If you’ve ever had small children in your life, you’ve probably faced that dreaded question, “Where did I come from?” One mother made sure she was prepared for when that time came. She had read all the books and talked to her friends about the best way to explain the biological mystery of life to a small child. The day arrived when her little one came to her and asked, “Mommy, where did I come from?” Thanks to her preparations, she was able to give a detailed, age-appropriate, but rather lengthy answer. When she finished, her child was quiet for a moment and then replied, “Oh. My friend Jamie’s from Chicago.”
There seems to be something innately human about wanting to where we came from. A hill tribe called the Akha in the region of China, Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand teaches every male member to recite his lineage back fifty generations, to the very first Akha. Closer to home, purchases of home DNA testing kits has skyrocketed. By 2017, more than 12,000,000 people had used companies like 23andMe, Ancestry.com, and others to learn about their origins. We just want to know where we come from.
But we trace our ancestry for reasons other than simple curiosity about where our ancestors lived. We trace our origins so we can learn about possible health risks or what kinds of skills and abilities we might have inherited. The Akha people use their genealogy to guard against intermarriage. They can even be used to learn about and locate previously unknown relatives.
Likewise, Biblical genealogies have purposes other than simply documenting a family line. In fact, historical accuracy wasn’t a necessity. If you take a look at the genealogies in Scripture, you’ll find lots of inconsistencies and what, to our Western minds, are errors. Genealogies in the Bible were created to make a point or serve a particular purpose. In Matthew’s case, Jesus’ genealogy was created for a theological purpose: to associate Jesus with the history of Israel in such a way that 1st century readers would understand that all of God’s dealings with Israel were leading to Jesus as the expected Messiah of David’s line.
When we come to genealogies in the Bible, most of us skip right over them. The lists are long, the names are hard, and except for glancing through them to see if you recognize anyone, they can be pretty boring. But the genealogies can hold intriguing surprises for the person who is willing to wade through them. Matthew’s genealogy of holds five of them.
These surprises are the names of five women. Ancient genealogies rarely included women’s names. But, Matthew includes five. Why did he do that? Scholars have wondered about this for years. So, during this season of Advent, we’re going to dive into Jesus’ genealogy and see what it is about these five women that would make Matthew include them in Jesus’ family tree
I’m calling these women the “Wonder Women.” Not because they have some amazing superpowers—none of them worked any miracles or led victorious armies in battle or spoke words of prophecy to a rebellious people. Not because they had their lives all together; in fact, most of these women had some pretty sketchy histories. Not even because we wonder why Matthew picked them. I call them “Wonder Women” because if Matthew took the unusual step of including them in Jesus’ family tree, just before he tells his story of Jesus’ birth, he must have had a reason. There must be something that these grandmothers of Jesus can reveal to us about the wonder of the incarnation—of God coming to us as a human being. There must be something that these grandmothers of Jesus can reveal to us about the wonder of the kingdom that came near in Jesus’ birth and which will be fulfilled when he comes again.
So, during these next few weeks of Advent, we will enter into the stories of these Wonder Women of Jesus’ family tree. Their stories aren’t pretty. If they were made into movies, they would surely get at least a PG-13 rating. They may seem somewhat out of place in the midst of the Christmas tinsel and ribbons and twinkling lights.
But these are Advent stories. The word “Advent” comes from a Latin word that means “coming.” During Advent we prepare to celebrate Christ’s coming in Bethlehem, but we also prepare for his coming again. These stories are those of women who paved the way for Jesus’ coming and who have things to teach us about his kingdom.
The first woman to be mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy is Tamar. There are other Tamars in Scripture, but you can find the story of our Tamar in Genesis 38. Her story begins with her father-in-law, Judah, Joseph’s older brother, who had just sold Joseph into slavery and told their father that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal.
Judah left his brothers and went to stay with his friend Hirah. While he was there, he married a Canaanite woman and had three sons. Judah got a wife named Tamar for his oldest son Er, but Er’s conduct was evil, and it displeased the Lord, so the Lord killed him before he and Tamar had any sons. Judah told his second son, Onan, to do his brotherly duty and sleep with Tamar. Because, the law said that if a married man died without an heir, his brother was to father an heir by the widow so that the dead man’s lineage wouldn’t die out. The heir would inherit the dead man’s property, just as though the dead man were his actual father.
