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Author:Rev. George van Popta
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Congregation:Jubilee Canadian Reformed Church
 Ottawa, Ontario
Preached At:Ancaster Canadian Reformed Church
 Ancaster, Ontario
Title:Righteous Tamar
Text:Matthew 1:3a (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:God's faithfulness

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Songs - Ps. 76:1,5; Hy. 12:1; Ps. 12:4; Hy. 11; Ps. 69:11,12; Ps. 68:10

Readings - Gen. 38; Mt. 1:1-6

Text - Matt 1:3a - Judah [was] the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar....
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. George van Popta, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ:

In ch. 1 of his book, the evangelist Matthew recorded the genealogy, the family line of the Lord Jesus. He started with Abraham, the father of the nation Israel, and the father of all believers. From Abraham the family line goes through Judah to King David. And then through the royal house of King David to the Lord Jesus Christ.

This genealogy firmly roots Jesus Christ in history. He has roots. He has an earthly family line, an earthly family history.

In this family line of the Lord Jesus, many men, many fathers are mentioned. But in addition to the many fathers, five women, five mothers are mentioned. These five mothers are: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary.

In these Sundays before Christmas, at which time we remember the incarnation of the Son of God, we are, DV, going to listen to what the Scriptures tell us about each of these five mothers of the Messiah of Israel. We are going to see what place God gave each of them in the history of his church. And we are going to see how the Lord God used each of these mothers in bringing about His plan for a Saviour for his church.

The first mother mentioned in the family line of the Messiah is Tamar. God used Tamar to pave the way towards the Saviour. We see that in Gen. 38. There we see that Judah brought things to a dead end by his wickedness. But God used Tamar to break through that dead end.

I proclaim to you the Word of God under this theme:


1. The wickedness of Judah; 2. The righteousness of Tamar; 3. The faithfulness of God.

1. Matthew 1:3 says that Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar. This is rather shocking since Tamar was Judah's daughter-in-law.

How did this come about?

Genesis 38 provides the background. There we read about Judah leaving his brothers. He left the covenant community. He withdrew from the OT church. Jacob and his family formed the covenant community, the church. Jacob, his sons, daughters, and grandchildren, lived in Hebron. That's the same place at which his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham had lived. Judah pulled himself back from that and went to live among the Canaanites.

In Gen. 37 we can read about the sons of Jacob selling their brother Joseph into slavery. Joseph ended up in Egypt. The brothers had effectively cut one tribe out of the church. And now a second tribe is straying away. Judah withdraws. And he becomes part of Canaanite life and culture. He moves to a place called Adullam. Hebron was in the central highlands of the land of Palestine. Adullam was on the plain called "the Shephelah" - the plain between the central highlands and the Mediterranean sea. There in Adullam he became good friends with a Canaanite named Hirah. He set up a business dealing in sheep. He hired men to work for him. And he even married a Canaanite woman.

He yoked himself unequally to those whom God had cursed. In Gen. 9:25 God had said, "Cursed be Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers." In spite of that, and in spite of the separation God had made between his covenant community and the pagan world, Judah blurred all distinctions and made friends with Canaanites, and even married one.

At first everything seemed to be going quite well. Judah and his wife received three sons: Er, Onan and Shelah. Judah arranged for his first-born son, Er, to marry a local girl called Tamar.

Contrast that to the effort Abraham took in finding a wife for his son Isaac! He sent his servant Eliezer all the way back to his homeland to find a girl for Isaac - a girl called Rebekah. Jacob as well went back to the homeland for a wife.

However, Judah, fully entrenched in Canaanite culture, chose a Canaanite girl for his son Er. As I said, at first everything seemed to be going well. But after the marriage of Er and Tamar, things began to go badly.

Er was wicked in the sight of the LORD. We don't know what Er did to make the LORD angry. But anyway, the LORD slew Er. God killed him.

This left Tamar childless. The custom among the nations of the ANE was that if a man died without leaving a son to carry on his family name, then the next eldest brother of the dead man was to take the widow as his wife. (This law would even be enshrined in God's law for Israel later in Deut. 25.) The rule was that the first son born would be considered a son of the dead man. That son would carry on the name of the dead man. And he would inherit the dead man's estate.

This was called, "the duty of the brother-in-law". After Er died Judah told his second son, Onan, to marry Tamar in order to raise up offspring for Er. However, Onan did not want to do this. He took Tamar as his wife. But he prevented her from becoming pregnant. If Tamar had no child, then the lion's share of father Judah's estate would, by default, fall to him. He was the oldest remaining son. However, if Tamar did have a child, a son who would carry on the line of the first-born (the line of Er), then that son would get the lion's share. Onan could not touch it. And so he prevented Tamar from conceiving a child. This displeased God. And so God killed Onan as well.

This left Judah one young son - Shelah. The duty of the brother-in-law now fell to Shelah. But he was still too young to marry.

