Our Advent theme will be a bit different this year at HMC – and across a number of Mennonite churches. Many congregations will be using Joanna Harader and Michelle Burkholder‘s book Expecting Emmanuel. We don’t often focus on the “begats” but this advent season we will turn our attention to the four women who appear in the list of male ancestors in Matthew 1. Which means we will be focusing on women important in the Jewish tradition as we prepare for this very Christian festival of Christmas.
The stories we will read and hear are not easy. These women experience some very untenable, difficult, and dangerous situations. They work in unconventional ways to keep their families and themselves alive. The choices they make would probably not pass the test of strict puritan ethicists. Yet we remember them for their courage and ingenuity as they find ways to give birth to the next generations.
And here I want to give a warning. These stories of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba, may seem ancient and remote on one hand. But as we explore these stories we will discover that they raise difficult questions that may hit close to home. If that is the case for you, I hope you will do what you need to do to take care of yourself. If you need to, simply focus on the candles, the oil lamps, the artwork, the music, the sketchers skits. Hold onto one word or phrase that feeds your soul or let it all go.
Today we focus on the first woman named in Matthew’s genealogy: Tamar. This is not a story we tell often, perhaps because it just doesn’t make a lot of sense to our modern cultural sensibilities. But it demonstrates how family (and patriarchy) are woven into the tradition – as well as the ways that women have always found work-arounds when things don’t go as planned. When traditional customs are not followed, when all the doors seem to close, women will still find a way forward. Tamar finds a way.
The story of Tamar appears in the middle of the Joseph story, yes, that Joseph story – the one that we tell our children and that has been made into a Broadway hit. After the elder brothers sell Joseph to passing traders, the brothers dip his coat in goat’s blood and give it to their father Jacob, who, seeing the bloody coat assumes that Joseph has been killed by a wild animal. We know that actually Joseph ends up in Egypt as a slave for one of Pharaoh’s officials. It is at this point that the editor of Genesis inserts this short diversion about Judah, the youngest of Jacob’s four sons with Leah.
Judah leaves his brothers and settles near “a certain Adullamite whose name is Hirah.” There Judah sees the daughter of Shua, a Canaanite. (These presumably inconsequential men are named here, though Judah’s soon-to-be wife is not named. This is patriarchy.) Judah marries this daughter of Shua and has three sons: Er, Onan and Shelah. Years pass and Judah marries off Er to Tamar. (Tamar is named!) But Er dies before a son, or any children, are born. So as Levirate custom would have it, the wife, Tamar, is given to the next brother, Onan, who is supposed to produce a son as an heir for his dead brother Er.
You can imagine that this is an uncomfortable tradition, for Onan as well as for Tamar. Onan does not complete his duty as he wants a son of his own, not one that will be considered the son of his dead brother (who the text tells us was wicked in God’s eyes.) So Onan spills his seed on the ground whenever he goes into his brother’s wife. This is displeasing in the sight of the LORD and Onan dies. After losing two sons, Judah is not about to give his youngest son Shelah to Tamar in marriage. Something must be wrong with her, given what happened to his other two sons.
Judah tells Tamar she must go back to her father’s home to live as a widow and wait until Shelah grows up. If this sounds awkward now, it was more so then; there was no room in society for a woman who has no man to look after her. All that is left for Tamar is to wait and grieve, grieve and wait, until Judah says that Shelah can marry her. Tamar gets tired of waiting, and begins to understand that Judah will never let Shelah come to her. Tamar decides to take matters into her own hands.
Genesis 38:12-14 – 12 In course of time the wife of Judah, Shua’s daughter, died; when Judah’s time of mourning was over, he went up to Timnah to his sheepshearers, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. 13 When Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep,” 14 she put off her widow’s garments, put on a veil, wrapped herself up, and sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. She saw that Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him in marriage.
We don’t know how long Tamar has been a widow but now Judah, her father-in-law, is a widower. He is alone. As he goes to shear his sheep, he sees a woman at the side of the road, near the local religious temple. He assumes by her clothes, and her veil-covered face that she is a temple sex worker. Is this his usual practice, to visit sex workers? Does Tamar know his habits or only suspect he is lonely since his wife has died?
When Judah sees her, he propositions her – with a goat as payment. Tamar’s plan is working! She asks for proof that he will pay the goat – a pledge of good faith. She suggests his signet, cord and staff, essentially his ID card. The text says, So he gave them to her and went in to her, and she conceived by him.
