Two women of the same name are perhaps among the most tragic stories in the Bible. Well, there are a lot of tragic stories, but these really do make a person sit up and go ‘what now?!’
So let’s set the scene for part 1:
Tamar the Canaanite (Genesis 38)
Once upon a time, in a land far away from his brothers, a man named Judah settled down with a Canaanite woman. Together this delightful couple had three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. They were a perfect family. The three boys grew older and Judah realized his eldest son, Er, was just incomplete. So he found him a wife. Her name was Tamar.
Now, like most little girls, Tamar dreamed of the day she would marry and have children. She would be the perfect wife and mother because she’d been dreaming and preparing for this day her whole life. Unfortunately, about 3.5 seconds into the marriage, it was clear that her husband was not the Prince Charming she’d been dreaming of. In fact, the LORD found him to be so evil, that he struck Er down. Er died, and just like that Tamar became a widow.
Now, Jewish tradition dictates that if your husband dies before you are able to conceive a child to carry on the family name, then the closest male relative must perform his Levirate duties and produce offspring for the dead relative and the widow. Sooooo, Onan was required by law (and his father) to lay with Tamar. As it turns out, Onan was about as delightful as his brother and while he did sleep with Tamar, he made sure that his, well you see he spilled his…well, let’s just say he made sure Tamar would not get pregnant. So, seeing his wickedness, God struck down Onan too (seriously, I mean really you’d think he’d learn from his brother’s mistakes, but no.)
Tamar was still a widow with no children so Leviate law dictated that Shelah (the third son) sleep with her next. However, Shelah was kinda still a kid so Judah sent Tamar back to live with her father until Shelah was grown…or so he said. However, like most stupid fathers, Judah didn’t see any fault with his own sons, but rather blamed Tamar for his sons’ deaths. So he had no intention of allowing her to sleep with Shelah—thus condemning her to a life of solitude and shame.
Sometimes things happen that are just completely out of our control. What do we do when life seems unfair, unjust, or just plain wrong? If we are wise, we trust in the Lord and let him direct our decisions and our plans.
Right or wrong, Tamar devises a plan, and personally given the cultural context, I can get behind her extreme actions, and evidently, God directed them given the ultimate outcome. According to Jewish tradition, Tamar was most likely a Canaanite woman who converted to Judaism either before or after she married Judah’s son. When she devises the plan, the narrative takes on a positive tone, not condemning her, but confirming that she is doing what is righteous because Judah was being unrighteousness. Rather than living in the shame her father-in-law saddles her with, Tamar decides to take the future into her own hands, but trusts God will ultimately vindicate her.
Genesis 38:20-23 we see that Judah has never been very good at the whole ‘personal responsibility’ thing. This is actually an echo of Genesis 37:26-27, where he wants to do the right thing, makes a comment or a suggestion or a half-baked action, but doesn’t really follow through. What it boils down to is Judah takes the path of least resistance–knowing what is right, but refusing to stand up for it. He sleeps with a woman who he believes is a ‘cult prostitute’ (or a prostitute for a religious sect), which is pretty heavily frowned upon in God’s law. He gives this prostitute some pretty personal items (kind of like giving her his driver’s license and social security card) as collateral and then, rather than tracking her down, he just shrugs off the items as stolen and goes about his business, never recognizing the sins he himself has committed.
Judah is quick to judge Tamar when it comes out that she is pregnant “immorally”. She’s been living in her father’s home, ignored and forgotten by him until he believes she’s made a mistake and then suddenly he’s all fired up–to burn her at the stake. Nevermind his own sins which he thinks has been forgotten and hidden. But yet again, God proves that he is just and righteous and not only will our sins be found out, but there is also always a consequence to those sins.
This story is not as tragic as it could have been. While it is not exactly a happily ever after kind of situation, it is a beautiful picture of conviction and grace, on the part of Judah, who when he does realize that he was wrong actually admits it and does his best to make it right. After all, Tamar’s life was literally in his hands. He could have ignored the message she sent him and had her burned at the stake–his honor forever in tact. But he didn’t.
