I recently read The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (it’s very good, I recommend it). It tells the tale of the reclusive and mysterious author, Vida Winter and opens with a quote from her fictional collection of stories:
“All children mythologize their birth. It is a universal trait. You want to know someone? Heart, mind and soul? Ask him to tell you about when he was born. What you get won’t be the truth: it will be a story. And nothing is more telling than a story.”
Thinking about it, there’s definitely some truth in there. Ask me to tell you about when I was born and I’ll tell you how I made my entrance into the world almost two weeks after my due date - and haven’t stopped being late since!
For Perez, the fifth ancestor listed in the genealogy of Jesus, we don’t know much about him apart from the details of his conception and birth. To be honest, before I looked him up last week, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you who he was or anything of his story. But he does stand out in the genealogy – he’s one of the few listed with both parents, mother as well as father. At a time when women were culturally subordinate, it was very unusual for a Jewish genealogy to mention them at all; but five women appear in that of Jesus.
Perez’s father was Judah, one of the twelve sons of Jacob and a brother to Joseph. His mother was Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law. And so begins one of those Old Testament tales of tangled, messy family relationships that are so common in Genesis…
After helping the rest of his brothers to fake Joseph’s death and sell him to some Midianites, Judah left home and went to live in another town where he met and married his wife. This marriage resulted in three sons – Er, Onan and Shelah. When the time came for Er to have a wife of his own, Judah chose Tamar to fulfil the role.
Unfortunately the marriage didn’t last long – Er did things that God said were wrong, so God, in one of those moments we find so uncomfortable, killed him. In line with custom at the time, Judah told his second son, Onan, to take Er’s place as Tamar’s husband. But Onan wasn’t keen on providing descendants on his dead brother’s behalf instead of his own so he made sure he didn’t fulfil his marital responsibilities (to put it delicately!). God wasn’t happy with Onan’s deception, so he killed him as well.
With only one son left and fearful that he would also die, Judah sent Tamar back to her father’s house and told her not to marry until his third son, Shelah, was old enough to be her husband. Time passed, Judah’s wife died, and Shelah grew up – and Judah failed to keep his word to Tamar.
Hearing that her father-in-law was going to oversee the shearing of his sheep one day, Tamar changed out of her widow’s clothes and, covering her face with a veil to disguise her identity, went to wait for him. When Judah saw her, he assumed she was a prostitute and approached her, promising to pay her with a goat from his flock in return for her services. Knowing he hadn’t recognised her, Tamar agreed – as long as he left her his seal, cord and walking stick as a returnable deposit. Their encounter resulted in Tamar’s pregnancy – but when Judah sent a friend back to make payment of a goat, Tamar was nowhere to be seen.
Three months passed before word reached Judah that his widowed daughter-in-law had been acting like a prostitute and was now carrying a child. Judah condemned her immediately, declaring that she should be burned to death. When the people arrived to take her to her execution, Tamar sent a message to her father-in-law along with the seal, cord and walking stick – these were the things that revealed the identity of her baby’s father. On seeing them, Judah realised the hypocrisy of his mistake and granted her a reprieve, recognising that her actions were out of desperation because he hadn’t fulfilled his promise of marriage to his third son.
After nine months of pregnancy, Tamar gave birth to twins. The first baby stuck his hand out and the nurse tied a red string on it so they could recognise him as the firstborn – but he then pulled his hand back in and the other baby was born first. So the firstborn son was named Perez (meaning ‘breaking out’), and the second named Zerah.
Judah finds himself in the same position of power over Tamar as Joseph did with Mary, both men making life or death decisions in response to pregnancies outside marriage. Unlike Joseph, Judah doesn’t hesitate to judge and condemn Tamar. Was this a simple moralistic response or was his fear of the death of his third remaining son in the back of his mind, the death of Tamar a convenient way of removing this threat?
For Tamar, life after the deaths of Er and Onan would have been one of limbo, waiting and waiting for Shelah to grow up and for Judah to fulfil his promise of a third marriage. Unable to live independently, reliant on a father-in-law who had abandoned his commitment to her, her actions, though deceptive, become understandable. Her encounter with Judah is both brave and foolish, a desperate self-assertion to change her circumstances, risking death rather than continue as the non-entity she had become.
The positions of Judah and Tamar reflect the world that Perez was born into, one still reeling from the shockwaves of broken creation. His birth itself reflects the struggle for supremacy, the hierarchy of the firstborn, winning the battle with his twin brother to gain that position (with echoes here of Jacob and Esau).
But perhaps these are the kinds of things, the broken things, that Jesus came to heal? To free people like Judah from fear and from cultural expectations to judge others harshly? To free those like Tamar who are disempowered and subject to the will of others? To show an alternative to the battle for power, a way of peace and justice and servanthood?
Which brings us back to Joseph’s response to Mary, so different to Judah and Tamar. Even before his birth, Jesus’ story is changing things, showing a different way, a better way, repairing that which was broken and building a new kingdom…