This week we are reflecting on the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1. On Monday we saw that in this chapter the way women are included is not normal, but God has done this to teach us something using people on the margins. Every society has a place of power in the centre, and places on the margins — people without a voice. Normally people on the margins are very many and those in the centre few, but we listen to the views of the few in the centre. This is the power of those who are able to influence society. But here in Matthew 1, God uses people who are not in the centre to show us the way of Jesus. In this genealogy, we see four women who have no power and yet do God’s will.
Today we are looking at Tamar. Many people do not know her story so I will quickly recount it. It is a strange story because Tamar is righteous even though she wears the clothes of a prostitute.
We find this story in Genesis 38. Judah was one of the twelve sons of Jacob. He left his brothers and went down to Canaan where he married and had three sons: Er, Onan and Shelah. Later on, Er married a Canaanite woman called Tamar — not an Israelite. Er was an Israelite by blood but his actions were not the actions of a good Israelite. He did wrong and so God killed him. Judah told Onan, Er’s brother, to sleep with Tamar to give her a son to continue the line of er. Onan went to Tamar but he spilled his seed. He also did evil in God’s eyes and so he also died. Judah knew that he should give Shelah to Tamar so she could bear a son but he was afraid. He saw that his two sons had died after sleeping with Tamar and he thought, ‘Perhaps Tamar is a witch’, so he sent her to return to the home of her Father. His first mistake was that he assumed Tamar was the one who was evil. In actual face, it was his son. His second mistake was that he did not give Shela to Tamar. Tamar was a widow without children to look after her. This is a terrible situation, especially at this point in history. Judah failed to fulfill his responsibilities to give Tamar children and security.
So, what was Tamar to do? She was a woman without a husband or children or status or money. She had not power and no voice. She wasn’t even an Israelite – remember she was from Canaan. She is very much on the margins, without help or hope.
Later on, Tamar heard that Judah was going to the nearby village of Timnha to shear his sheet. Tamar removed her widows’ garb, covered herself with a veil and sat down on the road to Timnah. She knew that Judah would be passing and also had his wife had died and he had not married again. Tamar planned to cause Judah to give her a child because Judah had refused by his actions to do this.
As Tamar expected, when Judah saw Tamar, he did not recognise her and he told her, ‘I want to sleep with you.’ Tamar asked him, ‘What will you give me if I agree?’ They agreed that he would give her his ring, his rope and his staff. So Judah gave her these things and slept with her, without knowing her identity, and Tamar became pregnant. Tamar returned home in secret and once again took up her life as a widow.
After three months, Judah heard that Tamar was pregnant and he was very angry. He thought she had been involved in prostitution and he ordered that she be brought to be burned. However, Tamar send Judah a message saying, ‘The one who owns these things was the one who got me pregnant. Perhaps you recognise this ring and rope and staff.’
In this story, Tamar deceives Judah so that she will receive her right, that is a child to continue her husband’s line and to care for her in the future. So, is Tamar righteous? Absolutely. Judah recognises her righteousness and he says, ‘Tamar is more righteous than me. It’s true, for I refused to marry her to Shela.’ After this day, Judah did not lie again with Tamar and she gave birth to twins, Zerah and Perez who are mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus.
Tamar, this person on the margins, forgotten by Judah and all people, acted righteousness in the plan of God. She did what she was able to cause Judah to give her a child. Tamar fulfilled the plan of God that was obstructed by Judah. Judah did not fulfill his responsibilities; he did not care for Tamar; he did not give her a husband or child. He abandoned his responsibilities to ensure the good of his family as God commanded. However, Tamar solved this problem. She made up for Judah’s lack using her intelligence and cunning.
So, what do we learn here in this Bible story? Righteousness is often where you least expect it. Tamar wore the clothes of a prostitute and yet she was more righteous than Judah, a father of the nation of Israel. It is easy to look to powerful people for their example but remember those on the margins. Here in our college, it is easy to look to our leaders for their example. Unlike Judah, their examples are very good, but God uses other people too. Here at St John’s, God is even able to use youth and young people to show us his way.
Arthur and I work with the student fellowships. I work with the women leaders. When I meet with them, every time, I see women who are endeavouring to follow Jesus Christ. It is not easy for them – they are pulled in different directions by studies, friends, family expectations, the world and society, problems with money, etc. However, when I speak with them, I learn how God is at work in their lives. God is at work here in St John’s using our leaders, through our classes and also on the margins. Let us not despise the contributions students make to the kingdom of God. God is at work among us in every place. Let’s look for his work in order that we might praise him for the life he brings. Judah was an unrighteous person in this story but he did one thing right: he recognised the work of God in Tamar. Let us be like Tamar who used everything she had to fulfill the plan of God; let us not be like Judah who obstructed it and failed in his responsibilities; let us recognise the work of God wherever he is doing it.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.