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The Women of Jesus' Family Tree: Tamar

Community Group Study Guide — The Women of Jesus’ Family Tree: Tamar
Matthew 1:1-18 and Genesis 38

Study Information:
As we approach Christmas this year we are going to be exploring a curious feature of Jesus’ genealogy in the gospel of Matthew. The account of Jesus’ life and ministry in Matthew began with a list of his family tree. This genealogy featured three sets of 14 generations leading up to the kingdom of Israel, next to the exile and finally to Christ’s birth. Matthew’s point was not to give an exhaustive family history of Jesus, rather he wanted his readers to know that Jesus was the fulfillment of the promise that God to set up an everlasting kingdom for the “son of David.” 

The curious thing about the genealogy is that as you read it there were 5 women listed in this family tree. In the ancient world women were not listed in genealogies. Likewise, famous people in the ancient world would often scrub their genealogy of names that brought shame or embarrassment to them, the most notable example of this was King Herod’s public genealogy. Matthew, however, actually called attention to these tories of shame by highlighting them by calling attention to these women in Jesus’ history. Each story contained an element of sexual sin or vulnerability and out of the 5 women, 4 of them were foreigners…they’re outsiders.

What do we learn by Matthew highlighting these stories? We learn about the nature of sin, faithful trust, God’s gracious provision and the kingship of Jesus. Jesus makes a home with the sinful and the broken and God used these faithful women to carry on the family line that led to Christ.  

Worse Sinners Than We Can Imagine
Matthew 1:3, Genesis 38:11-19
Jesus came from the family line of Judah and our text showed us how Judah was a wicked man. The book of Genesis concluded with a focus on how God used Joseph to preserve his people and to establish them in Egypt where they would grow into a mighty nation. How did Joseph get to Egypt? His brothers were jealous of him and sold him into slavery. Judah led the charge to do this and was the one who presented a blood covered coat to their father Jacob to deceive his dad. After that account concluded the text continued to focus on Judah and how he moved in among the Canaanites, made a best friend among them and took a Canaanite wife. These were the people that God told them to avoid becoming like. Judah had three sons, Er, Onan and Shelah and the oldest two were wicked like their father. Er was so bad that the text said that God just struck him dead…, leaving his wife Tamar a widow. In that culture, as a means of social welfare and protection, if a woman had no son and her husband died she was to marry her husband’s brother who was obligated to try to provide for her a child to keep the family line going. Genesis 38:9 indicated that Onan used Tamar physically whenever he wanted and refused to provide for her an offspring. Onan likely did not want his future inheritance to be hindered by providing a child for Er.  Onan likewise was wicked in his attitudes and actions and God saw this and protected Tamar and struck Onan dead. The final son was too young to be given in marriage so Judah promised Tamar that he would give Shelah to her when he grew up and for the time being she should go back to her father’s house as a widow. Returning to your father’s home childless and without a husband would have been a mark of shame in that culture. Tamar’s options were all bleak.  

After some time, Judah’s wife died and after he was comforted he went up and checked in on his sheep shearing business. Tamar heard this and responded in courageous desperation. She took off her widow’s garment and went out by the roadside on the way dressed in a veil, the clothing of a prostitute. Apparently she knew Judah was the kind of guy who would see someone like her and want to proposition her. Judah thought she was a cult prostitute which added to the sinfulness of his intentions (Genesis 38:21-22). These cult prostitutes were said to reenact spiritual realities of the pagan gods for fertility and agriculture, so it would have been an act of pagan worship. Judah promised Tamar payment and left his signet, cord and staff behind as a pledge, not knowing it was Tamar. Tamar departed and went back home having become pregnant. 

To summarize, Judah sold his brother into slavery, went and lived among the forbidden culture, married into that culture, raised wicked kids, deceived his daughter in law and slept with a prostitute in what he assumed was a pagan worship ceremony. 

Judah was blind to his own personal sin and the way his actions were oppressing others around him. How does God open the eyes of someone like Judah and what happened to change him so dramatically later on? When we next meet Judah he was leading his brothers towards righteous actions in taking care of their father and even offered to trade his own life for his brother Benjamin who was facing a lifelong slavery sentence in Egypt. Judah, the man who sold one of his brothers into slavery became willing to trade places with brother Benjamin to protect him from slavery.  

Jesus Made a Home with the Sinful and the Broken
Genesis 38:24-26
When Judah caught word of Tamar’s pregnancy he found an opportunity to get rid of this problem he had. Likely he saw her as a life long problem and the source of why his other sons had been killed. We can deduce this because Shelah feared for his life if he was to marry Tamar (Genesis 38:11). Judah ordered her to be killed by burning, which was a wicked and over the top punishment. Likewise we have him “casting the first stone” with the irony that he too was part of the sinful situation that led to this pregnancy. Tamar’s plan relied on courage and as she was being led out to execution she presented the items of identification, the signet, cord and staff and she used the same words that Judah had used decades earlier to deceive his father Jacob… “please identify whose these are…” 

In that moment Judah’s awareness of his own sin came crashing down on him and he responded with “she is more righteous than me.” No one likes the discomfort of having their own sinfulness exposed to them, but that is the beginning place of embracing the gospel that we are not righteous and need God’s gracious forgiveness in Jesus. 

Matthew helps us understand this with the announcement of Jesus’ birth to his father Joseph. The angel of the Lord told Joseph to name this son “Jesus” because he will “save his people from their sins.” We all need saving, but it is only when we realize our own sin that we are able to embrace the grace God offers in Christ. 

This story of Tamar, in Jesus’ family tree, help us know that Jesus has made a home with the broken and that sinners and outsiders like us are invited to be part of that family. Many of us think we are more righteous than we actually are, so God graciously exposes our sin and our need so we can humbly call out to him for forgiveness and reconciliation in Christ. 

This advent season, know that God has made a way for your sin to be forgiven and for people like you and I to be restored to his family. 

At your community group:

Take 15-20 minutes to share about how God has been at work in your life, prayer concerns and pray for one another.

How did God speak to you through the scripture and the sermon this week? 

Discussion Questions:
Read Genesis 38:11-24

What do we learn about God and his plan of redemption through Matthew highlighting these five women in the genealogy of Jesus?

One title for Jesus throughout the Bible was “the lion of the tribe of Judah.” Judah was also the tribe that king David belonged to. How was Judah wicked and how does God use this time in his life to change him?

What are some ways God protected Tamar in this story? 

We can often be blind to our own sin and need for God’s grace. But the good news is that Jesus has made a home with the broken and sinful. What are some reasons that God is loving to reveal our sin to us? What kind of encouragement does a passage like this offer you when you’re caught in a season of sin or feeling the discomfort of realizing you are not as holy as your thought?