A Savior of the Breach
AUGUST 26, 2021
The Book of Ruth ends with a head-scratching benediction.
After Boaz and Ruth get married, the people of the city exclaim, “May your family be like that of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah” (Ruth 4:12). Kind of a strange guy to “name drop” out of nowhere, but it’s important for them (and for God) to tie the two newlyweds to Perez, the obscure son of Tamar who played a part in maybe the oddest birth narrative you’ve ever heard of. Let’s read from Genesis 38:27-30:
When the time of [Tamar’s] labor came, there were twins in her womb. And when she was in labor, one put out a hand, and the midwife took and tied a scarlet thread on his hand, saying, “This one came out first.” But as he drew back his hand, behold, his brother came out. And she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” Therefore his name was called Perez. Afterward, his brother came out with the scarlet thread on his hand, and his name was called Zerah.
So a very run-of-the-mill birth story here, right? Isn’t this how twins are always born? Actually, that’s part of the point. Where there are oddities, surprises, and left turns in the Bible, you usually find Jesus. It’s a good rule of thumb for our interpretive efforts. So, where is Jesus in this passage? How does he bring clarity to it? We know that Perez, Boaz, and Ruth are all his ancestors. But what else? How are these stories a type of “gospel family album” ahead of time, preparing the way for the Savior?
Perez, the younger
Perez is the unlikely one, the younger of the two twins. This is a significant theme in the Bible that underscores the principle of grace. It’s not by birthright, bloodline, strength, handsomeness, or any other human device that we are saved, but only by God’s gracious choice. The New Testament counterpart to this idea would be when Paul says to the Corinthians, and I’ll paraphrase: “Look around you, church! Not many of you are wise according to earthly standards. Not many are rich or strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” Or, as Jesus says: sometimes the younger brother gets the party. These stories are here for our instruction, and our joy, because they mean that we are saved by grace and not by anything that comes from us.
Perez, the breacher
Perez is also the breaching one. Tamar says, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” Breaching means to break through, or an interruption of the norm, a failure to observe the “natural law” of the birthing process. Perez, then, is a functional law-usurper. There is something very ordered and predictable happening with the birth (“Oh, look! The first is coming out now!”), but then Perez breaks it and is born ahead of Zerah even though Zerah is technically the oldest.
It’s interesting that this is all happening at the end of the book of Ruth, because Boaz is another “breaching” character in the story. When Ruth’s husband dies, we read that the law dictates that a kinsman-redeemer (a brother of the deceased husband) marry the widow and provide a son for her, in his brother’s name. But Ruth’s kinsman-redeemer says, “I cannot redeem her.” So Boaz steps in to do so. The twist, though, is that the law never makes explicit provisions for multiple redeemers when it comes to marriage. So, although Boaz is a relative, he is not bound by the law or obligated in any way to redeem. But he does so anyway! He goes above and beyond the expectations of the law through this sacrificial act. Moreover, he’s redeeming a Moabite woman in Ruth, not an Israelite. Boaz is “breaching” the law. In this, the failed redeemer represents the law, and Boaz represents Jesus. The law, which comes first, “cannot” redeem us, but where the law fails, Jesus succeeds.
Back in Genesis 38, it’s similar. Zerah, the one who tries to come out first by the works of his hands — or as Andrew Wilson puts it, “through the rising of human flesh” — represents the law. But Perez breaks past Zerah. He doesn’t come out the obvious or ordered or expected way. He is born in a law-breaching way. Perez symbolizes how one day the system of laws that temporarily mediated God and sinners would be replaced by a descendent of Perez, Jesus Christ himself.
So, genealogically speaking, Jesus comes from the line of no work, from the line of breaking with the law, to show us that we’re not saved by law observance or by doing good, but by unmerited grace.
Our picture in the gospel family album
In many ways, Christians are people of the breach as well. We are hard to categorize. This has been true since the early church. We aren’t saved by the natural order of “reward and punishment” because we’re all messes. In that sense, churches don’t make sense. True churches are full of very sinful people filled with God’s Spirit, not by having their own spirit reconditioned. They aren’t classified by extreme asceticism. In fact, other religions often look more religious than Christianity. We don’t beat ourselves to death with endless to-do lists, calls to prayer 5x/day, pilgrimages, fasting, external washings, perfectionism, or sabbath-keeping. Instead, we are sons and daughters of Perez — we are those who have breached, we have broken with the lawful order of things, citizens of nothing but belief. We have forsaken our strength, our trophies, our credentials, and our works to be redeemed by the true and better Boaz in the spirit of Perez.
The church’s gospel-benediction also contains no mention of Zerah (with his clenched fist of moralistic accomplishment) because those things don’t constitute our spirituality or our hope. We don’t need “first place” ribbons tied around our wrists. And yet, as we continue to twist the diamond in the light, another way to understand the character of Zerah would be to see him as a type of Christ, the one who would truly come to lift his hand, having it painted with scarlet blood, for us. The idea, then, being: Jesus is the one who goes before us, stretches his arms out on the cross, and bleeds for our sins, that we might be able to be born again into new life. In this, we are co-heirs and brothers and sisters of Christ. Saved, re-made, adopted. But, I digress.
In the end, Ruth’s blessing is ours: “May we be like the family of Perez. When others look at us, may they think, ‘They shouldn’t be saved, but — somehow — they are.’ May we always be known for being people of grace — unfair, surprising, head-scratching grace, dispensed freely to us by God through the shed blood of Jesus Christ.”