Visionary and Bold – the daughters of Zelophehad

The law of entail barring girls from inheriting and the resultant need for social and financial security is the background to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. We are familiar with this same backdrop in Downton Abbey. Rewind to a much earlier period between 14th – 12th centuries B.C. and meet a family of sisters who end up enjoying the ownership of their family land rather than seeing it passed on to distant male relatives.

The father Zelophehad had five daughters and no sons. They lived towards the end of Moses’ leadership of the desert wandering Israelites.  Laws had already been given to this fledgling nation, who were poised to enter Canaan. Living by these laws, the Israelites were to reflect the nature of the God they worshipped; an all-powerful, moral, universal God in contrast to tribal deities with limited power worshipped by the nations around them.

In a census of Israel that records over 600,000 men by clans, apart from Moses’s family who are all mentioned, only the five daughters of Zelophehad are listed by name. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirzah petition the religious and civic leadership in front of the entire assembly to be given inheritance rights. The women make a brief but strong argument to support their request “why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son”? They don’t beg, plead or ask a male relative to speak for them. Their tone is confident, even belligerent, as they  demand “give us property among our father’s relatives”.   This is a new situation which the existing laws do not address. So Moses brings up the situation before God. In a patriarchal culture, it is surprising to see a family of girls speaking up for keeping their land instead of allowing it to pass to the nearest male relative. It is also remarkable to see that the contention is taken seriously, brought before God and a new law being given. It is the very first response to the problem. The leaders focus on the merits and justice of the issue, without getting sidetracked about how it is presented or who will lose if the girls win.

I’m amazed not only at the confidence shown by the young women to speak up on their own behalf, but the fact that theyrecognized their situation as unfair. Even today many women living in patriarchal cultures are unable to recognize or at least name unfair practices that keep them at a disadvantage. There is a fatalistic acceptance of their lesser position to men. Often women are not able to articulate discrimination, since it is within the family itself that women experience the preferential treatment given to men.   It seems disloyal to speak against your family to others. It is the family elders who would represent the family to outsiders, not even the young men, let alone the young women.

Recognizing an unfair situation is one thing. Refusing to accept it and taking steps to bring about change is another. Did the young women have butterflies in their stomach before they made their very public claim? Possibly. It is very likely they hadn’t been in the public eye in this way before. Because of their initiative in working publicly to address a situation that was personally discriminatory, they were able to bring about a new law that benefitted not only themselves but each all-girl family in Israel that followed.  In the absence of a son, a daughter could inherit rather than a man’s brother or other male relatives. What if the girls had allowed their fears and misgivings to overcome them and remained silent? Not only they but generations of Israelite families comprising only of daughters would not have benefitted. All -girl families would have had to wait until someone else came along who was willing to speak up.

It seems selfish to speak up for your rights, and more self-effacing if you let others speak on your behalf. However, sometimes people aren’t going to know how bad a situation is unless we tell them. ‘They’ are not going to realize how bad things are for ‘us’. Those who have privileged identities in a given society do not experience discrimination first hand. They may only have an  inkling of an unfair situation that another group experiences. The majority probably doesn’t  think the situation is too serious since they are not affected and we have a tendency to assume that everybody experiences life like we do.  Some people don’t want to know because they aren’t interested. Other people are busy juggling many commitments and need to hear from others, since they don’t have the time to find out. Giving voice to a discrimination you experience because of a particular group identity creates a space for the whole group to be heard and a grievance addressed.

In this record from the book of Numbers, it is not the religious or political leaders that identify the problem, but a bunch of girls who are personally affected by a lack of adequate protection by law.  In this story, we see that God did not expect his people to live within a closed system where nothing can be questioned. Instead  the daughters of Zelophehad had  freedom to highlight the injustice they experienced and effect change. The lack of anything previously recorded in the law were not grounds for dismissing or not considering a matter.  The fairness of the issue was the focal point and in the absence of precedent, God’s mind was sought.  When the women highlight the issue, God concurs with them that they are in the right. It is interesting that God does not give a blue print to all of life, but that he draws broad boundaries for life giving human beings a large canvass to work things out for ourselves. Hopefully the processes we use will be fair and the causes we take up will reflect God’s moral character.

As a result of the sisters’ initiative, God gives a new law. Daughters can inherit in the absence of sons. As the clan heads of Manasseh begin to ponder about the ramifications of this law, they identify a potential problem that could crop up. What if the daughters of Zelophehad married from other Israelite tribes? Then their tribe would lose part of their original land allotment and the tribe into which the women marry will gain more land. The family elders don’t grumble that the women are upsetting the status quo, changing  how things have always been done.  Instead, they voice a legitimate concern. Land was central to an agrarian economy and the land had been divided fairly. Laws had even been given to ensure that every 50  years land would revert back to its original owners. If indeed the daughters of Zelophehad married outside their tribe, the tribes they marry into would benefit from their inheritance and their tribe of origin would suffer financial loss.    This is the situation that the family heads of Manasseh discuss with all the other Israelite family heads and their leader Moses.  We see the traditional leadership structure at work here,  making it even more extraordinary and bold that the girls petitioned not only this group but the entire assembly.

God sees the validity of the elders’ point of view and makes amendments to the new law. The daughters of Zelophehad are told to marry within their father’s tribal clan to ensure that the inheritance stays within the tribe.  This is broad provision of choice since the tribe consisted of several thousand people! Even if the choice was limited to the immediate clan, its still in the range of a few thousand people. Legitimate safeguards are given to protect the livelihoods and prosperity of the tribe. God actually says “they may marry anyone they please” within these very broad parameters. There is plenty of freedom for individual happiness within the boundary of the communal good.  The choice of partner is theirs, it is not the responsibility of the clan  elders to arrange their marriages. Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milkah and Noah choose to marry cousins on their father’s side, men they are likely to know better than distant relatives of the same clan.

I love the win-win solution that God brings about. The women get to keep their father’s property. The entire tribe is protected from losing its land.    God allows human initiative to create laws. We see the girls being good stewards of their gifts and abilities. They are visionary and bold in expressing a new idea that helps their corner of the world flourish.   This partnership between God and people continue as the elders’ concerns hone the law to be fair by all. God does not consider people puppets unable to contribute to issues that affect them. He invites us to be bold in thinking and expressing new ideas that will bring justice to people whom the majority ignores.

The five sisters make their final appearance as the Israelites settle in Canaan.  The promised land allotments are in the process of being given out and the women remind the leadership that God had granted them the right to inherit along with their uncles. Moses is dead and Joshua is the new leader, yet the laws made during the tenure of Moses are honoured by Joshua.   There is no lack of political will in implementing the law. The women receive their land.

Laws given for the common good are never exhaustive. As we are exposed to new situations and  legitimate concerns are raised, we need to be willing to make new laws and practices to ensure justice is experienced by groups whose rights have hitherto been ignored. Accurate information needs to be presented and the concerns of all stakeholders addressed. Globally people face discriminatory laws and practices in areas such as Gender, Religion and Race, depending on where you live. In an imperfect world, the disadvantaged do not have the free access to power that the daughters of Zelophehad had.

