Thursday, 31 October 2013

Tamar: Self-assertion, self-esteem and belief in justice

        In terms of modern-day feminism (which, I assure you, is not the focus of this blog!) Tamar is about as close as you’re going to get. A woman wronged and out to defend her rights is not something we often come across in the Bible, particularly in the patriarchal society of the Old Testament (wronged, maybe, but certainly not fighting back). Yet rather than being an annoying, na├»ve girl jumping on the band-wagon of the ideal world with no real idea of how to achieve it, Tamar comes across as a strong, independent woman who knows her own mind and is willing to actually do something in order to stand up for what is right!

        How many of us bear grudges for the wrongs done to us and yet can’t seem to find the voice to speak out or explain ourselves. It’s so easy to let ourselves be stamped into submission by people we see as superior to us (more often than not simply because we are told so, rather than by any real merit) – I’m as guilty as anyone of suffering in silence because I am too afraid or feel too insignificant to defend myself. 

        The law of the time stated that if a man should die without any children then his brother must marry his wife in order to provide children to carry on the first brother’s name. Having been sent away from her family home to marry Er, the eldest son of Judah, at around 13 years old, Tamar had to deal with the death of not one but two husbands – the second being his brother Onan. She put up with two husbands who refused to give her children by practising contraception, and by the time it came to the third of their brothers she would have been utterly humiliated by the fact that she had not had the chance to carry out the one role of a Jewish woman in a society which viewed childlessness as a punishment from God. To add to that humiliation, rather than give her his final son in marriage (which was her right under Levirate law), Judah sent her home to ‘live as a widow in your father’s household until my son Shelah grows up’ (Genesis 38:11, NIV). Once married, a woman was no longer part of her own family but belonged to that of her husband. To be turned away from that family was the ultimate degradation.

        When years went by and Judah did not fulfil his promise to offer her his youngest son, Tamar had every right to want to hide away in shame and crumble under the weight of her rejection. But instead she showed her allegiance to the family which had given her no such courtesy by vowing to still continue her husband’s line. In fulfilling that duty she would also be claiming what was rightfully hers – a child, and a position in the family. Tamar was cunning – when she heard that Judah was on his way to the city of Timnah ‘she took off her widow’s clothes, covered herself with a veil to disguise herself’ (Genesis 38:14, NIV) and tricked him into believing she was a prostitute. She accepted his identity seal as assurance of later payment which she later – once Judah discovered his daughter-in-law was pregnant and ordered her to be burned alive – used as evidence that the child was his.

        Yes, Tamar deceived Judah. But Judah had also deceived her when he promised her his youngest son and didn’t deliver. Tamar stood up for her rights, and God rewarded her by giving her a part in the lineage of Jesus Christ. Life does not have to be lived by a series of strict rules based on what society deems to be acceptable. Sometimes showing initiative and finding your own way can reap the most benefits. Tamar was a woman wronged, but rather than sit back and accept her fate she showed great courage by doing something about it. 

        Tamar was a woman who refused to be a victim. Rather than letting the enemy slip into our heads in the form of rejection and insults from others, we must remind ourselves that God values us infinitely more highly than that, and that fact alone gives us all the permission we need to proudly take our place among the people of God. She was sold to marriage as a commodity, rejected by her new family and humiliated on all levels, and yet Tamar refused see herself as useless despite being told so constantly. God doesn’t want us to lie down and take the beating. He wants us to embrace his love for us and profess it with self-assured confidence rather than conceit. Most of all, He wants us to know that we are His children: each one of us equally as important and valuable as the others.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Hannah - Unfaltering Faith and Determination

        My parents never expected to become my parents. After years of longing for a family they were told by countless doctors that it was simply impossible for them. They prayed time and time again that God would provide them with the children they were so desperate for. There were times when they were angry with Him, there were times when they wanted to walk away from Him completely, but in the midst of those times they never gave up hope. When they finally – by nothing short of a miracle – had their first child aged 38 and 42, after being married for over 10 years, they aptly named her Hannah… 

        Although as a child I always loved to remind my sister that, unlike Esther, she doesn’t have a whole book named after her, Hannah is quite possibly one the most faithful women we are introduced to in the Bible. We only have to read Hannah’s Prayer (1 Samuel 2:1-11) to see just how deep that faith goes, and how much trust she placed in the Lord. She suffered from barrenness for many years, but never once gave up hope that the Lord could provide for her. Instead of giving in to despair and turning her back on her God, she used her time of longing to draw closer to Him through prayer and devotion. So much so that when the priest saw her he was convinced she was drunk! The significance of Hannah, a woman, being shown to have a greater understanding of God’s work than even the priests and elders provides a whole new perspective on the God of the Old Testament. Whereas in many cases He as portrayed as a vengeful God who selected men to do His work and overlooked women, Hannah’s story shows us that in reality it was the corruption of society at the time that gave us that impression, rather than any form of preferential treatment on God’s part!

        ‘Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk…’ (1 Samuel 1:13). Hannah teaches us that exalting the Lord doesn’t have to involve loud chants and grand gestures of animal sacrifice as was customary at the time. Hannah didn’t shout her prayers for everyone to hear her sophisticated use of language and correct use of set phrases, she prayed in (and from) her heart: a humble, intimate, personal relationship with God which didn’t require validation from anyone else.