On the surface, this appears to be condoning Tamar’s deceptive acts, but I think it’s actually highlighting her determination to follow God’s law no matter the consequences to herself. Let me explain.
Despite the fact that her two previous husbands were jerks, she never curses God, the men, or even Judah. She had every opportunity to be bitter and surly, but instead she is obedient and compliant. She bides her time and takes action only when she sees that there is no other choice.
When she devises her plan she is careful to still bring honor to bother herself and Judah. She targets him specifically, and strategically placing herself in his path. She covers herself with a veil, which shows an unusual amount of modesty for the ‘prostitute’ role she is playing.
Tamar is thoughtful and cunning, making sure that she can prove who the father of her child is–securing identification tags rather than money, or other forms of payment that might have been tempting.
When the scheme is found out, she does not go public. She doesn’t shame Judah (or herself), she trusts Judah and God to do the right thing, by privately addressing the issue (unlike Judah who rants to anyone who will listen about burning her at the stake).
She is gracious to forgive, only grateful to be vindicated and justified in her own moral character.
All of these elements prove that Tamar was not just acting out of selfish ambition, but with a desire to honor the Lord, Judah and herself.
And we can learn a valuable lesson from her example in how to deal with those who have wronged us–a lesson that is hard to apply but valuable to remember, because at some point we will all feel taken advantage of, lost, or forgotten by the world. So, what do we do?
Be thankful for what we do have, not bitter over what we have lost or think we deserve. After all, if we truly got what we deserved, we wouldn’t be any happier (death, we all deserve death and punishment because we are all sinners)
Check your motivation. Always ask yourself if the actions you are taking will bring honor to God, and if the answer is ever no…take a step back and think about another plan, or just wait to hear from God. Jealousy, revenge, and bitterness do not bring honor to God, but obedience, justice, and thankfulness do.
Think things through. All actions, even rightly motivated, have consequences so it is highly advisable that you consider all the possible outcomes before acting.
Keep things private. I know posting your business and beef with others on social media feels good in the moment, but it causes way more damage to you and the other person when you go public with any kind of conflict. If you truly want to bring honor and justice to a situation, keep it private. Don’t “vent” about to others either. “Venting” is usually just a nice way of excusing your own gossip. Trust me, I know this from personal–heartbreaking–experience.
Forgive. You’ll never truly bring honor, glory or peace if you don’t learn to forgive the wrongs. I’m not saying that it’s easy–I’m sure it was a struggle for Tamar, but forgiveness is the only way to move forward. They don’t call it ‘holding’ a grudge for no reason–it holds you back as much as it does anything else. Let go. Let God. Move on.
Tamar’s story might be weird to the 21st century mindset, but despite the differences, there is always a human connection to be made and if we are wise…we won’t just hear. We’ll learn.
Barrenness is a popular theme in Biblical history, especially among strong female characters. The definition of ‘barrenness’ is ‘unable to produce fruit’, or in women, offspring, which makes me truly wonder if this theme isn’t about child production so much as it is about fruit and fulfillment of purpose. In Hannah’s time as in Sarah’s barrenness was not only upsetting, it was also shameful because a woman’s purpose was to produce heirs for her husband’s line. Thus the practice of polygamy—though not God ordained—became popular. The culture believed this would solve problems, but as always when we try to solve problems out of God’s will and purpose for our lives it often leads to more problems in the end.
Sanctified in Her Sorrow
Hannah was married to Elkanah. As the favored wife, but also the barren wife, she was like Elkanah’s first wife. So it is really no surprise that Peninnah, the second wife, though she produced many heirs for Elkanah, did not treat Hannah well. In fact, between the two women there was much animosity and conflict. In 1 Samuel 1: 1-7 Elkanah, Hannah and Peninnah’s roles are clearly defined in the first few verses. It’s significant that Elkanah is obedient in sacrificing to the Lord and that he is honoring both his wives. However, by having two wives and showing blatant favoritism he is perpetuating conflict in his household.