Who are the people who could use you in their corner? We don’t need to think of exotic groups faraway. They could be local and unattractive, part of our usual landscape whom we don’t give a second thought to. How can we who possess a degree of power use our relative power to empower those who have less?



Michal – Shrew or Heroine?

What would you rather do? Keep your mouth shut to avoid conflict or risk your life to help someone else? Generally most of us would prefer to choose the more comfortable option. If we go back 3000 years in time, we find a woman who may be more popularly remembered today for her caustic tongue, but whom the Bible depicts more generously as also a brave and loyal wife and a heroine of her people. Let’s take a fresh look at Michal, daughter of King Saul and first wife of King David.

Michal first comes on the scene as a young girl in love with the popular young army commander David serving her father King Saul. David has been at the palace from time to time before, serving her father as a musician. He rises to prominence as a military hero after he defeats Goliath and averts a national security threat. David is also her brother’s best friend.

At this point of the story, Saul feels threatened by David’s military victory and popularity. He slights David by going back on his public promise to give his eldest daughter Merab as wife to the man who defeats Goliath. Merab is given to someone else. Yet Saul is actually pleased to learn that Michal loves David. This pleasure is not in his daughter’s happiness. Rather, Saul hopes that in practicing the cultural traditions of winning Michal’s hand in marriage, David will be harmed. We see David’s humility in not wishing to marry into the royal family, he is extremely conscious of his humble background and feels diffident about becoming the king’s son-in-law. It takes a lot of persuasion to consider the marriage proposal.

Interestingly, it looks like around 1000 B.C. in ancient Israel, the dowry was to be given by the groom to the girl’s family, rather than the bride’s family needing to pay a man to marry their daughter as happens in many cultures even today. Saul’s bride price is a 100 Philistine foreskins. The Philistines happened to be an aggressive neighbour that periodically invaded Israel. David has to hunt down their enemies and kill enough of them to be able to bring back the proof of having killed uncircumcized men. Saul’s hope is that in the process of trying to kill a hundred men that his prospective son-in-law would get killed himself. His plan fails, David is able to procure what Saul wants and in due course marries Michal. It is worthwhile to note that Michal is said to ‘love’ David rather than just be ‘in love’ with him. Soon we will see how her love is put to the test.

Loyalty and Initiative
Soon after Michal’s wedding David is engaged in his peacetime occupation of playing soothing music for the king. Saul’s jealousies and insecurities get the better of him and he tries to kill David by hurling a spear to pin him to the wall. David escapes and returns home. While he is slow in responding to the imminent danger of being found and executed, it is Michal who acts decisively, correctly interpreting the king’s intentions and initiating appropriate action.

The scene could be from a thriller. David has just escaped from his deranged father-in-law. Michal notices palace thugs outside their home sent by her father to make sure David can’t leave his house. Michal realizes if David is to flee from the king, it has to be that very night, that to delay until morning would result in being captured by Saul. It is she who insists that David cannot afford to wait until morning to escape and almost pushes him to act immediately. The plan of escape is hers and she works to execute the plan. In the dead of night, David is stealthily let out through a window by Michal, so that he can get away to safety. No wringing of hands. No tears. Only bold and courageous action of a loyal wife. Sometimes in a life and death situation, there is no time to think about our feelings, our character comes through in how we act in the moment.

Dealing with Crises
Even after she has helped David get away, Michal does not succumb to self-pity or justified grief. She is busy with a plan to buy time for David, so that he can get further away from Saul. Taking nothing to chance, in case the men sent by her father should come into the bedroom, she makes up the bed to give the impression that a person is sleeping. She stalls the men by saying that her husband is sick. Confronted by an enraged father who discovers the trick of the dummy in bed, Michal pretends that David would have killed her if she had not helped him escape. How comfortable are we with her lies? Both her lies are to shield either her husband or herself from the repercussions of irrational rage of an authoritarian ruler. If Michal had let the men come into the room they would have discovered David’s escape earlier and he would have had them pursuing him in no time. No trial, and likely summary execution. Is she had the stupidity to tell her deranged father that she was instrumental in letting his enemy escape, she could easily have been killed herself. This is not a far- fetched assumption. Saul has a history of unpredictable rage and violence. Shortly thereafter, enraged to hear Jonathan speaking up for David, Saul tries to pin his own son and heir to the wall.

Michal’s license with the truth in the context of dealing with powerful but unjust authorities raises an interesting issue. Can we who live in comfortable cultures with no threat to our physical safety even understand circumstances where the most prudent course of action might be to lie? Not because its convenient, or its uncomfortable to face the consequences of our actions, not even for grand notions of the greater good, but because of your certain knowledge that if you gave true information to the authorities that it would lead to the unjust death of a human being. Think back to Hitler’s Germany where people risked their lives and hid Jews and very likely lied to the authorities who came looking for them. Much like Shiphrah and Puah in the time of baby Moses. These Hebrew midwives were ordered by the Egyptian ruler to kill male babies born to Hebrew women. They chose not to obey the national law that clashed with a higher moral law and when questioned by the king made a prudent reply. God actually rewards them for their honorable lies.

In more recent times folks across the globe have hidden ethnic minorities from bloodthirsty mobs in times of civil unrest. In Sri Lanka during July 1983 when Colombo was in flames and we saw great evil with an angry Sinhalese mob hunting and killing Tamils, we also saw great good where Sinhalese stood up to protect their Tamil friends and neighbors. In these kinds of circumstances unusual for most of us, even if we want to be truthful no matter the consequence for ourselves, we do not have the luxury of salving our conscience by sacrificing someone else. Do we lie or tell the truth and give someone over to certain death; marked for death because of color, gender, ethnicity, religious or political belief that does not sit well with the ruling regime.

Michal’s lies also help Saul save face. In many cultures around the world today including my own, there are indirect rather than direct ways of relating to people. Older people by and large are not used to being contradicted. Younger adults find it hard to tell older people that they disagree with their point of view. Out of respect, the younger person may keep his/her view to himself. It would have been intolerable for Saul to be confronted by Michal his daughter.

There is nothing to suggest in the tone of the passage that Michal is rebuked by history for lying, standing up to her father or going against the king’s wishes. Rather, Michal is depicted as a heroine. As the history of David and Solomon are recorded, we see Michal’s role in initiating David’s escape from Saul as pivotal. She is the brave and loyal wife who risks her life and her father’s wrath to help David get away. It is an ugly situation for any newly married young girl to be in. Who would want to choose between a father and a husband due to dysfunctional family dynamics? In the only instance recorded where she has the power to choose her allegiance, she chooses to be loyal to her husband David, over fidelity to her father. Michal is not looking out for number one. If she wanted to make a pragmatic choice, she would not have chosen to side with a fugitive on the run over an established and powerful ruler. Several years after the actual event, even after Michal’s relationship with David turns sour, the Biblical account portrays Michal with respect, the woman instrumental in helping David escape, preserving his life so that he could be king of Israel as God intended.

David is almost a bystander in this crisis situation, all the key decisions are made by Michal. Sometimes when we are overwhelmed by what seems to be an insurmountable problem, it is natural for our confidence to be shaken and to be slow in figuring out what to do. Michal on the other hand has her wits about her. In this instance we see her functioning as an equal partner in their marriage, trusted to be able to make a crucial and complex decision. She is not an adornment, but an active participant in shaping the course of Israel’s history.

