Living on Hope

My friends young daughter, Macey, came to her parents upset one Christmas after all the gifts had been opened. She had carefully written a Christmas list weeks earlier, and she was dismayed to find that a particular doll she had put on that list was not among her presents. Her parents explained that a Christmas list is suggestions, not demands, but Macey was puzzled. Finally she lamented in frustration, “But I asked Santa for it!”

Macey approached Christmas with expectations that included specific personal benefits, and if we are truthful, most of us probably would have to admit we are sometimes like her. Clearly we have wants. In fact, enterprising companies capitalize on this nearly universal expectation by creating holiday sweaters, T—shirts, and sweatshirts bearing various messages to Santa: “Dear Santa, I want it all!” “Dear Santa, I can explain!” “Dear Santa, I’ve been very, very good.” When someone asks, “What do you want for Christmas?” most of us have a ready answer. We can name out wants—what we hope to receive.

The theme often associated with this first week of Advent is hope—our hopes and God’s hopes for us and for the world. But the hope of Advent is not like the hope we associate with Christmas gifts or lists. We often use the word hope as if hope were a fragile thing. We say, “I hope you can come with us.” And someone answers, “I hope so too, but it doesn’t look promising.”

Hope in such contexts is little more than a wish. It is a vague, anemic desire with no teeth in it and little chance of becoming a reality. The hope we read about in the Bible is much more robust. The people of the Bible reveal a hope worth risking for, hope that pulls people from the present into the future. This hope spills out from one person’s life into the lives of others and changes everything. Biblical hope is a powerful force for change.

We’re going to view the hope of Advent by looking first at two of the women mentioned by Matthew in Jesus’ lineage. You may not have heard much about these women in Sunday school, and their stories read more like plots for a daytime soap opera than what we think of as Bible stories. Their stories are not your typical sweet Christmas tales, and you’d probably have to do some substantial adapting to tell them to the kids at bedtime. The two women are Tamar and Rahab.


Tamar is the earliest of Jesus’ foremothers mentioned by Matthew, and she voices the question that guides the reflections in this chapter. She is married to one of the sons of Judah. Judah is one of Jacob’s twelve sons and patriarch of one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Tamar asks Judah, “What will you give me?” According to the story in Genesis 38, Tamar is married to Judah’s oldest son, Er, who has two brothers, Onan and Shelah. When Er dies because he is “wicked in the sight of the LORD,” Shelah is still a boy. Judah tells his middle son, Onan, to fulfill his obligation under the law and marry Tamar. The Jewish law of levitate marriage requires that When a man dies without children, his brother must marry the widow and “give her children.” The first son born to the new union becomes heir to the dead brother’s property. (This marriage tradition is reflected in the New Testament story of the man who attempts to entrap Jesus with a question about a woman Who marries seven brothers in turn, only to have each one die. The man asks Jesus, “In the resurrection whose wife will she be?” [Mark 12:23]).

For some reason not mentioned in the biblical account, Onan does not want to “raise up children to his brother’s name.” He breaks the law and shirks his obligation to Tamar, doing what he can to be sure that he does not impregnate her. Because of his refusal to meet this obligation, the story tells us, Onan too dies. At this poi11t, Judah sends Tamar back to her father’s household to live as a widow. He tells her that when his son Shelah is old enough, Shelah will become Tamar’s husband. Because widows who did not have children were essentially helpless under the law, Tamar has no choice but to obey. Since women could n0t inherit property, Tamar cannot have control of what belonged to her husband Er. Neither can she marry anyone else as long as her husband has brothers or other near

male relatives who could marry her. She has no choice and no status.

Tamar goes back to her father’s house to wait. She watches her father—in-law, and she watches Shelah grow up. Yet, as Genesis 38:14 tells us, Tamar is not “given to him in marriage.” The Bible doesn’t tell us how long she waits, but Judah’s wife dies and Judah completes the traditional period of mourning. Judah does nothing to bring Tamar back into the household. Tamar waits and waits, with no word from Judah. Finally Tamar decides to take action. She comes up with a daring plan, one that could cost her life. But for a woman of her time, to be childless is almost as bad as death. In the generation before Tamar, Rachel cried out to Jacob in anguish, “Give me children, or I shall die!” (Gen. 30:1). Childlessness equaled no influence on the world, no future.

