Tamar, The Scandalous Great Grandmother of Jesus

by Mark Batterson

I love back-stories, the story behind the story. Many years ago, our family watched the hit movie The Blind Side, and we loved it. The film is about a boy named Big Mike who grew up on the streets. His mother was a cocaine addict, and he went from home to home and school to school. Finally a family discovered his plight. This is a true story. Big Mike was living on the streets and they invited him into their home and began to love him, raise him and teach him. One scene shows Mike coming into their house and he has never seen anything like it. He is awestruck, and the mom prepares a bedroom for Big Mike with a computer and a beautiful desk. She makes the bed and she says, “This is yours.” Big Mike says, “I’ve never had one.” And she says, “What, a bedroom?” And he says, “No, a bed.”

My eyes started tearing up at that point in the movie. I’m thinking, “it was just a kid who has never had a bed to sleep in!” To me, that moment in the story symbolized his life–no home, no mom, no comforts to enjoy, no bed of his own. Knowing that back-story sucks you into the movie. Then when Big Mike starts playing football, you totally want him to excel. That’s because you know the back-story.

I think if you start with the Christmas story and miss out on the back-story, I don’t know that you fully appreciate the Christmas story itself. So Matthew tells you the back story in the genealogy of Christ. Matthew 1:1:

This is a record of the ancestors of Jesus the Messiah, a descendant of David and of Abraham: Abraham was the father of Isaac. Isaac was the father of Jacob. Jacob was the father of Judah and his brothers. Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah (whose mother was Tamar).

Christ’s genealogy, his family tree, records the names of ancestors. Some were noble, some were ignoble, some were righteous, some were downright evil; some left legacies of faith, others left legacies of dysfunction, a mixed bag, to say the least. But Matthew, in his genealogy, makes specific point of mentioning four women-four scandalous women! The first is Tamar, and then you have Rahab and Ruth and Bathsheba. What you have in this genealogy are two prostitutes, someone who is not even Jewish in a Jewish genealogy, Ruth, and Bathsheba, an adulteress. Why would Matthew pull these four women into this genealogy? Why did he go out of his way to do it?

This family tree was filled with people who made huge mistakes. In fact, we would call them scandals… scandals of historic proportions. But God is bigger than that and I love the way this story turns out.

I want to look at the first scandalous great, great grandmother of Christ–Tamar.

Read Genesis 38:6:

“In the course of time, Judah arranged for his firstborn son, Er, to marry a young woman named Tamar. But Er was a wicked man in the Lord’s sight, so the Lord took his life. Then Judah said to Er’s brother Onan, “Go and marry Tamar, as our law requires of the brother of a man who has died. You must produce an heir for your brother.” But Onan was not willing to have a child who would not be his own heir. So whenever he had intercourse with his brother’s wife, he spilled his seed on the ground. This prevented her from having a child who would belong to his brother. But the Lord considered it evil for Onan to deny a child to his dead brother. So the Lord took Onan’s life, too.”

Ok, this is already messed up. Seems to me like Tamar is 0 for 2. She is widowed twice, and come on, she was probably better off with those two husbands dead, because they were wicked. This is serious reality. The thing I love about the Bible is it doesn’t sugar coat thing, it shares the reality of the human condition.

I don’t know how old Tamar is at this point, but do you think this is the life she wanted. What I see as I read this story, I picture this little girl with dreams of growing up and falling in love and having a family, but her life is a nightmare and it’s about to get worse.

