The audience for which Matthew wrote was conversant with the Jewish Scriptures, so when he mentions Tamar in the genealogy, they would know her story. The Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) was read in its entirety in the traditional synagogues on the Sabbaths of a single year. The 38th chapter of Genesis, where Tamar’s story is told would thus be read on the sixth or seventh Sabbath following the beginning of the liturgical cycle in the month of Nisan. Tamar’s story interrupted the familiar story of Joseph, so it stood out in clear relief. Listen now to her story.
Judah, the son of Jacob, had married the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua and by her he had three sons, Er, Onan and Shelah. While in the land of Chezib, Judah took for Er, his oldest son, a wife whose name was Tamar. She too was a Canaanite. Er, we are told in the Bible, was wicked and “God killed him.” So Tamar, in accordance with Jewish practice, was given to Onan, Er’s brother, to be his wife. Onan, however, did not want to raise up children to his deceased brother, so he practiced “coitus interruptus,” which has given us the word “Onanism.” This so displeased God, the Bible tells us, that God killed Onan also. Shelah was next in line to take Tamar as his wife, but he was only a small boy and by this time Tamar’s reputation for being responsible for the deaths of her first two husbands was fixed. Shelah, therefore, was not interested in or desirous of doing his culturally-assigned duty. So, Judah, Tamar’s father-in-law, sent Tamar back to her father’s house in disgrace. She was now considered “damaged goods,” one who would not bring a proper “bride price.” Judah did promise her that when Shelah came of age, she would be sent for and would become his wife. Time passed and this promise was soon forgotten. During those years of passage, however, Judah lost his wife and thus became a widower.
After a period of mourning, Judah planned to go to the village of Timnah to have his sheep sheared. Tamar learned of this proposed trip and made her own plans. By this time, she was aware that Shelah, now grown, had not been offered to her as a husband. So Tamar took off her widow’s garments, put on a veil, wrapping herself in the garb of a prostitute and took a seat at the gate of her village. She knew that her village was on the road to Timnah and that Judah would have to pass her way. When Judah saw her, assuming that she was a prostitute, he went over to her to negotiate for her services offering her a lamb from his flock in payment for her “favors.” She demanded that he give her something of value to secure the promise; a pledge, if you will, until the lamb was delivered. She requested Judah’s signet ring, his cord and his staff. Judah gave them to her without debate and so the act was consummated. The next day Judah, acting, he felt, in good faith sent the lamb with one of his servants and asked Tamar to return his possessions. Tamar, however, could not be found. The people of her village denied that there ever was a prostitute who solicited business at their gate. So the lamb came back to Judah. To avoid embarrassment, he simply charged this experience off as a bad business deal.
Three months later, the rumor came to Judah that Tamar his daughter-in-law was pregnant. He was angry and when this rumor was confirmed, he took action to have her put to death at the stake for the crime of “harlotry.” As Tamar was being brought forth to be burned, she sent a message and some gifts to Judah. “I am with child,” she said, “by the owner of this ring, this cord and this staff.” Judah recognized them as his own. He then repented of the way he had treated Tamar and took her into his home and harem. She produced twins and one of them, a boy named Perez, was in the line between Abraham and Jesus. By the standards of that day, sex with one’s father-in-law was considered to be incest and was condemned. In Matthew’s genealogy, however, the proclamation was made that the line that produced Jesus had flowed through the incest of Tamar. It was a strange and fascinating way to open the story of Jesus.
The second woman mentioned in this genealogy was named Rahab. Her story is told in chapters two and six of the book of Joshua. She lived in Jericho, a Canaanite city, where she ran a brothel in the red light district. She was known in the book of Joshua as “Rahab the prostitute.” When Joshua sent spies into Jericho, they went to the house of Rahab, which was built into the walls that encircled the city. When rumors of the presence of these spies spread throughout the city, Rahab hid them from the searching authorities and when the gates of the city were locked after dark, she let them down outside the walls in a basket so that they could make their escape. She exacted a promise from them, however, that when the invasion of Jericho came, she and her family, all of whom would be gathered in her house, would be spared. It was done, and they were saved. Rahab married a Jew named Salmon, perhaps he was a soldier in Joshua’s army, perhaps he was even one of the spies. In this story Matthew now says that the line that produced Jesus flowed through Rahab, the prostitute. The intrigue grows.
