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Bible literacy
How often do you read the Bible?



Will Graham

The genealogy of incest

A closer look at one of Jesus' problematic grandmothers.

FRESH BREEZE AUTHOR Will Graham 29 NOVEMBER 2015 07:25 h GMT+1
tamar, will graham, jesus, ancestors

If I asked you what is the most difficult part of the Bible to understand, how would you answer?

After thinking for a moment, you might reply: “Leviticus”. It’s a long book of Hebrew legislation that seems so dry and distant to us twenty-first century folk. Others might think of the long genealogies in 1 Chronicles that go on for nine painstaking chapters. No-one likes reading the difficult books. But what would you say if I asked you about the New Testament? Quite ironically, the most unread part of the New Testament nowadays is its very first paragraph. It is there where we find Matthew’s register of Jesus’ family tree (Matthew 1:1-17). What good can we possibly get out of it? Well, quite a lot actually.

Besides the astonishing fact that the genealogy of Israel’s Messiah mentions notoriously wicked men (Ahaz the Abominable, Jeconiah the Anti-Christ, Joram the Unjust and Uziah the Ungodly) as well as some unknown and otherwise insignificant men (Eliakim Who?, Azor What? and Matthan Huh?), perhaps the most mind blowing observation is that it mentions women. Women in a Jewish genealogy! That, for a start, is something worth writing down. But here’s where things get even more interesting. The four women mentioned in Jesus’ family tree are anything but your average goody two-shoes. They were problematic women with problematic biographies.

Today I want to look briefly at the first female name on the list: Tamar. Yes, that’s right, Tamar. Oh, oh…

To say that Tamar wasn’t your typical goody two-shoes is the understatement of the year. If you haven’t heard of her before, just look up Genesis 38 in your Bible. That’s some pretty wild stuff that girl did! Married into Judah’s family, her evil husband Er soon died by divine mandate. Back in those days, that meant his little bro Onan had to take charge of the husband’s business. But since he didn’t want to continue his big brother’s family line (maybe due to some type of heated family discussion a few years earlier), he did something atrocious. (And here I’m going to quote the Bible so that no-one labels me a sexual pervert). “And it came to pass, when Onan went into his brother’s wife [Tamar], that he emitted on the ground, lest he should give an heir to his brother” (Genesis 38:9). That’s right. I got that quote from the Bible. And the outcome? “And the thing which Onan did displeased the Lord; therefore He killed him also” (v. 10). So, Tamar has two husbands, and both are struck dead by the Lord. Would any of you lads out there fancy being the third one? I sure wouldn’t. I’m not that brave (or stupid!)

Well, if the truth be told, there was a third husband on the way. Or there was meant to be. His name was Shelah. The problem was the boy was far too young to get married. So Judah told his daughter-in-law to wait until Shelah grew up. Tamar obliged. The only problem was that as the years passed Judah forgot about his promise to Tamar, and so the poor woman was left on her lonesome. This led Tamar to devise a cunning plan with the purpose of tricking her father-in-law.

Following his wife’s death, one day Judah went up to shear some sheep in Timnah. Tamar, knowing her father-in-law's sheep-shearing antics, dressed up as a harlot and encountered him on the way to work. Not realizing the woman with the covered face was his daughter-in-law, he asked her, “How much do you want for a night of pleasure? Will a young goat do?” She said, “Fine. But I want a pledge. Give me your signet, your cord and your staff.” They two made out and went their separate ways. Judah was none the wiser. Tamar- in nine months- was all the heavier.

After three months of looking for the disappeared prostitute in order to give her the promised young goat, Judah’s slaves gave up. How could they pay a seemingly non-existent woman? And not only that, Judah simultaneously found out that Tamar had done the dirt. She was pregnant but she wasn’t married. Judah’s conclusion? “Bring her out and let her be burned!”(v. 24). (Can you see where the story is going?) As the town gathered to kill Tamar the whore, she let something slip that left old Judah more than slightly rosy-cheeked. “The baby belongs to the man who owns this signet, cord and staff”. Again I say, oh, oh…

Judah, upon realizing that he had gone to bed with his daughter-in-law and forsaken his promise to her, replied: “She has been more righteous than I, because I did not give her to Shelah my son” (v. 26). And thus the twice widowed Tamar was saved by the skin of her teeth. Six months later Tamar gave birth to two young baby boys. One was called Zerah, the other was named Perez. And there the story ends until Matthew picks it up again upon mentioning the Lord Jesus’ genealogy. You've got it written in your Bible in black in white, “Judah begot Perez and Zerah by Tamar” (Matthew 1:3). The Messiah’s family tree is the fruit of Perez’ descendants. Wow!

So, who thought that genealogies were a boring waste of time? If I were the fruit of an incestuous relationship, I’d sure try my best to get that wiped out off my records. But Jesus didn’t think that way. You see He came to earth to clean up our mess and forgive our sin. He didn’t only associate himself with the high-flyers in society. He drew near to filthy whores like you and me. The cemetery of Jesus’ forefathers is a graveyard of hope. If there is hope for Judah and Tamar, then there is hope for us. God takes delight in showering mercy upon the down and out. We may not be able to offer Him much. Maybe we’re not as clean-cut as the guys sat beside us. But my, oh my, how gracious is God Almighty.

This Christmas, don’t forget that Jesus’ incarnation is the message of divine saving grace. Both Judah and Tamar are forgive-able and useable because God’s grace determines them to be so. Take that for a whooping genealogical lesson! I bet you can’t wait to share that Good News with someone this Christmas! 




    If you want to comment, or


Nancy Kuhn
15:54 h
This genealogy in Matthew is through Joseph's line. If Joseph had been Jesus' father according to the flesh, He could never have occupied the throne, for God's word barred the way. There had been a curse on this line since the days of Jeconiah (vs 11). Jeremiah 22:30 reads "Thus says the Lord: 'Write this man down as childless, a man who shall not prosper in his days: for none of his descendants shall prosper, sitting on the throne of David, and ruling anymore in Judah.'" Try genealogy in Luke 3

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