Scripture: Matthew 1:1-16, Genesis 38
Most of us probably think we know where the Christmas story begins, with a visit from an angel to Mary or Joseph, depending on which Gospel you read. But actually it begins before then. In Luke it begins with the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist. In Matthew’s Gospel, the very first part of the story is a genealogy – a family tree of Jesus.
We usually skip over that part of the story when we tell it, because really, who wants to sit and listen to a bunch of “begats.”
But some of the people who show up in that family tree might surprise you, and we are going to spend this Advent with a few of them, because they are the people who made Christmas possible. So we’re going to begin this morning by reading Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus.
Now we’ll hear the story of one of those names: the story of Tamar.
Are any of you into genealogy? In your research, have you come across any interesting family facts or stories? In those stories, do you feel like you have learned anything about who you are and where you come from?
I’m not going to claim I’m super into genealogy, although both my parents have been on and off, and over the years I’ve had to do a few school projects where I research my family tree, so through this I’ve learned a few things about my family. I remember my grandmother, who would be 113 years old today if she was still alive, talking about what Christmas was like for her and her siblings as a kid growing up in Philadelphia. She said they would get a pair of roller skates, and a book or a game, and there would always be an apple and an orange at the top of their stockings. Later my grandfather, her husband, who I never knew, would go out and pick up coal from along the railroad tracks to heat the house during the Depression. Stories like that have stuck with me because they remind me that I come from a family of people who had a lot less than I am used to, even if, as my dad says, they never knew they were poor.
Our family histories certainly don’t dictate who we are, but they can help us learn a little bit about ourselves and each other. And just like that’s true for us, it is also true for Jesus. By learning a little bit about the people who make up his back story, we can learn something about who Jesus is and what God was and is doing in this world through him.
In Jesus’ family tree, there are a lot of really obscure names, but there are also some famous people. Matthew starts with Abraham. Luke’s genealogy traces Jesus all way back to Adam. Either way, we learn that Jesus has to do with our beginnings: God’s creation of the world, and God’s choosing of God’s people. And then there is Isaac and Jacob, who was called Israel, and whose sons and their families became the nation of the same name. And further down the line there is King David. That is important, because Jesus is seen as the fulfillment of God’s promise that a descendant of David will rule Israel forever. Finally we follow the family tree all the way down to Joseph, which is interesting, because then we learn that this is an adoptive genealogy: Joseph isn’t even his biological father! Still, Matthew—and Luke—affirm that Joseph’s family are the people who make up Jesus’ story.
The other thing you might notice about this family tree is that it’s almost entirely made up of men. I guess the women don’t get credit for being the ones who actually bore all of these people (but you know, maybe I’m sensitive because that whole experience is still fresh.) But there are some exceptions. Five exceptions, to be exact: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary. Since Matthew usually doesn’t include the women, we can assume that these five are here for a reason, because they are particularly important to the story somehow. And indeed these women have some of the most interesting and even scandalous stories in the whole family tree. So they are the ones we are going to hear from this Advent.
First, there is Tamar. Tamar is – bear with me here – Jesus’ great great great great great, great great great great great, great great great great great, great great great great great, great great great great great, great great great great great, great great great great grandmother. (If I counted correctly. If not, you get the idea.)
You just heard part of the story of Tamar, but I want to back up a little bit. Tamar’s story takes up one chapter of Genesis. It’s a brief detour from the story of Joseph and doesn’t seem to be connected much to anything around it, enough that some scholars say they don’t know why it’s there at all. (“It is not evident that it provides any significant theological resource,” one said – but clearly Matthew thought otherwise.)
Judah, son of Jacob and brother of Joseph, who has just been sold into slavery, settles in another place, marries, and has three sons. Judah’s oldest son is named Er, and Judah takes a wife for him, a presumably Canaanite woman named Tamar. But then, Genesis tells us, “Er…was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death.” All right – not how I believe God generally operates, but so the story goes.
In Deuteronomy we learn about this thing which was practiced in ancient Israel called levirate marriage. The rule is that if a woman’s husband dies and they don’t have any children, his oldest surviving brother then has to marry her to provide an heir for the first brother, to carry on the family name. It’s unclear how much this was really practiced, but it’s important to the story. Er dies, so it is up to Judah’s middle son Onan to marry Tamar and provide an heir for Er.
Onan apparently doesn’t really love that idea, because after all, if the oldest son doesn’t have any heirs, then Onan himself will get the greatest part of the inheritance. So Onan sleeps with Tamar, but as for providing heirs, he finds a way to get out of it, so to speak. (If you don’t know what I mean, Genesis 38 is more explicit.)
God isn’t too happy about that, so God puts Onan to death too.
The culturally mandated thing at this point would be for Judah’s third son, Shelah, to step up and marry Tamar. But you can imagine if you were Judah and your first two sons have just died you might not be excited to marry your last remaining son off to the same woman. So Judah tells Tamar “He’s too young, wait until he’s older, go back to your father’s house until then.” Judah has no real intention of ever letting her marry Shelah, and she probably knows it.