The third woman in Matthew’s genealogy was Ruth the Moabite, whose story is told in the book that bears her name. A Jewish family, Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons Mahlon and Chilion, moved from Israel to Moab to escape a famine. Both sons soon married Moabite women, whose names were Orpah and Ruth. Then tragedy struck and the three men in this family died, leaving a Jewish widow and her two Moabite daughters-in-law. Naomi urged her two daughters in law to return to the protection of their fathers. Orpah did so, but Ruth refused and she and Nomi returned together to the land of the Jews. Two widowed, and thus single women, did not constitute a viable family in the Jewish world. There were no jobs for women; they lived by begging and gleaning. Gleaning was the process of allowing the poor to scour the fields after the harvest for enough grain to keep one alive. This is what Ruth did each day for Naomi. In this capacity, she came to the attention of the owner of the fields, a man named Boaz, who was a distant relative of Elimelech, Naomi’s deceased husband. Boaz protected Ruth from the male workers in the field and ordered them to leave some grain deliberately in the field for her to gather. He also saw to it that she got water. Naomi, pleased when she heard of these signs, planned her own course of action.
A celebration was to be held when the crop was harvested. At this celebration there would be revelry and much wine. Naomi instructed Ruth to go to the celebration, bathed, perfumed and in her best dress. She was, however, not to make herself known to Boaz until “his heart was merry” with wine. Ruth agreed. When Boaz was well drunk, he lay down on the floor and went to sleep. Ruth put a pillow under his head and a blanket across his body and then climbed under the blanket with him. At midnight Boaz awoke and discovered Ruth under the blanket with him. “Who are you?” he asked, but Ruth having successfully seduced him, responded by saying, “Marry me,” for “you are next of kin.” Boaz protested that there was a kinsman closer than he. That kinsman, however, renounced that claim and Boaz married Ruth and they produced a son named Obed. The line that produced Jesus, said Matthew, now flowed through the seduction of Ruth. The mystery thickens.
The final woman in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus was “the wife of Uriah, the Hittite.” Her story is told in II Samuel 11. Her name is Bathsheba. She came to King David’s attention while bathing on the rooftop of her home in what she thought was privacy. David’s rooftop towered above hers, however, and he could and did look down on the bathing scene. Smitten by her charms, he sent emissaries to her house inviting her to come to the king’s palace for a “tryst.” She came. Whether she had a right to refuse is not stated, but it was improbable. A few months after this tryst, Bathsheba sent word to King David that she was pregnant with his child. David demurred. She was a married woman, how did she know in this pre-DNA world that it was his child?
Bathsheba responded that her husband was away serving in the king’s army and that he had been gone for months. You alone, she said, can be the father of this baby. David sought to give Uriah a furlough so that he could come home, enjoy his wife and thus become the “presumptive father.” The baby just came early, people would say. Uriah, however, refused to cooperate. So David had Uriah killed in battle and took Bathsheba into his harem. Matthew was now saying that the line that produced Jesus of Nazareth flowed through the adultery of Bathsheba. We cannot help but wonder why he is introducing his story of Jesus in this way.
The incest of Tamar, the prostitution of Rahab, the seduction of Ruth and the adultery of Bathsheba were the experiences in his ancestry through which Jesus came to be born, as shown in the story of Matthew’s genealogy. All of these women were foreign, and by the standards of that day, all of these women were sexually compromised. This is the way Matthew introduces the story of Jesus’ birth. What was Matthew seeking to communicate? Surely he did not have birth records so that he could trace Jesus’ lineage with any degree of accuracy. Both Matthew and his reading audience would have known this. They would have been amused that anyone at any time would have thought of this family tree as literal history.
We need to recognize, however, that Matthew is the first gospel writer to suggest that the birth of Jesus was supernatural and miraculous. He introduced this tradition into Christianity, but it was not until the ninth decade of the Christian era that it appeared. Simultaneously he suggested that the line that produced Jesus passed through incest, prostitution, seduction and adultery. When this series continues we will begin to unpack this dramatic introduction.