Pastor’s note: this Advent, I want to ask you to consider some of Jesus’ distant relatives, and what they might tell us about him, teach us about our own faith and change our daily practice.
This first week we begin with Tamar and Judah. (Yes, I meant ‘distant relatives’ when I wrote it above. But the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel includes Judah and Tamar…)
Please begin by reading Genesis 38:1-26. It’s one hell of a story, especially considering it’s a Bible story. Did you notice that God is never mentioned?
But Matthew’s gospel traces Jesus’ lineage through Judah and Tamar; that means that the offspring of their union became a forefather of Jesus. Think of that for a messed up family background.
Today’s reading is about the awful story of their relationship. Judah and Tamar are far from a perfect couple. Their relationship is built on tragedy, hurt, distrust and deception. Except for the deaths of his sons, Judah is the instigator of the trouble, or at least where the problems begin.
Judah is the son of the famous Hebrew Bible patriarch Jacob. He’s not the father’s favored son; that distinction belonged to Joseph, the dreamer who annoyed the rest of his brothers. Judah was not the eldest of Jacob’s children, either. That was Reuben, who decided it was better that the brothers not kill Joseph… It was a big family with a lot of drama. Papa Jacob was himself a trickster and a scoundrel. Judah didn’t fall far from the tree, it seems.
Today’s story begins with the account of Judah’s family at the beginning of chapter 38. Now we’re beginning to understand what kind of family we are working in! And these are among the foreparents of Jesus? The story begins with the birth of Judah’s three boys, Er, Onan, and Shelah.
His eldest son, Er, married a woman named Tamar, but Er died before the couple could have children. At the time, it was customary for Tamar to marry one of Judah’s other sons that they might provide for their brother and his widow an heir. And that’s what Tamar did: she married Onan. But Onan also died childless (because he refused to give her a child that would be his deceased brother’s, and not his).
Judah then told Tamar to return to her own father’s house to live as a widow until it was the turn of his youngest son, Shelah, to marry her. But this added insult to injury: according to custom, Judah should have allowed Tamar to stay in his house. He should have provided for her following the death his first two sons. Instead, Tamar fades into the family background, widowed, alone, and uncertain that her father-in-law will ever provide for her.
In response, Tamar concocts a devious plan to entrap Judah. She does this to force him to care for her, per his obligation. She expects that he will act dishonorably. In fact, her whole plan revolves around Judah’s predictably poor behavior. Ultimately, she read her father-in-law right, and her plan succeeds.
This kind of story is shocking wherever we find it. But when it’s part of Scripture, we might really be left wondering. As I have already said, God is never mentioned in all this. We don’t really have any clue what God thinks about all the trouble this family is experiencing, or getting itself into.
Still, we know that God has already made a promise to Grandpa Jacob and to Jacob’s father, Great Grandpa Abraham. God stays true to this promise even though neither Judah nor Tamar really behave like the kind of folks we think of as godly. Tamar acts out of desperation perhaps. Judah is just downright “snaky” – irresponsible and duplicitous.
The desperation and deception at the heart of their relationship are part of Jesus’ family story. The characters here do not need to behave themselves in order for God to carry them along into the divine plan and promise. Consider that. The people do not need to behave themselves for God to work through them and keep them “in line.” It’s never really about our actions, church, so much as God’s faithfulness.
If you are searching for God’s work or godly goodness in this story, consider this: once the truth comes out, Judah admits what he has done is wrong and reconciles with Tamar. They model the complicated reconciliation that Christians should seek, even in our messiest human relationships.
REFLECT: When has God carried you along in the story of salvation despite your behavior?
PRAY: “God of truth and true love, we try to hide our shadow selves, but you see through all our disguises and deceptions. You know the truth behind the lies we tell others and ourselves. Help us acknowledge and struggle with our imperfections so we can let you rebuild our lives in love. Amen.”
FIND: We are invited to create “Jesse Trees” during Advent this year. They will be hung or decorated with memorials to the people in Jesus’ family tree and to the kinds of lessons they teach us.
People participating in the Midweek Service and people reflecting on these Advent Devotions are both invited to “deck” a Jesse Tree for Advent. You can use an old table top Christmas tree, a bare branch, or even a coat hangar. Michael is just going to use the Rubber Tree and the Madagascar Dragon Plant in the temporary office window.
Begin this week, by finding something that you could use to help others. Examples include a bandage, a towel, a donation you’d offer at your local pantry, or a Bible or book you can share. If something is too big to hang it on your Jesse Tree, place it nearby. Or you could hang a small picture of what you’ve chosen.
Consider that you are building an evolving Advent altar…