Here’s the problem for Tamar: if you were a woman in the Ancient Near East, you got your social and economic standing through your husband and your sons. Tamar, at this point, has neither, but she also can’t marry anyone else, since technically she is promised to Shelah. She is Judah’s family’s responsibility, and Judah has effectively tossed this vulnerable person aside.
After a while Judah’s wife dies, and Tamar knows he must be lonely, and she has an idea of how to take back what is rightfully hers, a place in Judah’s family. So when she hears that Judah is going to be in town, she dresses up like a lady of the night, shall we say, and Judah takes the bait. As payment, he promises her a sheep from his flock, but since he doesn’t have one on him at the time, she asks for his seal and staff as collateral. His seal and possibly also his staff were like ID. Judah does not know that this woman whose services he is paying for is in fact his daughter-in-law. When he tries to send the sheep and get back his ID, this mysterious woman is nowhere to be found. Instead of making a big thing of it, Judah says, “Meh, let her keep them.”
About three months later he finds out his daughter-in-law, still technically promised to his son Shelah, is pregnant. Scandal! In the Ancient Near East, this is a crime that calls for a death sentence. But just as she is about to be brought out to her own execution, she hold up Judah’s seal and staff, and says, “Anyone know who do these belong to?”
Judah is convicted, because he knows he hasn’t held up his end of the bargain with Tamar. She, though, is prepared to provide an heir for the family and procure some security for herself, no matter what it takes. And in due time she gives birth to twins, who continue on the family tree that eventually leads us to David and then to Jesus.
Can you imagine Mary and Joseph sitting around the dinner table passing this family story on to Jesus?
But here’s where the story packs a punch: when Judah realizes that the person who has gotten Tamar pregnant is himself, he says, “She is more in the right than I.” Or in some translations, “She is more righteous than I am.”
Tamar’s story is a story about redefining righteousness.
Judah is perhaps not a good man, but he is a man, apparently with some means and some standing in the community. Tamar, meanwhile, is a childless widow with no standing who has apparently committed a sexual transgression. If we were there, who would we see as righteous? Which of these characters would we have respect for?
Maybe that’s hard to answer, because we know how the story turns out and we know who we’re supposed to root for. But what about today? Have you ever looked at someone askance for their questionable but possibly desperate decision? Maybe the mother buying steak from the grocery store with her food stamps because she wants to make one nice meal for her family? Or the young man selling drugs in the hood because he doesn’t see any other options for survival? Or protestors disturbing the peace while the rest of us sit complacently and don’t make any waves? These are people we might be tempted to label as “unrighteous,” if we were given to using that kind of religious language in our day to day lives.
That’s certainly not to justify or excuse away any bad decisions a person might make, but sometimes it can be all too easy to judge another person’s actions as “unrighteous” without knowing their whole story – in fact, without even realizing how their story might implicate us.
When I was in seminary, someone broke into the church I attended at the time and robbed the church office. Though I don’t know for sure who did it, we were surrounded by a large homeless community, and I remember that my pastor stood up on Sunday morning and told us what had happened, and when she prayed later on in the service she prayed for the people who had done this and then she said, “God, forgive us.”
Forgive us – but we were the ones who were robbed. Then again, wasn’t the desperate need of our neighbors also our responsibility? Was this a sign of our failure as a church and a society to care for them? Who, here, was really righteous and unrighteous? Maybe it wasn’t as simple as it seemed.
Especially now in the wake of the election, I think we in the US have different ideas about what it means to be righteous – to vote a certain way, to believe certain things, to fulfill a certain social role. On both sides, we look across the aisle and are horrified by the wrongness we see. This is not a call for cheap unity where we simply look past our differences and see the good in each other, because I think some of those differences matter. As our bishops said [in a letter from this past week] it is our job as Christians to stand up against the hateful treatment of minorities and immigrants that we’ve especially seen in the past few weeks post-election – that is not a partisan issue. At the same time, when it does come to some of those partisan issues and cultural differences, I’m reminded that God often needs us to break out of our own assumptions of what “righteousness” looks like.
I’m reminded of the parable Jesus told about the Pharisee and the tax collector. One followed the rules and the role society expected of him, and one was a sellout to the empire. One spent his life in an attempt to be pure and holy, one was a sinner in search of redemption. Which one went home justified – or “in the right”? Not the one anyone listening would have considered righteous.
Maybe that idea that we need to rethink who and what we call righteous is something Jesus got from his ancestor Tamar.
He was, after all, the one who ate with people who were labelled outcasts and sinners. He saw through the “good” religious people and upstanding citizens and hung out instead with people whose pasts and even presents were questionable. Maybe he saw a new kind of righteousness in them. Maybe their righteousness came from the fact that they knew they needed him and the life he showed them how to live. Maybe it didn’t come from following rules and being “nice” but from the kind love and sacrifice that broke rules and crossed boundaries.
It is week one of Advent, we have four weeks until Christmas, and we are waiting for the coming of the One who showed us how to judge righteousness through different eyes. So here’s your job for the next week: when you are tempted to judge and blame someone, maybe let Judah’s words echo in your mind and heart: “They might be more in the right than I.”
 Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: Genesis, p. 307-308