On Grief, Justice, and Hope

I have been reeling and grieving over the past week. The Brock Turner rape case, the burning of Pakistani women, the shooting of Christina Grimmie, and the shooting of fifty LGBTQ people has weighed on my mind and shoulders and heart.

In the midst of grieving, I also read the story of Tamar last week, and felt a familiar sense of loss, but also some liberation.

Take a moment to think about Tamar. What do you recall about her? Before I studied for this post, I honestly knew more about Onan, a man who appears in only three verses of Tamar’s story, than I knew about her. I remember hearing pastors use the story of Tamar and Onan (the one who “spills his seed on the ground” in Gen. 38:9) to discuss Christian sexual ethics. Other than that, Tamar pretty much went by the wayside.

If you want to read Tamar’s full story, you can click here; otherwise, this is a summary of the incredible life she lived:  

Tamar married Judah’s eldest son Er, who died early and never impregnated Tamar (Gen. 38:1-7). That was a big issue in her cultural context, because sons provided what we now call insurance, social security, savings, and retirement. To protect childless widows, a cultural norm existed that instructed the brothers of the deceased man to impregnate the widow. The family and culture understood any of the children she then birthed to be the deceased brother’s children, rather than the brother who stepped in to create them.

So Judah instructed Onan, another of his sons, to have sex with Tamar in an effort to give her a son. Onan recognized that the children she would birth would not be his (which creates implications for the distribution of inheritance), and he therefore “spilled his seed on the ground” (v. 8-9). God watched him deny Tamar an heir, which angered God to the point that he killed Onan (v. 10).

That is literally the end of Onan’s story, and yet if we keep reading, we see the true import of Tamar’s:

After Onan’s death, Judah promised Tamar that she would marry his son Shelah when he was old enough. Over time, Tamar watched Shelah grow up, and realized that Judah wasn’t giving her to Shelah, and that she still had no heirs to offer the protection and security she needed (v. 11-12). So she took matters into her own hands.

She dressed as a prostitute and met Judah while he was shearing sheep. He propositioned her, and as payment she requested his signet ring, cord, and staff. In that time, those items were like his driver’s license, ATM card, Social Security card — she held the markers of his identity in her hands. When she returned home, she re-adorned her widow’s garb, and Judah’s servant couldn’t find the “prostitute” who had Judah’s ring, cord, and staff (v. 13-23).

After 3 months, people realized that Tamar was pregnant, and Judah suggested that they burn her because of her dishonorable pregnancy (a similar practice happened just this past week in Pakistan). In that moment, she carried out the ring, cord, and signet, and declared, “It was the owner of these who made me pregnant” (v. 25). Judah acknowledged that the items were his, and admitted, “She is more in the righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah” (v. 26).

Tamar then birthed twin sons, thereby overcoming social and familial obstacles, and gaining the protection and security she required from the beginning. 

Tamar’s story is one of liberation and strength within her social context. She stands up to power, both within her family and within her society. She not only calls Judah out for not offering her the protection that he should have provided her, but also proves that she is the righteous one in the face of her culture trying to kill her. And ultimately, Judah humbles himself and accepts his part in Tamar’s subjection, and the society backs down from their intended punishment. In fact, they acknowledge that she is more righteous than the leader Judah who had proposed the punishment.

In light of the violence that our world has witnessed this week, and in light of the grief that all of us will continue to feel, perhaps we can see Tamar as one small light of hope: that even the stories that don’t get told often enough, the stories that get silenced, can offer strength and encouragement; that those who have gone before us, even in the ancient world, found ways to protect themselves and to stand up to power.

Genesis 38 offers us a perspective on how God feels about marginalization and accountability, and in this narrative we find justice. We find liberation for a childless widow, whose gender and lack of reproduction made her one of the most vulnerable individuals within society. And while we may not see justice today, while we may still feel the weight of violence and subjection, perhaps we can look to Tamar to find hope for a more just, empowered, and peaceful tomorrow.

Birthrights and Blessings

In the last post, The Sacredness of Siblings, we looked at the relationship between Jacob and Esau, and how it changed after Jacob convinced his brother to hand over his birthright. Today we move ahead in the story and watch Rebekah and Jacob use deceptive means to claim Esau’s blessing as well.