But Tamar also acts. Somehow she learns that Judah plans to help in a sheep shearing, and she finds out where. Putting off her widow’s garments, Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute and waits at the edge of the town where Judah is to Visit. When Judah comes by and sees her, he decides to 

“What will you give me?” He promises her a sheep but unfortunately doesn’t have one with him. She then asks him for a pledge to hold until he comes back with the sheep in payment. He agrees, giving her his Signet, cord, and staff as a guarantee that he will pay later. As soon as Judah leaves, Tamar removes her disguise and returns home. Judah later sends a friend with the promised lamb to pay the “prostitute,” but she is nowhere to be found. Townspeople say no prostitute has been in the place. Judah and his friend stop asking because “otherwise [they would] be laughed at” (Gen. 38:23) for being fooled by a woman. Being laughed at apparently would be worse than having visited a prostitute, whether or not his period of mourning had ended.

Fast forward three months: Tamar is pregnant. Someone reports to Judah that his daughter-in—law has disgraced his family as an adulteress. (She is in a sense “married” to the family, Whether or not she has a living husband, and sexual contact With anyone would be considered adultery.) Obviously pregnancy is proof of sexual contact. Judah says, “Bring her out, and let her be burned,” evidently the punishment for having sex outside marriage. But Tamar has kept the objects Judah gave her, and she sends them to him With this message: “It was the owner of these Who made me pregnant” (Gen. 38:25). Seeing his own belongings, Judah immediately admits his wrong treatment of Tamar in withholding Shelah and marriage, saying, “She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.”

It is difficult for us to interpret this rather strange story without understanding that disgrace, insecurity, and low status accompany widowhood for women in Tamar and Judah’s culture. To be childless is terrible; to be a Widow is a disgrace (Isa. 54:4). When a woman’s husband dies, that event may be regarded as punishment for wickedness, either the man’s or the woman’s. Tamar has no children, and two husbands have died. She is not free to marry anyone else as long as her husband’s brother has a claim on her, and so she lives in limbo, waiting to see if Judah Will do What decency and the law require. With no children and no husband, she Will have no one to care for her as she grows old. It is easy to see how she could become desperate. To secure a permanent place in the family, she needs to marry Judah’s remaining son and bear a child.

As for Judah, he does not seem to be a terrible man. He attempts to honor his business agreement with the prostitute, and he readily admits his dishonorable conduct. And as Genesis 38:11 tells us, he simply feared Shelah “would die, like his brothers” if he married Tamar. Judah does not know that wickedness and disobedience were the reasons his first two sons died, and so perhaps he thinks some wickedness on Tamar’s part has led to their deaths. He loved these sons, and he loves the remaining one; upholding tradition and observing the law are less important to him than saving Shelah. Most of us can probably understand a parent’s feeling that way. He is not a terrible man.

Yet Judah’s reluctance to insist that Shelah carry out his responsibility has created for Tamar a life that in their culture is not a life at all. What is she supposed to do? Languish until she is too old to marry and bear children? For me, Tamar is a picture of hope and courage in the face of great loss and vulnerability. I can imagine her lying awake at night, wondering why Judah has not called her back into the family, wondering if she Will ever know the joy and status of motherhood. I can also imagine her hatching the plan that is played out in the Genesis story. It may have taken her months of constructing possible scenarios before she came up with a scheme that could work. Even if her plan proceeds smoothly and she succeeds in securing an object of Judah’s to serve as her proof of the sexual union, there is still no guarantee that she will conceive a child. Judah might still deny her claim that he was the one who impregnated her. He could say that she stole his belongings. After all, in the story as it is told in Genesis, she has no witnesses. If he denounces her, she could be burned alive as an adulteress. But Tamar trusts that he will not allow her to die. Or maybe, as the song says, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Tamar is free to try her bold plan because she has nothing to lose.

