What to Expect When You’re Expecting: Tamar & Bathsheba[i]
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; December 23, 2018
4th Sunday of Advent
Matthew 1:1-6; Genesis 38:1-30; 1 Kings 1:15-31
A while back there was a documentary on television about the British Royal Family. The topics discussed included the risk of losing the “magic and mystique” of the nature of Royalty since now days there’s too much revealed about the everyday lives of the members of the Royal Family. They’ve become too ordinary, too familiar, too much like us. To quote one narrator, “We shouldn’t let too much daylight in on magic.”
These four weeks of Advent have been leading us toward the wonder and magic of the birth of a baby who is called Emmanuel, God-with-us. In some ways, we may wish to preserve the magic of that event, by not knowing too many details of Jesus’ family history. But we really have no choice. The genealogy of Jesus, spotlighted in Matthew and Luke, contains details aplenty—and sometimes, as in the account of Tamar and Judah, there is more revealed than we feel comfortable hearing. I mean, do we really need to hear all the family gossip? Aren’t some things better left unsaid—hidden away in a dark closet? Maybe—for our comfort’s sake! But in this case, the darkness has been exposed and it might benefit us, on our faith journey, if we are brave enough to look into the light.
The story of Tamar and Judah is not a pretty story, but it is part of our salvation history and it reveals something of the “strange righteousness” of a God who uses ordinary people to accomplish God’s purposes. So, let’s lean in for a closer look.
Judah, a son of Jacob, moves away from the family into the land of Canaan. He has three sons. When his first son comes of age, Judah gives him a wife named Tamar—like the gift of an iPad on Christmas morning. In other words, it’s doubtful she has much of a choice in the matter. Tamar finds herself married to a wicked man—but not for long—because God intervenes. According to the Levirate marriage law, the second son becomes Tamar’s husband after the death of his brother. Unfortunately, the second marriage doesn’t work out any better than the first, and again, Tamar is widowed. Probably, Judah blames Tamar for the death of his two sons. Still, Judah promises Tamar his last son, Shelah, when he comes of age. Tamar is sent to her father’s house to remain a widow and to wait. Make no mistake, Judah has no intention of ever bringing Tamar back. Case closed! Good riddance!
The plot thickens when a few years pass, and Tamar realizes she has been deprived of her legal right. You might wonder why she is eager to marry Shelah. After all, the first two brothers were evil. Why bother? But here is a woman whose rights have been disregarded from the beginning. Remember, she is “given” by Judah to her first husband—passed on like a Christmas present under the tree. Then, she is likely blamed for the death of Judah’s two evil sons and, finally, forced to return to her father’s house and spend the rest of her days waiting for a fiancé who will never appear.
No wonder Tamar is driven to desperate measures when she learns that her dishonest and recently widowed father-in-law is visiting nearby. Tamar knows the only way she will ever be properly acknowledged by Judah is to publicly shame him into admitting his wrongful treatment of her. So, she acts as a temple prostitute and waits for Judah to pass by. Apparently, she is a good judge of his character because everything goes according to plan—her plan—not his. Tamar walks away with Judah’s signet ring, cord, and staff—all proof of his actions. Then Tamar returns to her father’s house to wait—just like she has been instructed to do—but this time it is on her terms and this time the waiting will not be in vain. When Judah hears Tamar is pregnant, he pronounces judgment: “Bring her out! Burn her!” But it isn’t Tamar who gets burned. It’s Judah—forced to face his own wrongdoing in broad daylight.
Now if that isn’t enough juicy family history, we have one more person to consider—Bathsheba. The story of David and Bathsheba uncovers the greatest shame of the greatest king of Israel. It is a tale of lust and adultery and murder that goes like this: King David sees a pretty woman, desires her, and with all his power in tow—he takes what he wants. When Bathsheba becomes pregnant and David is unable to trick her husband into thinking the baby is his, David plans a military maneuver to get Uriah killed in battled. All through the story, Bathsheba is a passive participant in her own life, having no power and little influence. Even Matthew underscores her passiveness, listing her not by name, but as “the wife of Uriah.”
With the passing of time, David changes—so does Bathsheba. By the end of David’s life, it is Bathsheba who takes matters in hand, along with the prophet, Nathan, to make sure that she gets what she has been promised—her son, Solomon, on his father’s throne. David’s oldest son, Adonijah, has thrown himself an “I will be king” party. Little does he know that while his guests are having cocktails and goat cheese on bruschetta, Bathsheba is having a word with King David. David may be old but he’s not dead yet. So, after conferring with his trusted friend, Nathan, David declares to Bathsheba that he will keep his promise and Solomon will sit on his throne beginning that very day.
How do you suppose Bathsheba changes from a passive pawn to a king-maker? What is with her new-found courage? Could it be that David’s feelings for her have changed over the years so that “I want” has become “I love”? Could it be that David’s own love for God has affected Bathsheba so that she now realizes that she, too, is loved by Yahweh? And doesn’t knowing God’s love in your life make you stronger? Doesn’t it empower you to work for justice—to try to make the world a better place?
The stories of Tamar and Bathsheba are flooded with surprising openness to all that’s human—passions, guilt, selfishness, trickery, paternal anxiety, fear, hope, and love—all revealing with shocking clarity just one family’s history. No one earns a spot on the family tree—you just sort of appear like one more apple on the branch. And whether you are exceptionally sweet or rotten to the core—there you are.
Matthew’s genealogy includes some unexpected names—names like Tamar and Bathsheba, and Ruth and Rahab. But Matthew does not simply make a list of faceless names. Instead, he invites us to ponder individuals with unique stories and experiences. Tamar is a victim of family injustice; Bathsheba struggles through circumstances over which she has no control; Ruth, a foreigner, remains caring and loving to her mother-in-law; Rahab, a harlot, offers protection to the spies of Yahweh even though it might cost her life. No, Matthew’s genealogy is not just a list of faceless names. The list displays, for all to see, how the grace of God works. God’s love touches these women and God’s grace transforms their lives. That’s why their names appear in the Christmas story.
At Christmas, the miracle of grace is that God comes to ordinary people and gives himself to you and me. That miracle of grace often begins in the most unlikely circumstances—times when we feel without hope or purpose. But when we are baptized into the family of God, we are grafted into the tree of life. It doesn’t make any difference who our mother or grandfather is. Anyone can get into the family because, one night, long, long, ago, in the little town of Bethlehem, the light came into the world and with it came all the magic and wonder of God’s love! Not at all what we might expect. Thanks be to God!
[i] Modeled after a sermon series written by Dr. Sarah Nave during her doctoral studies. Used by permission.
*Cover Art by Stushie Art; used by subscription, Affirmation of Faith by Rev. Rebecca F. Harrison, Spanish Springs Presbyterian Church, Sparks, NV @ https://www.liturgylink.net/2012/11/26/advent-statement-of-faith/