Judah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, "Live as a widow in your father's house until my son Shelah grows up." Really, he was promising his youngest son Shelah to Tamar as soon as Shelah was old enough to marry. However, in his mind, he had no intention of giving Shelah to Tamar. He was scared to give Shelah. The superstitious fears of the Canaanites had taken hold of Judah. He thought that Tamar was the cause of the death of Er and Onan. In his mind he thought it was her fault, rather than the fault of the disobedience and godless living in which he had led his sons to walk. He didn't want to risk his third and only remaining son by putting him into Tamar's arms. So Tamar moved back into her father's house, a childless widow.

Some years later, Judah's wife died. He had no intention of giving Shelah to Tamar. His own wife died. And so there was no more opportunity for more children to be born. Judah had reached a dead end. He had become a dead branch on the tree of the church.

His own wickedness led him to the brink of extinction. He left the church. Allied himself with the world. His children have died off. The only hope for his line to be continued in a legitimate way was for him to give Shelah to Tamar. But he refused to do this because of superstitious fears.

Things looked good at first-to the eyes of man, that is. But God does not bless wickedness and disobedience. Sometimes when people withdraw from the church, things look good at first. For awhile they feel like everything is on the up and up. But God will not bless that disobedience. The end will be sour.

Behind the wickedness of Judah, there was a spiritual struggle going on. A struggle between Satan and God. Satan is not omniscient, but he was starting to get it. Satan knew that God planned to bring forth a Saviour for the world through Judah - through what would become the royal tribe. And Satan did whatever he could to prevent that. Satan was behind Judah's leaving the covenant community. Satan was behind Judah's assimilating completely with Canaanite culture. Satan was behind the wickedness of Er and Onan. Satan filled Judah with superstitions that kept him from giving Shelah to Tamar.

It looks like Satan has won. It looks like God's plan for a Saviour has failed dismally. Judah has become a dead branch on the tree of the church. And dead branches are cut off and thrown into the fire. So much for God's plan to bring a royal Saviour out of the house of Judah.

At least, that's what it looks like at this point. But we should not be fooled by appearances. Because, God goes on. He goes on with his plan in spite of the obstacles and stumbling blocks the devil throws in His way.

2. The righteousness of Tamar.

Tamar realized that Judah was not going to give her to Shelah. Although Shelah had grown up, Judah left her to keep on living as a widow in her father's house.

Then one day Tamar heard that her father-in-law was going to Timnah (about 30 km from Adullam) to shear his sheep. A plot hatched in her mind. She seized the opportunity.

The sheep shearing festival was a time of much drinking. It was also a time of sexual excess, especially in Canaanite culture. Ritual fornication was part of the Canaanite religion. It was considered fertility magic.

Tamar knew that Judah would not be above temptation. She took off her widow's garments and dressed herself in the clothes of a Canaanite cult prostitute. She covered her face with a heavy veil so that Judah would not recognize her and sat along the road halfway between Adullam and Timnah.

Before long Judah came along and fell into Tamar's trap. He didn't recognize her as his daughter-in-law. He thought she was a prostitute. He propositioned her. They agreed on a price: He would give her a young goat from his flock. And he even gave his seal, cord and staff as a pledge that he would pay.

A man would keep a seal tied to a cord around his neck. With it he would sign documents. Documents were written on clay tablets. The seal would contain the man's mark, like our signatures. And he would press it in the wet clay to leave his mark.

A man also carried a staff. A staff was not just any old stick. It would have all sorts of elaborate carvings on it. It was a symbol of the man's strength.

Judah left these with Tamar as pledges that he would later send a young goat in payment for her sexual favours.

After the deed was done, Judah carried on to Timnah. Tamar put on her widow's clothes again and went back to her father's house. Before long she realized that her plan had worked. She was pregnant by her father-in-law. Judah sent his friend Hirah the Adullamite with a young goat in order to pay the woman and to get back his seal and staff. But Hirah could not find her. When Hirah reported back to Judah, Judah told him to forget it. He didn't want to become a laughingstock in the community. Better just to drop the whole matter. The whole situtation had the potential to become very embarrassing for Judah.

We are a little stunned by the actions of Tamar. They seem strange to us. But we should not judge Tamar by today's measuring stick. Tamar was a product of her time and of her culture. And she had certain rights. She had the right to be the mother of the children of Judah's firstborn son. Judah had chosen her to be wife of Er, his firstborn. And since he died childless, her brothers-in-law had an obligation to fulfill to her, to their oldest brother, and to the family line. On top of that, in the ANE, part of the custom was that if there were no sons who could fulfill the duty of the brother-in-law, then the obligation fell to the father-in-law. Much later, in Lev. 18, God would forbid this. He would forbid a man from lying with his daughter-in-law. But the fact remains that that was part of the custom of Tamar's society. Tamar was only trying to acquire that to which she had a legal right. She was the rightful matriarch of Judah's eldest's line.

Yes, Tamar was guilty of deception, of trickery. We cannot condone that. And yet we must realize that Judah was wronging her by not giving her to Shelah. He was withholding from her that to which she had a right.