As David escapes and Michal is left behind to cope with her father, they would not have dreamed that this is the last time they would see each other for several years and their lives and circumstances would change irrevocably in the interim.

In patriarchal cultures, once a woman is married, she is absorbed into the husband’s family. Her family of origin no longer has any claim over her. For a woman, marriage included a giving up of allegiance and identity with her own family and learning to identify with and consider her husband’s family as her own. Not too long after David is on the run, Saul does what he has no right to do. He gives his daughter Michal already married to David, to another man, Paltiel. Here, the powerful king is making a political statement. By giving Michal to someone else Saul is signalling to all Israel that David is no longer considered his son-in-law. The fugitive on the run is no longer family, only Saul’s enemy.

Saul’s behaviour shows that he values humiliating David over the happiness of his daughter. Giving Michal to Paltiel is a public insult to David. Michal has no choice in the matter. She is a pawn in a political power game. How did she feel about being given to another man, forced to think of him as her husband, to be intimate with him? 1 Samuel is not Michal’s story, so we do not know. We can guess from what we know of her already. A young wife, concerned for the safety of her husband, missing him and repelled to be in someone else’s bed. Her feelings are irrelevant. Saul is so intent on hurting David and dissociating himself from him, that he can’t see/doesn’t care that he’s hurting Michal also.

Time passes. Life happens. While David lives in hiding with a ragtag band of followers, he marries two more wives, Ahinoam and Abigail. Saul gets killed in fighting a foreign army. Jonathan dies in the same battle. The king and heir are dead and its time for David to begin ruling. There are many years of political unrest though, as the house of Saul won’t easily give up their claim to the throne. For more than seven years David has to be content ruling only a small portion of the country from Hebron. During this period, David does not initiate a plan to bring Michal back. He takes four more wives and at least six sons are born to him in Hebron. We see David starting to play the strategic alliance game, one of the wives he marries is the daughter of a foreign ruler. The wife of his youth is forgotten.

Michal is remembered again only when David realizes the political importance of having her by his side. The commander of the Saul family faction tries to make a deal with David, so that David could have control of all Israel. David says no deal unless he brings with him, “Saul’s daughter, my wife”. Michal is returned as the key component of the political negotiations. David sees that having Michal with him is strategic to silence Saul’s clan/extended family. Having Michal by his side strengthens his position as king and is a unifying factor with fellow Israelites. While it is possible that David didn’t want to unsettle Michal from her new life and therefore was hesitant about bringing her back, the moment David realizes that Michal is necessary to consolidate his position as king, he is inflexible in his determination to have her brought back.

Ignored Emotions
How does Michal feel about being returned to David? The Bible records how Paltiel follows weeping as the army commander takes away his wife of around ten years. Not the signs of an indifferent husband, but a loving one. It is very likely that the young devastated Michal, briefly the wife of David, has over the years begun to reciprocate the affection of her new husband. Paltiel would not have wept for an indifferent wife. Michal has got accustomed to her new life when she is uprooted again. Saul and David both use her for their own ends. Michal is a pawn yet again. She has no choice in the decisions made about her. As a girl, her youthful love for David is used by her father to try and trap David. When David escaped Saul’s clutches the young wife is given to another man to humiliate David. With the passing of the years as she tries to respond to the love of her second husband, she is taken back to David by military force.

Michal has to keep adjusting to circumstances beyond her control and deal with emotions of loss, sadness, repugnance, anger, humiliation and bitterness. Having her well-being continually ignored by powerful authority figures in her life, by this time she must be a master at masking her emotions. Masking emotions come easy to people who are habitually in situations of powerlessness where their thoughts, aspirations and even lives are considered unimportant by others who have power over them. In some cultures even today, wives can be physically assaulted by their husbands and still be expected to be soft-spoken and respectful to their husbands and not discuss their marital situation with anybody. A sure recipe for depression. Did Michal come smiling, even though seething inside?

How does the helper in your home feel about how you treat her? Does she smile all the time or is she comfortable being sullen sometimes? One way I know that my family has got this right is the fact that my brother and sister-in-law’s domestic helper has no problem telling them off from time to time! She knows that her work is valued, paid for well, gets time off and that she is as worth as they are as human beings.

The young girl we first saw has now become a mature woman. She has experienced the harshness of the real world. Her family has lost power in Israel, her father and brother have been killed in war. She has known grief and bereavement. Michal now has to navigate a relationship with David which is necessarily complicated as he has other wives and children.

We see Michal only once after she is returned to David. We are not sure how long after her return the event takes place. The occasion is a religious celebration. David is dancing before God in physical abandonment. This is a public ceremony, so all the people see their king worshipping God without concern about proper kingly reserve. Michal is able to see the festivities from her window and is consumed by thoughts of how undignified her husband the king appears. When David comes home joyfully after worship, Michal drips with sarcasm as she upbraids him for appearing vulgar and making a spectacle of himself before the servant girls. While David has been expressing himself in worship to God, without caring about his royal position i.e. “what will people think?” Michal has been preoccupied with thoughts that David’s behviour in worship did not fit his pomp and circumstance. Perhaps she feels his actions are a slight to her own position as well. Convinced by her perception that his behaviour was not dignified, Michal fails to see David’s genuine worship of God. The narrative links this despising of David’s worship to Michal’s barrenness.

Sometimes this portion of the story has been exposited as a warning of judgment to wives who don’t treat their husbands with respect. However a close reading of this incident shows that the reason Michal misses out on being a mother is her failure to recognize David’s transparency and sincerity in worshipping God. It is not for mocking her husband. It is interesting that David does not reprimand Michal for how she talks to him. He only reiterates that his position is in fact given by God and that he will probably humiliate himself several times over.

Ever felt embarrassed on behalf of someone else? Sometimes we too presume we can read a situation, but end up judging someone else’s actions and motives wrongly. What we think we see may not always be the reality, though we are convinced it is so. Do we harm ourselves and others by being contemptuous of their transparent and open lives? Sometimes the honesty of others lives and their simple worship of God can be a threat to our own lack of transparency. They expose the elaborate but empty religious rituals behind which we hide, for fear of relating to God on his own terms. We are busy passing judgment and miss the joy of seeing how God has impacted real people in significant ways.

Michal seems to have to pay too heavy a price for one lapse. In this sense she is like Moses, who had to forego leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, for one lapse. Just one attitude, in Michal’s case despising her husband’s worship results in childlessness. One moment of frustration, a small act of altering God’s instructions in getting water from a rock results in Moses forfeiting the right to lead the people into Caanan. Why? I guess at the very least, it means that small things are important to God. He expects clear instructions followed and is concerned about what our minds are filled with at a given moment.

In Michal’s action we see the juxtaposition of free will and predestination. Barrenness is Michal’s consequence for denigrating true worship. Even as Michal is responsible for how she thinks, in God’s sovereignty his promise to Saul comes true, in that Saul’s heirs will not inherit the throne. If Michal had had children, her son would have the strongest natural claim to the throne as both the son of David and the grandson of Saul.

