A desperate woman can do some crazy stuff. Like tricking your father-in-law to sleep with you to get pregnant.
I’m not sure if you’ve ever been that desperate, but let me introduce you to someone who was.
Tamar was stuck . . . desperate. (Genesis 38). Tamar was a Canaanite who married into Judah’s family, a family who belonged to the God of Israel. But, when Tamar’s husband died as a judgment for his evil behavior, she was left without a secure future. Thankfully, God provided a practice for widows stuck in this position. The next son in line was to marry the widow and father an heir for the dead brother and his widow, thus ensuring the dead husband a line as well as provision for the widow. Judah, as head of a God-fearing family, told his second son Onan to do the honors. But Onan didn’t like the idea of his son being considered his brother’s, and Onan weaseled out of his duty at the last minute. God judged him as well. Judah’s second son died.
And although their deaths were not her fault, Tamar got the blame. Tamar became a “bad luck bride.”
By this point Judah probably felt desperate, too. He was down to his third and last son. What about his dreams for an heir, a name, a future? Judah decided to buy some time. He sent her back to her parents’ tent with the promise of his youngest son once he grew up. Maybe he hoped she would just recede back into her Canaanite tribe, taking her bad luck streak with her.
But Tamar was patient, and she must have valued belonging to this family (and perhaps their God?) enough to wait. However, when she saw Judah’s last son had become a man and yet not given to her as promised, she took matters into her own hands. She disguised herself as a prostitute, waited for Judah on the side of a road, and let him hire her services. Three months later, Judah heard his daughter-in-law had “played the harlot” and was pregnant. How dare she! Judah judged Tamar and declared she should be punished by fire. Thankfully, Tamar was as smart as she was desperate. She produced Judah’s identifying cord, staff, and signet she’d kept as a deposit for his sex payment. Convicted of his wrong, he admitted Tamar was “more righteous than I.”
Her desperate – and to our way of thinking, plain out crazy – plan forever put Tamar in Judah’s family tree. But I doubt Tamar realized just how much a part of God’s family she’d become. Not only did Tamar get pregnant, she had twin boys. Their birth was so legendary, generations later Tamar’s daring story became an Israelite blessing when Boaz marries Ruth, another Canaanite who married an Israelite. “Through the offspring the Lord gives you by this young woman, may your family be like that of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah” (Ruth 4:12). Perez became an ancestor of King David and ultimately of King Jesus.
The most surprising part of Tamar’s story, however, is seeing Tamar’s name in the genealogy of Matthew 1. It’s shocking how God introduces His precious and perfect son Jesus to the world by identifying him with such a messy group of people. But God puts the likes of Tamar, Judah, and a bunch of other sinners front and center of the opening pages of the New Testament, linked arm-in-arm throughout the Messiah’s family tree.
How many of us would go to a family reunion and eagerly brag about such incestuous liaisons? Who would boldly introduce our cousin who’d slept with her father-in-law to reverse her fortunes? Would you enjoy presenting your grandfather if he, like Judah, didn’t live up to his family commitments? Why would Jesus embrace these connections instead of hiding them?
Jesus’s identifying with these unlikely saints tells us a lot about the kind of gospel He brings the world.
Jesus is a friend of sinners, and His genealogy proves that He claims them as kin as well. Not only does Jesus name Tamar as a messy mama, He continues to associate with desperate men and women today. After all, Jesus did not come to save the perfect, the ones who don’t have a complicated past or a hopeless future. He offers the messy people a seat at His family table because He died to live with us. Tamar, a desperate and unjustly treated Canaanite woman, became a saint by the saving work of her descendant, Jesus.
Are you desperate today? Do you have a future that is empty or scary? Do you find yourself at the mercy of leaders who neglect justice or ignore your cause? Have you messed up so royally you cannot imagine ever being called a saint? The good news is that both scandalous individuals, Tamar and Judah, were made part of this gospel family tree. No one at God’s table deserves a seat, yet there we are. Invited as guests and made to be family. A feast full of unlikely saints. Are you desperate enough to pull up a chair and join?
Editor’s Note: Want to learn more about Tamar and other women in Jesus’s genealogy? Join us this summer in studying Susan’s new Bible study: What’s SHE Doing Here? The Messy Women in Jesus’s Genealogy.
About the Author:
Susan Tyner serves as Women’s Ministry Coordinator at Trinity Presbyterian Church. She is a regular contributor for the enCourage blog and podcast, was a member of the Hinged Bible study writing team and enjoys speaking at conferences and retreats. Susan and her husband, Lee, have five children, and an almost empty nest.