The first place to start when Christians are asked what we believe, would be at the beginning, and that is the book of Matthew, the first book of the New Testament. It starts off with a genealogy. What we’ll be looking at is a few of the unusual names in there.
First, why do these genealogies exist to begin with? I have a mother-in-law who enjoys doing genealogies and a cousin who does. Shortly after our wedding, my cousin gave me the Peters family genealogy. In there, I found information on myself and my parents of course, but then I was surprised to also find my wife was already included along with her family and her birthday. My cousin had really done his homework.
Genealogies were extremely important to Jews. You had to establish your pedigree in the ancient world. When Nathaniel says “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” he is speaking a common sentiment. When the Jews have a hatred of the Samaritans, they are also going along with this. Your origins story was extremely important, and this would have to be the most important story of all Matthew was writing. What were the origins of the Son of God?
As we go through the list, we find some names we don’t expect. The first one is Tamar. What is unusual about her?
To begin with, women were not usually in genealogies. This was about men. Matthew has a number of women in his which sets it out as unusual. This had to be a purposeful addition and since a writer would only want to include the most important information in a writing, there had to be some purposeful meaning behind what was said. Matthew wants us to know that Tamar is included in the lineage and not just Judah.
Establishing that Jesus is from the tribe of Judah is important since this is where the Messiah was to come from, but establishing Tamar was not. After all, we have no mention in this genealogy of Sarah, Rebekkah, or Leah, the respective wives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Jacob did have Rachel and two concubines, but Judah was born through Leah.) The first mention we have of a woman is Tamar.
Note that I said woman and not wife. Tamar was not a wife. In fact, she was the daughter-in-law of Judah. The story is found in Genesis 38. Tamar was the wife of Judah’s son and that son was wicked so God put him to death. History kept repeating and Tamar was doubtful she would get a child then since Judah was hesitant to give his youngest son to her. So what did Tamar do? She disguised herself as a prostitute and waited for Judah to come by. Judah falls for the ruse and in that encounter, Tamar gets pregnant. She gives birth to Perez and Zerah. Perez is the one through whom Jesus comes.
In some cases in history, genealogies are given flavor to make the person look good, such as saying that one is descended from the gods. Part of the authenticity of the account of Matthew is that it includes such a shameful event. Every Jew would recognize it immediately, yet Matthew includes it. Why? Because it would not be denied for one point. The way the Christians dealt with a number of scandals was to admit them. We will look more at this in our look at the virgin birth so put it in the back of your mind for now.
Not only that, that a person of shame is used in the account can show the way of God in using that which is shameful regularly to fulfill His purposes. Many people wonder how God could use them, and the genealogy can indicate to us that anyone can be used. Also, not only can we be used, but our sinful actions can be. We should not seek to sin, but when we do, it cannot overturn the purposes of God. By biblical standards, the action between Judah and Tamar was wicked, but the child does not bear the blame. The child was still used to bring about righteousness for all people.
We today should be thankful to see these people in the genealogy of Christ and it can remind us of how the accounts are authentic due to the criteria of embarrassment that Tamar brings.