Michal does not have the power to make large decisions like where she will live and with whom. She does have agency over her thoughts and to what degree she would allow her thoughts to influence her words and actions. She is still a strong woman, able to speak her mind to her husband the king. Stronger than some of us perhaps, who might find it easier to guard our speech to avoid giving offense, rather than risk ourselves to real danger even for the sake of those we love.

Fair assessment
It is interesting that the two episodes where Michal is seen as a real person with her own thoughts, words and actions are such contrasts. Why are these two contrasting stories included in this narrative of Israel’s history? How are they both important? We see how Michal’s own attitudes and behavior mesh with God’s wider plans for Israel and the world in preserving the line of David instead of the house of Saul. We also see that Michal is still honoured as the one who preserved the life of the then future king, despite having made a wrong judgment. The whole story of David’s life is written down after all these incidents take place. Despite Michal’s lack of recognition of David’s worship and her mockery of her husband the king, she is still seen as the person without whose initiative and assistance David would not have escaped Saul and certain death. Even as God uses Michal’s own attitudes and actions in later times to fulfill his purposes for Saul’s descendants, God also uses Michal’s initiative and actions in earlier days to fulfill his purposes for David.

Sometimes we forget a person’s faithful character and service in the past. We cling to his/her one mistake, sin even, and all their future actions are interpreted through the lens of that one flawed action. Yes, there are consequences of bad actions however glorious a person’s past accomplishments. However, God still sees, values and rewards the good choices of our past too. They don’t get cancelled out. We see this in how Moses is remembered in the New Testament. His impatience cost him the privilege of leading the people the final step of the journey, but did not cancel out the years of good leadership before. In the Biblical record, Michal is treated the same way. Though smaller in scale, Michal ‘s story is presented in a way that shows she is still valued by David and the people as the heroine who helped him escape at a time in his life where he did not have power, privilege and position. A little different to modern times where those in power quickly forget those who helped them get to their position! We see her human, giving in to negative impulses. Her faults, like Moses’s and even King David’s are acknowledged. David and Moses or other heroes with larger stories in the Bible are not written off because of their faults. Michal, a real woman of both strength of character and human weakness, with her small story is not written off either. Not by God, nor her people.

Ruth – An Unlikely National Icon

How often do we find the stories of a poor young immigrant widow and a depressed old woman to be integral to a nation’s self-narrative? Not often? Never? In contrast, somewhere around 1000 B.C. the story of Ruth and Naomi is included as an essential part of Israel’s recorded history. Their struggles and sorrows were considered worth writing about! Ruth and Naomi are recognized as women whose initiative and choices in the midst of their own challenging life circumstances are used by God to not only bless them but benefit the entire nation in giving Israel its greatest King, David.

We join Naomi bereft of husband and sons preparing to leave Moab to return to Bethlehem with her daughters – in – law. In the midst of her grief, she remembers to focus on her daughters in law and their social and economic security. She is insistent that they return to their families of origin, mainly so that they may have an opportunity to marry again and be well provided for. While Orpah realizes the truth of this wisdom and turns back to return to her home, we see Ruth immovable in her loyalty to her mother-in-law. Ruth is determined not to leave fragile, lonely Naomi alone. Ruth’s main reason to accompany Naomi to an unfamiliar country is to ensure that she can look after her mother-in-law. It is possible that over the ten years living with a family that worshiped God, she had some longing, curiosity to know this God better for herself. What did not contribute to the decision is the hope that  Bethlehem would be good hunting grounds for a husband. No one was going to marry a poor foreign widow.    If she wanted economic and social security her best bet would be to go back to her parental home and look for a husband among her own people.

I am stirred by Ruth’s strength of character, her determination to go to Bethlehem with Naomi. Even though her mother-in-law points out that she will have no marriage prospects if she accompanies Naomi, Ruth’s priority is to make sure that bereft Naomi is not left alone. In a society where marriage included  financial security and social standing, to turn one’s back on both is a remarkably courageous choice as is the willingness to embrace the possibility of being childless in a culture that stigmatized women who didn’t have children. It is also a remarkably loving and selfless choice, where Ruth puts Naomi’s needs before her own.  Even as Ruth makes the decision to accompany Naomi and get to know Naomi’s  God for herself, in her willingness  to sacrifice her future for her mother in law’s sake, Ruth shows that she is already demonstrating the character of the God she is attracted to.

They arrive in Bethlehem at the beginning of the harvest. This is the first in a series of ‘coincidences’ where people’s actions mesh with God’s plans. The beginning of harvest with employers needing to hire more workers would make it easier for strangers to find work.  If the women had arrived mid-season, there may not have been work available.

Having used up her energy to try to dissuade Ruth from returning with her, upon arrival in Bethlehem, Naomi sinks in to the comfort of the familiar and inertia. When her old friends converge around her in excitement, Naomi isn’t able to muster up joy at being back, instead she is focused on the troubles that have befallen her. It is up to Ruth, the foreigner in a small town to think of their survival and look around for employment. Was she conscious of looking different? Speaking with a strange accent? Dressed in quaint clothes? Not quite fitting in? Probably.  What she chooses to do though is the practical action of looking for a job that would provide for them both.

Imagine yourself a poor young immigrant widow new to a small community.  Imagine you are fortunate enough to find a job. Would you be left in peace to earn a living? Would you face discrimination? Would you be subject to sexual harassment or rape?

Ruth would have been aware of her vulnerability as a poor young immigrant widow working out in the fields, that without any family or friends she would be easy game for anyone who was inclined to abuse her. Boaz insists that Ruth works on his fields sticking close to his other women workers to protect her from abuse she will very likely face working on someone else’s land. In fact he is aware that without specific instructions to the contrary, even his own men could try to harass her. It is a mark of Naomi’s preoccupation with her own grief, that she fails to warn Ruth of the risk of being sexually harassed or abused before Ruth sets out to work the first day, but remembers after she gets back!

The second ‘coincidence’ of the meshing of human initiative and divine outworking that occurs is as Ruth goes out to the fields to look for work, she ends up working on the property of a rich relative.    The next ‘coincidence’ occurs on the afternoon of her first day of work. The owner happens to stop by to check on progress, he notices Ruth, queries about her and gets an outstanding recommendation from the foreman.    Even here, as elsewhere where she is talked about, people see her foreignness first, rather than her kinship to Naomi.  She is “Ruth the Moabitess” to the Ancient Israelites. Much like talking about “Radha that Tamil girl” among a Sinhalese community in Sri Lanka or ” Wei the Asian girl” or ” Brianna the black girl”  in small town USA.

Living in a village of less than 3000 people and having a child in the local Elementary school, we are now a familiar family in our neighbourhood. Its hard not to notice us because we look very different from most of the community. We stand out! In the early days, I remember the occasional stranger driving down the street who slows down to take a second look, or shoppers staring at me in the local grocery store, someone who looks like she doesn’t blend into the surroundings. Rewind to around 3000 years ago when change happened at a much slower pace.  It would not have been easy for Ruth to venture out into a community where like it or not she draws attention to herself because she is different.      This is a community where folks have lived alongside one another for generations and have family ties and friendships that stretch back years. It is a testament to her character demonstrated in the loyalty, affection  & practical care given to her mother-in-law that the townspeople hold her in respect.

