Several weeks ago on my scripture blog, I reflected on the story of Judah and Tamar (Gen 38). The story had served as our inductive Bible study at Bethany Bible School last August, and its relevance to elements within South African culture continue to astound me.
Most importantly, for example, the text champions the cause of the widow, Tamar by name, in society. The text is a glowing narrative example of Old Testament law’s, also echoed by the prophets, constant refrain that God is a God for “the orphan, the poor, and the widow”, or society’s most vulnerable members. The story is a glowing testimony to the overwhelming dignity of the Old Testament, a document in general which is still largely derided and misunderstood by many within the Christian community, pastor and layperson alike.
Perhaps my appreciation of the Old Testament generally, and the story of Judah and Tamar in particular, is magnified by my living in a society whose own dark side regularly features contempt for women and widows in particular (Please note here that I refuse to define such treatment as an element of “traditional” or “African” culture; we can point to humane and inhumane treatment of society’s most vulnerable in every human culture throughout time, and thus the choice is ours to define as authentic culture that which is good or that which is evil in any society).
Two examples will suffice:
1. Widows are vulnerable because, as in the story of Judah and Tamar, popular opinion often implicates them in the death of their husbands. I just preached at a funeral for a man who was stabbed to death by tsotsis (young gangsters) over the Christmas holidays. He left behind three children and a widow—a member of our church. Although the widow had nothing to do with her husband’s attack, she, like Tamar following the deaths of Er and Onan, was suspected by the husband’s family of plotting evil against her husband. Recall that, even though the text clearly states that the brothers Er and Onan died for their own sins, because they were evil in the sight of Yahweh, Judah suspects Tamar. Our pastor tells me that such suspicion of widows is all too common. The reality that many marriages are not healthy either gives rise to such suspicions or exacerbates them.
2. And why are marriages difficult? I recently had the privilege of conversing with someone who was privy to a conversation between young people about cultural practices that contribute to the oppression of women in society. At her meeting, the conversation got around to circumcision, which is the initiation here for boys becoming men (about age 18). Although men are not supposed to reveal what they learned at their circumcision schools (what happens there is supposed to remain “secret”), two men disclosed their experiences. One went to a circumcision school in which the initiates were taught how to be men by learning how to respect women. The other went to a school in which initiates were taught that manhood was sealed by sleeping with as many women as possible—especially women whom one “does not like” or find desirable. When asked whether he had followed through on such “wisdom”, the man said “yes” because doing so was the way given for him to become a man. If it is true, according to a recent study, that 75% of men in South Africa have committed violence against women, it is reasonable to assume that the latter school of thought on manhood is the prevailing one. And if these are the men who also marry, woe the women to whom they are married.
If all of this sounds too depressing, there is yet the witness of a better way. For the story of Judah and Tamar reveals, not redemption for Tamar alone, but for Judah, the offending man in her life. His repentance through the word of truth—“she is more in the right than I”—from his prior condemnation of Tamar is hope for a society in need of a “new man.”