It’s the most wonderful time of the year: Who Do You Think You Are is on TV again.
I love a good family history story, regardless of whether I’m related to the protagonists or not, especially if I can watch it with Christmas lights around me and that now famous hygge feeling. I have become convinced through watching that I must, somehow, be related to royalty – all I need to do now is prove it. But despite my love of pouring over a family tree, or settling down with a cuppa for an hour of history, genealogies in the Bible rarely bring that same feeling of festive, or indeed any, joy.
The Christmas story as told in Matthew begins with a long list of names. There’s a reason this chapter doesn’t often feature in school nativities. While some names are recognisable the world over, others are seemingly unpronounceable and obscure. A few of the characters are familiar, featuring in Bible passages, yet others are mentioned only as the father of another. It seems like a lot of effort to read through in detail, so can’t I just gloss over the list and move on to the story?
But David Suchet recently answered this question when asked about his reading of the genealogies for the audio Bible: wasn’t it somewhat tedious to read list after list of names, not to mention finding them difficult to pronounce? It was, he confessed – until he had a realisation. Each of these names was considered important enough to put into this book. Each had a story. Each person was recorded, even if the reason, or what happened to them, has been long since lost. Their roles as children, siblings and parents was significant. Each family would have held this person dear and acknowledged them in their own family tree. That alone made their names worth practising and reading aloud with respect. It’s a sobering thought.
Jesus isn’t biologically related to any of the men or women in this list, except for Mary. The genealogy is of Joseph, Jesus’ adoptive father. Regardless of biological connection, this is Jesus’ family and line, and mirrors our adoption as sons and daughters of God, made possible through Jesus’ death on the cross.
With this in mind, I began to invest more in these lists and make an effort to read each name rather than skimming through to get onto the next bit of the story, and I returned to a thought that strikes me every time. Five of the names within this particular genealogy are women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary. The mention of these five women in the ancestry of Jesus is not immaterial. It gives us a glimpse of what is to come in Jesus’ life and attitudes; significant roles for women in an otherwise patriarchal society.
As Advent is a period of waiting, reflection and anticipation as we lead up to the birth of Jesus, it’s apt that the first woman’s story in this genealogy is one of patience and waiting for a promise to come to fruition. Tamar’s story in Genesis is a small chapter nestled among the more famous ones of her uncle-in-law, Joseph. Her life, bearing similar hallmarks, is one of repeated disappointment and requiring patience on a seemingly smaller but ultimately no less significant scale.
Her first husband Er, aptly named in British translation, is “wicked in the Lord’s sight” (verse 6) and dies. Fortunately, as custom demanded, his brother Onan could provide for Tamar, but knowing any child would be deemed his brother’s, he deliberately prevents conception. His actions too, were wicked in God’s eyes and he dies.
To be married to men so apparently awful, twice widowed and childless, seems desperate enough for Tamar, but, not grasping that it was his sons’ blatant disregard of God’s word that has killed them, Judah unjustly blames Tamar and becomes afraid that his youngest son too will die, so sends her away, intending never to marry her to Shelah. As further insult, she is not even allowed to remain within her husbands’ family. It can’t have passed Tamar by that such was Judah’s fear, he seemed willing for his line to die out, rather than risk Tamar’s marriage to Shelah. All hope must seem exhausted.
The start of the following paragraph is simply: “But quite a while later…” (verse 12). We don’t know how long this is, but this usually seems to mean: “What feels like an inordinately long time later.” Tamar has been waiting. Unlike Joseph, she has no God-given dream to cling to, just a desire to continue the line of Judah through her children. We aren’t told how well she waited or what she did while waiting. I imagine that at times she railed at the hand life dealt her.
She waits until her mother-in-law has died, and then decides to act. Finally, perhaps despairing, determined or seeing no other option as Judah’s promise has not been fulfilled, Tamar goes to Judah himself to father a child for her, by dressing as a prostitute and meeting him at the roadside. It’s here that the parallel between Judah in this chapter and Joseph in Genesis 39 becomes apparent.
While Joseph flees Potiphar’s wife so as not to be caught in adultery, Judah embraces both woman and opportunity. It’s Tamar who is faithful. Regardless of Judah’s faithlessness in his promises to her, she turns to him to father her child, in order to continue his family line. Yet still, Tamar doesn’t rush ahead. She waits, even when – as her pregnancy is revealed – Judah condemns her to death for her unfaithfulness. She knows that within her possession, and for such a time as this, she holds evidence of his part in the pregnancy – his staff, seal and cord; her vindication.
Tamar was not a Jew, and we don’t know whether she even knew of God. How much more then could I be guided by God in my actions, and have patience to see His plans enacted as Joseph did?
Do I have Tamar’s patience? Not often. I rush headlong into situations and open my mouth to speak quickly. Do I wait to act and consider my motives, or are they an afterthought to the situation?
Tamar waits through disappointment, through uncertainty and through injustice, and her actions anticipate the advent of Jesus’ presence on the earth; her children the promise of the future.
Tamar’s sons fulfil the promise that “though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me, one who will be ruler over Israel” (Micah 5:2), and Tamar herself is wrapped up in this promise. Her deliberate waiting achieves her aim; to continue the line of Judah. And through her faithfulness and commitment, this ordinary woman becomes an ancestor of Christ himself.