But Onan was selfish. He knew that if no heir were forthcoming, all of his older brother’s inheritance would eventually come to him, the second son. So, he went in to Tamar, but he made sure that no pregnancy would result. For his unfaithfulness to the law, God killed him, too.
Judah should then have given Tamar to his youngest son, but he was afraid something might happen to that son, too. We know that the other two died as a result of their own misbehavior. But somehow, Judah seems to blame Tamar. So, he tells her to go wait in her father’s house until Shelah is old enough to marry her, which she obediently does. She has no husband, but she can’t remarry. She has none of the protections she should have had as Er’s widow. She is in an impossible and powerless position. She is stuck in a kind of limbo, and only Judah can get her out.
Judah’s wife died and, when his time of mourning was over, he decided to take a little excursion with his buddy Hirah. By this time, Tamar had seen the writing on the wall and knew that Judah was withholding Shelah from her. She knew that her father-in-law was breaking Israel’s covenant with God by breaking the law.
When she heard that Judah would be coming her way, she decided to take action. She changed out of her widow’s clothes, covered her face with a veil, and sat down at the entrance to the town. When Judah saw her, he thought that she was a prostitute, because she had her face covered. He went over to her and asked her how much she charged. They settled on a young goat, but Judah had to give her some collateral. She requested his walking stick and the identifying seal that he wore around his neck. He gave them to her, and they had intercourse. Tamar went home, took off her veil, and put her widow’s clothes back on.
Judah sent his friend Hirah to pay the woman he’d been with and get his belongings back, but Hirah couldn’t find her. In fact, no one knew what he was talking about when he asked about the whereabouts of the prostitute, saying there had never been a prostitute there. Rather than be laughed at, Judah decided to just forget about his things and let the matter drop.
But three months later someone told Judah that Tamar had been acting like a whore and was pregnant. Without any checking, and without a thought about how he himself had been involved with a prostitute, Judah ordered, “Take her out and burn her to death.” As they were literally removing her from her father’s house to be executed by fire, she sent word to her father-in-law: “I am pregnant by the man who owns this seal and this walking stick.” Judah recognized them and said, “I have failed in my obligation to her; I should have given her to my son Shelah in marriage. She is more righteous than I am.”
Tamar is the only woman in the Old Testament who is called righteous. And, this is one of the wonders that Tamar’s story reveals to us—the wonder of righteousness. It might be hard to understand how Tamar embodies righteousness. To understand it, we have to listen to her story with 1st century ears rather than 21st century ears. 1st century ears would recognize how badly Tamar had been treated by her husband’s family. They would also understand that Judah was breaking the covenant with God and turning his back on God’s law. His actions did not line up with God’s purposes. That is unrighteousness.
But Tamar’s actions were in line with God’s purposes. Even though trickery was her only recourse, even though her actions put her own life at risk, she did not allow human fear—her own or Judah’s—to interfere with God’s plan for the world. And so, Judah correctly called her righteous.
It is not only Tamar’s righteousness that is revealed here, though. Judah’s unrighteousness is brought under the bright light of God’s justice as well. That raises some questions for us.
First, what is it in our lives that is standing in the way of our living according to God’s purposes? Who or what are the Judah’s for us? When we figure that out, we may find that, like Tamar, we may need to get creative about how to pursue righteousness in our own lives.
Second, we need to ask if there are people in our lives whom we are treating in unrighteous ways. Are there people in our world who want to live lives that are in line with God’s purposes, but find us standing in their way because of our fear or distrust or prejudice? Who are the Tamar’s for whom we are being Judah’s?
1st century ears would also have known that God has a special concern for the poor and the vulnerable, and you couldn’t get much more vulnerable than Tamar. They would have recognized that the kingdom Jesus brought near was one where the rich could no longer use their wealth to control the poor. The powerless would no longer be at the mercy of the powerful. In God’s kingdom of righteousness, the status quo would be upended, and the last would be first. Tamar’s story is a story of the kind of reversals that characterize the righteous kingdom of God.
So, when we ask “Where did we, as Christians, come from?” we can look to the first wonder woman of Jesus’ ancestors. We can see that we come from a family tree that includes Tamar, whose story reveals the wonder of God’s righteous kingdom. Our origins include a woman whose story reveals how the poor, the vulnerable, and the powerless may be the channels by which God’s kingdom is revealed. In this season of Advent, as we look to Jesus’ origins and our own, may we strive to live as righteously as the wonder woman Tamar, as we prepare for Jesus’ coming. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young