In asking Judah, “What will you give me?” Tamar is thoroughly human and honest—and clever. Her question echoes what we often ask God, figuratively or literally: “How can I know that this will work out, God? What guarantee will you give me?” In the New Testament, we read about a character in the Christmas narrative who asks almost the same question: Zechariah, father of John the Baptist. While serving his turn in the temple, he enters the holy place to burn incense and there an angel appears. The angel tells Zechariah that his prayers have been heard, that he and his Wife, Elizabeth, Will become parents. Since Zechariah and his wife are both “well stricken in years,” he asks, “How Will

I know that this is so?” Who can blame Zechariah for asking for proof? After all, he is terrified from the time the angel appears. (Some of us might say we’d be convinced of anything by the presence of an angel, but I think I’d probably react as Zechariah does. I’d want something to hold on to once the angel disappeared.) In this case, of course, the eventual birth of the baby, John, will be proof that “this is so.” But Zechariah will not be the one who is pregnant, with his body providing evidence. He will have to take his wife’s word for months to come. He is asking for a sign—for help to feel sure, for reassurance—but he does not get any. In fact, the angel announces that because of this questioning, Zechariah will be unable to speak until the baby is born. This means n0t only that Zechariah will be mute but that he will have no way of explaining his experience with the angel and telling Elizabeth that God is about to fulfill their hopes and answer their prayers. Zechariah and Elizabeth have been waiting a long time for a child and probably have suffered many false hopes and disappointments through the years. Zechariah is like many of us in asking for a sign.


Like Tamar, when we come to God With our hopes, we also bring our frustrated hopes. We’ve all had times When what we hoped for did not come. Out excitement and expectation as we look for good things to come are often mixed with memories of times when plans fell through, when promises were not kept, when people disappointed us. We rarely approach any hope with absolutely no doubt or question, and the same is true when we approach God. When people have failed us or we have failed ourselves, that sense of failure can creep into our hope. Christmas can be, in fact, a time when unfulfilled hopes rise up to haunt us—or to taunt us. Memories of holidays that were less than we wanted them to be generate sadness and dread mixed with the joy we hope for during the Christmas season. Tamar, risking her life and future as she does, must surely feel fear as well as hope. Her question to Judah also implies that she cannot trust him completely. Her request for a guarantee is one we’d probably all like to make of God: “Give me something I can touch and hold on to, God, to let me know that you know about my situation. Give me something to prove that you will do what you say.”

God’s response is stark: “I guarantee absolutely nothing, yet I will give you everything. All you have to do is give me yourself.” Trust is built on experience, and we learn to trust God—we learn that God is working in our life and in the world around us—by taking small risks and seeing God act. We may decide that we will trust God to help us with some relatively small issue in our lives. For example, I may be a person who is terrified of speaking before a group. Someone asks me to teach Sunday school at church, and I agree, with fear and trembling, and start praying that God will help me. As I look toward the first Sunday, the thought of standing before the group is torture. I worry that I won’t have anything to say or that what I do say will sound stupid. Or I worry that no one will participate, and the group will sit in silence. But I prepare carefully and pray fervently, and the class goes all right. There are some awkward moments, but the time passes. In the following weeks I call on some other teachers for suggestions when I am preparing a particularly difficult lesson, and they are glad to talk it through with me. Week after week, class members return. After a few months, I am able to be more relaxed, and before I know it, six months has passed. The person who recruited me says, “See? I told you God would help you!” I realize that God has been helping me, all along. I did not realize it on those evenings and Saturday afternoons when I was poring over the curriculum, but God was helping me. The help was so unspectacular that I did not notice it, but God was there. Trusting God begins with small issues and moves on to other, larger ones.

