Today’s devotion starts a week thinking about some of the women in Jesus’ genealogy. Genesis 38.6-27
Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn; her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death. Then Judah said to Onan, ‘Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her; raise up offspring for your brother.’ But since Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, he spilled his semen on the ground whenever he went in to his brother’s wife, so that he would not give offspring to his brother. What he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also. Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, ‘Remain a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up’—for he feared that he too would die, like his brothers. So Tamar went to live in her father’s house.
In course of time the wife of Judah, Shua’s daughter, died; when Judah’s time of mourning was over, he went up to Timnah to his sheep-shearers, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. When Tamar was told, ‘Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep’, she put off her widow’s garments, put on a veil, wrapped herself up, and sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. She saw that Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him in marriage. When Judah saw her, he thought her to be a prostitute, for she had covered her face. He went over to her at the roadside, and said, ‘Come, let me come in to you’, for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, ‘What will you give me, that you may come in to me?’ He answered, ‘I will send you a kid from the flock.’ And she said, ‘Only if you give me a pledge, until you send it.’ He said, ‘What pledge shall I give you?’ She replied, ‘Your signet and your cord, and the staff that is in your hand.’ So he gave them to her, and went in to her, and she conceived by him. Then she got up and went away, and taking off her veil she put on the garments of her widowhood.
When Judah sent the kid by his friend the Adullamite, to recover the pledge from the woman, he could not find her. He asked the townspeople, ‘Where is the temple prostitute who was at Enaim by the wayside?’ But they said, ‘No prostitute has been here.’ So he returned to Judah, and said, ‘I have not found her; moreover, the townspeople said, “No prostitute has been here.” ’ Judah replied, ‘Let her keep the things as her own, otherwise we will be laughed at; you see, I sent this kid, and you could not find her.’
About three months later Judah was told, ‘Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the whore; moreover she is pregnant as a result of whoredom.’ And Judah said, ‘Bring her out, and let her be burned.’ As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, ‘It was the owner of these who made me pregnant.’ And she said, ‘Take note, please, whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.’ Then Judah acknowledged them and said, ‘She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.’ And he did not lie with her again.
When the time of her delivery came, there were twins in her womb.
The story of Tamar comes right in the middle of the story of Joseph as it’s recorded in Genesis. But you won’t find it in the Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice version of Joseph. There are those who, really just because it’s so odd, have decided that it’s there because of some very ancient mix up with a scroll, like a rather large mis-print that later Bibles might have corrected. It’s not an easy story for modern people because you need to know about how, in the long-ago culture from which it came, things were supposed to happen. Tamar’s husband had died and her father-in-law, Judah, was supposed to provide her with a replacement husband from among his sons, so that she could have children of her own. He did it once with Onan, but that didn’t work out (it’s there in the text if you don’t know why..). Judah didn’t get around to offering Tamar his third son, as he should have done, so Tamar takes matters into her own hands, and dupes Judah into having sex with her himself so that she could get pregnant and bear a child for her (now dead) husband. She does this by pretending to be a prostitute and making sure she keeps the equivalents of his car keys and his credit card so that she can prove it. It works, in that she gets pregnant (even with twins!) and it works also in that Judah sees that he’s done wrong and changes his ways. And, in the bigger story in Genesis, he repents in other ways too; repents for selling his brother Joseph to the Ishmaelites and even becomes someone who offers himself as surety for Benjamin. We see him change from someone who can sell a brother into someone who could give his own life for a brother. That’s quite a transformation and it seems to be this strange episode with Tamar that does it. Which means that it’s not a misprint at all, but a vital part of the story of Judah’s salvation.
Tamar is not a major figure in the Bible but she’s mentioned again in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ genealogy. Some people say it shows how Jesus was descended from sinners and prostitutes. And indeed, from what we know of Jesus, he wouldn’t have been bothered at all about that. But perhaps Tamar is partly there because she brought salvation to Judah, a repentance so deep that Judah turned from being twisted, envious and murderous into self-sacrificing and loving. Not bad roots for Jesus, who came to give his life for others and to call us to repentance.
in this season of reflection,
help me to find the people
who are calling me to change my ways
and to search my heart.
As the Winter deepens,
may my heart be stripped bare,
so that when comes the Spring,
I can rise renewed
and flourish into life. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Susan Durber is the minister of Taunton URC and Moderator of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches.