And Coming...

"She-Bear in the Beautiful Garden" is an allegory for children of all ages, written and illustrated by Ellen Gillette. Order from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or at

Monday, November 28, 2011

November 28, 2011 The 2nd Tamar

Last week, the Genesis-Tamar beguiled her former father-in-law into sleeping with her, thus getting pregnant and continuing her dead husband's line. For this, she was deemed "righteous" by Judah, the father of her twins. Not only that, she gets a mention in the gospel of Matthew in Jesus' lineage. The Bible doesn't tell us if her life was all that she had hoped for (after burying two husbands) but we'd like to think that she found joy once more, caring for her boys.

There's something special about mothers and sons. I've noticed the same thing with daddies and daughters. My first son, Caleb, is 34 today. We were a married couple for a year when Caleb was born; we were a family of three for less than two years when our first daughter came along. But those months with just Caleb were happy ones. Being a new, proud mother, I loved taking care of him.

The second Tamar's story has no happy endings, no chubby-faced sons bouncing on a mother's knees. In fact, I can't think of how Tamar Two's story could be much sadder.

Here is the context: King David has wives and assorted concubines, but still, he must have the wife of one of his mighty men. The heart wants what (and who) the heart wants. And too, from this spot in history, we know that David had to be married to Bathsheba in order for the wise King Solomon to be born - David's DNA + Bathsheba's DNA at that particular time = baby Solomon. It was, in some mysterious way I cannot fathom, God's perfect will for David and Bathsheba to meet and mate. Probably there was another path that didn't include adultery and murder (see 2 Samuel 11) but I may be wrong about that. I've been wrong before.

So. David and Bathsheba are married, bury a child, rejoice over the birth of Solomon.  He also manages to battle the Ammonites and then, "in the course of time" (How much time? Scripture is vague on this point, as it is about so much.) one of his sons has a heart issue of his own.

Amnon was the son of David and Ahinoam, while Tamar and her brother Absalom were born to David and Maacah. Ahinoam and Maacah get little press, but their children provide quite a cautionary tale. It happened like this:

Amnon fell in love with Tamar. The Bible doesn't routinely describe its characters, but Tamar was beautiful. But get this:
Amnon became frustrated to the point of illness on account of his sister Tamar, for she was a virgin, and it seemed impossible for him to do anything to her. (2 Samuel 13:2, italics mine, of course - Bible do not use them, as you know)
We know right off that Amnon is a skunk, and that his so-called love for Tamar is only an infatuation, a physical attraction, lust - simple, and anything but pure. Real love, however misplaced it may appear to others, is still focused on bringing pleasure to the object of one's desire, of bringing him or her joy. Amnon's "love" is completely selfish.

The words for love used in this passage are the Hebrew aheb and ahab, but clearly, the Hebrews could have used another word for love, just as English could. There's love, and then there's love. We may love pizza, the Dolphins, Tim Tebow, the color blue, a favorite song, the way the water sparkles on a perfect Florida beach. We may love grandchildren, chocolate pecan pie, a friend's new hairdo, the fact that The Glades is back on tv. These loves are as different from what God intends for the crowning glory of his creation as...well, as Amnon was from Tamar.

Amnon is consumed by lust (I can't bring myself to use the word love in his case) for Tamar. He moans about it to his buddy and cousin Jonadab, equally maggot-like in character, who suggests a plan. Amnon should feign sickness, knowing that dear old dad will check on him (which actually surprises me...King David made visits to his kids when they were sick but didn't know what creeps they'd turned into?). 

The oblivious David visits Amnon as planned. Amnon asks that Tamar come and minister to him, fix him some special bread, feed him herself. David thinks it's a fine plan. Perhaps he's touched, as any father would be, that his kids get along so well. Talk about clueless!

Tamar compliantly mixes the dough and cooks the bread before him. I assume they're making small talk during the process, catching up on family news -- when you've got that big a family, it would take time. The Bible doesn't say who else is hanging around, but it's clear that others are there, because when she finally offers him a plate, he won't eat and sends everyone else away.

"Amnon and Tamar" by Jan Steen (year, unknown)

"Bring it to me in the bedroom," he says, reminiscent of the wolf of Red Riding Hood fame. When she does, he grabs her and says...smooth talker that he isn't..."Come to bed with me." Or words to that effect. You get the idea that the writer of the story decided to make the X-rated circumstances as PG as possible.

Tamar, as you can imagine, is immediately upset, but shows her more excellent character. She doesn't knee him in the family jewels or scream for help. "Talk to Daddy," she says. "Don't bring shame on me or on the family or on Israel. I'm willing, if it will make you happy, but don't force me. Don't be a fool."

But he is what he is. He overpowers her, and rapes her. And this is how we know he didn't love her at all. Not only did he rape her, but this poster boy for bipolar suddenly discovers he hates Tamar, and tells her to leave.

Tamar, incredibly, is still concerned for Amnon's reputation more than her own. "No! If you send me away, that's even worse than what you've already done!" Tamar was quite a young woman, wasn't she?

And it just goes downhill from there. Absalom takes Tamar in, where she lives the rest of her life a desolate, sad, damaged girl. David gets wind of it and is "furious" but it's all bluff and bluster -- he does nothing. Absalom keeps quiet for the time being, but never forgives Amnon. Two years later, though, he orders his men to kill his half-brother.

David's first report is that all his sons have been killed, but the troll, Jonadab, tells David not to worry. "Only Amnon is dead. This has been Absalom's expressed intention ever since the day Amnon raped his sister Tamar."

Expressed intention. He'd talked about it. Jonadab was a cousin, closer to Amnon -- why hadn't he warned Amnon? Why hadn't David heard about it through the palace grapevine and dealt with it promptly?

Absalom flees, but it's not over yet. He makes a bid for the throne, breaks his father's heart, rapes David's concubines publicly, and is killed in battle. Tragic. 

And you thought your family was dysfunctional. My mother commented recently that she never thought "our family" would be so messed up. And it's true, there are family members who won't speak to other family members. Division, divorce,  personal devastation. Way too much drama. In fact, we've got just about everything within our extended family that King David had in his, or any other messed up family has in theirs. Because that's sort of the point: we are all messed up, to one degree or another. There are no perfect people. Ergo, there are no perfect families.

The best we can do is relish the happy times, like my son's birthday today, or Thanksgiving with so many of our loved ones last week, or getting to talk to my youngest grandson, or watching the other grandkids play together, or celebrating anniversaries this week: our 35th, our daughter Becky's 7th. We cling to all the joys we possibly can, wring out every drop of happiness we can manage in anticipation of the challenges we will face.

Jesus said that in this world, we would have tribulation. We will. If we haven't by now, we will eventually.  We will fail others, and others will fail us. We will, most importantly, fail to live up to the standards God has provided. What makes the happiest families and the happiest people is the knowledge that nothing can happen that will turn true love to hate. The Amnons of the world don't understand that kind of love; they can't. They are not to be despised, but pitied.

Morals of the story: Fathers need to pay attention to their families, or things can get out of hand quickly. David was a man after God's heart, but he let down those closest to him. And if David did, it's a safe bet that we will too. But guess what? God used it all. He still uses it all.

I wonder what Tamar's reaction was when she learned that Absalom had avenged her? From the little we know of her, I'm guessing she wept. She was willing to marry a rapist and cover his sin for the sake of her family. I doubt his death brought either joy or closure. She lost her innocence, and two brothers, and must have lost respect for her father as well.

I told you it was a sad story. Perhaps God wanted it in the Bible to encourage us, much the same way people watch "Hoarders" on we can say, with relief, "Well at least we're not that bad."

While we're sighing with appreciation that we manage to put the "fun" in "dysfunctional," we need to remember tat some families really do have it that bad, dealing with unmentionable tragedy every day. And they may live next door. May we be sensitive to others, grateful for what we have, and attentive to God's wisdom with everyone.

People. Sometimes you just shake your head and wonder what God thinking, and then someone comes along whose love and ability to bring you joy makes you shake your head for the opposite reason.