In the Book of Malachi God says, “Prove me . . . [and] I will . . . pour you out a blessing” (Mal. 3:10, KJV). That word prove means test, as in the phrase “proving ground.” In other words, God says, “Go ahead. Test me. Let me show you. . . .” Trust does build on experience, and as we decide to trust God 

prove to ourselves that God can be trusted.

There are limits to the parallels we can draw between ourselves and the characters in Bible stories, but as I think about Tamar and Judah, I can see that we often approach God tentatively, as Tamar approaches Judah. Tamar probably takes the chance with Judah that she does because of earlier experiences with him. Though we aren’t given details in the Book of Genesis, something in her experience allows Tamar to risk. She must believe that Judah is basically a good and honorable man. If not, she could lose her life. Powerless as she is, Tamar finds a way to open the door to what she wants and needs. Somehow, in those weeks and months of waiting, she finds a way to keep her hope alive and eventually to act on it. That is the first part of her story. But that is not the end of her story. When Tamar risks, God allows her to conceive, and when the time comes for Tamar to give birth, she bears not one son but twins. She secures a place for herself in the family, and Judah has not one son but three. Her hope and her risking make a difference not just for her but for Judah, the man whose fear for his one remaining son had limited both their lives. The outgrowth of her hope and courage spill over into his life as well.


While Tamar merely pretends to be a prostitute, Rahab, the next woman mentioned in Matthew’s lineage of Jesus, actually is a prostitute. Rahab lives in a house on the wall that surrounds Jericho (the walls that will “come tumbling down” when Joshua and the Hebrews march around them seven times on the seventh day). Rahab’s role in the story of God’s people illustrates how important a single individual can be. She is not a person of position or power, but she is a person of courage, Vision, and yes, hope. She is courageous enough to defy the king’s soldiers, and she has a vision of a better future. When Rahab has a chance, she bargains not just for herself but for her family. She is really quite a woman. When an opportunity presents itself, she seizes the moment. Her story is told in the Book of Joshua.

The Israelites, led by Joshua, are readying a military campaign against the city of Jericho. In preparation, Joshua sends spies into the city. As in an old western movie, they find a good-hearted prostitute, Rahab, who provides them a place to hide. When the king’s soldiers hear that spies are inside the walls, they mount what seems to be a house-to-house search and show up at Rahab’s door. She boldly faces them down, lies to the soldiers to throw them off the trail (“They went that away”?), and tells the spies how to evade the searchers. (Perhaps she had been involved in something like this before.) In exchange for her assistance, she exacts a promise from these spies: When the conquering army sacks the city, she and her family Will be spared. They give her a scarlet cord, the secret sign to be displayed in her window to guarantee her household’s safety When the

Israelites return. She is not a sterling character, but she is certainly a strong one.


What do Tamar and Rahab have to tell us about hope? First of all, they show us that hope faces reality. Hope is not merely putting on a happy face, denying our needs and frustrations, and mouthing familiar phrases about how good God is. Hope faces squarely What life is and what it is not. Tamar faces the fact that Judah has not brought his son Shelah forward to marry her. She could make excuses to herself and others (and perhaps she does that for a While) about her situation. She could meekly accept her fate. She could keep herself busy with nieces and nephews and push aside her own desire to have a child. But she doesn’t do that. She pays attention to her father-in—law’s lack of attention to her, and she decides to take action. She risks her life for the chance of something better.

Rahab takes a similar approach. She does not pretend that hiding Hebrew spies is an innocent exercise. Neither does she pretend that her nation is going to defeat Joshua and the Israelite army. She admits her fear and the fear of her people, saying that their hearts “melted” because of it. Rahab coolly assesses the situation and decides to cast her lot with God. In fact, Rahab voices clearly the truth that is the basis for our hope as well as for hers. She says to the Hebrews, “The LORD your God is indeed God in heaven above and earth below” (Josh. 2:11). That is, the God of heaven, Creator of the universe, is more than a remote God out there in the sky somewhere. The God she proclaims is God also on earth, a God Who is concerned with our daily lives, with all that concerns us. And like Tamar, Rahab makes a leap of faith. She decides to hide the Hebrew spies and to lie to the king’s henchmen who come to her door. If her lie is discovered—if the spies are discovered hidden in the stalks of flax on her roof—she no doubt Will be killed. But as the song quoted earlier says, Rahab too has nothing left to lose. Joshua and his army are going to sack the city, its inhabitants executed. Rahab is realistic enough to see What is about to happen. Jericho is going to fall, and facing the threat of death, she sees a way to life. She acknowledges God’s power and involvement in what is going on, and she decides to become a part of it.

