The story behind the story of each woman of Christmas has really impacted me as I reflected this Advent season, but none stuck with me like the story of Tamar. Perhaps it is because of the pain she experienced. Perhaps because her story intersects with too many stories of pain I have heard as I have sat with people. But what her life points to is very stirring.
Tamar’s story is told in Genesis 38. I’ll warn you ahead of time – it is an uncomfortable text to read. It belongs in the Rated R section of the Bible.
The passage opens by introducing us to Judah, who is an important character because it is prophesied that Jesus would be born from the line of Judah. When we first meet him he seems anything but someone that belongs in the line of Jesus – he is morally bankrupt and is filled with character defects.
He intermarries with someone that he is not supposed to, and they have 3 sons together. The first son is married to Tamar, which is where we meet her. Unfortunately for Tamar, this eldest son is incredibly wicked. There is so much evil in his heart that we are told that God takes his life. Though no details are given as to the impact of his treachery on the life of Tamar, it doesn’t seem a stretch to assume that Tamar’s first marriage was hellacious.
When the oldest son dies Tamar becomes a widow, which puts her in an incredibly vulnerable position both economically and socially. Women in general had little control over their future, and having the status of widow only further complicated things.
Judah’s job as the father of this now widowed woman is to ensure that she is taken care of. Part of the legal protection of a widow was that if the deceased husband had a brother, it was his job to marry her and continue on that family legacy. This responsibility fell to Judah’s second son.
But instead of taking this role seriously, we instead see Tamar endure continued agony at the hands of the second eldest. The text goes out of its way to show how he took sexual advantage of her while carefully avoiding impregnating her. After having a terrible first husband, Tamar is now being sexually exploited by the next son, and her father-in-law is doing nothing to protect her.
The second son then dies as well, which in some ways frees Tamar, but in some ways further enslaves her. She knows by now that Judah is not looking out for her, and this becomes even more obvious when he removes her from the public eye and tells her that someday when the third son is old enough he will marry them. She sees right through this and discerns correctly that there is no chance of this happening.
What happens next gets even crazier.
Seeing that her father has no moral compass, she decides to take advantage of his lack of character. When she finds out that he will be travelling for a business trip, she sets up a sex shop on the side of road, fully confident he will stop to take advantage of it. He indeed stops, and is so enthralled that he doesn’t even realize its his daughter in law he is having sex with. Another mistake he makes in the heat of the moment was to leave his seal. A seal was carried by wealthy people, and was basically a signet on a cylinder – it was what you used to make contracts. This was the equivalent to leaving your wallet or credit card.
Tamar becomes pregnant from this encounter (she would later have twins), and once that is discovered she is called out for it in public. When Judah hears the news he is furious. His own hypocrisy is on full display when he decides as her father that she should be executed for her transgression.
He begins the proceedings, until she pulls out her trump card. She lets everyone know that the man who impregnated left his credit card, and his name is Judah. With this revelation her life is spared and Judah is publically humiliated.
And this is the first woman of Christmas?
What could possibly be the purpose of her story being told in Genesis, and then cited as the first mother of Jesus in Matthew’s genealogy?
I think the answer comes in Matthew 1.3: “Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron…”
The firstborn son, by whom the family tree would continue, was named Perez. Do you know what Perez translates to? Perez means to ‘break through’ or to ‘break free.’
What is the message of Christmas captured in the life of Tamar? I think that this story reminds us that there is no amount of damage or brokenness that cannot be healed and overcome through the power of Jesus.
Your life situation can seem so devastating, your past so checkered, you can feel damaged by others and feel like you have been left alone, you can be in a situation that seems hopeless and has no way out. Yet when Jesus enters into the story there can be redemption, restoration healing, a break through, a break out. Out of great brokenness can still come something so beautiful. Out of death a resurrection can happen.
Perez represented a breakthrough for both Tamar and Judah – the oppressed and the oppressor. It was a breakthrough for Tamar, as she was finally freed from these evil and oppressive husbands and now is fused into the family tree of Jesus.
It is also a breakthrough for the oppressor. When Judah is exposed as the culprit it would have led to public humiliation and could have broken him. A man with corrupt character should have gone off the deep end.
But the opposite happens. In that moment he becomes completely conscious of his sin. He acknowledges it and has a complete change of heart. We see him a number of times over the rest of Genesis, but it is at the end of the book that his break through is confirmed. He has been transformed from a morally bankrupt man looking out only for himself to a man of character who is willing to sacrifice for others (the definition of greatness according to Jesus). At the end of Genesis we see Judah so committed to his brother Benjamin and to his father that he is willing to trade his life for theirs. He has experienced a breakthrough.
This Christmas season remember that no matter how devastating a life situation may appear to be, when Jesus enters the picture there can be a breakthrough. Restoration can come to even the most damaged situation. A resurrection can always happen – even in a place that seems broken beyond repair.