How many of you have that one person in your family who is a bit of a wild card at the family Christmas gathering? For those of you who lifted your hands, be honest. How many of YOU are THAT person? Family relationships can be messy, can’t they?
How many of you have done some genealogy work and looked back into your family history? Anyone gone to Ancestry.com or some other source to look into your heritage? Anyone discover they are related to someone famous? Genealogies are very interesting. Understanding where we come from can give us a lot of understanding about ourselves.
Genealogies were very important to the Jewish people. Family lists and genealogies are a huge part of I and II Chronicles and some other Old Testament books. The Jewish people were meticulous record keepers and keeping accurate genealogies was a priority. Family history was important because it proved one’s identity as a Jew and partaker of the Divine blessings promised to Abraham and his descendants. Being able to trace your lineage back to Abraham gave you certain rights as a Jewish citizen. If you could trace your heritage back to Abraham, you would be admitted to all of the aspects of Jewish life and culture.
Genealogies emphasized the importance of the family unit in Jewish culture. Traditional Jewish culture emphasized marriage between a man and a woman who were responsible for raising children and continuing the legacy of their family with the next generation. The Jews took seriously their responsibility to continue the line that would bring honor to the family name.
Probably most important, the genealogies of the Jews were important in tracing the line of the Messiah. Prophecies from the Old Testament revealed the Messiah would descend from the house of King David. Both Matthew and Luke include genealogies of Jesus to show Jesus’ connection to David. Matthew’s genealogy, however, has a special inclusion. At a time when women were viewed as secondary citizens, when it was typical and expected for genealogies to only list the male heads of home, four women made the genealogy in Matthew chapter 1. This wasn’t a random inclusion of their names. They are there for a reason. The listing of their names contains some Christmas messages for us.
Look at Matthew 1:1-3 1 This is the genealogy[a] of Jesus the Messiah[b] the son of David, the son of Abraham: 2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3 Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar.
Joseph and Mary, we know. The shepherds and wisemen, we know. King Herod, we know. Zacharias and Elizabeth, we know. Even Simeon, Anna and John the Baptist get some of the spotlight at Christmas, but who is Tamar, and why is she listed in Matthew’s genealogy? What does her life have to say to us today?
Matthew wrote to his own people, the Jewish people. Why mention Tamar? We know from the record that Tamar had twin boys named Perez and Zerah and that their father was a man named Judah. To learn their story, we travel to Genesis 38. I have to warn you…it isn’t a very Christmassy story. This morning’s message isn’t a warm and fuzzy Hallmark movie moment. It is rather complicated, rather messy. I’ll do my best to tell the story.
Here is the background. God had revealed himself to Abraham, the Father of the Jewish nation. He promised him that in his old age, he would have a special son and that their descendants would be as many as the stars in the sky. That son’s name was Isaac. He appointed the Jewish nation to be a light to the world, to demonstrate what it means to be in a relationship with God, to be God’s chosen, special people. Through His relationship with Israel, God would reveal that He wanted to be in a relationship with all people.
Isaac’s son’s name was Jacob. So, we have Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jacob had 12 sons, and those 12 sons became the 12 Tribes of Israel. The fourth of those 12 sons was named Judah. Look again at Matthew 1:3. Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah. Their mother’s name was Tamar. It’s interesting the way that Matthew puts that, right? He doesn’t put Judah and Tamar together. He doesn’t list them as a couple. He lists Judah as the father and Tamar as the mother and puts the boys’ names in between their mentions.
Judah, the twins’ father, wasn’t a stand-up guy. He wasn’t really a follower of the one, true living God, at least his life’s choices say he wasn’t. One of his 11 brothers was Joseph. Joseph was the one sold into slavery by his brothers who had faked his death to their father. Judah was the one who had the idea to sell Joseph off. That gives you some insight into his character. People were dispensable to him.
The Israelites were explicitly told not to marry outside of their faith because doing so would create compromise in them. He did anyway. He married a Canaanite woman. The Canaanites are mentioned over 150 times in the Bible, and it’s never a word of commendation. They were wicked and idolatrous. That’s the kind of influence Judah brought into his home when he married a Canaanite woman. Note, he didn’t marry Tamar. She wasn’t the woman he took as his wife.
Judah had three sons. Er, Onan, and Shelah. Guess who Er took as his wife? Tamar. Fasten your seatbelts, friends. It’s about to get wild up in here. Genesis 38:7 says, “But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the Lord’s sight, so the Lord put him to death.” Y’all, I don’t know how wicked a person would have to be in order for God to put them to death, but Er must have been a pretty bad dude. You know that God isn’t a “three strikes and you’re out” kind of God. He is patient, slow to anger and abounding in love. To get to the end of God’s patience, there must be some vile, heinous, disgusting, deliberate, ongoing despicable behavior. I would love to know the details. Maybe after I am in Heaven for a few weeks, I’ll sort of saunter up to Jesus and say, “So, give me the “detes” on Er, will ya?”
So now Tamar, the one married to Er, is a widow. It was customary when a woman became widowed in that culture for a brother of the deceased to take her as his wife. So, the second son, Onan, was told to marry Tamar and to have children with her, to sort of give her offspring on behalf of his deceased brother. Having children was seen as being blessed of God in that culture and having children who could grow up and help take care of her in her old age was part of her living securely. Well, Onan enjoyed the relational part of his union with Tamar, but he made sure she never got pregnant. I realize that’s a little PG-13 for Sunday morning, but it’s part of the story. Well, his actions were deemed wicked by God, and God put him to death as well. Again, we don’t have all the details, but we trust that God did what was just in both of those situations.