Hope also acknowledges a higher reality, a reality beyond what we can see. When Rahab says, “The LORD your God is indeed God in heaven above and earth below,” she tells us something very important. What we see is never all that there is; God is here, in what we see and feel, and God is more than that. Rahab believes that, beyond the dangers and difficulties of her life, God has power available for her situation. That belief in God is an important part of scriptural hope.


These two unlikely women, Tamar and Rahab, become a part ofJesus’ lineage. Because of their commitment to the hopes in their hearts, they find courage to risk. One of them faces down one man; the other faces an army. It may be difficult for us to see what they do as honorable. They trick people; they lie; both use their sexuality in ways we probably don’t approve of. Their methods are n0t ones we’d endorse or recommend. Yet they are singled out in scripture, and they become part of what God is doing. When I try to understand their actions, I am reminded of the parable of the shrewd manager in Luke 16. The steward who is about to be fired is commended for “adjusting” debtors’ accounts to ensure he will have friends once he is dismissed by his employer. The parable ends with a statement about God’s people needing to be wise, to be shrewd. God’s people are encouraged to be realists who assess what is happening and then act on their hope for something more than the reality they see. Tamar and Rahab certainly act out of that hope. And they become a part of bringing God into the world in a completely new way.

Another truth surfaces in the stories of these women: We do not have to understand the whole of what God is doing in order to be part of it. Neither of these women mentions any interest in or vision of winning a place in Israel’s history. They are not bent on being heroes. They are simply living their lives. Tamar wants a family and pursues accomplishing that; Rahab wants safety for herself and those she loves. These are not the earth-shattering hopes of two women out to change the world. As Tamar and Rahab attentively live the lives they have been given, God uses them. What they do becomes a part of what God is doing, part of something that will change the world—in ways they never foresee. These women tell us that in our daily acts of dealing with our own responsibilities, we are part of something beyond our small sphere of influence. Let’s face it: Most of us will never be famous. Few of us will ever be applauded by hordes of people in our lifetime. These women are not. But what they are part of, God’s influence in the world, has outlasted the deeds of kings and princes who ruled their lands, the famous people of their day.

When I was in school we read a poem about a grave monument commissioned by a king named Ozymandias in his own honor. The monument stands in the middle of a vast desert, surrounded only by sand dunes as far as the eye can see. On its base appears this ironic message to the ages: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” All Ozymandias thought he had done has come to nothing more than a few hunks of stone. Without meaning to, Ozymandias tells us that while those who are mighty by human standards may experience a flash of fame, what they do may leave no lasting impression on the world or on us. What they hope will become a monument to their greatness may become lost in the deserts of time and be seen by almost no one. What the world calls greatness may not be lasting greatness at all.

A quiz making its way around cyberspace focuses on this same idea. The questionnaire begins with ten questions about people who have been in the news. Readers are asked to list facts like the teams that competed in the Super Bowl two years ago, the names of any two Heisman Trophy winners over the last ten years, the author of any novel on the best—seller list, the winners of the Oscar for best actor and actress last year, the names of the four major-party candidates in the presidential race three elections ago, and so on. A second set of ten questions follows. These ask readers to name a teacher who made a difference in their life, someone who showed them an act of kindness during a difficult time, a relative who has made them feel special, a neighbor who taught something important, a friend who has been constant in their life over the years, and so on. Doing the quiz makes it clear that people who may never see their names in a newspaper headline or hear them on the evening news affect us more significantly than the “big” names. Ordinary people shape us, and through all of us, the world. The acts of ordinary people are important.

