Tamar – a woman for advent – 29 November 2021
A powerful man, leans in towards a woman, taking her by the throat with one hand. His wealth and power are displayed through his physique, but also his dress. He wears a turban, carries a staff with brass fillials, and wears an expensive cloak. The woman has been interrupted as she reads, the book being a mark of her intellect. Although she is dressed as a prostitute, with her face veiled, she leans away from the man, resisting the violence of his approach. The man and woman look each other in the eye. It is a look of challenge.
The painting is ‘Tamar and Judith’, 1667, by Aert de Gelder, a pupil of Rembrandt’s. It is chosen today as a reminder that we are in the days of activism against gender based violence.
Picturing Prayer through Advent will consider works of art related to women named in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. Tamar is the first woman named. Her complex story is told in Genesis 38, and to understand it requires an understanding of the workings of patriarchy at the time.
In ancient patriarchy, women had protection throughout their lives: from their fathers, then husband, then sons. The story of Tamar shows her to be outside of this protection. Her first husband was a son of Judah, but ‘wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death’. Her second husband pulled out of her and ‘spilled his semen on the ground’. Judah should have given another of his sons to marry her, but failed to do this. Without male protection, Tamar dressed as a prostitute, and Judah approached her for sex. As part of the deal, she took his signet, cord and staff – marks of his authority. Owning these gave her a rank above that of Judah, so symbolising that she had taken power into her own hands rather than be abandoned. By Judah, Tamar has twin sons, Perez and Zerah. Judah, Tamar, and Perez, are included of the ancestral line of Jesus.
Hear my prayer, Lord,
listen to my cry for help;
do not be deaf to my weeping.
I dwell with you as a foreigner,
a stranger, as all my ancestors were.
in this season of Advent,
where we are called to hear again
the long story of promise,
give us grace to hear the cry of the oppressed and abused,
from the past, and in the present,
that we so rejoice in the coming of Christ into the world,
that we endeavour to work for the freedom and dignity of all people.