Abraham was the father of Isaac.
Isaac was the father of Jacob.
Jacob was the father of Judah and his brothers.
Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah (whose mother was Tamar). (Matthew 1:2-3)
There are four women (other than Mary, the mother of Jesus) who are mentioned in the most important lineage in history, the one recorded in the first chapter of Matthew that led from Abraham through the house of David to the birth of the Son of God. These women were Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba, and they were all foreigners who had colorful stories related to how they came to be in this most auspicious lineup. This Jewish family tree was a patriarchy, so there was certainly no obligation to enter in the names of women. If they are here, they are here for a reason. The Holy Spirit inspired Matthew to include them because they, and their stories, formed an important part of the DNA from which Jesus was born. Call it Matthew’s Hall of Fame.
The important thing to note about Tamar is that she was Judah’s daughter-in-law who unknowingly bore him twin sons via her cunning scheme to make sure he did right by his firstborn son and heir of the promise.
The first thing to note here was that Judah married a Canaanite woman (that was a no-no to start with) who bore him three sons. Tamar became the wife of the first son who died before she could bear him a son. Traditionally, it fell to the next-born son to marry his brother’s widow to insure the deceased brother would still have an heir. But the second son did not want to use his seed for anyone but his own heirs so every time he went in to have sex with Tamar, he spilled his seed on the ground. This refusal to do his brotherly duty as the next of kin displeased the Lord and he died. Now there was only one son left, who at the time was too young to father a child so Judah told Tamar to go back and live with her parents until son #3 was of age and he would give Tamar to him. But when he came of age and nothing was done (Judah had already decided not to follow through on his word for fear this son would die, too), Tamar realized she was going to be left out unless she took matters into her own hands.
At this point it helps to know a little about this culture. Lineage is everything. Every Jew is hoping for the Messiah. Every girl and mother is hoping to be the bearer of the Messiah. Lineage was key to both inheritance and spiritual blessing. The inheritance passed from the father to the firstborn son. In that Tamar was wed to the firstborn son, that made her a recipient of the blessing. Even if he died, she could then pass on the inheritance to her firstborn as long as someone else in the patriarchal line did their duty to fill in for the deceased husband. Son number two was obviously holding out for the possibility that Tamar would never have a son, putting him and his firstborn in a position to receive the inheritance.
Meanwhile, Tamar had been working on a plan. As soon as she found out Judah’s wife had died and he was going to a nearby village to shear sheep, she took off her widow’s clothes, put on a veil and sat as a prostitute at the entrance to a town on the way. When Judah came by he propositioned her for the price of a young goat, though she asked to keep his identification seal and walking stick as guarantee until she received her goat. A few weeks later when Judah sent a servant to deliver the goat and retrieve his things, the woman was nowhere to be found, nor did anyone even know of a prostitute that ever sat where she sat. Too embarrassed to pursue the whole thing any farther, Judah let it go at that.
Three months later, word came to Judah that his daughter-in-law had played the harlot and was pregnant, he vowed to have her stoned. So as they came for her to kill her, she sent a message to Judah with the pledged items he had left behind, and the message, “The man who owns these things made me pregnant.” Judah recognized them immediately and said, “She is more righteous than I am, because I didn’t arrange for her to marry my [third son].” As it turned out, she had twins and Perez was the first one out, and since Tamar had been the legitimate wife of Judah’s firstborn son, that meant that he himself had done the “next of kin” duty, and Perez became the heir of Judah. Thus you have in Matthew 1: “Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah (whose mother was Tamar).”
Here’s where you have to say … “Go figure.” These foreigners and this deceit and deception all play into the lineage of Jesus? Not what you’d expect? Well, what else do you think you could get from a race of sinners?
Besides, as conniving as she appears, Tamar was actually doing the honorable thing. She was insuring the rightful inheritance for her deceased husband. None of the brothers would do, so she did the next best thing and got the patriarch himself to do it, without knowing it. In essence, she was forcing the unrighteous men around her to do the right thing, thus bringing Judah to say, “She is more righteous than I am.”
Given the smarmy, ingratiating manner of many evangelical women today in the disguise of “submission,” I doubt Tamar’s tactics and behavior would get her much notice now, but in terms of women of the Bible, she’s a champ. Put her right up there with Deborah, Jael, Abagail, and Rahab. These are women who — if the men won’t do it, move over, they will. At least God thinks she’s pretty cool. He had her put in Matthew’s Hall of Fame.