Forty women: 30. Tamar

Tamar seems to be having a minor renaissance as a girl’s name. I always wonder whether parents are naming their daughters after the Tamar we’ve already met, whose first two husbands died, who was thrown out of the family, and then had to pretend to be a prostitute to get her father-in-law to have sex with her, so she could get pregnant. Or after the Tamar we’re looking at today, whose half-brother raped her which two years later prompted a civil war.

Well. Maybe they just went to Devon or Cornwall for their holiday one year.

David, you remember, had at least eight wives and an unspecified number of concubines. Unsurprisingly, therefore, he had a substantial number of children. Nineteen sons by his wives and more by his concubines.

“And Tamar was their sister.” (1 Chronicles 3:9)

So that must have been fun. Maybe there were other sisters. It seems likely, but if there were, they aren’t mentioned at all.

Amnon was the eldest. And he’d grown up watching his father take wife after wife, concubine after concubine. He’d seen the king’s attitude to women: if there was one he wanted, he had her. Like father, it turns out, like son.

Because Amnon had seen a woman he wanted. A woman he became so obsessed with he made himself ill. And yes, there was a part of him at least that knew he couldn’t have her. Shouldn’t have her. She was young. She was a virgin. And she was his sister.

But he wanted her. And so he was going to have her.

He gets advice from his cousin and so he lays his plans. He pretends to be ill and asks for Tamar to bring him special food. And when she comes, he grabs and tells her to come to bed with him.

Horrified, she resists. She doesn’t just point out the wickedness of it, she’s also rightly concerned for her whole future. She would be disgraced. There would be no hope of any kind of future for Tamar if she were to let Amnon have his way.

“But he refused to listen to her, and since he was stronger than she, he raped her.” (2 Samuel 13:14)

And then. Well, then, Amnon’s obsession takes a twist. Where he thought there was love, now there is hate.

For Tamar, this isn’t just about adding insult to injury. This is her worst fears coming to pass. Amnon won’t marry her. He won’t give her his protection and his name. Wrong thought that might have been, given their close relationship, at least it would have give Tamar a name. A place. A family.

As it is, she goes to her brother Absalom, who gives her refuge in her grief.

“And Tamar lived in her brother Absalom’s house, a desolate woman.” (2 Samuel 13:20)

Forty women: 29. Bathsheba

We come, inevitably, to the one wife of David we’ve all heard about. I don’t think it would quite be possible to have done the whole series of forty women on David’s wives, but it’s a lot more than most people realise. I make it at least eight wives, plus some uncounted concubines: Michal, Ahinoam, Abigail, Maakah, Haggith, Abital, Eglah, Bathsheba. I expect it tells us everything we need to know that most of these women are only named in a list of David’s sons. Michal does not appear in that list, since she had no sons. There may well have been other wives in her position too, who never made it into any written list.

David’s household was obviously nothing compared to his son’s 300 wives and 700 concubines, but he still had rather more wives than most of us. And, of course, more than God intends and the Bible instructs.

So, no, it’s not Some Enchanted Evening when David sees Bathsheba taking a bath from the roof of his house one night and decides he’ll add her to the roster. It’s not some grand romantic gesture when he forces her into his bed and tries to get the resulting pregnancy passed off as her husband’s. It’s a tawdry tale of a man unwilling to control his lust, unable to be satisfied with what he already has in the quest for something new. And it’s a tawdry tale that turns positively horrific, when David arranges for Bathsheba’s first husband to be killed in the front line of battle.

It’s pretty grim, in fact. Even though David is brought to recognise his sin and repents of it, that’s the kind of thing which tends to sour a relationship going forward. Which makes it all the more astonishing that when David is old and dying, it’s Bathsheba, of all his wives, who still has the ear of the king.

She speaks up for her son, Solomon, when one of David’s other sons, Adonijah, declares himself to be the new king. Solomon is not the oldest and nor was Bathsheba David’s first wife. But he is the one to whom the promises were made. And it is up to his mother to ensure that her husband keeps those promises.

She has the ear of the new king, too: “When Bathsheba went to King Solomon… the king stood up to meet her, bowed down to her and sat down on his throne. He had a throne brought for the king’s mother, and she sat down at his right hand. ‘I have one small request to make of you,’ she said. ‘Do not refuse me.’ The king replied, ‘Make it, my mother; I will not refuse you.’ ” (1 Kings 2:19-20)

Enthroned at the right hand of the king, Bathsheba is given the greatest possible honour. Perhaps partly because Solomon knows he owes his undisputed crown to his mother’s intervention on his behalf, he will not refuse any request she makes.

It’s just a shame that the request she makes isn’t hers. The usurping Adonijah isn’t afraid to try and use her influence to his own ends and it’s he who sends Bathsheba to advocate for him. It backfires, of course. Perhaps if he’d disappeared quietly, Adonijah might have been forgotten. But the request he sends via Bathsheba makes Solomon see what a threat he is. Adonijah does not live to see another day.

Instead Bathsheba is the one who fades into obscurity.

