The Christmas Story has been told many ways, focusing on different people and a variety of events. Several women are key to the story, not the least of which are Mary and Elizabeth, but deep back there in the past we find some significant women who played an unwitting part in the story of the coming Messiah. It’s not surprising they are unheralded – they are buried in the dreaded genealogies of the Bible, in this case Matthew’s Gospel.
Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot Judah and his brothers. 3 Judah begot Perez and Zerah by Tamar, Perez begot Hezron, and Hezron begot Ram. 4 Ram begot Amminadab, Amminadab begot Nahshon, and Nahshon begot Salmon. 5 Salmon begot Boaz by Rahab, Boaz begot Obed by Ruth, Obed begot Jesse, 6 and Jesse begot David the king. David the king begot Solomon by her who had been the wife of Uriah. Matthew 1:2-6
In those arcane verses we see four women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Each of these four played a significant role in the development of God’s story dealing with mankind, ultimately concluding with the coming of Jesus, the Messiah. And each of these four women offer the rest of us hope, because their stories are deeply flawed, sometimes even appalling so.
So let’s start at the beginning, with Tamar. Which means we start with Judah. Now, Judah has his own backstory, but that’s for another time – suffice it to say that the stories of all involved in the lineage of the Savior of the world are filled with drama and intrigue.
Judah found a wife, Shua, and she had three sons, in order of birth: Er, Onan, and Shelah. It’s important to keep in mind here that in those times the patriarch was the decision maker, and for good reason. Women were the bearers and nurturers of children and depended on the protection and support of the husband. There were customs involving the marrying of sons and the continuing of the family line, later codified in the Law of Moses, that were rigidly adhered to. Making babies, and lots of them, was critical for the success of the clan.
Judah found a wife for his firstborn Er, a woman named Tamar. Apparently Er was evil, so God killed him. That’s all the Bible is going to say about that, but it set into motion a series of events. Following custom, Onan had to marry Tamar to continue Er’s line, evil as it was, and he was none to happy about it. Onan, so not wanting to give his brother an heir “that he emitted on the ground” thereby ensuring Tamar would not get pregnant. It worked, but God wasn’t amused so He killed Onan, too. This is one of those pieces of the Bible commonly used for the wrong reasons. Forget growing hair on your palms, according to some strict religions masturbation is a capital offense. I can’t make this stuff up.
Needless to say, these Old Testament stories aren’t pretty or for the faint of heart.
“What’s this got to do with Christmas?” would be a fair question at this point but stay with me. It’s not all about a star, a star shining in the night or shepherds keeping watch. Or even a little drummer boy, whatever that song is about.
Judah had only one son left, Shelah, and he was too young to marry Tamar. Judah had Tamar stay in his household until Shelah could marry her. This was actually a blessing, as that guaranteed her continued support. Job prospects, or even life prospects, for a twice-married woman were slim. She could have done common field laboring or, worse, become a prostitute.
So she did, sorta. Become a prostitute that is.
Not liking her outlook Tamar took that extreme action. Judah’s wife Shua had died, so Tamar realized she could snare him by disguising herself as a prostitute. Judah took the bait, offered her a young goat, but Tamar, being a shrewd businessperson, asked for a pledge of his signet, cord, and staff. Valuable stuff, but Judah had no intention of not paying the tab so “he went in to her” in the polite language of the Bible. Other translations say “sleep with” or “lie with” or some other way to keep the story at least PG.
But she conceived, so we all know what really happened.
So to sum up, we now have a twice-widowed pregnant woman whose unwitting partner is her father-in-law (taboo all by itself). And she can prove it. Which she does.
Judah, being an honest man, sends a goat as payment but not only can the prostitute not be found, the locals say there was never a prostitute hanging out there anyway. Judah called off the search, kissing the security deposit goodbye (but keeping the goat), because he realized how foolish he would look searching high and low for a woman of ill repute.
This is where it gets good. I know, right?
Three months go by, and Judah gets word that his daughter-in-law has been out working the streets and is now pregnant with an illegitimate child. Judah, (self) righteous man that he was, said to round her up and let her be burned to death. Funny, he didn’t demand the hooker he hooked up with to be burned to death…
Oh, wait. He just did.
Tamar had an ace in the hole though and produced the security deposit of Judah’s signet, cord, and staff. Talk about a reveal – this one was epic, without explosions of pink or blue!
Judah did the right thing, which is confess that he was the villain and Tamar the hero in this situation. While the story does say he did not lie with her again, she was part of his household and now an integral part of the lineage that would lead to Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Savior of the World, God become flesh and dwelling among us.
Quite the sordid story, almost daytime TV-like in its plot twists. But considering that women were not listed in genealogies, why did Matthew include this story? Why open the door and reveal the skeletons in the family closet? What can we learn from this?
Sometimes we need to begin with the end in mind.
The saving of mankind was a carefully crafted legal maneuver by the Creator of the Universe. Man had failed miserably at being man, trading paradise for working in the dirt. From that point on we have had centuries of bad living. We typically make bad choices, sometimes for good reasons, and good choices, sometimes for bad reasons. But really all that we do is selfish and clumsy and usually prone to fail. I’m talking about my life, so no finger pointing here, but we are a messed-up bunch of people. If you don’t think so, well bless your heart.
Would you pay much attention to a story filled with perfect characters, righteous individuals, straight-arrows never veering from the path? Where is the humanity in that? We are more likely drawn into a story of intrigue, debauchery and treachery with sordid twists and turns.
Because deep down we identify with those kinds of characters. We understand poor decisions, we understand our failings, we know we are just like them. We are far more likely to identify with a twice-married daughter-in-law gone a-whoring to rope in her father-in-law so she can continue the family line and ensure her personal safety and prosperity, than we can with a poor little virgin girl giving birth to God. And if you can’t, well bless your heart. Again.
Tamar was trapped in a tough spot. There were few, if any, options open to her. Her life was a failure, she had no hope. She took desperate measures to solve her problem, to try to win at life. In a world where a woman had little power, she used cunning and just good smarts to trick a man (not really that hard, amirite?).
When God sent His son to us, He wasn’t looking for the righteous or the self-righteous. He was looking for the lost, the powerless, the struggling, the poor in spirit. Jesus came to gather the lost sheep, to give hope to the hopeless, life to the dying, sight to the spiritually blind.
The Story of Christmas is a story of failure, and bad choices, and defeat. But it’s also a story of redemption, a story of a God who loves us so much He looks past our failures and provides a way forward for humanity.
The first woman in the Christmas story is a deeply flawed individual. And if you can see a bit of yourself in Tamar, then you are starting the journey forward to your own Christmas story.
But we have three more women to go….