As the busy harvesting season comes to a close, we see Naomi coming out of her self-absorption and thinking about Ruth’s future. In a society where the widow, orphan and alien were at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, security for her widowed, foreign daughter-in-law  could only come through a good marriage.   It dawns on Naomi that who better a husband for Ruth than their relative Boaz who has treated them well throughout the harvest season. Not only did Boaz ensure Ruth’s safety at the workplace, he also ensured their short term economic survival by making sure Ruth would find plenty of grain to gather. While in contemporary western culture the onus of proposing rests with the man, here it is the mother- in- law who initiates the marriage proposal, with Ruth  being very willing to learn and follow the custom of declaring her intentions.

Boaz must have been attracted to Ruth with her exotic looks and speech, and intrigued by her devotion to Naomi. He had plenty of time to observe Ruth at work and interact with her.  Naomi is quite certain that once Ruth proposes marriage, Boaz would respond positively within the day.  Boaz does take steps that very day to be engaged to Ruth. In fact, in agreeing to marry Ruth, Boaz willingly takes on personal financial loss.  In practicing the familial law of the Kinsman Redeemer, he would buy the plot of land belonging to Naomi’s family but maintain it in the name of his dead relatives.

God honours the choices that Ruth, Naomi and Boaz make to give them a better future than they could have imagined. He also uses their choices to weave his greater purposes for Israel and for the world. In order to have a comfortable life in her society, Ruth would need to marry well. A good marriage for Ruth ensures security for Naomi as well, in the extended family set up of the times.   Boaz and Ruth are blessed with a child whom the village recognizes as a grandson for Naomi to dote on and bring up in her old age. They would never have dreamed that this baby would become the grandfather of Israel’s greatest king! In including a woman from a different ethnic group  as a vital part of their national story, God reminds the Israelites that the reason Israel was to be a distinctive people was so that God could work through them to bless all nations.

Ruth’s story gets caught up in God’s Story because she chose something better over something good. What would have happened if she had returned to Moab? Ruth probably would have remarried and had kids and had a decent life in obscurity. Ruth’s pivotal choice to accompany Naomi changes her destiny and influences the destiny of her adopted country. Her choice even  has the far-reaching effect of her becoming  part of the ancestry of Jesus, whom God sends so that all people can have an authentic relationship with Himself.   For Ruth, this initial choice was pretty simple really. It was either to get personally involved in taking care of Naomi who was not fit to take care of herself and didn’t have anyone else to turn to, or to detach herself from an obligation she was technically not responsible for any longer and pursue her own interests. Ruth chooses obvious need over rationalizations.    The question for us is whether we can miss God’s best for our lives by making easy and safe choices rather than making tougher, riskier choices like Ruth did. Risks don’t always involve the dramatic, but risk  does involve moving out of our comfort zones. For some of us risk  may mean like Ruth that we uproot ourselves and move to a different country or continent.  For others risk  may involve forming an authentic friendship with someone who is from a different cultural background, or hiring an employee with a prison record. Or it could simply involve helping a newcomer to a group to feel at home.

Ruth didn’t set about to make a name for herself, to create a legacy. It is as she makes decisions in the context of doing the tasks set before her, that recognition comes. Go with mom. Find work. Make a living.  Buy  provisions. Pay bills.  She takes charge of her life and ventures out to make a life for Naomi and herself rather than waiting helplessly to be rescued by someone else.   The story ends with the women of the community affirming to Naomi that her daughter-in-law is worth more than seven sons. High praise indeed! These are the real comments of a bunch of women, who have observed Ruth’s consistent care of Naomi over time and respect her for it. There is no devaluation of her because she is the outsider, the in-law, as is still true today in many cultures;  rather there is honest recognition of her worth.

The book of Ruth was probably written down in the reign of King Solomon. The narrative concludes with the knowledge that the baby born to Ruth and Boaz is going to be the grandfather of Israel’s greatest King, David. It is fascinating to see that as the lineage of Solomon and David is recorded that a poor immigrant widow is given centre stage in the story. A woman of a minority group plays a crucial role in the national history of ancient Israel. Rather than glossing over the fact that the bloodline is not of pure Israelite stock, Ruth’s foreignness is emphasized and her integration to the Israelite community is celebrated.  We don’t know if Ruth was still alive when her story was recorded and if so she would have been very old; yet what is fascinating is that the story of how David’s great- grandparents met is told from the perspective of Ruth, not Boaz. The everyday, ordinary tasks, conversations and concerns of women are elevated as stuff worth writing about.   God is as concerned about the well-being of individuals as much as he is concerned about the fate of nations.  God is in fact concerned about the welfare of individuals who are often invisible in all societies, people like Ruth who are at the very bottom of society.

How do we view those at the very bottom of society today? Not the Lazy or the Leeches, but individuals and communities that are genuinely down and out with few or no opportunities for  a better life?   We often court the powerful and the privileged and are seduced into devaluing the contributions of   ordinary people & those in the periphery of mainstream life.  In contrast to a world both now and then dependent on the powerful to make history, God chose a woman who was on the fringes of the community to accomplish his plans  in the real world.

Ruth’s story reminds us that God is well able to work through non-traditional, even subversive ways, bypassing the usual order of things.  It reminds those of us that are privileged in society to take care that our privileged lives don’t hinder us from seeing our need for God and being available to be used by him. It also reminds us to be open to God using other people whom we might consider less qualified than we are to accomplish things that we would love to accomplish ourselves! Ruth’s story also reminds those of us that are regular people, ordinary with not much influence in society that God is fully able to use us to impact individuals and communities. If we are at the very bottom of the heap, God takes special delight in using us as agents through whom he chooses to work; lifting us up, giving us dignity and standing conventional wisdom on its head.

Being, Doing and Fighting

Reading through the gospel of Mark, I was drawn to the reasons that Jesus chose the twelve apostles;  “that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.”  (Mk 3: 14-15) How seriously do we who follow Jesus today consider this same  three- fold charge?

It seems that we must first intentionally carve out time to “be with him.” This is a challenge in a frenzied world, where we generally have more things to do than time to do it. This is a challenge because we are afraid that if we slow down and spend serious time with God, that we will not be able to get our daily to-do lists done. Its a challenge because we are afraid of being alone with God, we are too used to the other noise that we surround ourselves with. This is a challenge to the activists among us who want to make a tangible difference in the real world,  stopping to pray &  engage with the Scriptures seem to be a  luxury we can ill afford.

Feel like you’ve been running on the steam of your past experiences with God? Or just caught up in the energy/ excitement of your small group but feel that a personal dynamic is missing? Perhaps its time to deliberately and expectantly make space for God and allow him to surprise us by speaking to us and rejuvenating our flagging spirits.

I wonder if the order of the charge is important? First the Being; the food for the soul, the personal nurture by God himself. As we take time to ‘Become’ – allowing God to transform us from the inside out, we are equipped to be the ‘sent’ ones. To go out and do stuff in his name. To be the Doers.

