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12th November 2020

The Old Testament Twins We've Forgotten

Over the next few weeks, Andrew Wilson, our Teaching Pastor, will be posting a series of guest posts on this page while Steve takes a short break from blogging.

There are two pairs of twins in Genesis, but most of us only notice one of them. 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. Perez and Zerah, by contrast, fly under the radar. They don’t appear in kids Bibles, or even sermons. Yet in many ways they summarise 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. (This is another story that gets omitted from kids Bibles, although for different reasons.) Judah will become the tribe of kings, so it matters a great deal which twin will get the inheritance. During childbirth, one brother’s hand emerges first, and he has a scarlet thread tied round his wrist to confirm that he is the heir. But then he withdraws his hand, and his brother barges past him and is born first. The queue-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 will rise up and shine like the dawn. We want the firstborn, with a mark of royalty on his fist. But God chooses a Perez, the boy of the breach, the child of breakthrough. He wants a king whom we would never choose – a younger, weaker boy without the obvious signs of kingship – but who triumphs anyway as God breaks through on his behalf.

This is the plotline of Genesis. Again and again, the “rising” which looks impressive loses out to the “breakthrough” which 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) come unstuck; younger brothers (Seth, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph) receive an inheritance. Natural fertility, based on the “rising” of human flesh, leads nowhere in particular. 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 to nine feet tall and grasps the obvious symbol of victory in his fist. (Interestingly, the largest army that ever fights against Israel is led by an Ethiopian named Zerah.) 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. It is a lesson David remembers when he ascends to the throne. He defeats the Philistines and names the place Baal-Perazim: “the LORD has burst through my enemies like a bursting flood” (2 Sam 5:20). Soon afterwards he finds himself on the other side of the God of breakthrough, as one of his men touches the ark of the covenant and is immediately struck dead. The fear of God falls on David, and the place is named Perez-Uzzah: “the breaking out against Uzzah” (2 Sam 6:5-10).

All of this helps to explain why, when Matthew opens his Gospel with a genealogy of Jesus, he only names one person who is not an ancestor of Jesus, and that person is Zerah. It would seem like a strange move if it were not, by now, such a common pattern. There is no Ishmael in the genealogy, no Esau, no Reuben or Levi or Ephraim. Family trees do not usually include people from whom you are not descended. But Matthew feels compelled to tell us that Judah was “the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar” (1:3). Jesus is a Perez as opposed to a Zerah. He does not have the obvious sign of royalty on his fist. He does not rise to a foot taller than everyone else. He wasn’t even conceived through the ordinary rising of human flesh. As Mary and Joseph knew very well, his conception was entirely down to Baal-Perazim, the Lord who bursts forth, the God of breakthrough.

Ultimately, in one of those beautiful ironies that only a sovereign God could orchestrate, Jesus is worshipped around the world for his rising, and the dawn of the new world that it began. 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 the Teaching Pastor at King's and is responsible for much of the preaching and teaching. Andrew has a PhD in theology, has written numerous books and regularly blogs at

Andrew Wilson

Posted by Andrew Wilson

Steve Tibbert leads King’s Church London, with sites in Catford, Downham, Lee and Beckenham. The church has seen continued growth since the mid-1990s, both in terms of size and diversity.

As well as leading King’s, Steve hosts and leads Newfrontiers, a fellowship of apostolic leaders with hundreds of churches around the world.

Steve is married to Deb. They have three grown up sons and one grandson.

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