This post is a chapter excerpted from my upcoming book, “Gory Stories of the Bible.”
The first page of the New Testament begins the epic drama of salvation in a strange way. Rather than jumping right into the action, Matthew devotes the entire first page of his gospel to a long genealogy, tracing Jesus’ ancestry all the way from Abraham. Not exactly an attention-grabbing opening hook.
Yet there’s more going on under the surface of this catalogue of names in Matthew 1:1-17 than initially meets the eye. Lurking in the list are several skeletons in the closet, shocking gory stories in Jesus’ own family tree. The stories behind these names range from icky to sketchy to downright murderous.
Surprisingly, Matthew doesn’t shy away from these unseemly data points. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; he deliberately breaks the pattern of his genealogy (so and so was the father of so and so, etc) four times to include a woman in his list. Each time he names a woman, it’s to draw attention to a scandal that forms part of Jesus’ backstory. By naming the women involved in scandal, Matthew isn’t being misogynistic. Rather, he’s often highlighting their victimhood and the marvel of grace that called them into the story of salvation. Like verse 6: “David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah.” Matthew tosses in the reference to Bathsheba—“the wife of Uriah”—in a way that forces us to grapple with the violence that David forced on her family. Or in verse 5 when he mentions that “Salmon was the father of Boaz by Rahab” (a prostitute whose unexpected faith saved the Israelite spies) or “Boaz was the father of Obed by Ruth,” a widowed Moabite foreigner whom Boaz was forbidden by law to marry and yet became the great-grandmother of King David. All these women were raised up from ignominy and exclusion to find themselves central characters in the drama of redemption.
And then there’s the unpleasant episode referred to in verse 3: “Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar.” This story is less well-known than the others, mostly because there are no Sunday School lessons explaining this incestuous scandal to kids (which is probably for the best). The Judah and Tamar incident includes death, betrayal, hypocrisy, prostitution, and incest. Like I said… icky.
Judah was the third-born son of the patriarch Jacob, to whom the Abrahamic promise of restoration had been handed down. Through Jacob’s family, redemption for the entire world would come. But Judah, it seems, had not gotten that memo. He was selfish, impulsive, and destructive. In Genesis 37, he was the ringleader in the fratricidal plot to sell his brother Joseph into slavery. And in Genesis 38, where our story takes place, he married a pagan Canaanite woman (an arrangement repeatedly and explicitly condemned and forbidden throughout the Old Testament). With this Canaanite woman, he had three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah.
Some family drama sets the scene for our gory story. Er married a woman named Tamar, but he “was wicked in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD put him to death.” According to the custom of the time, it was the duty of the next brother to take Tamar as his own wife and produce children to carry on his brother’s name and inheritance. But when Onan marries Tamar, he selfishly and manipulatively refuses to fulfill this duty, and so God puts him to death as well. At this point, Judah superstitiously notes that all of his sons who have married Tamar have died. So, while he promises to arrange for Tamar to marry his third son, he really has no intention of doing so, and abandons his daughter-in-law. This leaves Tamar as a widow-in-waiting in an endless limbo, confined to her father’s house with no hope and no future.
Years pass, and finally Tamar decides to take matters into her own hands. She hears that Judah will be passing by, and so dresses up as a prostitute to go and seduce him. Her devious little plan works: Judah is duped by her costume, crassly hits on her, and then indulges his darkest desires in an impulsive tryst with his disguised daughter-in-law. As payment, she takes his family crest signet ring, and then skips town. Judah goes his merry way, none the wiser. But unbeknownst to him, his daughter-in-law is now pregnant.
If you’re not disgusted at Judah yet, just wait. Genesis 38:24-25 recounts what happens next:
About three months later Judah was told, “Tamar your daughter-in-law has been immoral. Moreover, she is pregnant by immorality. And Judah said, “Bring her out, and let her be burned.”
Yes, you read that right. Judah, full of self-righteous hypocrisy, condemns his daughter-in-law to death… for the very same crime he had committed (with her, no less! Although he doesn’t know that yet). What a despicable and cowardly act. Throughout history, men have so often trampled women in their own quest for power and pleasure, but Judah’s brazen and cruel duplicity here is in a league all its own.
Tamar, pregnant with her unborn child, were lead out to death, and the story could have ended on a more grisly note, if not for her master plan. She brought Judah’s signet ring with her to the execution. And as she was being tied to the stake, she calmly announced, “By the man to whom this belongs, I am pregnant. Please identify whose it is” (Genesis 38:25). Judah, burning with embarrassment, is forced to acknowledge his role. “She is more righteous than I,” he admits. Understatement of the year.
Six months later, Tamar gave birth to twins, Perez and Zerah, who appear alongside her and Judah in Jesus’ genealogy. So the question is, why in the world would Matthew shine the spotlight on a skeleton that most people would prefer remained locked in the closet?
Because the skeletons in Jesus’ closet aren’t a distraction from his mission; they are his mission. In God’s incredible providence, the promised rescue comes through scandal, shame, and sin. In his dark backstory, in his Christmas arrival, and on Golgotha’s cross, this is the way that God saves the world. Scandal turned inside out and upside down into scandalous grace. Shame defeated through the naked shame of a bloody cross. Sin made to serve the undoing of sin.
Judah was a failure and a loser, it’s true. But Judah’s descendant, the promised “Lion of Judah… to whom belongs the obedience of all the peoples” (Genesis 49:9-10) is the one who turns failure into triumph and loss into victory. And through his twisted and broken family tree, he has come to save the twisted and the broken: you and me.