Sometimes it is spending that ‘unproductive’ time that gives us the clarity to figure out what things to prioritize in our ‘do’ lists and which things (even important ones) to cross out.  It keeps us focused and helps us not to have angst about the good stuff we are not involved in right now. It prevents us from getting stressed about what others will think of us too!

This quiet time with God is also a time for shedding our other identities – the self- importance we have because of our qualifications and achievements and people’s perceptions of us. It can be a challenge when we have the training, experience and aptitude to be strategic thinkers – to get off the driver’s seat and allow God to bring things to our attention, perhaps change course as a result.

Out of our dynamic relationship with God our Father, Redeemer and Friend flows our works of service. We are the “sent” ones to witness to Jesus. This can be daunting to those of us who prefer a quiet life. We might prefer to worship God through music and song and  go right on doing our usual routine at home, work and even church. There doesn’t seems to be any getting around the fact though, that we are supposed to proclaim and demonstrate the good news of the  arrival of the King.

How do we proclaim that God’ s rule has begun to invade planet earth? Look for natural openings to talk to people about Christ. Deal well with people. What kind of reputation do you have? Do people  know that you don’t gossip about other people behind their backs and so be reasonably sure that you won’t talk badly of them with other people?  Be sensitive to injustices that other people experience and fight on their behalf. If you are a privileged member of your society, it will be hard to see that everyone doesn’t have it as easy as you to flourish in your society. Living in suburban USA, its easier for me to think of what clothes and toys to get my child so that she fits in with her peers rather than think of the needs of poor neighbourhoods not too far away. We also herald God’s Kingdom when we anticipate the return of Jesus as the King who will reign justly forever and participate as the Church in working towards social, economic and political justice in our communities and nations.   We participate as the Church for wholesome changes in our society and wise efforts to provide all people with an opportunity of understanding who Jesus is and responding in faith to him.

Lastly, Christ followers are also called to “cast out demons”. For those of us that have grown up in Eastern cultures, we are still familiar with obvious demonic oppression.  Yet  the demons that we are called to cast out today while including delivering people from direct demonic oppression may often be more  subtle. It  is vital that we do not  underestimate the reality  of Satan and the need to be prepared to do battle with the forces of evil when we are going about serving  God  in the different ways he has  called each one of us.

What is the nature of Evil today and how do we fight against it?  Some of it is structural sin, where society is set up favouring the most powerful group. A generation ago Rev. Martin Luther King and others challenged structural sin in the United States; as a result we can live where we want to, eat where we want to and sit where we want to on the bus. During the civil war in Sri Lanka, at an army checkpoint at a strategic entrance into the capital, the sign boards saying Stop were in Sinhala (greek to the Tamils from the North and East who couldn’t read or speak the language – and who would be the targets of suspicion as possible terrorists).  Implicit in this is the assumption that everybody should know the majority language of the country, even though the average Sinhalese does not know the minority language.

We proclaim Christ and battle evil when the culture around us sees the ‘dividing walls of hostility’ in our society broken within the family of Christ followers. When the Church demonstrates an alternative society rather than mirror the world around us. When Sri Lankan Christians have close friends across the ethnic divide with whom we talk honestly about emotionally fiery stuff like the civil war. When American Christians have close friends across the racial divide with whom they talk honestly about the times leading up to the civil rights of the 60s.

Sometimes battling evil is personal. Think back and see if you notice that when you were ready to go out and do a project/ task that you felt had God’s leading involved, the setbacks that you encountered.  The ill health of yourself or someone in your family, the discouraging voices of the naysayers, the self-doubt that you didn’t have what it takes to do the job, other crises that demanded your attention.  We do need to have safeguards to ensure that God is indeed speaking to us and we are not pursuing our own agendas. However, once we are reasonably sure of our direction we need to prepare ourselves for the attacks that will come, so that we will not be overwhelmed shortly after getting into action. I can think of a couple of instances not too long ago where I know I was on the right track in terms of what I was doing, only to be hampered in my effectiveness because I had underestimated that as much as God was pleased with my work there was someone else who certainly  wasn’t.

I think the first line of defense is to be aware  that an enemy attack will be launched so that we will recognize it when it happens and be ready with our counter offensive, prayer and resistance! We need to fight Satan with the armour we have already been given in Christ. Live the Scriptures. Be truthful and peaceable. Remember that the Holy Spirit indwells and empowers us. We are called to take every thought captive to Christ. This includes how we think of ourselves and others. What we fantasize about. What we mull in our minds over and over again. We need to break the strongholds erected in our minds over the years;  the loss of hope  after years of not seeing prayer answered in the way we preferred, fatalistic in outlook & overwhelmed by circumstances. We need to deal decisively with the ‘little sins’ that have become entrenched habits that we find comfortable and difficult to give up; maybe  negative patterns of relating to people, including the inability to apologize for serious wrongs due to fear of losing face.

May we be refreshed in the presence of Christ, empowered for works of service and equipped to overcome the enemy of our souls.

Hidden Work

Ever been in that place where we wish that others would notice our worth/ our work? Wishing that people would do more than spare us a passing glance, quickly categorize us (incorrectly) in their boxes and look beyond us to the people who seem to have more to offer than we do? Do we bite back conversations with God that run “why didn’t you call me to work/ministry that’s a little more glamourous Lord? Where I can be seen doing good things? Sure you see my work Lord, but it would be nice if others did too “.

It is easy to be discontented with our lot and envy more fascinating lives. Like Daniel’s. Taken captive to Babylon true, but considered among the elite of his people and given the best possible education at that time. Noticed by King Nebuchadnezzar and placed in the most privileged of jobs. Noticed by King Darius and set for a higher promotion than the high-profile job he already held. Sure we wouldn’t want to be placed in a den of lions’, but if we were put in there, we’d be gratified that the king could not eat or sleep because of his concern for us. If we were rubbing shoulders with the powerful and influential people in the world, in our land, and even in our Christian communities, it can be gratifying to be personally known by people that are ‘big names’.

Yet there were some relatively obscure years for Daniel, years that he wasn’t a mover and shaker and was not a part of court life. Daniel, the highly placed official in the Court of Nebuchadnezzar is forgotten as early as in the reign of the next king, Belshazzar. The only recorded instance of Daniel appearing before King Belshazzar is when the fingers of a human hand appears and writes on the wall of the palace in the middle of the king’s drinking party. It is only in a crisis situation that Daniel is remembered again and called upon for advice.

What did Daniel do in the years when he could not put to best use his gifts and training for leadership? During this period where he was invisible from public life he was developing another gift, that of seeing visions. From the perspective of the world, it may have looked that it was hard luck that he couldn’t make a worthwhile contribution to the public forum of the day. In God’s economy however, he was still doing important work, this time hidden from view. We look at Daniel’s life in court, observe his character and conduct and try to apply lessons to our own faith journey. It is much harder to understand the dreams, visions and prophecies. Some of his visions deal with time that is yet to come. We struggle to unpack meaning. Given by God, Daniel’s quiet work away from the public eye has as much validity and significance as his governance work in the limelight.

I wonder how Daniel felt in the years when life passed slowly. When he was cast aside and it looked like his high impact work was over. Spending more time with visions, dreams and prophecies might be spiritually exciting, but this work was pursued in solitude. It lacked the energy, hustle and bustle of his previous job. Was he frustrated? Was he content exercising trust and dependence in God, playing a different role in God’s scheme of things, adjusting to different circumstances?