Tamar’s father-in-law, Judah, told Tamar, who was now a widow for the second time, to go home and live with her father until the third son, Shelah, grew up. He promised her that when Shelah grew up, he could be her third husband. So, she went home to live at her father’s house.
In the meantime, Judah, the father-in-law’s wife, the Canaanite, died. Tamar knew that Shelah had grown up and she was never sent for to marry him. Judah had lied to her about giving him to her for a third husband. He figured she had married his two oldest and they both died. He blamed her for their death and didn’t want to lose another son. The text says as much in verse 11.
Well, Judah sort of went on a business trip to check in on the shearing of his sheep. Tamar caught wind of his travels. She knew he was coming to her area, and she devised a plan to take matters into her hands. She wasn’t getting any younger, and she decided she was going to have a baby one way or another.
She veiled herself to disguise her appearance and sat in a conspicuous place, a place Judah would have to pass in order to get to his sheep shearing. Not only had she succeeded in disguising herself, but she had made herself to look like, “a lady of the night” shall we say. As Judah was traveling by, he propositioned her. Are y’all tracking with me? This is his former daughter-in-law, still his daughter-in-law in my opinion, and he propositioned her. These are people being named in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel.
When he propositioned her, she asked what he would give her if she consented to be with him. He offered her a goat, y’all. A goat. I can’t make this stuff up! Well, she was smart. She knew he wasn’t a man of his word; he had already proven as much, so she said, “I’m gonna need a guarantee, a pledge for that goat until you can get it to me.” Judah said, “What pledge do you want?” She asked for his seal and his cord and the staff in his hand. Basically, she wanted his identifying marks. His seal and his cord and his staff were his. They would be known to be his. He wouldn’t be able to say they weren’t his. They sort of were his forms of ID. The deal was made, and Tamar got pregnant with those twin boys, Perez and Zerah. This is dicey stuff, y’all.
Well, Judah actually followed through in sending the goat because he needed his ID back, but his friend, who took the goat for him, couldn’t find the “prostitute” that had been in the spot where Judah had seen her. So, he went back to Judah and said, “I can’t find the lady.” Judah decided that in order to keep his sinful ways secret, he would just move on. He would let her keep his seal, his cord, and his staff.
Well, about three months later, word traveled to Judah that his daughter-in-law, Tamar, was pregnant. His response is unbelievable. He said in verse 24 of Genesis 38, “Bring her out and have her burned to death!” What a self-righteous, hypocritical jerk! Yep. He deserves the name. So, Tamar was brought to him and she said, “I am pregnant by the man who owns this cord, this seal, and this staff.” There was no way out of this for Judah. He had been caught. He had been outsmarted by Tamar. Judah replied, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah.” Her life was spared, and the twins were born. Scripture is clear that Judah never touched Tamar again.
These are the people from whom Jesus descended. It was prophesied in Genesis 49 that Jesus would descend from the tribe of Judah. God chose the twisted story of Judah and Tamar to be part of the story of the Messiah’s entrance into the world. Y’all, nobody is writing a Christmas song about this happening. This isn’t the fodder for all things cheery and bright. Nobody wants this for a Hallmark story plot, but it is part of the story. What do we make of it? I want to draw a few conclusions.
Christmas is for the unfaithful. I know the song says, “O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant,” but the call of Christmas is for all to come no matter how messed up they are. This is a messed-up family. There is nothing wholesome or inspirational about this story except lots of warnings about what not to do. Judah didn’t lead his family well. He didn’t lead himself well. He didn’t treat others well. Jesus came for people like this.
Maybe your personal story is less than pretty. Maybe you have compromised your morality, your integrity in reprehensible ways. I want you to know that Jesus came to redeem every dirty thought, every disturbing decision, every disgraceful action. There can be turnaround in your life today if you will take hold of the gift of salvation that has been given for you. You aren’t so lost that you cannot be found by God. You aren’t so far gone that you cannot come home to the Father’s house today.
Take a look at this video:
God wants all of our mess, all of our mistakes, all of our drama and distress. He wants to take and transform it all for His glory. The only way to see that happen is to give ourselves fully to Him. We’ve all been unfaithful to the Lord at some point. We’ve all messed up. We all need God’s grace to start again. Christmas is for the unfaithful.
Christmas is also for the used, the unloved and the unwanted. Tamar’s story is heartbreaking. It’s a story of intense grief, rejection, and heartache. God doesn’t want anyone to feel that way. The times you have felt overlooked, passed over, and forgotten, the moments you have been lied to or betrayed touch God deeply. Tamar made a bad decision to deceive her father-in-law for sure. It’s easy to quickly judge people who make bad decisions and get themselves into trouble, but often we fail to see how being used or abused or taken advantage of or discarded by others can create a sense of desperation or an inability to think clearly. Including Tamar’s name in the line-up of Jesus’ ancestors brings recognition, dignity, a reminder of her worth to God. She was not unseen or unwanted by Him. He used even the painful, warped parts of her life for His redeeming purposes.
Maybe you feel forgotten this morning. Maybe your story involves the pain of rejection or abuse. You matter to God. Hand Him the broken pieces and let Him create something beautiful from the rubble of your life.
Maybe Judah and Tamar don’t describe any part of your story. Maybe something else has a hold of you, has defined you, or describes your current condition, something troubling, something limiting, something dark, something heavy. Christmas is for you, too. That’s really the message of Christmas to each of us in the middle of our mess.