Named in Matthew’s Gospel in the Geneaology of Jesus

With Tamar, we reach the story of the first of the five ancestors of Jesus named in the Genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew.

Tamar was the daughter-in-law of Judah, one of the sons of Jacob and Leah.  Her story is recorded in Genesis 38v6-30.  There is a suggestion that perhaps this story is written from a woman’s point of view.

Tamar was married first to the eldest son of Judah – Er.  Unfortunately, he died leaving her childless. As was the custom, Judah’s second son Onan was married to her with the plan that any children they had would be as if the offspring of Tamar and Er.  Onan was not keen on this plan, so ensured that he would not have children with Tamar.  God took a dim view of this and soon poor Tamar was left a widow again

So far so standard, but widowed Tamar was left with no husband, no children and no settled life of her own.  Judah had a third son – Shelah, but he was not grown up yet so Judah sent Tamar home to her father’s house, with the promise of Shelah as a husband when he was grown.  Tamar returned to her father’s house to await a husband who was some years away and would therefore be younger than her.  It doesn’t seem as if Tamar remained in the same place as Judah and his family.  However she would have known how many years she was expected to wait for her husband-to-be to reach maturity.  That time came and went and her husband did not arrive.

She took matters into her own hands and her methods might seem extraordinary to our modern sensibilities.  She was told that Judah, her father-in-law was now widowed and an interval had passed and that he would be coming to Tinnah, near to where she lived, for the annual sheep-shearing.  It is interesting that she was “told”.   That would seem to imply that she was regarded a someone who had not been treated in the right way and aroused sympathy where she lived.

“She took off her widow’s clothes and put on a veil and made herself beautiful and she sat by the gates of Enaim.”

She observed that Shelah was full-grown but he had not been given to her as husband.

“And when he saw her, Judah thought that she was a prostitute, for she had hidden her face, and he did not recognise her.”

It is very obvious that he did not recognise her for he then said:

“Let me come in to you?”

Tamar, who obviously had her wits about her and perhaps this was how she had wanted her plan to work asked:

“What will you give me if you come into me?”

He replied that he would send her a kid from his flock.  She was happy to accept a future gift, but as well wanted something tangible from the present and suggested that he give her his ring, necklace and the staff he carried.  These were very personal items that would be recognisable as belonging to Judah.  Tamar very sensibly didn’t trust a mere future promise of a baby goat, without keeping hold of some very real evidence.

He went on his way; Tamar became pregnant as a result of their encounter and Tamar resumed her widow’s apparel.  Judah made good on his promise and sent his friend back to Enaim (quite soon afterwards) with the promised baby goat, but there was no sign of the prostitute by the road and no-one knew anything of her. Does this signify that her local community tacitly “approved” of what she had done or that the actions of one woman were so insignificant that no-one had noticed?

Three months later, though her situation became a matter for comment and news reached Jacob that his daughter-in-law was pregnant.  He was duly outraged by her perceived immorality and ordered “Bring her out, and let her be burnt.”

Tamar of course had very cleverly ensured an insurance against this happening and she sends word to her father-in-law:

“It is by the man to whom these things belong that I am pregnant.”

Judah recognised his personal items and furthermore that Tamar had been forced to take control of her situation because he had not provided her with a husband as by the custom of the time he should have done.  He says:

“‘Tamar is more righteous than I am because I failed to give her my son Shelah.’  And he did not have intercourse with her again.”

She gave birth to twins – Perez and Zerah and these two are listed as the sons of Judah, when the family of Jacob is enumerated and go to Egypt to visit long-lost Joseph.  Although Tamar is not named in this list, I think it is significant that her children were acknowledged as Judah’s offspring.   Tamar has played a very important part in the story of God’s people and her importance is clearer still when we realise that King David descends from Perez.  Tamar, is one of only five women, named in the Genealogy of Jesus by Matthew. A recognition of the consequence of Tamar looking after her own interests when those who should have provided for her did not do so.  Interestingly, Shelah grows up to become the father of a whole tribe who descendants are mentioned in Numbers 26v20:

“The other sons of Judah became clans: for Shelah, the Shelanite clan; for Perez, the Perezzite clan; for Zerah, the Zerahite clan.”

Tamar is not named as his wife, which probably indicates that, she was content that with the birth of her twins, she had resolved the problem of the lack of offspring caused by the deaths of her first two husbands.  Although her actions seem somewhat unorthodox to us, there seems to be an acceptance that she had to take this action to make up for the failure of her father-in-law to act as he should have done – later codified in Deutronomy Ch 25v5:

“So two brothers live together and one of them dies without any child, the wife of the dead man shall not marry anyone other than the brother of her husband.  He shall take her as his wife and shall raise offspring for his brother.”

Tamar has played a very important part in the story of God’s people and her importance is clearer still when we realise that King David descends from Perez and thus she is one of only five women, named in the Genealogy of Jesus by Matthew.

Picture acknowledgement: Vernet, Emile-Jean-Horace, 1789-1863. Judah and Tamar, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48067

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