Then Judah said to Tamar, his daughter-in-law, “Go back to your parents’ home and remain a widow until my son Shelah is old enough to marry you.” (But Judah didn’t really intend to do this because he was afraid Shelah would also die, like his two brothers.) So Tamar went back to live in her father’s home. Some years later Judah’s wife died. After the time of mourning was over, Judah and his friend Hirah the Adullamite went up to Timnah to supervise the shearing of his sheep. Someone told Tamar, “Look, your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep.” Tamar was aware that Shelah had grown up, but no arrangements had been made for her to come and marry him. So she changed out of her widow’s clothing and covered herself with a veil to disguise herself. Then she sat beside the road at the entrance to the village of Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. Judah noticed her and thought she was a prostitute, since she had covered her face. So he stopped and propositioned her. “Let me have sex with you,” he said, not realizing that she was his own daughter-in-law. “How much will you pay to have sex with me?” Tamar asked. “I’ll send you a young goat from my flock,” Judah promised. “But what will you give me to guarantee that you will send the goat?” she asked. “What kind of guarantee do you want?” he replied. She answered, “Leave me your identification seal and its cord and the walking stick you are carrying.” So Judah gave them to her. Then he had intercourse with her, and she became pregnant. Afterward she went back home, took off her veil, and put on her widow’s clothing as usual.

If this wasn’t in the Bible, I would feel like I was sinning reading it. It is so sorted, so sinful, so scandalous, I don’t want to read it, I don’t want to think about it, I don’t want to talk about it, do you? But since we’re on the subject. Isn’t this the kind of story we’d cover up? This is the last story that you would ever want to tell your kids. Did Tamar’s boys ever ask how their mom and dad fell in love? Like, ‘I actually propositioned your mother and I’m not only your dad, I’m also your grandfather, surprise!’ Can you imagine the family reunions? Can you imagine the identity issues with everybody involved in this story? Part of the reason I read that is because every once in a while, we need to read a story in the Bible that makes you feel like maybe it’s not quite as bad as I think. You’d say, ‘I thought I was messed up.’ This is so scandalous. This is about as bad as it gets.

About three months later, Judah was told, “Tamar, your daughter-in-law, has acted like a prostitute. And now, because of this, she’s pregnant.” “Bring her out, and let her be burned!” Judah demanded. But as they were taking her out to kill her, she sent this message to her father-in-law: “The man who owns these things made me pregnant. Look closely. Whose seal and cord and walking stick are these?” Judah recognized them immediately and said, “She is more righteous than I am, because I didn’t arrange for her to marry my son Shelah.” And Judah never slept with Tamar again.

Let’s learn some lessons.

1. God’s plans are bigger than your mistakes. Aren’t you grateful for that? We know how the story ends! How did Tamar assess her own life? I’m guessing that she assessed her life as a huge tragedy. Disappointment. Betrayal. Her life is so not what she wanted it to be. But she did produce a son and that son turned out alright. And he had a son who had a son who had a son who had a son who had a son who had a son who had a son who is the Son of God.

See, I don’t think you can assess your life on your life span. What I love about the Bible genealogies is this, zoom out and take a 42-generation perspective. Sometimes, we get so embroiled in the minute, circumstantial details of our lives, we just feel like our lives aren’t what we want them to be and what we need is a little bit of eternal perspective.  God’s plans are bigger than your mistakes-sexual or otherwise. I think sometimes we reduce God to the size of our biggest failure. But He is bigger than that.

2. Let me make a second observation. It’s not who goes before you, it’s who you leave behind. I think some of us read these stories and we can identify with them because we come from dysfunctional families and dysfunctional situations. At Christmas, a lot of people are going back into situations where it just brings all this stuff back, and the truth is, some of you are here and you wonder if you’re destined to make the same mistakes that your parents made. You wonder if you inherited their genes! You ask, ‘am I going to mess up the same way my parents messed up?’ Be encouraged. Your mom is not you, your dad is not you, you are not them, you are a unique individual and you don’t have to make the same mistakes. You can leave a magnificent legacy with Christ’s help.

3. Finally, look at Grandmother Tamar. She was a part of the Messiah’s genealogy! You are, too! If you have put your faith in Christ, then Galatians 3 says you are a child of Abraham, you have been grafted into this genealogy and His church is your family. It is your messed-up family.  We are all sinners, and yet John writes in John chapter 1: “…as many as have received Him, to them He gave the power to become children of God.” You can’t imagine how important you are to God’s family. You have the divine genes of Almighty God! You are of infinite value to Him.


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