About three months later someone reported to Judah that Tamar his daughter-in-law was pregnant. "Judah! Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution!"

Cult prostitutes - harlots associated with the Canaanite religions - had favoured status in society. However, if any other woman, especially a married woman or one betrothed was caught in prostitution, she would be burned to death. Technically, Tamar was committed to Shelah, even if Judah was withholding Shelah from Tamar. And so self-righteous Judah in a fit of (hypcritical) fury pronounced an immediate judgment against his daughter-in-law: "Bring her out and have her burned to death!"

Although she was living in her father's house as a widow, she was a widow of Judah's household. He had the authority to demand her death. Tamar had insulted his family. She had insulted his dead son Er. She had insulted him - Judah, himself. "Bring her out and have her burned to death!"

Tamar played the moment with great effect. As she was being led out to be burned with fire, she was carrying Judah's seal, cord and staff. She said to Judah, "I am pregnant by the man who owns these .... See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are."

Judah, shaken by the sudden turn of events, admitted that they were his. He admitted his own hypocrisy. He said, "She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn't give her to my son Shelah."

Tamar, more righteous than Judah. The woman of Canaan more righteous than the man of the covenant. Tamar has seen better than Judah the important point; namely, the continuation of the family line of Judah. Judah, through his wickedness, had let his own family line reach a dead end. Tamar did something to continue the family line. We cannot condone her methods, and yet it is Tamar and not Judah who did something to continue the family line and the life of the church.

Judah realized that. And he realized that the child Tamar was carrying was protected. It was protected by his own seal and staff which Tamar held in her hands. The seal represented the authority of Judah. The child was protected by that authority. The staff represented Judah's power. The child was protected by that power. The child was protected and designated as the future head of the tribe. After this Judah allowed Tamar to take her rightful place in his household. Gen. 38:26 says that Judah did not lie with her again. Tamar took her place not as Judah's wife, but as his daughter-in-law, and as the mother of Judah's legitimate descendants.

This is also shown by Matthew 1. In the family line of Christ, God gave Tamar the honour of being one of the mothers of Christ.

Not only was Tamar gathered into the church. That alone was a great gift of God's grace to her. It can encourage sinners today. No matter who you are or what you have done in the past, there is a place for you in the church. If you repent of your sin and go to Jesus Christ, the friend of repentant sinners, he will forgive your sin and bring you into his people. Like God brought Tamar into his church.

But not only was Tamar gathered into the church, but she becomes one of the highly esteemed mothers in the family ancestry of Jesus Christ. In the following chapters of Genesis, we see a different Judah. One who turns back from worldliness, from embracing Canaanite culture; Judah, who repents from his hypocrisy and takes Tamar back with him to the church.

Judah teaches long time members of the church not to be presumptuous about their status. If Judah can fall, so can you; so, be careful. Do not presume upon you status as church member. But in Judah's life, we also see the grace of God in that he brought Judah to his senses and back to the church. Judah returns to his father Jacob and to his brothers. He returns to the covenant community, the church. And Tamar goes with him. Tamar, as the matriarch of Judah's descendents, goes with Judah and takes her rightful place in the covenant community. And God blesses her by allowing her to be one of the mothers of Christ.

3. The faithfulness of God.

Judah had fallen under the powers of heathen religion and morals. Shame settled over the family. Judah's name means, "I will praise the Lord". What a joke.

But God's grace shines through the darkness and the shame. He looks down from heaven and he sees men and women struggling, fighting, and agonizing, making a mess of things. They are worried about themselves. They do not place themselves in God's hands.

But God goes on. In His own sovereign way, God goes on toward Christmas, towards the birth of Jesus, the Saviour.

Tamar bears two children. These children are struggling. Each wants to be born first. Two generations earlier Jacob and Esau struggled in their mother's womb. And Jacob was born hanging on to Esau's heel. He was trying to get past his brother.

In a similar way, Tamar's children are struggling for the birthright. As she was in labour one child put out a hand. The midwife tied a piece of scarlet thread around the baby's wrist. But he drew his hand back in and his brother was born first. When the midwife saw this she said, "So this is how you have broken out!" and named him Perez. "Perez" which means something like "to break through".

What a fitting name. God, in his sovereignty, breaks through. He breaks through the hypocrisy and the wickedness of Judah, of all his chosen people. It is so clear that it is God alone who gathers, defends and preserves his church. If it were left up to people, nothing would come of it. The church gathering work would crumble in a generation. It is God who does the work. And he does it by breaking through the rebellion and the wickedness of men and women.

Through Perez, the son of Judah and Tamar, God continues his work. Perez is a forefather of David. He is a forefather of the Christ.

God is faithful. He is faithful to his promise of a Saviour. He promised a Saviour. And no matter how badly people mess up His plan, he patiently and purposefully walks through it all to continue towards His goal.


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. George van Popta, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
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(c) Copyright 2002, Rev. George van Popta

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