|Written by Ben Merkle|
|Monday, 14 June 2010 12:35|
The Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus, which passes from Abraham to the Messiah in forty-two generations. In this list of ancestors to the Christ, five women are mentioned – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, the wife of Uriah (Bathsheba), and Mary. With the exception of Mary, every one of these ladies appears to have been a foreigner to God’s covenant people. And, again with the exception of Mary, every one of these ladies comes from a less than pure sexual past. Rahab had been a prostitute. Uriah’s wife became King David’s wife after an adulterous relationship with him. And Tamar was probably the most notorious of them all – a woman who disguised herself as a prostitute in order to trick her father-in-law into sleeping with her. Compared to these ladies, Ruth’s midnight visit to Boaz’s threshing floor is probably the most innocent. It may even seem strange that I would group Ruth along with someone like the infamous Tamar.
But the author of Ruth clearly understood his story as a retelling / paralleling of the Tamar story and wanted his readers to identify his heroine Ruth as a Tamar figure. In fact, Ruth is more like Tamar than any other woman in Matthew’s list.
Consider the similarities. Both Tamar and Ruth are introduced as foreign wives, taken by young Israelite men as they wandered with their fathers away from Israel. Tamar was taken as a wife for Judah’s son Er, while Judah was with his Adullamite friend Hiram (Gen. 38:6). Ruth was taken as a wife for the son of Elimelech, who had gone to sojourn in Moab (Ruth 1:4). The husbands of both women died childless, leaving their widowed wives with the choice of returning to the home and gods of their fathers or of clinging to the hope that they might still find a place within the family of Israel, the people of the one true God. But both of these women were then rejected by the men of Israel, who saw them as dead ends and wastes of time.
Tamar was passed on to Er’s younger brother, Onan. But Onan knew that if Tamar became pregnant by his seed, the child would be considered Er’s descendent and not his own. Thus, if he gave his seed to Tamar, his inheritance would become split in half, into the family of Er and Onan, instead of just the family of Onan. Not wanting to lose this inheritance, Er was careful that when he had sexual relations with Tamar, his seed went to the ground and not to Tamar. The Hebrew verb for his actions is shachat, a verb which means to “spoil” or “ruin.” Onan would shachat his seed to the ground. The verb is sometimes translated “spill” or “emit.” But the point of the passage is that Tamar was so despised by Onan that it seemed better in his mind for his seed to be ruined on the ground than for it to be planted in Tamar’s womb. Because of this wickedness God struck Onan down.
Judah, unfortunately, persisted in Onan’s wrong estimation of Tamar. Instead of making sure that she was brought into his family, he tried to send her back to her home and forget her. But Tamar refused to be forgotten and demanded her place amongst God’s people. Just as Jacob once disguised himself to get the inheritance that was promised to him, Tamar also disguised herself to get what was rightfully hers. Putting on the clothes of a prostitute, she entices Judah into unwittingly giving her what Onan had refused.
It is at this point that most readers get a bit squeamish about the Tamar story. It is not exactly the model courtship story. But we can’t let our sense of propriety trump the more important themes of Scripture. Tamar had a right to the seed of Judah – a seed which, in the redemptive story would become the seed of the kingly line, the line of David, which culminated in Jesus Christ. Tamar longed desperately for the seed of the Messiah and was willing to undergo whatever humility was necessary to receive that seed. Our sense of propriety could learn a lot from her. We must accept Judah’s concluding judgment of Tamar, namely that she was the righteous character in this story.
Ruth also undergoes rejection. When Boaz decides that he will marry Ruth, he tells her that there is another relative of hers that is nearer to her than himself. This other relative must be given the first opportunity to take Ruth, before Boaz can act as kinsman redeemer. In Ruth 4:1, Boaz encounters the nearer relative. The Hebrew text uses a comic term for this man, referring to him as paloni almoni, the nearest translation for this term would be something like “old so and so.” It is a deliberate attempt to name the man without providing his actual name. Boaz describes the situation to paloni almoni and he is initially interested in helping out. But then he discovers that Boaz is not just asking him to redeem some land, but to actually marry Ruth. At that point paloni almoni gets cold feet. In 4:6, he explains that he can’t marry Ruth because she would shachat “ruin” his inheritance. Ruth is, in his eyes, just like Tamar was in Onan’s eyes – a waste.
The rejection isn’t as dramatic in the Ruth story as it is in the Tamar story, since as it happens in the Ruth story, we know that Boaz is already prepared to step in and redeem Ruth. Nevertheless, both woman are spurned and rejected by Israelite men who think that to give these women seed would be to destroy their own inheritance. But we must catch the great Gospel irony here. In the end, Onan and paloni almoni were both tragically wrong. Onan, rather than preserve his inheritance was wiped out for rejecting Tamar and his name was turned into an embarrassment. (Know anyone that has named their son Onan?) Similarly, paloni almoni didn’t even get his name mentioned in the text.
But Tamar and Ruth are named wherever the genealogy of the Lord Jesus Christ is recited. Can you think of a more ludicrous judgment than the notion that seed given to Tamar or to Ruth, two mothers of the messianic line, was wasted seed? What was despised and rejected by men, was highly regarded in God’s eyes.
Our squeamish sensibilities can often get in the way of our ability to make godly judgments. The fact that Matthew calls attention to prostitutes and adulteresses, to Tamars and Ruths, in the messianic line – women who were rejected by Israelite men – should remind us that God’s grace is often found in some very ugly places. In particular, godly seed is not wasted on women with less than perfect pasts.