The Strange Story of Judah and Tamar

"Therefore he was named Perez."

       The story of Judah and Tamar is a strange one which interrupts the Joseph narrative that ends the book of Genesis.  As I (Josh) read through it initially it seemed like a weird and frankly gross inconsequential story with no bearing on the rest of the Genesis or Biblical narrative, save perhaps to highlight the general despicableness of Judah (who one chapter before wanted to kill his brother) compared to the righteousness of Joseph (as the reader sees in the following chapter and the story with Potapher's wife).  But as I re-read it alongside a commentary to gain more context the ending of the story suddenly became very significant to the rest of the Biblical narrative.  Why?  Because the younger of Tamar's twins (conceived from Judah) is Perez from whom comes the royal line of David and therefore Jesus.

       Why is this significant and why does it resonate with me personally?  It can be very easy to view Jesus with rose-colored glasses, to think of him floating around being perfectly nice to everyone and generally happy-go-lucky all the time.  Don't get me wrong, I think Jesus was happy and joyful, deeply so, but this false picture ignores the dirtiness of the world Jesus walked in and the ugliness of a sin-ravaged earth.  What I love about the story of Judah and Tamar is precisely the ugliness present. 

       The language is blunt and brutal.  Tamar, not a descendent of Abraham (and therefore not part of God's chosen people) is humiliated, mistreated, abused and nearly killed unjustly.  She is a childless widow with nothing, no power, no prospects save a vague promise from her father-in-law Judah to give his youngest son Shelah to her in marraige when he is old enough.  And yet her actions (pretending to be a prostitute and tricking her scum-bag father-in-law into sleeping with her and getting her pregnant) are those of a smart, keen, desperate and confident woman.  The passage in no way condemns any of her actions, in fact she is the righteous, just foil to Judah's corruption.  Judah is not only corrupt and contemptible (he does not keep his word to allow Shelah to marry Tamar when he is of age) and generally despicable (picking up a roadside prostitute after his wife just died) but is also cruel (he wants to burn Tamar alive when he finds out she is pregnant from prostituting herself when the usual punishment would have been death by stoning). 
       Yet this is the man through whom God brings King David and eventually Jesus?  I'll be honest, I weirdly love that.  Often I think of Jesus as a perfect superhero-like foil to all the brokenness, corruption, evil and death in the world who had no choice BUT to play the part of superhero, a man so earnest even Captain America rolls his eyes.  But Jesus' very bloodline bears the scars of sin and uncleanliness.  Of the four women in Matthew's genealogy (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba not including Mary), two are prostitutes (Tamar and Rahab) and all are foreigners, 'unclean' non-chosen people.  One scholar even beautifully noted all four women conceive by questionable means just like Jesus mother, Mary.  Even through his birth God was identifying Jesus with the lowest of low, the broken, defenseless, the foreigner, alien and powerless.  As Dr. Ray Bakke said "He is the savior who came into the world and deliberately choreographed into his own blood stream the scandalous people that Judaism was leaving outside and wanted nothing to do with".  Jesus' lineage both reflects the ugliness of this fallen world and the heart of God for such a world which makes his life, death and resurrection all the more significant. 

       He did have a choice and chose to obey God the Father perfectly, to go to the cross and embrace the consequence of sin like those his ancestors committed to redeem a dark, twisted world where women are threatened with unjust death and mistreated, where incest happens, where people break promises, where father's watch their sons die and where racism condemns people because of the community (or country) they are born into.  Jesus dies and redeemes a world like that, a world he knew and experienced, a world his very blood was evidence of both as he was born and as it poured out in death.  Which is why I love the ugliness of this passage, because it reminds me justice has been done, there is an answer now for such pain and devastation.  Jesus.