The God Who Includes the Unlikely

We’re celebrating the season of Advent here on the blog by exploring the lives of a few of the women who had an integral role in God’s redemption plan. Early in the story, we witness a complicated family mess. (You might want to check out Genesis 38 and see what I mean.)

And by the way, if you’re reading this Advent series to your children, you might want to look ahead first, to see that this story is not exactly a “General Audience” rating, if you know what I mean. 

Yesterday, we looked at the amazing account of Sarah’s conception of Isaac and the birth of the nation of Israel. But not too far down that family line, Judah (Sarah’s great-grandson), marries outside of God’s covenant people. That raises some concerns.

Whoa, what is Judah doing messing up the family line with a Canaanite?

But hold on, things get worse.

Judah’s Canaanite wife gives him three sons. When it’s time for the firstborn, Er, to marry, Judah chooses a wife for him, Tamar, who is probably also a Canaanite. But Er turns out to be a wicked man and God takes him out. Literally. Er dies.

Er’s death presents a problem for his wife, Tamar. She is left in a needy condition. As a widow, she is considered “used goods” and since Tamar is childless, she’s left without an heir.

And who put her in this situation?


God removed her wicked husband and it might appear that by doing that, He’s left Tamar completely vulnerable. But, there is a custom of levirate marriage (later codified into law in Deuteronomy 25:5–10) that allows the next son in line, to act as a surrogate for his dead brother. This is done to continue the oldest son’s lineage and it would assure the widow a place in the family. Although it is not a necessary measure today, for this time period, the levirate law was a compassionate and protective measure God put in place to provide for young widows.

According to inheritance customs of the day, a father would have his estate divided into equal parts, with the eldest son acquiring one half and the other sons dividing the remaining half among themselves. If a surrogate child was born to carry on Er’s line, that son would inherit at least one fourth and possibly one half (as the son of the firstborn) of the estate, thus providing for Tamar.

After Er’s death, Judah instructs his next son in line, Onan, to step into the role of surrogate and provide an heir for Tamar. This was not for immoral purposes, but would be a protective measure for Tamar.

If Tamar remained childless, then Judah’s estate would be divided into three, with the eldest, (now Onan), inheriting two thirds, the youngest son, Shelah, receiving one third, and Tamar would be left with nothing. With no inheritance, Tamar would be left to depend on her aging parents.

This is probably why Onan “wastes his seed” preventing Tamar from having the opportunity to conceive a child. Onan was looking out for himself by failing to carry on Er’s line which would place Tamar in the position to inherit the largest portion of Judah’s estate.

Onan didn’t fulfill his responsibility to Tamar, but God looks after the widow. God sees the woman in need and He cares for the abandoned. God saw Onan’s selfish action and Scripture says that “what he did was wicked in the sight of the Lord.” (Gen. 38:10)

So God put Onan to death also.

See what I mean about a complicated family mess?

Is this starting to look like a soap-opera drama? It is a mess, but I love how God is able to redeem the ugliest of messes!

After Onan’s death, Judah only has one son left, Shelah, the youngest, and Judah makes a false promise to Tamar that when Shelah grows up, he will serve as the surrogate for Er’s family line. But Judah doesn’t keep his word to Tamar (he’s actually afraid to give any more sons to this woman), and he sends her away to live as a widow with her parents.

But this redemption story doesn’t end with Tamar wasting away as an outcast widow. 

“In the course of time” Judah’s wife died and left Judah a widower (v.12) and Tamar’s situation seems to have been forgotten. Tamar knew Judah was neglecting his duty to her, and she may have suspected that his lack of integrity would lead to further moral compromises. She carried out a plan that would take advantage of Judah’s less-than-noble character.

Tamar disguised herself, by covering her face with a veil, so that her identity was hidden. She sat at the roadside waiting for Judah to pass by. When Judah saw her, he mistook her for a prostitute and negotiated a business proposition. Tamar agreed to Judah’s proposal, on the condition of keeping his staff, signet and cord, until Judah sent payment to her (a young goat). This shrewd bit of planning ahead was a detail that would later save Tamar from stoning, as she was able to prove that Judah impregnated her (kind of an ancient “paternity test”) by producing those personal items as proof.

The plan works. Tamar conceives. She returns to her parent’s home without Judah realizing who he’d been with.

So, we have an immoral, unethical, deceitful father-in-law and a widowed daughter-in-law who is secretly carrying his seed. Sounds like a real mess.

Is God’s great redemptive plan in trouble?

Can the Redeemer actually come through a family line as messed up as this?

The amazing thing about God is that His plans and purposes are more enduring than our mess ups (I am so thankful for that truth!). 

I don’t understand how He does it, but God is able to accomplish His good plans, even using the most unlikely sources or events. He can even transform a situation that has sinful choices embedded all through it, and somehow cause it to work for our good and His glory.

God can take our sinful past and use it as a platform to display His Almighty character.

God can orchestrate a redemptive plan and confound us by taking what the enemy meant for evil and turning it into a miraculous event! 

God even delights in including other ethnicities, and the most unlikely candidates, in His family line!

Tamar gives birth to twin boys who were fathered by Judah. In the messianic genealogy of Matthew chapter 1, only four women are mentioned. Tamar is one of those four women. To me, this is a significant reminder that God includes the abandoned, unlikely, and neglected, in His great plans.

God protected Tamar by removing her evil husband Er. God wasn’t victimizing her; His plan was at work even as she walked away from the grave as a lonely widow. God had good purposes in mind as He also removed Onan and put Judah in the position to carry on the messianic line through Tamar.

God elevated Tamar from her condition as an outcast alien and brought her close into His family. Tamar became a noble mother in the line of the coming King and is the first woman mentioned in the Advent genealogy.

You may feel your past defines you. Maybe your family tree is a bit messy or your past life something you’re ashamed of. God desires to meet you where you are and do a beautiful work that points others to His amazing character. The God of redemption is a God who delights in stepping into our messy lives and cruel disappointments, to bring about the most unexpected and glorious transformation! And that is at the heart of the Advent season.

The Coming One came because of our mess, and oh, what a glorious transformation He brought! 

Image courtesy of Witthaya Phonsawat/