There are two pairs of twins in Genesis, but most of us only notice the first. Jacob and Esau get the headlines: the smooth wheeler-dealer who becomes the father of the Israelites and his hairy, oafish twin who gets tricked out of his birthright for a bowl of soup. By contrast, Perez and Zerah (Gen. 38) fly under the radar. They don’t appear in kids’ Bibles, or even sermons. Yet in many ways, they summarize the biblical story more crisply than any other siblings in Scripture.
The twins are born to Judah and Tamar, the product of an incestuous relationship between a father and his daughter-in-law, whom he thinks is a prostitute (another story omitted from kids’ Bibles). Judah will become the tribe of kings, so it matters greatly which twin gets the inheritance. During childbirth, one brother’s hand emerges first, and a scarlet thread is tied around his wrist to confirm that he is the heir. But when he withdraws his hand, his brother barges past and is born first. The line-jumper is named Perez, which means breach or breakthrough. The one with the scarlet cord is called Zerah, which means dawn or rising. In those two names is found the heart of the gospel.
The world looks for a Zerah. We want a king who rises up and shines like the dawn. We want the firstborn, with a mark of royalty on his fist. But God chooses Perez, the boy of the breach, the child of breakthrough. He wants the sort of king we never would choose: a younger, weaker boy, without the obvious signs of kingship, who only triumphs because God breaks through on his behalf.
This is the plotline of Genesis. Again and again, the “rising” that looks impressive loses out to the “breakthrough” that doesn’t. Human power rises up like the Tower of Babel and comes to nothing. Meanwhile, God makes a breach using an elderly couple in a tent. Older brothers (Cain, Ishmael, Esau, Reuben) fall; younger brothers (Seth, Isaac, Jacob, Judah) receive an inheritance. Natural fertility, based on the “rising” of human flesh, leads nowhere. The promises come through the women who wait for a breakthrough: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Tamar herself.
The life of David, likewise, is a Perez-versus-Zerah story. There are Zerahs everywhere: the seven older sons of Jesse who look impressive; King Saul, who rises head and shoulders above everyone else; Goliath, who rises nine feet tall and grasps the obvious symbol of victory in his fist. But they are each overcome by the last-born, harp-playing, stone-throwing shepherd boy, as he trusts the God of Perez to break through for him. David remembers this lesson as he ascends to the throne. He defeats the Philistines and names the battle site Baal Perazim, exclaiming, “As waters break out, the Lord has broken out against my enemies before me” (2 Sam. 5:20). Soon after, when one of his men touches the ark of the covenant and is immediately struck dead, the fear of God falls on David, who names the place Perez Uzzah, because “the Lord’s wrath had broken out against Uzzah” (6:8).
All of this helps to explain why Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus only names one person—Zerah—who is not an ancestor. Family trees don’t usually work this way. After all, there is no Ishmael in the genealogy, no Esau, no Reuben, Levi, or Ephraim. But Matthew feels compelled to record that Judah was “the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar” (Matt. 1:3). Jesus is a Perez rather than a Zerah. He does not have the obvious sign of royalty on his fist. He does not rise taller than everyone else. He wasn’t even conceived through the ordinary rising of human flesh, but only through the Lord who bursts forth, the God of breakthrough.
Ultimately, in one of those beautiful ironies only a sovereign God could orchestrate, Jesus is worshiped around the world for his rising, for bringing about the dawn of a new world. His fist now holds the symbols of royalty. But even his zerah is a perez. His rising is a breakthrough, a breach in the walls of death and hell, a bursting forth of the Lord against his enemies. Praise be to the boy of the breach.
Andrew Wilson is teaching pastor at King’s Church London and author of Spirit and Sacrament (Zondervan). Follow him on Twitter @AJWTheology.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Find hope and historical insight. For a limited time, explore 60+ years of CT archives for free!
- Daily devotions from Timothy Dalrymple during this pandemic.
- Hundreds of theology and spiritual formation classics from Philip Yancey, Elisabeth Elliot, John Stott, and more.
- Home delivery of new issues in print with access to all past issues online.
- View the complete archive.
- Join now and get print issues access to archive PDFs.