Caleb's one of those people for me....happy birthday, son!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

November 20, 2011 A Tale of Two Tamars

A young friend of mine texted me recently in anger. She was working on a Bible study, of all things, but she was fit to be tied. Who had stirred her up? None other than King David, the man scripture says was a "man after God's own heart" (1st Samuel 13:14). The author of most of the Book of Psalms. He's in the lineage of Jesus, the Messiah who is called "Son of David" (Matthew 22:41).

Or, if you prefer, the David sung about in one of my favorite pop tunes, Hallelujah

David was a wreck, no question. He made some very bad decisions along the road, but still, his heart was for God. This doesn't make me angry -- it gives me hope! I also make decisions every day that are far from pure and perfect.

To borrow something else from Shrek (the link above goes to Rufus Wainwright's cover of Hallelujah for that movie's soundtrack) people are like onions. We have layers. Think of our choices, our decisions, our behavior, as outer layers. Further down, beyond the selfishness and pride and lust and fear that often drives us and our decisions, can still beat a heart that truly loves God and wants to see his purposes fulfilled. 

I'd like to think that I am a woman after God's heart, despite the fact that I am, quite often, worse than the king in question.

But I digress. I titled this "A Tale of Two Tamars." Tamar was one of David's daughters, and I'll get back to her in a minute. The other Tamar has just as interesting a story, but with a happier ending. Eventually.

It will help, while you're reading about Tamar and her father-in-law Judah, to take yourself out of the realm of westernized Christianity, and try to put yourself in the world of Tamar. Her story is in Genesis, before Moses and the Law, in the Middle East, not our Mideast. People often try to see scripture through the smeared glasses of the West, and that's unfair.

Judah is a big deal in the Bible. Jesus the Messiah is called the Lion of Judah (Revelation 5:5). The very name for God's chosen people, the Jews, is a derivative of Judah, the son of Jacob and his wife Leah. Right off the bat, we come up against our cultural differences: Jacob had two wives, and his wives gave him their two maids to have children by! Instead of gasping in disbelief that God would work through such circumstances, we need to just get over ourselves. Different time. Different culture. Same God.

So. Tamar married Er, Judah's oldest son. Er died (gasp alert: Genesis 38:7 says "the Lord put him to death." WTF? Wrong This Feels!) Big Daddy Judah gives Tamar in marriage to his next son Onan. We don't know if Onan already had a wife (as if that would have married) but we do know that Onan made a name for himself by ejaculating onto the ground, rather than risk getting his sister-in-law-turned-bride pregnant (onanism is  a synonym for masturbation or self-gratification).

See, in those days, if Tamar had had a baby, the baby would have inherited Er's property. In other words, Onan selfishly only wanted children that would enhance his own financial prospects, not those of the line of his dead brother. The Father of Self-Gratification. He didn't, however, live long enough to see his name in lights, or long enough to do much of anything. His actions were deemed "wicked in the Lord's sight" and he got the same divine retribution as did big brother Er.

Poor Tamar! If she was starting to feel like it was somehow her fault, we can sympathize. Judah was certainly thinking along those lines. Next in line for the young widow would have been Son #3, Shelah. Judah told Tamar to go back to her father's house and wait there for Shelah to grow up, hoping to avoid Shelah's untimely death as well.

The Bible says "after a long time" Judah's own wife died. Shelah was a man by then but Tamar hadn't been sent for. Hearing that Judah's time of grieving is over, she set off on a risky adventure. 

This is where you have to set aside your own concept of righteousness and morality.

Picture it: Tamar poses as a prostitute, somehow knowing that Judah will approach her for, um, attention. She agrees to sleep with him for a young goat, and further demands several personal belongings to prove she has been with him and that he is, thus, obligated to her in this matter. He agrees, they have sex, he gives her the things, they go their seperate ways. She, back to widow's clothes at home with her family. He, to his own home.

A man of his word(!), Judah tries to send the goat to the girl, but his right-hand-man is unable to locate her. There ARE no prostitutes around those parts. Judah drops the matter, wanting to escape further embarrassment. She can keep the dang belongings. End of story.

Not quite.

A few months go by and he hears an ugly, troubling rumor. His former daughter-in-law Tamar has apparently been fooling around, bringing shame upon both families. A true sweetheart, Judah demands that she be brought to him in order to burn her to death. (And you think you;ve got in-law problems?)