Hannah’s character, however, is never questioned. Throughout the narrative, she remains sanctified in her sorrow, which leads to her supplication and ultimately her songs of praise. Because when desperation turns to prayer and worry to praise, God moves in miraculous and wonderful ways.
1 Samuel 1: 8: This one verse says volumes. Hannah is sad that her prayers are unanswered ‘year by year’ and finally the sadness overwelms her and she breaks down into unappeasable tears. Having sobbed myself to sleep more than once in my own life, I feel a deep connection to the level of emotion Hannah is feeling–when you can’t be strong any longer, and all you can do is cry out to the Lord in your sadness, the tears are heartbreaking. And Elkanah, being a man and likely unfamiliar with this kind of soul sickness (not all men are unfamiliar, but I think we can agree that weeping in this way is more common to women–especially in ancient cultures), asks, “Am I not more to you than 10 sons?”
Elkanah, unknowingly devalues Hannah’s sorrow, insisting that his favoritism should be enough for her. But, can one person ever fulfill your every need? No, of course not! Nor should they try, because people, no matter how wonderful they are, will eventually disappoint us. And besides, it wasn’t ever really about having children anyway. It was about feeling purposeless and useless–like your very existence is a disappointment to everyone around you, including God. It’s about feeling broken. It’s about that deep, gut feeling that you are supposed to be someone else, but you can’t do it on your own and because you can’t you feel as though something is wrong with you. That kind of emptiness and longing, quickly turns to desperation…and there are only two paths from desperation: bitterness or earnest supplication.
Fortunately, Hannah’s desperation turns to earnest supplication and prayer. I love that verse 9 tells us Hannah rose. She knows only one person can truly fulfill her needs: the Lord. Giving over everything she has to God, she throws herself on his mercy and begs for the fulifillment she seeks.
While Hannah is praying in 1 Samuel 1: 12-18 she is being observed by the high priest Eli, but he is quick to judge her. Which, if we are honest, though we have all sought acceptance in the Lord’s house, many of us have experienced this kind of judgment there as well– a judgment that wounds instead of heals the brokenhearted. At least, I know I have. For years I avoided the church because of the wounds afflicted in a place that should have been so welcoming.
Eli is more concerned about appearance than he is about the condition of Hannah’s heart. Instead of greeting her, or listening to her, he accuses her of being a drunk. You can almost hear the sneer in his voice as he prepares to kick her out of his perfect temple.
But Hannah is wise. She is patient and respectful even though this authority figure has insulted her, she knows a soft response turns away wrath (Proverbs 15:1). Although it is tempting to reply in a snarky way, her humility wins the authority figure to her side–a lesson we could all stand to learn from time to time.
Fulfilled in her Faith
1 Samuel 1 19-28 shows thatHannah’s request is fulfilled, but almost immediately she must give up the fulfillment of God’s promise…or does she?
Giving up her child when he is 2 or 3 years old to the service of the church seems counterintuitive, but if we go back to the definition of barren and we think about fulfillment—Hannah never really wanted a child to fulfill her. She knew that, just like with her husband, a child would not fill the longing and ache in her heart. No. The only thing that would truly fill the hole was production of fruit. As a teenager I always thought Hannah was making one of those deals with God that we all try to make from time to time that fulfill some kind of selfish desire. As an adult, I see that Hannah’s supplication and promise was not at all about making a deal, but was really about fulifilling a purpose.
Not that it would be without challenge. Any time you give up something you longed for, you will struggle with feeling empty until you remember who really fills you. And that will never be another person. Only God.
3) Skim through 1 Samuel 2: 1-11. What do you notice about Hannah’s song?
By the end of the narrative (1 Samuel 2: 12; 18-21: ), Hannah is restored, and I think it is important to note that she doesn’t abandon her firstborn son. Sure, she dedicated him to the Lord’s work, but every year she visited and brought gifts, making sure that Samuel knew he was loved and chosen for a special purpose. As a result, God honors Hannah with more children and greater purpose than she could ever imagine! After all, Samuel would be the priest who would guide, direct and minister to the greatest King Isreal would know, David.