In Daniel’s case, God’s work for him in the public square was not yet over. It is fascinating how God works behind the scenes for Daniel to be in the right place at the right time. When Daniel interprets the writing on the wall, Belshazzar makes a proclamation that Daniel should rank third in the kingdom (although Daniel couldn’t care less about a reward)! Belshazzar is killed that same night and Darius the Mede takes over the Kingdom. As the Babylonian Kingdom passes into the hands of the Persians, Daniel’s new position at Court makes him strategically placed, a good man for the new King Darius to get to know.

So Daniel gets back to familiar work, but soon he will have a different set of issues to deal with, coping with the jealousies and plotting of his colleagues and imprisonment in the Lions’ Den.

There might be seasons in our lives where we are limited by circumstances in using our gifts and strengths to full capacity. We may pine for the glories of the past. We may be frustrated by the present and dislike its seemingly unrewarding responsibilities. God might be using this very flux of uncertainty to charter a new path for us that we have not yet dreamed of. If God has placed responsibilities upon me in the present, pursuing this work is important and worthwhile. It is not an inconvenient hindrance that stops us from pursuing our ‘real’ work. We use the uncertainty to wait on God and explore other avenues of service that we had not considered before. In His time, the other opportunities will come. We might even look back at the times of active waiting as times of real work, just as real as what preceded and followed.

Costly Love – the story of Jonathan

When was the last time friendship cost you your job or a position of honour? Or caused tension with significant people in your life? Jonathan’s friendship with David was costly for Jonathan in two important ways. Firstly, it meant giving up the position and privilege that he had and being willing to see David become king instead of himself. Secondly, it meant having a tense relationship with his father and living in an uncomfortable environment. Throughout their association, it is Jonathan’s friendship with David that is tested. Only many years later, when David is King, is he able to reciprocate by showing kindness to Jonathan’s son.

“May the Lord be with you as he has been with my father” says Jonathan to David. Jonathan recognizes that God had chosen David to be King after Saul. This is no easy guess. David is the shepherd boy who has risen from obscurity to popularity after defeating Goliath. He is just beginning to acquire a reputation as a military hero. Only the prophet Samuel who anointed him knew that David would one day be king. Even his family probably had no clear understanding of what the anointing was for. Jonathan speaks with remarkable discernment. However, what is fascinating is that as the eldest son of Saul, Jonathan is heir to the throne. In training, ability and character he is very much capable for the job. Yet he is able to bypass himself and bless and encourage David to the role that God called him to, even though David and kingship didn’t seem very obvious at that point.

Jonathan’s humility is mindboggling. It is one thing to encourage someone else to take on a role or task according to God’s leading, It is quite another to do so by bowing yourself out of the running, especially if the job might look prestigious. Jonathan had the maturity to see that life was about being content in the different tasks/roles that God calls us to, rather than about jostling for power in a hierarchy of jobs. Much later, when he seeks out David who is hiding from Saul in the wilderness, Jonathan says “you shall be king over Israel and I shall be second to you”.

It makes me wonder how things would have played out had Jonathan not been killed in battle. What would have playing second fiddle in David’s court looked like? It would at the very least mean seeing his friend David wearing the crown of his father Saul. It would also mean when court officials instinctively turned to Jonathan who had grown up in court for leadership, to lead them in looking to David instead. It would mean recognizing what could have been his and letting it go and leading the way in making people look away from him to someone else. Jonathan’s sense of self was not defined by his position and he was able to hold his privileges lightly and give them up if necessary. Even at the very outset of their friendship, Jonathan gives his robe, armour, bow, sword and belt, i.e the trappings of his position to David. Given the opportunity, how many of us would be able to even choose someone else over ourselves to go on a business/ministry trip to an interesting or prestigious destination/event ?

Jonathan seeks out David in the wilderness of Ziph at Horesh. David with his band of ragtag followers has been on the run from Saul for a while and at this point Saul is hunting for him every day. When Jonathan comes to David, the Bible records that Jonathan “strengthened David’s hand through the LORD”. Jonathan understood that David was weary and disheartened and needed his presence and encouragement. Jonathan is sensitive to what was needed of him and also brave, risking the danger of being attacked by David’s men as he goes in search of David. However, what strikes me most is his ability to handle conflicting loyalties well. After being there for his friend in a very real way, he goes back home. He elects to stay with Saul, even though he doesn’t like what Saul is doing. His position however has been clearly communicated to his father and he acts according to his conscience despite Saul’s displeasure. Over time and at appropriate situations, Jonathan first dissuaded his father from his plans to kill David and then stood up to him risking his father’s murderous rage in allowing David to get away. It is ironic that the while Saul is trying to figure out where David is to chase and kill him that Jonathan knows where he is hiding but does not give him away. Saul learns where David is hiding from other sources.

I wonder what the tension would have been like for Jonathan to live around Saul, as he planned and strategized to do away with David? To be loyal to his father and respectful of his kingship but to take a stand for what is right and show loyalty to his friend too? Eventually Jonathan fights alongside Saul and dies in battle defending Israel from an attack of the Philistines. Jonathan supports his father when his course is right and refuses to be a part of any wrongdoing and challenges Saul’s attitudes and actions when necessary. Jonathan’s love for his father involved integrity, it did not allow him to shy away from bringing up inconvenient and unwelcome truths. It is this same integrity that does not allow him to drop David, when David falls out of favour with Saul.

An important marker of Christian maturity is to be fair and just in our dealings with others. If someone we love/like such as a family member or close friend did something wrong that negatively impacted others, would we acknowledge their actions as wrong or would we close ranks behind them? We are disappointed when leaders blindly take the side of their buddies by refusing to consider that their friends might be in the wrong. Even more insidiously, many more of us might recognize it when those close to us wrong others, yet remain silent and refuse to rebuke them, especially by making our views publicly known. A respected Sri Lankan Christian leader recently said that leaders need to have the reputation of judging fairly, including when it comes to the wrong actions of people close to them. Obviously this will be very painful to the leader, as he/she will have to face the anger and possible rejection of their friend or loved one.

Jonathan had a clear sense of what was right and wrong and he was able to consistently voice the truth. He didn’t issue statements of condemnation from outside the situation, rather he was in the thick of things. I admire men and women like him who recognize sin in their families, communities, churches, ethnic/social groups and countries and do the uncomfortable task of truth telling from within. It can be hard to critique an unjust situation from within, not least because the group to which you belong can question your loyalty to them. I remember an early instance where on a very small scale, I managed to challenge falsehood. Sri Lanka had been having an internal war for over 10 years. The ‘other’ had taken on solid stereotypes. We lived in an all Sinhala neigbourhood and my mother and I were chatting across the fence with a neigbour who came out with a statement like “anyway those people are like that. ” I can’t remember the specific comment, only that it wasn’t complimentary. I didn’t agree with her and on a usual day would have smiled and said nothing. That day, I responded with “why do you think so?” i.e. have such a view of ‘those’ people. I was not comfortable in saying that, but I knew that I should challenge an untrue assumption rather than keep regretting missed opportunities to be ‘salt and light’. I don’t think my neigbour liked being put on the spot, but at least she was made aware that it was not acceptable to pass on stereotypical assumptions of a different ethnic group (in this case Tamils) as facts. Now this was a very simple step of someone from the majority community, ‘defending’ the minority community amongst her own ethnic group. At a much deeper level of personal risk, a Tamil doctor living in Jaffna under the regime of the Tigers publicly debated the LTTE leadership.

