This week is the first week of advent. Advent is a season in the church calendar when we observe a time of expectation on the arrival of Christ’s birth. The word “advent” comes from the Latin Adventus meaning, “arriving.” Traditionally, the church includes an observance of some of the attributes of faith in Jesus – Peace, Love, Faith, and Hope. This year at The Table we are going to set up a dialog, of sorts, between these attributes and the women of Jesus’ genealogy. In Matthew’s gospel, he lists 5 women in a genealogy dominated by men. As we wait for Jesus to come again, as we rest in Advent, expecting Jesus, how can these women teach us? Next week we’ll dialog w/ Rahab, from Joshua 2, and the Advent attribute of Faith. Then we’ll dialog w/ Ruth and the attribute of love. And we’ll end w/ the toughest dialog b/t Bathsheba, from 2 Samuel 11-12, and the attribute of Peace. This week we begin w/ a challenging text from Genesis 38, and dialog the advent attribute of hope, w/ the life of Tamar.
Look at Genesis 38. The story of Tamar is one screaming for the redemption of Jesus. In it, we see selfish men and a desperate woman. Genesis 38 is another episode in a family drama. God chose Jacob’s family as His chosen people, but when you read passages like this you may wonder why. It shows us that God doesn’t need us to fulfill His purposes, but rather chooses to invite us into His story, despite our imperfections. Let’s read Genesis 38:1-27, and as we do, start the dialog b/t the story and the attribute of hope in Jesus:
“At that time, Judah left his brothers and went down to stay with a man of Adullam named Hirah. 2 There Judah met the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua. He married her and made love to her; 3 she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, who was named Er. 4 She conceived again and gave birth to a son and named him Onan. 5 She gave birth to still another son and named him Shelah. It was at Kezib that she gave birth to him.”
Here we see God blesses Judah w/ three sons. Continuing: “6 Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. 7 But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death.” In this scenario, God would later command His people what to do. Deuteronomy 25:5-10 expresses the custom of the day, it says:
“5 If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. 6 The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel. 7 However, if a man does not want to marry his brother’s wife, she shall go to the elders at the town gate and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to carry on his brother’s name in Israel. He will not fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to me.” 8 Then the elders of his town shall summon him and talk to him. If he persists in saying, “I do not want to marry her,” 9 his brother’s widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, “This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother’s family line.” 10 That man’s line shall be known in Israel as The Family of the Unsandaled.”
May you never be unsandaled. The custom was for the living son to carry his brother line forward, and if the living refused, he would be shamed. So, w/ this custom in mind, we continue:
“8 Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.” 9 But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother.”
In other words, Onan did not want to be disgraced, but he also didn’t want to raise Tamar’s child. Why? As it stood, Onan stood first in line after the death of Er, and producing a son by his brother’s widow would mean the loss of his new status as heir. So he tried to save face, maintain his new status, and cheated Tamar. Simply put, he was selfish.
“10 What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death also.” Onan disobeyed a command of God, and now Judah had lost two sons, and Tamar was a widow twice over, w/o children. “11 Judah then said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Live as a widow in your father’s household until my son Shelah grows up.” For he thought, “He may die too, just like his brothers.” So Tamar went to live in her father’s household.” Judah feared he’d lose another son, and his line would die. He wasn’t thinking of Tamar’s welfare, but his own. Children were the social security and medicare system of the day, and he sends Tamar away to be a widow.
Tamar had little hope as she returned home. She was legally not allowed to marry anyone else, b/c she was under Judah’s household, but Judah had no intention of actually caring for Tamar; he was essentially leaving w/o any support. Tamar was hopeless and screaming for a redeemer. Ever felt like Tamar? Tamar was hopeless. Continuing:
“12 After a long time Judah’s wife, the daughter of Shua, died. When Judah had recovered from his grief, he went up to Timnah, to the men who were shearing his sheep, and his friend Hirah the Adullamite went with him. 13 When Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is on his way to Timnah to shear his sheep,” 14 she took off her widow’s clothes, covered herself with a veil to disguise herself, and then sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that, though Shelah had now grown up, she had not been given to him as his wife.
In other words, Tamar was victim of injustice, and asserts her rights.
“15 When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. 16 Not realizing that she was his daughter-in-law, he went over to her by the roadside and said, “Come now, let me sleep with you.” “And what will you give me to sleep with you?” she asked. 17 “I’ll send you a young goat from my flock,” he said. “Will you give me something as a pledge until you send it?” she asked. 18 He said, “What pledge should I give you?” “Your seal and its cord, and the staff in your hand,” she answered.
Tamar shrewdly requests the undeniable evidence of Judah’s identity, like asking for a driver’s license as collateral. “So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she became pregnant by him.” So, Judah sleeps w/ what he thinks is a “prostitute;” he initiates this action.
19 After she left, she took off her veil and put on her widow’s clothes again. 20 Meanwhile Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite in order to get his pledge back from the woman, but he did not find her. 21 He asked the men who lived there, “Where is the shrine prostitute who was beside the road at Enaim?” “There hasn’t been any shrine prostitute here,” they said. 22 So he went back to Judah and said, “I didn’t find her. Besides, the men who lived there said, ‘There hasn’t been any shrine prostitute here.’ ” 23 Then Judah said, “Let her keep what she has, or we will become a laughingstock. After all, I did send her this young goat, but you didn’t find her.” 24 About three months later Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result she is now pregnant.” Judah said, “Bring her out and have her burned to death!”
Tamar was supposed to be living the pure life of a widow. But she was pregnant, so everyone assumed she was pregnant by illegitimate means. The custom given for such a circumstance is found in Deuteronomy 22:20-21, but this is followed by v. 22, “If a man is found lying with a married woman, then both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman; thus you shall purge the evil from Israel.”
So, the man who initiates prostitution is now calling for the death of a prostitute
“25 As she was being brought out, she sent a message to her father-in-law. “I am pregnant by the man who owns these,” she said. And she added, “See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are.” [“Look at the driver’s license and see who it is,” she said]. 26 Judah recognized them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not sleep with her again.
In this moment Judah’s unrighteousness is exposed, and Tamar is redeemed. Judah’s remark shows her motivation was consistent with her purpose of carrying on the family line of her husband, whereas Judah had attempted to circumvent the custom.
So in an episode where God is taking the lives of the unrighteous, God blesses Tamar’s actions. “27 When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb.” Tamar gives birth to twin boys. The widow w/o children now has two boys. Culturally she is now secure, and the line of Jacob and Judah continue.
So what does this shady story have to do w/ advent, or the coming of Christ, or the hope we have in Jesus? I would say, in this episode we see Tamar, a victim of injustice, stuck and hopeless. But there is a movement of mercy at play, God rescues Tamar from injustice. God redeemed Tamar’s hopelessness by providing her w/ sons in a world where widows needed sons. The good news of the passage to me is this: in a world that is hopeless, God gives provision and hope. Theologically speaking, this episode gives us a glimmer of God’s Kingdom. The kingdom of God is like a childless widow giving birth to twins. This episode points us to a day when injustices are not tolerated, when hope and provision and security are the norm.
In Advent we declare that we are orienting ourselves to this reality. This reality is real b/c Jesus came in the form of a human baby. This reality is real b/c that baby grew up and bore our sins and died, putting sin and injustice to death. This reality is real b/c Jesus did not stay dead, but rose to life, raising us to life, giving us hope, security, and provision in Him.
This advent season, I pray that you will be dissatisfied w/ perceived realities, and that you would orient yourself to the reality of hope in Jesus.
 Mathews, K. A. (2005). Vol. 1B: Genesis 11:27–50:26. The New American Commentary (716–717). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.