Those who prepared the way of the Lord

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In a week when Pope Francis named Nelson Perez as the next archbishop of Philadelphia, there seemed to me no better time to explore the figures of Perez, Zerah, Tamar and Judah in the Scriptures and our study of those who prepared the way of the Lord. Though relatively little is known about him, both genealogies in Matthew (1:1-7) and Luke (3:23-38) list Perez among the ancestors of Jesus of Nazareth. 

Perez was a twin, whose brother, Zerah, had a scarlet ribbon tied around his arm when it protruded forth and then suddenly withdrew back into his mother during childbirth. Belying a certain physiological likelihood, Perez then “bursts forth” before his brother, which the name literally implies. We see once again, as in the cases of Isaac (second son), Jacob (second son), and Perez and Zerah’s father Judah (fourth son), that the traditional rule of primogeniture, where the firstborn accrues most of the rights and benefits, is thwarted once again in this case by the “God of surprises.” The lineage to David and eventually Jesus passes not through Zerah, who technically appeared first, but instead through Perez. An Ethiopian tradition maintains that Perez eventually became the king of Persia, modern day Iran.

There are parallels between parts of the Judah and Tamar story and those of Joseph, the Pharaoh’s vizier. Even the narratives in Genesis 37-39 are intertwined and not chronologically consistent with one another. The behavior of the characters — for example Tamar pretending to be a prostitute and Judah taking her up on this “offer” — demonstrate the flawed and profoundly human figures through which God inevitably acts in history. It’s fascinating that the genealogies of Jesus highlight and give slightly more detail not to the most virtuous characters in the line, but rather to the more ignominious and sordid protagonists — Judah and Tamar, Salmon and Rahab, David and the Hittite’s wife Bathsheba. It’s as if the evangelist wants to emphasize without ambiguity the broken vessels carrying the royal bloodline through the generations, toward what will be a very unusual and scandalous birth in a miserable and filthy hovel, the kosher equivalent of a pigsty.

Perez’s grandfather Jacob blessed his father as the Gur Aryeh, the “young lion.” For that reason, both Jewish and Christian sources refer to the Lion of Judah as a symbol of strength and power. The emblem of the city of Jerusalem in fact pictures the lion posed in front of the Western Wall. And, the New Testament book of Revelation proclaims “Weep not! Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book and lose the seven seals thereof.”

Christians see an allusion here to Christ and the eventual Parousia, or Second Coming. Believers recognize in him both the lion (of Judah) and the lamb (of God), the high priest and the spotless victim, the Prince of Peace and the Servant of God. It is precisely such a mystery that the hymn “Christus Paradox” describes: “Clothed in light upon the mountain, Stripped of might upon the cross …You the everlasting instant; You, who are both gift and cost.”

The name Judah, from which we get the word Jewish, can mean “praise” or “thanksgiving,” and in that way is somewhat closely tied to the Greek concept of “eucharistia.” As our neighboring church across the Delaware progresses forward under new leadership with gratitude and praise, let all of us draw inspiration from the biblical figures of Tamar, Judah and Perez, and “burst forth” through those innumerable and imprisoning walls that continue to confine and divide us.

Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.