Let’s be willing to challenge the status quo when it’s the right thing to do, never mind if we are queasy in the stomach. Let’s also envision and encourage others in the tasks which God might be calling them to.

Embracing the Marginalized – The story of Tamar

What would you do if you had an embarrassing family secret? I suspect that most of us would not be eager to draw attention to the embarrassing situation. As far as it depended on us, we would make sure to keep the secret buried.

A friend once told me of a well-to-do young Sri Lankan couple intent on climbing the social ladder. They were educated in posh schools and had a circle of classy friends. The girl’s parents were simple folk, comfortable in speaking Sinhala. The old couple lived with their children. However, when the young couple entertained at home, the elderly parents were requested to stay out of sight in a back room. The adult children were ashamed of their parents lack of sophistication and inability to converse in good English and did not want to feel embarrassed in front of their friends.

Like my friend and I, you probably felt contempt towards the young couple. We would never treat someone so badly. Or would we…? Social pressure to conform to cultural expectations is a very powerful thing.

I am drawn to the poignant story of Tamar the daughter of King David. Her story is recorded in the first half of 2 Sam 13. Tamar was a beautiful young girl raped by her half brother Amnon, the king’s firstborn. She is sent to Amnon’s house by David who is taken in by Amnon’s elaborate charade that he is ill and would be cheered up by her visit and a special meal. When Amnon dismisses his household, grabs her and asks her for consensual sex, Tamar refuses and says that it would be a vile thing. She points out that it would be shameful for her and that he would be considered a scoundrel. She pleads with him to speak to the king about it, so that if Amnon really desired her, the union could take place after the proprieties had been observed. Amnon does not listen and being physically stronger than she, forces Tamar, hitherto a virgin, to have sex with him. Predictably, once the act is over, Amnon feels a great loathing for Tamar and has her thrown out of his house. In vain does Tamar try to tell him that sending her away is worse than the rape. Having satiated himself, Amnon does not care that Tamar will pay the consequences of his actions. Tamar is now no longer marriageable. Her lack of culpability is irrelevant.

In this episode, David does not shine as a wise and fair father. Although angry with Amnon for raping Tamar, he does not punish him because he loves him. This weak-willed decision contributes to Amnon’s violent death as Absalom, Tamar’s full brother, nurses his anger and bides his time until an opportune time comes along to get rid of Amnon. In the broader scheme of things, Tamar’s rape, Amnon’s murder and other calamities that occur in David’s family are connected to God’s judgment on King David for sleeping with Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife and for arranging the death of Uriah when his plans to cover up the resultant pregnancy failed.

While Absalom’s fury at Amnon for disgracing his sister is understandable, it is obviously wrong that he takes matters into his own hands and has Amnon killed. However, I do admire Absalom for taking in Tamar to his house and caring for her. He does this even before David gets to hear what had happened. Whereas for most pretty young girls the hoped for future would be marriage and a family of their own, Tamar’s rape guaranteed that she would remain “ a desolate woman” in her brother Absalom’s house. Tamar was fortunate that she had a brother who felt responsible for her and made provision for her. Even though her hopes were dashed, she was loved and secure. She was not abandoned to fend for herself.

What fascinates me is that Absalom takes Tamar under his wing, not caring a whit about what other people might think. He doesn’t feel that he needs to hide away their embarrassing family secret. This is a refreshingly different attitude from what people have felt relatively recently and do so even today.

Austen fans will remember the anxiety Elizabeth the heroine of Pride and Prejudice undergoes when her sister Lydia runs away with Wickham. Unless there is a wedding and no whiff of scandal Lydia will be ruined and her family disgraced. Colonel Brandon of Sense and Sensibility has a young ward who could not enter polite society because of her parentage. She is seduced and abandoned by Willoughby. Fortunately for her, she is continued to be taken care of by Colonel Brandon. Even so, he never really discusses her until circumstances make it advisable to do so. She is cared for but from a distance. Its like she is invisible. It’s the kind and heroic thing to do to treat her well, but it must be done in private and out of sight. She can never be included in respectable company. Those are the stringent rules of society that must be adhered to. Austen’s novels are of course, reflections of ordinary genteel life of her day.

I think of parents getting upset when their grown children want to marry partners whom the parents consider unsuitable to join their family. Often their sense of shame is heightened by what their relations will think. It wasn’t so long ago that some families disowned their children for their choice of marriage partner.

Lucky Tamar. She wasn’t hidden away out in the country somewhere to be visited occasionally. Although she would not find a husband and have a family, she was affirmed, loved and honoured in her brother’s house. Not only was Tamar kept in the bosom of her family, when Absalom had a baby daughter, he named her after his sister. Little Tamar it is recorded, grew up to be a beautiful young woman too.

If you were ashamed of someone, would you name your daughter after her? Even if you were not ashamed of them really, but just embarrassed about something bad that had happened to them, would you deliberately cause everyone else that you knew to remember half-forgotten tragedies of the past? Imagine the wagging tongues.. ..The daughter’s name is Tamar? Of all things! Wasn’t that the name of the sister too, you know the girl who got raped..of course we don’t know what really happened…..

So what’s the big deal about naming the child after the aunt? Well, I imagine that Tamar would have felt wonderfully affirmed. The odd person at family gatherings, the object of pity and curiosity is shown in a real and tangible way that she is still important and of value. She is regarded so highly that out of all possible names that Absalom could have chosen, her name must be picked. It gives some dignity back to her. It is a reminder that her intrinsic worth has not diminished despite other painful & deep losses. Despite his many faults, Absalom treats his sister with a lot of compassion. And it signals to everyone else, that while her life has been irrevocably changed, that she is still esteemed in the same way by her closest relative who isn’t uncomfortable about having her in the bosom of his family.

This is very different from the attitude towards widows for instance, in many traditional societies. Widows are social pariahs and people feel that their presence at joyous occasions like weddings will bring bad luck to the newlyweds.

Tamar is not put away because her presence is inconvenient and mortifying. Nor is she even kept simply because of a sense of duty towards her. She is kept as an integral part of Absalom’s family due all the privileges and esteem of a beloved sister.

To what extent if any are we willing to embrace invisible people whom our circle/ society prefers to ignore/ forget? And if we do interact with the rejects of society, do we only do so in private or are we comfortable being identified with them in public, not minding the displeasure or discomfort of people that are significant to us?

Often we are inhibited from doing the right and loving thing because we fear the response of others. When we take the side of a shunned person or a marginalized group, there will be people who get uncomfortable or angry because we draw attention to inconvenient truths. Let’s not be paralyzed into inaction for fear of upsetting the status quo. Let’s care instead about what God thinks of us. People’s frustration with us pales into insignificance compared to God’s disappointment with us, doesn’t it?