Heed Like Hannah
Life is never easy. It’s filled with sorrow, disappointment, and conflict. Sometimes we are in conflict with others based solely on the circumstances that surround us. Sometimes we are judged by authority figures—perhaps even unfairly. There is always a human factor involved in every interaction we have. Often we have a choice to get ourselves out of these circumstances, but sometimes we are stuck. Either way, how we handle the conflict is what defines us as either strong Godly women or whiny, manipulatively selfish women.
It’s easy to believe that one thing will bring joy and fulfillment to our lives. We often fall into the trap of thinking ‘when I have that new pair of shoes, then I’ll be satisfied’ or ‘when I meet the right guy, that’s when I’ll really be happy.’ But, what happens when you get those things and they don’t meet your expectations? We either become embittered or we can take a lesson from Hannah who didn’t let her supplication rule her life, but focused on her own heart and motivation. If she hadn’t been so willing to dedicate her son back to the Lord, I wonder if he would have answered her prayer with so much grace and honor. I can’t say for sure, but I can say that the Lord is faithful, and we can learn a lot from Hannah’s heeding of his word.
The story of Joseph has been told in many ways from the Broadway musical Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat to children’s movies like Joseph: King of Dreams. Each adaptation focuses on the themes of going after your dreams, the dangers of jealousy and favoritism, and sibling rivalry. While all of these are very prevalent in the story, to me it is a story of redemption pointing straight back to Jesus.
Joseph’s is a tale of suffering, rejection and exaltation—foretelling the ultimate Christ who would suffer and be rejected to ultimately be elevated to the right hand of God. BUT there are some distinct differences between Joseph and Jesus, the most poignant being Joseph’s arrogance and pride which, if we’re being honest, were at the root of his suffering and rejection. Whereas Jesus’ rejection was entirely unwarranted.
And boy can I relate to Joseph! If I had a nickel for every time my pride and arrogance led to negative consequences, well, let’s just say I could probably quit teaching. Like my junior year of high school, for example. I was the ultimate band nerd and I wanted so bad to be the drum major, not because I had a deep love for all things band—I really didn’t—I can be honest with myself now, though I still hesitate to type (all that pride). I wanted to be drum major because I wanted people to admire me. I wanted the attention and the satisfaction of knowing I was the winner…and I wanted to spend time with a boy I liked prior to the audition. On the other hand, my friends who also tried out had much more musical aspirations. I won the competition, but it cost me a lot in my friendships and I had to deal with some bullying I probably wouldn’t have experienced if I hadn’t been so proud.
Back to the point, who exactly is Joseph? Biography tells us he’s the first son of Rachel and Jacob, but the 12th born to the family (Leah had 6 sons and a daughter, Bilhah had two sons and Zilpah had two sons before Rachel had her first—Genesis 35:23-26). The dysfunction in his background was just the tip of the iceberg. This isn’t reality TV, but it sure could be the inaugural episode of Sister Wives!
Genesis 37:1-4 and 12-14 begin the story, highlighting Joseph’s position in the family as the baby. Verse 4 is our narrative hook (lit-speak) introducing a pretty powerful conflict:
When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.
Genesis 37:4 NIV
Joseph may be one of the youngest, but he is the favorite. And that doesn’t sit well with these grown men who have been trying to gain the favor of their father pretty much their entire lives. And we’re not talking about a couple of years between these brothers. Rueben, who was born firs, was at least a decade older, maybe even two. The dysfunction in the family is palpable in this interaction and sadly, Joseph isn’t mature enough to handle it in a way that would bring peace rather than more conflict, which we see in Genesis 37: 5-11.