Then Tamar changes out of her veil and goes home to dress again like a widow in her father’s home with the hope that she will soon find out she is pregnant. Judah returns to his own home, to retrieve the promised goat for the nameless sex worker. He sends his friend with the goat to find the “prostitute” that sits by the side of the road, but no one in the town has any idea who or what he is talking about. When Judah hears that the mysterious woman has disappeared, he merely laughs it off. He did his due diligence in trying to have the goat delivered; there is nothing more to be done.
Genesis 38:24-27 – 24 About three months later Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar has prostituted herself; moreover, she is pregnant as a result of prostitution.” And Judah said, “Bring her out, and let her be burned.” 25 As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, “It was the owner of these who made me pregnant.” And she said, “Take note, please, whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.” 26 Then Judah acknowledged them and said, “She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not lie with her again. 27 When the time of her delivery came, there were twins in her womb.
Tamar seems to have planned and timed this all quite carefully. She acts with a determination, I can’t even, don’t even, want to imagine. Tamar is not going to be left in the limbo of widowhood at a young age. She does what she has to do to receive what is due to her, what the Levirate tradition promises her. She’s determined that she will not be left alone without an heir to care for her.
For his part, Judah is more than a little judgmental about Tamar. His knee jerk reaction to the news of her pregnancy is to jump to the most final solution. But Tamar, in the knick of time, is able to produce Judah’s very personal items that in fact prove that he himself is the father, that he is the one that has not acted in good faith. Because of her careful planning Tamar catches her duplicitous father-in-law and makes him give her what is rightly hers, a child. Just like Judah’s father Jacob is a twin (and a devious one at that,) Tamar has twins (Perez and Zerah) as a result of her own deception – or should we call it faithfulness?
While we take for granted, or even skip over, the long list of ancestors in the book of Matthew, it is not inevitable that Tamar would end up in the genealogy of Jesus. But she took charge of her own life when the men in her life would not look out for her, when the system failed her. She did what she had to do to survive. Desperate times call for desperate actions. Tamar’s name is preserved even if all we get is this one story about her. And we do get this story, which is more than we get of her twin sons, Perez and Zerah. Perez and Zerah appear in a number of the genealogies in the First Testament but without any details of their lives.
What else can we say about this strange story of (what seems to us) near incest and deviancy? This tale of Tamar is certainly not one to pass on to our children, though I did find a website with ‘fun facts about Tamar‘ for 3-8 year olds. Neither our 21st century legal or religious rules on marriage or our cultural customs have space for Tamar’s actions. She certainly was determined but was she in the right?
Tamar makes me think of a young man I met some twenty years ago who had overstayed his student visa and was desperately trying to find a way to stay in this country. His life of working under the table and doing all he could to avoid ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) was miserable. He was taken advantage of by employers and people from his own country from whom he rented a room; they rented out his bed when he was at work. He was attacked on the street and was too afraid to report it to the police. Eventually, his father arranged for him to marry the daughter of an old friend the father had met years before. She was a citizen and the young man would have a legal way to remain in the US.
It was a horrible choice. As the eldest son, would he go against the wishes of his father, or would he enter into a fake marriage with a woman he didn’t know and hope to make it through the immigration system? I remember a colleague remarking how terrible it was, that this young man would even contemplate breaking the law this way. How could he, as a Christian, even think of doing this?
The young man was desperate to find a way to stay in this country so that he could continue sending money home to his family, some of whom had major illnesses. He prayed and wept and prayed some more and finally decided to go through with the marriage, though he did not like the potential wife, who already had a real boyfriend – and was marrying the young man only to obey her own father. The young man’s situation was beyond anything that I had ever experienced in my privileged life of citizenship. I could not align myself with Judah, judging or shaming the young man for making this desperate decision to marry.
We might also think of families who decide to send their children on the dangerous trek across the border in order for them to have a better chance of growing up in the US. Or think of the parents that leave their children with an aunt or grandmother in their home country while the parents risk their own lives, fleeing gang or government violence, to travel to what they hope will be a better life in another country. None of these are great choices. But when people have few options – and none of them are good options, people will do what they can to survive, to make a life for their children.
Many of us here could tell stories of our own ancestors who had difficult, even desperate, decisions to make, though sometimes those stories are so painful they are not even spoken aloud. Perhaps what is most remarkable is that Tamar’s story is told, is passed down in the tradition. She is named as an ancestor of Jesus. Is she a heroine of the faith?
Our advent offering this year goes to support people who arrive in this country seeking asylum, after making some very difficult choices, perhaps desperate decisions. As people in Tamar’s religious lineage, we cannot shame them or judge them. We can support them, share with them, walk with them as they recover from trauma, and help them find hope again.
Despite the desperate decisions she had to make, Tamar found a way. May the Holy Power that lives in us, be present to us in our own decision making. May Holy Power guide us as we walk with those who are desperate to find a way.