“A woman was pledged to be married to a man, but before they came together, she was found to be with child.”
You know the story I’m talking about, right? Actually, I had another story in mind, a story that takes a very different turn than the Christmas story. Get ready: It’s a crazy one!
A woman’s name was Tamar. By law, she was betrothed to the brother of her two deceased husbands. When she was found to be with child, the order was given for her to be executed. However, the execution was halted when it was discovered that the father was the very man who ordered her execution! I’m not making up this soap opera. It’s right there in the Bible, Genesis 38. And I’m giving you the sanitized version!
It’s one thing to read about a bizarre episode like this. It’s another thing for it to happen in your own family. Most likely none of us have a story quite like that in our families. But we do have our own surprising, and sometimes embarrassing, twists and turns. Initially we think, “That kind of stuff happens in someone else’s family. Not in mine.” And then it does happen in our families.
To our surprise, the kind of tensions that only happen in someone else’s family find their way into our families. Broken marriages, which only happen in someone else’s family, happen in our families. Lifestyle choices that only happen in someone else’s family happen in our families. The messes of life humble us and remind that we’re no better than anyone else.
A few weeks ago, my mom’s cousin and his wife were in town from Chicago and we had a marvelous conversation on the living room couch at my house. We got into all sorts of stories from the past. Cousin Joe confirmed a rumor and added some specifics to my family history. My great-grandfather was an errand runner for mafia leaders in Chicago! This was in my family!
If you’re surprised that certain things can happen even within your family, you might also be surprised at Jesus’ family background. Matthew’s Gospel begins with a genealogy. Most people prefer to skip the genealogy and go straight to the Christmas story. But if we skip past the genealogy, we miss its treasures.
The genealogy contains four of Jesus’ great-grandmothers. Each of them is a unique entry in the family tree. First of all, in Bible times women typically weren’t included in genealogies. Secondly, each woman’s story shows God’s surprising grace. Just as Tamar’s story is scandalous, so also the stories of Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba raise eyebrows. Rahab was a prostitute, Ruth was a Gentile, and Bathsheba was another man’s wife.
The genealogy demonstrates that God works through human actions and in spite of human actions to accomplish His purposes.
Through this messy family tree, God worked His ultimate purpose: bringing a Savior into the world. Just after the genealogy, the narrative begins with the angel appearing to Joseph in a dream. The angel announced to Joseph that Mary’s child was not conceived by an act of unfaithfulness but by the Holy Spirit. Then the angel said these key words, “She will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)
Who are His people? Just look backwards in the chapter and read the genealogy. Those are His people. The whole mess of them. Not just the five women.
But Jacob, who deceived his family.
And Judah, the father of Tamar’s twins.
And David, whose acts of murder and adultery inserted Bathsheba into the family line.
And Solomon, who had 700 wives and chased after their gods, leading to the decline and destruction of Israel.
And Manasseh, an evil king who the Bible says “shed very much innocent blood, till he had filled Jerusalem from one side to another.” (2 Kings 21:16 ESV)
Need I go on? Jesus’ family is filled with sinners!
By faith in Jesus, sinners like you and me are included in the family line, too. Galatians 3:26 (NIV): “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.” Our names are not written in the genealogy of Matthew 1. More important, our names are written in “the book of life”! (Revelation 21:27 ESV) Not because of anything we’ve done, but because of what Jesus did.
Though Jesus came from a line of sinful people, He was without sin. He was able to save His people from their brokenness because He resisted temptation every step of the way. He resisted all the way to the cross, where with His blood, He paid the price for the sins of Judah and Tamar, the sins of Rahab, the sins of David, the sins of evil King Manasseh, and the sins of the whole world. In Christ, God forgives the sins of all who trust in Him.
Through Jesus, we are defined not by our messes but by His glory.
We’re Romans 8:28 people. Romans 8:28 (ESV) says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose.” In the messiness of Tamar’s story, God worked it out for His good purposes.
Jesus traces His human lineage back to Tamar and her son Perez. Outside of Genesis, Tamar is only mentioned twice in the Bible – once in Matthew 1 and once in Ruth 4. In Ruth 4, the elders of the community spoke a blessing over Boaz and his new wife Ruth: “May your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the offspring the Lord will give to you by this young woman.” (Ruth 4:12 ESV)
Isn’t that incredible? The names of Tamar and her son are invoked as a blessing for King David’s great-grandparents! This is how Tamar was remembered, not for her actions, but for the good work that God accomplished.
When planning a funeral with families, one of the questions I ask is: “How do you think your loved one would want to be remembered?” Most commonly the answers are as a person of faith, as a good husband or wife, and as a good mom or dad. Here’s another great answer. How was Tamar remembered? As an instrument of God’s divine plan.
How about that as a way to be remembered? As an instrument of God’s divine plan. In a passage that at first glance appears uninspiring – a genealogy – we find an invaluable lesson: By God’s grace in Christ, each of us can be remembered as an instrument of God’s divine plan. Even in spite of our current messes or the messes of our past, God’s glory shines through you as He works out His good purposes.
If you found this post interesting or helpful, please subscribe and also share it on social media so that others may benefit, too. Thank you!