Okay, so you have a dream that’s kind of interesting and you want to share it with your besties; that I get. What I don’t get is why Joseph thought this dream would be a good idea to share with people who already kind of hate him. Twice. And not with any kind of humility either:
Listen to this dream I had…
Listen, he said, I had another dream…
Genesis 37:6b; 9b
Note the command in Joseph’s voice as he approaches his brothers. He’s just a kid, but he’s been treated as though he is special his entire life. Probably pampered and a little spoiled. It seems as though he expects his brothers to, what? Congratulate him?
I don’t know about you, but in my experience, there is nothing like the kind of jealousy that comes with sibling rivalry. It burrows into your heart and then spreads like a cancer destroying the good from the inside out. Joseph either didn’t see the jealousy and hate of his brothers, or he didn’t want to see it. I guess we could call it naivete, but I’ve worked with teenagers long enough to know that a good looking seventeen-year-old (Genesis 37:2) knows what buttons to push and is just arrogant enough to believe himself invulnerable to harm.
One of the most humbling verses in the Bible comes in Daniel 4:37b which says:
Everything He does is right and He does it the right way. He knows how to turn a proud person into a humble man or woman (Msg).
These verses in context are spoken by King Nebuchadnezzar after his seven times of crazy wandering the desert–a direct result of his overwhelming pride. He speaks these words about God, recognizing the importance of humility in the face of th Almighty.
God had big plans for Joseph, but Joseph wasn’t ready to walk into his destiny at 17. He was proud and arrogant, perhaps as a result of his father’s favoritism. There is a big difference between confidence and cockiness. God wanted Joseph to be confident of his position, but Joseph needed a little humbling before that purpose could be fulfilled.
God uses everything in our lives to a good and fulfilling purpose. Sometimes that is hard to understand or even accept, especially when the things happening to us are terrible and unfair. Genesis 37:18-36 outlines the process by which Joseph was humbled and it came in the form of years of enslavement, punishment, and a sense of abandonment. Whether or not you agree with the brothers’ anger, I think we can all agree that they over-react! Note that there are several different plots going down here, so I’m thinking this might not be pre-meditated, but I do think they’ve been chatting about this, maybe joking, for a while until it’s not such a joke anymore.
Regardless of what the brothers hoped to get out of their evil plan, they didn’t earn their father’s favor. As with most sin, instead of gaining what they’d hoped for, they lost pretty much everything. Because that’s what sin is: a lie. We tell ourselves it’ll be worth it, but in the end all we get is heartache and usually a whole lot of guilt and shame.
Fortunately, there is always hope even in the midst of our mistakes. Over and over again in scripture, we see this story of redemption playing out in God’s people. Proof of Romans 8: 28:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
Romans 8:28 NIV
Sure, the brothers made a mistake, even Judah and Rueben who attempted to save Joseph went along with the plan instead of standing up to their brothers. And let’s face it, a half sin is still sin, and they dealt with the consequences along with the others. Fortunately, as is true with us, God took this terrible sin and worked it for His purpose and ultimately the good of Joseph himself.
Because that’s what sin is: a lie. We tell ourselves it’ll be worth it, but in the end, all we get is heartache and usually a whole lot of guilt and shame.
Work in Progress
Genesis 39 picks up with Joseph’s new life. Having been sold into slavery, he thought the worst was behind him. He settled into Potiphar’s household as a humble servant…or did he? He was definitely a slave, but Joseph seventeen…maybe eighteen by now and a total babe (Genesis 39:6b). Charismatic, young, and smoking hot–not at all a dangerous combo (*sarcasm*). No wonder he needed a little humbling. While I admire beautiful people in this world, I’m not entirely sad that I am not a part of this club. Beauty comes with it’s own set of issues, and Joseph found this out the hard way. Quickly rising to a position of power and trust in the household, Joseph let’s down his guard and God uses the opportunity to finish the humbling process.
