Tamar and her experience of hope
This Advent, Terry Young is placing two themes side by side: four women listed in Matthew's genealogy of Jesus, alongside four Advent calls
Matthew lists four women in his genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:2-17), four unusual women in a long line of men. If our grandparents heard about them from the pulpit, it would have been in thundering sermons against their adventurism, perhaps holding each up as a trophy of grace selected from an unsavoury past for the royal line. Today, they are increasingly identified as victims of violence and desire in a male-dominated world.
The Bible has room for transformation and for victims, but these women do not fit easily into the rigid frameworks of male scholars past or feminist theologians present. They are not just exemplars of transformation nor merely pictures of the great victim at the end of that royal line, although they are both.
So, what are we to make of them? This Advent, let’s try to place two themes side by side: four women, four Advent calls. Where do we get if we connect Tamar with hope, all the way to Bathsheba with joy? Let’s find out!
Tamar’s story (Genesis 38) is an interlude in Joseph’s story, just after he has been sold to Midianite merchants. The editor breaks from one story of injustice and despair to inject another, this time of Tamar, casually mistreated and abused by the men around her.
Judah, Jacob’s number four, negotiates her marriage to his son, Er, where she is shackled to someone so wicked that God intervenes with his untimely death. A widow without an heir was entitled to a child by the brother of her deceased husband, but the sibling dodges his duty – Onan’s name became a byword – and he, too, dies prematurely. This is very modern territory: surrogacy and fickle men preoccupied with the pursuit of pleasure.
Judah takes some responsibility, but even by the standards of the day, is hopelessly duplicitous in promising her his youngest when he reaches manhood. Judah never makes good on his word, and Tamar’s prospects look bleaker with every dawn: no man, no heir, no hope.
Apart from her amazing resilience and ability to concoct a plan out of fragile of resources, Tamar’s story surprises us because it works. It transforms her world – somehow! She does not get rid of the people around her, but they change. The process is baffling from any perspective, but her choices work.
Posing as a prostitute, she seduces her father-in-law, Judah, who was off to celebrate the bounty of another year with the shearing of his sheep. Easily distracted by the prospect of pleasure, he takes his opportunity, but must first negotiate the price. Tamar has learned from the men around her and demands a goat from the herd, but Judah has no goats about his person and so agrees to leave his identity – another modern theme – in her hands, until someone can be sent with the goat and recover his seal and staff, by which time Tamar has made off with the chips with which she will bargain for her life. Judah realises he has been had but avoids social humiliation and drops the matter.
We discover how high the stakes are when Judah discovers that his neglected daughter-in-law is pregnant and wants to burn her alive. Tamar lays bare his utter lack of moral compass when she flourishes the seal and the staff and Judah has to acknowledge that she bears his offspring and that he must extend his protection to her.
We are increasingly inclined to characterise people today by their worst crime and to believe that people do not change. I am always surprised, for instance, at how sneeringly the press continues to treat Jonathan Aitken, as if no journalist had ever falsified a record, or that profound change were an illusion.
The shock is that Judah gets better. He was the most calculating of his brothers in the earlier betrayal narrative of Joseph, but has a radically different approach later when he offers to become a slave so that Benjamin may go free. (It’s complicated but read the story. As Tim Rice says in Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, ‘It’s all there in chapter thirty-nine of Genesis.’ Actually, that bit is in chapter 44, but it wouldn’t have rhymed.)
Tamar never lost hope. In a world where sons mattered more than anything else, Tamar has twin boys. She is protected by the man who once tried to destroy her. And, somehow, he too has become a much better person.
Image | By School of Rembrandt - residenzgalerie.at : Home : Info, Public Domain | Wikimedia Commons
Terry Young was born to missionary parents working in the Middle East. He has always tried to unify his life of worship and secular missions, and has been part of church leadership teams in Essex, and at Slough Baptist Church. He has written a few books that link worlds, including After the Fishermen, and Jake, Just Learn to Worship.
After a mobile early childhood his family settled in the UK to the northwest of Birmingham, and eventually he studied at the local university. After his doctoral studies he worked for 16 years in Chelmsford undertaking research and business development in the aerospace sector, where his interest was in fibre optics and photonics. In the end he gravitated to healthcare systems and move to Datchet with a position as a university professor
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