In Genesis 27, we learn that Isaac had grown old and that he couldn’t see very well. Rebekah overhears him tell Esau to go hunt in the field and prepare him some food, and after eating he plans to give Esau his blessing. Rebekah then intervenes.

Rebekah shares what she heard with Jacob, and tells him to fetch her two goats. She turns them into a stew for Isaac, dresses Jacob in Esau’s clothes, and puts goat skins on Jacob’s arms to make them feel hairy and coarse like Esau’s (v. 5-17). They expend a lot of effort to deceive the elderly and blind Isaac.

Isaac maintains a high level of suspicion while Jacob stands before him. Isaac asks how Esau could have prepared the meal so quickly, questions why he has Jacob’s voice rather than Esau’s, and even sniffs him to see if he has the smell of Esau or Jacob. After doing his best to verify that it was indeed Esau, Isaac offers the blessing (v. 18-29). Shortly thereafter, the real Esau visits Isaac, and they all realize that Jacob had deceived them (v. 30-40).

So Jacob had already taken Esau’s birthright, and then he and his mom scheme to ensure that he gets the blessing as well. In the ancient world, these constituted two separate entities. The easiest way to explain it is that the birthright (bekorah) involved a one-time transfer of physical goods (i.e. when Isaac died, Jacob would take all of the inheritance).

The blessing (berakah), on the other hand, held even more power, because it determined what would take place perpetually in the future. Isaac tells Jacob, “May God give you the dew of heaven and the fatness of the earth and plenty of grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you!” (Gen. 27:28-30). Those are powerful words that shape the fate of Jacob and his house.

When Esau learns that his brother has taken both his birthright and his blessing, he becomes infuriated. He begs his father to offer him some sort of blessing, but Isaac tells him that he already gave the full blessing to Jacob, and there is no way to retract it. Esau plans to kill Jacob, and when Rebekah learns of his plan, she sends Jacob to live with her brother, Laban, who will hide him until Esau calms down.

The amount of family discord taking place is shocking. With each move that Jacob and Rebekah make, the family falls further apart, ending with Esau’s intent to kill Jacob, and Rebekah’s sending Jacob away.

Jacob and Rebekah’s actions add up over time. They don’t commit one act that leads to all of this tension; rather, it’s the culmination of Jacob grabbing Esau’s heel during their birth, Jacob taking Esau’s birthright, and finally Jacob taking Esau’s blessing that brought the family to this place of discord. Each individual action brought about its own set of consequences, but when placed together they created enough strife to damage the family as a whole.

Our actions matter. Every choice that we make either creates more goodness, connection, and love in the world, or it creates the opposite. We need to be intentional about the choices we make, and know that they have a lasting impact on our own selves, the relationships that we hold sacred, and on the world as a whole. And in every circumstance, every choice, may we focus on how we can foster love over hate, understanding over ignorance, and charity over self-interest. Because in the end, our choices will determine what our lives look like, and to some extent, the type of world in which we live.

Scarcity and Abundance

Grape Photo

Scarcity: The experience of not enough. We all encounter it as human beings, and the form it takes impacts us in drastically different ways. For example, the person who is chronically homeless faces scarcity of food, shelter, and safety. Someone with cancer feels the scarcity of health, strength, and autonomy. The person whose marriage is dissolving feels the scarcity of faithfulness, companionship, and love. Each of these individuals faces different forms of scarcity, and those sharply influence how they are able to cope with their circumstances.

Reading Matthew 14 today forced me to take another look at scarcity. In verse 9, Jesus learns that Herod had John the Baptist beheaded, and Jesus decides that he needs some time to himself. While he’s trying to retreat, though, the crowds follow him. Jesus sees them, and the text says that he “had compassion on them and healed those who were sick” (v. 14). The disciples then ask Jesus to send the crowds away so they can buy food for themselves, but Jesus instead tells the disciples to feed everyone. He takes their five loaves and two fish, blesses and breaks the bread, and dispenses them to the crowd. The text says, “Everyone ate until they were full, and they filled twelve baskets with the leftovers” (v. 20).

