed of our greatest comforts and our deepest disappointments. Only three verses into the genealogy of Christ, I ran across a family for whom holiday get-togethers would have been unthinkable: Judah, Tamar and their twins, Perez and Zerah.
Judah was the fourth of Jacob’s (Israel’s) twelve sons. In Genesis chapter 38, we find that he married a woman whose name we do not know, but we do know they had three sons: Er, Onan and Shelah. When Er was ready to marry, Judah chose a wife for him by the name of Tamar.
The Bible doesn’t give us the details of what happened next, but it must have been bad, because in Genesis 38:7 we read, “But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death.” We don’t know whether there was one particularly grievous act, (perhaps directed at Tamar?) or if Er was just an all around rotten guy; but God, who had already put up with quite a bit of blatant wickedness from the rest of Jacob’s family, had his own good reasons for deciding to bring the full weight of the Law down on Er, thus leaving Tamar a widow.
When a woman was widowed, it was the responsibility of the nearest kinsman, in this case Er’s brother Onan, to marry her and have a child with her which would be considered as the late husband’s heir, thus keeping his line from dying out, and protecting the widow’s place in the family. Judah instructed Onan to fulfill his obligation to his brother and to Tamar and, from all outward appearances, he had accepted that responsibility. But, behind closed doors he was having relations with her in a manner which would never fulfill that obligation because he did not want to affect his own children’s inheritance. He allowed himself to appear as Tamar’s knight in shining armor, while intentionally denying her the rights to which she was entitled. God was not putting up with that! So, he put Onan to death as well.
Can you imagine how awkward things must have been around the dinner table by now? In Judah’s mind, he had already lost two of his three sons because of this woman. In an attempt to preserve the life of his one remaining son, and probably the sanity of both his wife and himself, he sent Tamar back to her family to live as a widow, ostensibly until Shelah was old enough to fulfill his kinsmanly duties.
Years passed. Judah’s wife died, Shelah grew up and Tamar still had not heard one word from her father-in-law. After Judah recovered from his grief he decided to take a trip to Timnah, the city where, apparently, unbeknownst to him, Tamar was now living. She got wind of his plans and made some plans of her own. She took off her widow’s clothes, covered her face and waited for him on the road into town. As he passed by he saw her and, thinking she was a prostitute, he played right into her hand by propositioning her.
She asked for a goat in payment and he agreed, but said he would have to send it to her. She then asked for him to give her something of his to keep until she had received the compensation. He agreed to leave his seal, its cord and his staff with her until the goat was delivered. The deal now set, they slept together. Then, she went home, put back on her widow’s clothes and waited.
Judah, needing to retrieve his belongings, discreetly sent a friend back to town with the promised goat. His instructions were to look for the “shrine prostitute.” When the friend did not find her waiting by the side of the road as he expected, he asked the locals and was told that no one had ever seen a shrine prostitute hanging around the town. With the goat still in his possession, the friend returned to Judah to report his inability to deliver the payment and retrieve the personal items. Judah, not wanting to make an issue out of this and become a laughingstock, decided to write off the seal, cord and staff as a loss.
Three months passed, and word came to Judah that his long-lost daughter-in-law had disgraced herself morally and was now pregnant. Technically, responsibility for Tamar still belonged to Judah, as the family patriarch, even after all this time, so it was left to him to decide her fate. He was still in the dark about the circumstances of her pregnancy; all he knew was their complicated history. I wonder if he was relieved at the opportunity to finally tie up this loose end. His pronouncement was swift: “Bring her out and have her burned to death!”
As she was being led to her fate, she sent a messenger to Judah telling him that she was pregnant by the man who owned this seal, cord and staff, and asked him if he recognized them. Of course, he did, and to his credit, he immediately confessed that he was the guilty one for never having fulfilled the kinsman’s duty by giving her to his son, Shelah.
When the time came for her to give birth, she had twins, Perez and Zerah; one for each of her late husbands, and she finally received her due.
One of the things I love about scripture is the way that no one is portrayed as anything other than who they are. There is no sugarcoating, no airbrushing. There are no innocents, no heroes; just dysfunctional family members looking out for themselves. Yet, these particular family members—a widowed daughter-in-law who tricked her father-in-law into impregnating her, and their resulting twins—wound up being included in the genealogy of the Savior of the World! Not your typical picture perfect family! Not who I would have chosen to include!
But, they’re there for that very reason. They represent all of the selfish, messed up, devious, conniving, self-righteous, backstabbing, broken, hurting families we all come from; the families who are in desperate need of a Savior to bring the justice and mercy we long for but know that we don’t deserve.
In his humanity, Jesus came from stock just like yours and mine. In his Divinity, he came for it.