        When I was 5 years old at an Easter camp called Spring Harvest, I learned a song that taught me: ‘There’s nothing I can do or say to make God love me more… There’s nothing I can do or say to make God love me less’ (‘More or Less’, Steve and Kay Morgan-Gurr). In a society that viewed childlessness as the ultimate failure as a woman, Hannah’s rival (her husband’s second wife Peninnah) inevitably lauded her own success in childbearing over Hannah. And yet we are told that when their husband was dishing out the family meal, ‘to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her.’ (1 Samuel 1:5, NIV). Hannah’s husband’s love for her did not falter regardless of her inability to provide him with children. In the same way, our achievements make no difference to God! His love for us is eternally unchanging, no matter what we do or say in this life. 

        At risk of turning this into a walk down memory lane, another lesson I learned at around the same age was that ‘God has 3 answers to prayer: yes, no or wait.’ (‘Auntie Peggy’s Windmill’, Jennifer Rees-Larcombe). Although the waiting was painful for Hannah, God used it to bring her closer to Him than even the local priest, and ultimately produced a blessing out of it! In the times when we feel our prayers are not being answered, it is more important than ever to remain faithful to Him. God knows what is best for us better than we do, and will provide for us when the time is right. Had my parents given up that hope, neither I nor my sister would be here today – so I for one am thoroughly grateful for God’s track record of eventually coming up with the goods!

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Miriam: When human ambition rivals God’s plan

        Most of us know Miriam as the sister of Moses, who – at her mother’s request – launched her brother down the river in a wicker basket and watched over him as he drifted into the Pharaoh’s daughter's arms. At the time the Pharaoh had ordered that all baby boys be killed, and so Miriam’s actions here evidently saved her brother’s life. She demonstrated courage, cunning and compassion. A touching story of sibling love and commitment. But if you look deeper into her story, and study the Biblical texts in which she is referenced more closely, there is far more to Miriam than first meets the eye. 

        We are familiar with Miriam’s role in the book of Exodus, but rarely acknowledge her return in the book of Numbers. We always hear of the pure-hearted, compassionate little girl who tended to her baby brother, but what is so importantly shown by the book of Numbers is that she was human! She made mistakes like any one of us, and was punished in a way that nowadays seems brutal and unnecessary. When Miriam and Aaron contested the fact that Moses had married an Ethiopian woman, she was struck down by leprosy as a consequence of doubting God’s plan – ‘When the cloud lifted from the tent, Miriam’s skin was leprous – it became as white as snow.’ (Numbers 12:10, NIV). In those days leprosy was one of the most humiliating and degrading conditions to develop. She would have been isolated from the camp and avoided by everyone she knew. Miriam was humiliated in order to humble her. She had to learn to trust in the words God gave to Moses, rather than falling back on cultural laws devised by men. From her we learn the importance of trusting our Father, and placing His word above our worldly doctrines.

        Her attitude problem stemmed from a feeling of unfairness in the way in which Moses had been elected by the Lord. Her little brother had been given more authority than her, and understandably she, and Aaron, questioned this – ‘Has the Lord only spoken through Moses… hasn’t he also spoken through us?’ (Number 12:2, NIV). The fact remains even now that as a woman it is far more difficult to make our voice heard, and it is easy to feel undervalued and patronised. But regardless of age, gender and social status, God chooses the people He wants to lead His people, and we must respect that. Some are called to be in the limelight, others – like Miriam – are called to be a driving force behind the scenes. Nevertheless we are ALL called. If jealousy and ambition are allowed to creep into our hearts they can get in the way of us discerning our own calling. I know I have seen some amazing work being done and wanted to jump straight in and get involved in a big way. But first I must pray for discernment about whether that is God prompting me because I have a legitimate role to play in the organisation or mere human ambition to be involved in a movement that is achieving something. We all crave the attention of being on the front line, but need to learn to stand back and assess the battle before running in all guns blazing to try and rescue more people than our comrades and claim the glory. 

        Later Old Testament scripture shows us just how important God considers Miriam’s influence to be when she is presented alongside her (arguably more famous) brothers Moses and Aaron as an example of a prophet sent by God to offer the people the chance to choose whether to believe in Him: ‘For I brought thee up out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed thee out of the house of servants; and I sent before thee Moses, Aaron and Miriam.’ (Micah 6:4, KJV). This single verse speaks volumes: a woman – yes, A WOMAN – shared in bringing God’s message before He sent His son. Despite the undeniable patriarchal focus of the Bible and of the culture at that time, and despite the fact that earlier on in the Bible Miriam’s significance is largely overlooked (the entire story of her saving Moses, which is extended beautifully in children’s books, spans just ten relatively short verses), God’s intentions for her life are made clear through her acknowledgement in the book of Micah. Likewise, when she dies in the desert the significance of her life is conveyed by the water which the Lord brings forth from her resting place – even in death she was instrumental in bringing forth God’s provisions for her people.

        Behind every great man there is an equally great woman, who is often overlooked by the cultural restrictions of society, but who should always remain in our hearts and minds when comparing ourselves to men of authority. Focus on your own vocation, rather than trying to fulfil someone else's.