On the surface, this seems like a story of scarcity that we can apply to the need we witness around us today. The disciples doubted Jesus, yet Jesus was able to use the measly loaves and fishes to feed all 5,000 people with abundance. Certainly if we believe enough, Jesus will do the same for everyone who is hungry here on earth! While I have witnessed God providing for us in miraculous, incredible ways, if we choose to look around for just a little while, we inevitably face the question, “But then why did and why do people still go hungry?” This is where we meet the gritty, uncomfortable truth of scarcity: it exists.

While the truth of scarcity is prominent in Matthew and all around us, the myth of scarcity exists as well. We see the disciples function within a Zero-Sum Framework when they doubt that the five loaves and two fishes will suffice. In Zero-Sum thought, the quantity of any commodity is limited, to the degree that if someone else has, I must have not. If Jeff gets the promotion, I will get relegated; if Cindy gets married, she takes one more off the market; if Johnny gets attention, I will be ignored. In a Zero-Sum framework, we feel the myth of a scarcity that does not actually exist. We quantify uncalculable data to determine that, ultimately, regardless of the situation, we lose.

Jesus corrected the disciples’ thinking. He forced them out of their Zero-Sum frameworks by grabbing those 5 loaves and 2 fish, blessing them and breaking the bread in a foreshadowing of the Last Supper, and distributing them until everyone had their fill. We are not meant to live within the myth of scarcity. Rather, in the face of our doubts and insecurities, we must trust in the One who can provide abundance.

And when we encounter the truth of scarcity, it is then our duty to remember the gifts God has given us, and to do our best to create abundance. As the 16th Century Carmelite nun, Teresa of Avila, said:

Yours are the feet with which [Christ] walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.

When we see true scarcity, we are called to be Christ’s body. We are meant to look one another in the eye, to feel one another’s pain, and to do whatever we can to create abundance. As Christians, we need to hold in tension the reality that God can provide abundance, and that we also must work to create abundance as well.

Silence and Sabbath

Sabbath Image

When was the last time that you experience silence? Not just quiet, but actual, peaceful silence. The kind that allows you to feel yourself breathe, listen to your heartbeat, and embrace your alive-ness a little bit more.

Sabbath was created as a time for rest. We’ve heard this from the pulpit over and over again — on the seventh day God rested, so we ought to rest as well. For many of us, though, the purpose of such a “day of rest” has changed from actually resting to going to church. It’s as though once we’ve attended our church service, we have “Sabbath-ed,” and we can proceed on with our Sundays as we would any other day. But how is that restful?

A true Sabbath in many ways demands rest. If we were to Sabbath as Orthodox Jews do, we would shut down our phones, email, TVs, and go off the grid for 24 hours. We wouldn’t drive our cars or spend hours cooking or finally catch up on laundry. With these options eliminated, how would you spend your time? The Internet and TV are a huge crutch for me — they ensure that my brain is constantly active and stimulated. To shut those off would be a huge change of pace. But it might also encourage my body, mind, and spirit to rest.

In Matthew 12, Jesus goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath and encounters a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees then ask Jesus if the Torah allows him to heal the man’s hand on the Sabbath (v. 9-10). Jesus responds by asking them if they would rescue one of their sheep that had fallen into a pit on the Sabbath, and then states, “How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! So the Law allows a person to do what is good on the Sabbath” (v. 11-12). And Jesus heals the man’s hand (v. 13).

We are allowed to do what is good on the Sabbath. I don’t know about you, but my Sabbaths are often filled with whatever is typical of the rest of my week. Sure, they start at church, but afterward they contain going out to lunch, cooking dinner, calling friends, checking email, tidying the house, watching movies, and ultimately, lots of work.

As my husband and I were discussing Sabbath this morning, he pointed out to me that some evidence exists that early Christians would practice Sabbath on Saturday, and then also worship together on Sunday morning to celebrate the Resurrection. It’s like a mini-Easter every weekend. While most of us, including myself, will find plenty of excuses to not practice such radical resting, I encourage us today to reflect on how we can integrate more restful practices. Whether it is turning off our TVs, computers, and phones for a period of time, sitting at the kitchen table for meals, reading the Bible together with our loved ones and on our own, or going for a walk, may we find ways of honoring the Sabbath and increasing our sense of peacefulness and rest every week.