I'm guessing that Tamar trembles as she delivers the  coup de grace. This is one gutsy lady, going through all of this just to have a child, thereby honoring the memory of her first husband...and, no doubt, helping secure her own position in her society. "I am pregnant by the man who owns these," she announces, handing over the personal belongings Judah left in trust.

Get this. 

Judah says," 'She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn't give her to my son Shelah.' And he did not sleep with her again" (Genesis 38:26). Tamar was not only blessed with one child, but two. Not only that, but the firstborn, Perez, is in the lineage of Jesus. In Matthew 1, Tamar herself is mentioned, only one of four women mentioned there.

Talk about a roundabout way to fulfill God's plan! 

The other Tamar...well, I think I'll wait on her until next time. She didn't have a happy ending, and that's why my young friend was angry. This is Thanksgiving week...not a good week to get angry at God, in case you might agree with her. Always time for that later (but never a good idea).

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

November 13, 2011 Blazing Hearths

My young friend Diane Byrne posted this quote on her Facebook page:

‎"One may have a blazing hearth in one's soul and yet no one ever came to sit by it. Passers-by see only a wisp of smoke from the chimney and continue on their way."

                                                                                                                                                  Vincent Van Gogh

I love that! It reminds me of another quote I copied and have kept within sight for over a decade:
I love you for putting your hand into my heaped-up heart and passing over all the foolish, weak things that you can't help dimly seeing there, and for drawing out into the light all the beautiful belongings that no one else had looked quite far enough to find.
I've seen those words in the form of poetry, author unknown, but I prefer them as prose, words one might write to a best friend or close family member. Both quotes imply that while we encounter multitudes of people throughout our lives, only one or two (if we are truly blessed) will take the time and trouble to know us fully. Warts and all, as my mother would say.

Olivia de Havilland and James Cagney
My mother is a self-admitted romantic, a believer in true love. She grew up going to movies every Saturday at a time when Hollywood focused on boy-meets-girl and happily-ever-after endings. She sat in the darkened theater in Albemarle, North Carolina as a sort of university of romance, instructed by the likes of Olivia de Havilland and Spencer Tracy. 

And one night, on her first date with a new teacher in town as he chaperoned a high school dance, they took to the floor and danced. Just like in the movies, the crowd parted as kids backed up to watch them in appreciation of their skills. Growing up in Chapel Hill, my dad says he had to learn to dance well to compete, as a high schooler, with college guys. It paid off that night, for sure.

They got married, and lived happily ever after, right? Well...I doubt that either one of them would tell you it's been all sunshine and flowers. They have had many challenges and heartaches. Recently settled into an assisted living facility, they are making new friends and getting involved with people they would have never met any other way or any other circumstances.

Where am I going with this? Just that we come into contact with so many people. Hundreds, thousands, of people who waltz through our lives for a few measures and then are gone. Some of them step on our feet. We step on theirs. Some insist on doing the watusi instead, making us look foolish. Some want us to lead, some want to lead us where we don't want to go. A few hang around for an entire song. Even fewer are there for the whole night, talking to us whether there is music or not.

We may remember with great affection someone we danced with only once, never to see again. We may regret declining to dance with someone else, or may regret dancing with another in the first place. A person can spin us around a few minutes and then retreat into the shadows, just out of sight, only to appear much later and share the best dance of all at the end of the evening.

Peasant Woman by a Hearth
by Vincent Van Gogh
In other words, my parents are meeting new friends at 78 and 80 who may or may not become close friends, over whose lives they may or may not have great influence. Their marriage of over 50 years is, in some ways, sweeter now than ever, simplified as it is by the absence of financial worries and the normal stresses of work and teenagers and life.

And I, at 53, so appreciate those few who have stopped to sit by the fire that is my heart's hearth and warm themselves for a time. Who have looked further into my soul than anyone else, and who love me still.

And P.S. Happy birthday on November 14 to my beautiful daughter Becky, whose presence in my life has been a delight for 30 years. I well remember turning 30, and I hope her 30th year is her best ever. I love you!