A quick run down of the story: Joseph is Potiphar’s trusted servant, and puts him in charge of the household. Potiphar’s wife sees this yummy new slave in her home and gets the hots for him. She makes her move, and he rejects her. BUT, here’s why I believe Joseph was still fighting the sin of pride even as a slave in Potiphar’s household:
Genesis 39:10 says she came to him day after day. Yes, he rejects her, but I think he might like the attention. Why? Because she keeps coming back day after day. Ladies, track with me here, I don’t know about you but when I am truly rejected by a man I don’t typically continue to pursue it. Now I’m not the kind of woman who would cheat on my spouse, but rejection stings no matter what. I don’t know that she would be quite as persistent if he had really rejected her firmly.
Joseph knows she has the hots for him, and when he enters the house and there are no other servants present, alarm bells do not go off in his head (Genesis 39:11). He’s not stupid. He knows what’s up, and he should have gotten the heck of dodge before he even came into contact with her, and yet he gets close enough to her that she can grab his cloak…AND she rips it off of him…a woman is able to take off the cloak of a built eighteen-year-old? Something fishy is going on here.
He never tells Potiphar about the advances. I know it’s not easy to take these kinds of situations to the person in authority, but it might have solved a lot of problems if Joseph had manned up and told Potiphar of his concerns from the get go. Communication is not at the top of a proud person’s to-do list. Do you know why? They think they can handle it all themselves. And usually, they can’t.
Now I’m not trying to disparage Joseph’s reputation here, but I would like for us to recognize that he is human, and he’s still a kid. God has a purpose for all of us, and sometimes that requires that he breaks something in us before he can build us into what he wants us to be. Through it all, though, he is with us, just as he was with Joseph (notice the bookends of chapter 39: verse 2 and verse 21).
In Genesis 40, Joseph is in prison, but he has risen to a position of power (again) within the hierarchy of the prison because the Lord was with him and gave him success. When two men are cast into the prison by pharaoh, it comes to light that Joseph has been given the ability to interpret dreams.
The chapter recounts the significance of the interpretations, mostly that the cupbearer will be restored in three days and the baker will be killed in three days by the pharaoh. But I note a significant difference in the dreams from the beginning and the dreams from this chapter and the difference is in Joseph’s heart:
Then Joseph said to them, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me your dreams”
No longer commanding that others listen to him, Joseph gives all the glory to God and God alone.
Unfortunately, when the dreams come to pass,
The chief cupbeaer, however, did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.
Those three words, aside from “Jesus wept” might be the most devastating in the Bible. Being forgotten is the WORST. Feeling forgotten is just as bad. It would be two years (Genesis 41:1) before he was remembered and that’s a long time in prison when you had a little hope that was snatched away from you at the last second. And let us remember–he was in prison. Even an elevated position in prison is still prison and an ancient prison would not have been a great place to be.
Genesis41: 46 gives us a clearer indication of how long this humbling process lasted–he was 17 when he was sold into slavery and 30 when he entered the pharaoh’s service. That’s 13 years. And his response to Pharaoh in Genesis 41:16 proves the process was a successful one.
“I cannot do it,” Joseph replied to Pharaoh, “But God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires.”
Although Joseph was in a season of waiting, he was under God’s protection and authority throughout those many years. The story ends in Genesis 41:39-40 with the fulfillment of Joseph’s original dreams. As the man in charge of 7 years of abundance, he becomes a good steward of God’s blessings and as such during the 7 years of famine he ensures the kingdom will still prosper, which leads to his brothers bowing before him in Genesis 42:6. It was a long process before we get to Joseph’s declaration and forgiveness, but it is clear that Joseph believes God is at the center of everything: trials and blessings. A true story of suffering, redemption, and exaltation that points straight back to Jesus.
Having been in a long season of waiting myself, I can relate to Joseph and his 13 years of waiting and wondering if anyone will ever remember him. Although his attitude left much to be desired, he did nothing wrong to be enslaved and imprisoned, and honestly, that’s how life works sometimes. Life is not fair. But God never promised that life would be fair. However, he did promise to work things out for our good and for His purpose. The reality is we think we know what is for the best, but He always knows what is best. Even if we can’t understand it.