Tamar and Rahab are not frail, delicate flowers of genteel womanhood. Their hope is not dressed in lace and organza, thin and vulnerable. It is hope in blue jeans, hope that gets its hands dirty. These women’s lives present a picture of people working alongside a God whose hands already show the marks of involvement in our lives. They illustrate hope that confronts, that honestly names needs and dreams, hope that is willing to risk, to take whatever action it can, and to trust God to do the rest. In this Advent season, Tamar and Rahab invite us to consider that God is at work as we work, that God is using and will use our lives to bring new life into the world. In this Advent season, they invite us to name before God our clearest hopes—the dreams we hold in our hearts—and to welcome God into those hopes and dreams.


The world needs people of hope. I think of a friend of my family’s, a man who was a part of my life from the time I was a child. I’ll call him Virgil. Virgil was a dreamer and a small—time inventor. He had a way with anything mechanical. Motors and engines fascinated him, and he was the best mechanic and sick—car diagnostician I have ever known. Once while I was traveling with a friend and my child, my car began acting up.  The two young men working there were clueless about what might be wrong with my car. I needed to get on my way, but I was reluctant to set out, only to have the car stop for good on the highway. What to do? Then I thought of Virgil. I called him on the pay phone. Sleepily, he answered the phone. I related my situation, and he asked of the car, “What’s it doing?” I gave him a careful description of the problem, and he said, “Well, it sounds like it’s probably the starter, and there’s a way to find out. Take a screwdriver and. . . .” I did what he instructed, and soon we were on our way.

Virgil operated a car—repair business for most of the years of his adult life, but that was not what energized him. Inventing energized him. Constantly working on some new thing that he expected would make him a millionaire, he wanted to leave his family a legacy of his fame and fortune. Over the years he patented a few things, but Virgil never succeeded with his car business or with his inventions. At the time of his death he was still working on one of his dreams (or “schemes,” to some in his family). Virgil’s family didn’t understand his passion, and over the years I heard many heated discussions about the money and time he was wasting on “that silliness” of inventing. I didn’t see it or him that way. I saw him as the kind of person this world needs. We need dreamers who waste time on the “silliness” of a passion that pulls them into the future. We need people like Virgil and Tamar and Rahab to shake us loose from our mundane routine, to challenge our tendency to think that what we see is all there is. We need dreamers, people willing to invest their energy in what they hope for.

The questions that Tamar asks Judah, “What will you give me?” and that Zechariah asks the angel, “How will I know . . . ?” remind us that hope does not build on certainty. To hope means we cannot be 

with a mixture of hope and excitement is normal and human. We may even experience less welcome feelings alongside hope, such as anxiety, fear, and distrust. But those feelings are acceptable. God welcomes us with whatever degree and quality of hope possible for us. Even if the hope is simply an inexpressible desire for something more, it has power, and its power grows as we nurture the hope in God’s presence. The psalmist says, “You, O LORD, are my hope, / my trust, O LORD, from my youth” (Ps. 71: 5). When we anchor our hope in God’s steady love and good plans for us, hope becomes a permanent part of us. We have hope not because we are powerful or smart or resourceful but because of who God is. And as we test our hope by acting on it, we release God’s power into our circumstances. Our “hope muscle” grows stronger and our desire for God more compelling, just as exercising strengthens our physical muscles. As we consciously work with God, we will see more evidence of God’s work in the world around us. The more we hope and watch, the more we will see that reinforces our hope and trust.

Wonderful things happen. Most of the time, they come after we’ve done a lot of work; but sometimes, like the coming of the baby at Christmas, they are pure gift. Those of us who are looking may even see these wonders in the making. In this season of hope, we are invited to look for the wonders that show us God is still at work in our world and in us. “What will you give me?” we ask. Hope holds with it the promise that God always answers our question by showing up, not necessarily with what we ask for but with remarkable gifts that change our lives and the world.


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