That is how all the good stories of my childhood begun.
This story is for the digital natives, those who don’t know what it is to go to a cybercafe, pay a per-minute fee to connect to the internet, and ask for help to open a Hotmail account and launch into the email world. It’s for those who have grown up thinking that the internet is squarely at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid of human needs; right there alongside the other basic needs of air, water, food, and shelter.
Once upon a time when we had only two TV channels; we had no DSTV, Netflix, AfroCinema, Telemundo, or Kumkum Bhagya. Then someone brought us ‘The rich also cry’, the first global telenovela and Mexican soap to hit our screens. We rooted for orphaned Marianna in the drawn-out tale that ended with her living happily ever after with rich Luis Alberto. Then came Acapulco Bay that kept us glued to our screens following Raquel, who was caught up between the evil brother Max and the good one Tony. And thus, the ‘soaps’ took our airwaves by storm – people would fly home right after work lest they miss the next episode of Alejandro, Barbarita or whoever else’s love story they were following.
One of these early soaps was ‘The bold and the beautiful’ that lasted forever – possibly still going on. In it was beautiful Brooke, whose life is key to the story; she marries Ridge, divorces him, marries his father Eric, and has two sons with him, and many relationships later marries Thorne, younger brother to Ridge. What were Brooke’s two sons to call either Eric or his two sons Ridge and Thorne, during the different arrangements of their relationships? Father, brother, or grandfather?
A similar story finds itself in the Holy book – right in the middle of the story of one of the well-known and loved heroes of the Old Testament, Joseph. It has the makings of a good soap, with enough intrigue for a solid season of a TV series – but one that needs parental guidance. It has a prohibited cross-cultural marriage, (an elopement?), mysterious death, wife inheritance, dubious birth control methods, sexual abuse, fake promises, masquerade, and liaison with the oldest profession (prostitution). It has one thing in common with ‘The bold and the beautiful.’ Two boys are born out of liaison between daughter and father-in-law… son or grandchild?
The story would have been buried in the Old Testament were it not for the scribe Matthew bringing it up right at the start of the New Testament. In a curious action, he inserts the story of Tamar and her two sons at the start of his account of the life of Jesus – where he sets out to establish the pedigree of Jesus.
Most if not all of us have skeletons in our family closets. Stuff we don’t talk about or that we sometimes only vaguely refer to in hush hush tones. It could be related to mental illness, unwanted pregnancy (too early, through rape, or incest), polygamy or divorce. Africans being who we have been are experts in ‘letting the sleeping dogs lie.’ We have to wonder why Matthew, given the opportunity to start a fresh page … would bring up this story and put it out there for all to see?
When faced with such stories – our response is to bury, deny and carry the hidden, haunting shame with us. Other times we respond like in ‘The bold and the beautiful’ – glory in what is shameful – possibly decide it’s not wrong or broken after all. Is there any other possible response?
Matthew shows us a God who allows the compromising circumstances of a deeply flawed family to carry the line of His Son. In the genealogy, in his opening account, he names five women with questionable or scandalous stories – one of them is Tamar. This writer takes what should have been hidden, concealed – not merely swept under the carpet but interred six feet under, and brings it out, and places it right in the middle of one of the most important stories.
God takes that which is shameful and weaves it in the yarn of redemption – not to glory in it but to acknowledge that is who we are! We come from families with stories and skeletons. But just as a saviour came out of the smelly bones, in this story we see God can redeem what sin destroys. If there was no redemption, we would have to go through life suffocated in shame; but this story tells us we can bring our very unsavoury stories to the redeemer and he can take what was evil and turn it around for good.
Tamar and her father-in-law, Judah, made many sinful choices, but God’s plans and purposes rest on His righteousness, not human worthiness, and they cannot be overturned. When you surrender the wreckage in your life to God, He can redeem the pain for His good purposes. The sin-tainted stories of Judah and Tamar did not end in disaster because God is a gracious and powerful God. The Saviour Matthew writes of, can do that with your life if you let him.
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