When the Chronicler later comes to write his history of Israel, there’s no mention of Bathsheba’s first marriage or the vile way in which she came to be David’s wife. There’s nothing of her wise intervention on Solomon’s behalf or her foolish intervention on Adonijah’s. Just one brief word: “David reigned in Jerusalem for thirty-three years, and these were the children born to him there: Shammua, Shobab, Nathan and Solomon. These four were by Bathsheba, daughter of Ammiel.” (1 Chronicles 3:4-5).

Nothing that could cast a shade on the golden reputation of the great King Solomon. Nothing to remind us that his father was an adulterer, a rapist and a murderer. Nothing to remind us what his mother suffered at the hands of his father.

Can you see the big cans of white paint and the giant brushes splashing it across the grim pages of Israel’s history? Can you see the stories of Bathsheba and the many other women like her being hidden away in dark places? Can you see the sinful hearts inside the great heroes of the faith?

Can you see your own?

Forty women: 28. Abigail

The first thing we’re told about Abigail is that she is both intelligent and beautiful. Which is nice, because usually it seems like the first thing we’re told about women in the Old Testament is that they’re infertile, or jealous, or wicked. But sadly for Abigail, the second thing we’re told is that her husband is surly and mean in his dealings. And like so many women in the same situation as Abigail, she has turned her intelligence to handling her mean and abusive husband.

When David sends word to Nabal, asking for a favour, in return for the good treatment David had showed Nabal’s men, it’s no surprise that Nabal refuses. But the servant who heard the message knows it’s worth telling Abigail about it: “Now think it over and see what you can do, because disaster is hanging over our master and his whole household. He is such a wicked man that no one can talk to him.” (1 Samuel 25:17).

She acts fast. She takes the provisions David had asked for and rides out to meet him. She tells him not to pay attention to her husband, but instead offers her gift generously. For Abigail, it seems, recognises in David the one who fights for the Lord. And she asks that when he is king, he will remember her. Perhaps she even hopes that he might rescue her from her unhappy marriage. At the very least, surely she hopes for some return of the favour she has shown him.

She can’t have known that just ten days later Nabal would get blind drunk. Or that the next day when he’d sobered up, she’d finally pluck up the courage to tell him what she done. Or that when he heard, his heart, weakened from years of drunkenness and indulgence, would just stop. Dead.

And it would have been impossible for Abigail to predict that David, when he heard of Nabal’s death, would send for her and make her his wife.

Unfortunately, it rather seems as though she was plucked out of the frying pan, only to be flung headlong into the fire. For Abigail was not, of course, David’s only wife. There was Michal, but she had been sent off by her father to another man. But there was also Ahinoam. And later there would be others.

Together with Ahinoam, Abigail followed David around in his exile. The women were taken captive by the Amalekites and had to be rescued after a fierce battle. And even when the victory was won and David led his men into Jerusalem in triumph, his household was never a happy place, and his eye never stopped wandering after ever younger, ever more beautiful women.

I daresay Abigail, with all her intelligence, learned how to handle her second husband just as she did with her first. It’s just a shame that with all her intelligence and beauty, she was never able to enjoy the happiness she surely deserved.

Forty women: 27. Michal

She used to love him once. Back when he was young and handsome. Back when he was the nation’s hero, having slung his stone at the giant Philistine warrior.

She was a bit starstruck, perhaps, when he first came to live with her family. Not just a war hero, but a poet, a musician. All the girls swooned a little bit when David was around.

She’d heard that her father planned to marry him to Merab, her older sister, only David had turned him down. And then there was suddenly an opening. A possibility. A moment for the younger sister to shine and she grabbed it with both hands, never stopping to think about why her father looked so pleased or why her husband had been so willing to destroy a Philistine army to win her.

Because back then, all she could think about was the man she loved. Her hero.

She hadn’t known her father hated him. She hadn’t known he was plotting to kill him. She hadn’t realised she was supposed to hand him over to his death. She hadn’t expected David to turn on her either, threatening to kill her if she wouldn’t help him escape.

No wonder that she despised him. No wonder that she was glad to be set free from him, sent to a new husband. A safer husband. A nobody without aspirations.

No wonder that when her first husband demanded her return, seemingly unsatisfied with his six other wives, she didn’t want to go.

No wonder that when the ark of the covenant was brought into the city of Jerusalem, she wasn’t part of the welcoming committee. Watching from a window, no wonder that when Michal “saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him in her heart.” (2 Samuel 6:16)

That great and mighty king of Israel, who’d murdered her father, threatened to kill her, forcibly removed her from a loving husband, and made her part of his harem? Others might still look on David as a hero, but Michal was no longer that teenage girl, awed by his military achievements and swooning at his undeniable good looks. She knew the man beneath.

And she despised him.

Forty women: 26. Hannah

She’d wept. She’d sobbed uncontrollably from a bone-deep anguish that would not be silenced.

And out of that anguish, she’d prayed. She’d pleaded. She’d begged for a child. Just one. Not to wipe the smirk off Peninnah’s face. Not to prove that she could be just as good a wife. Not because she didn’t know her husband loved her.

Hannah’s anguish and misery sit far deeper than any of that. The reason she didn’t have a child was because the Lord had closed her womb.

It was God who had chosen not to give her a child. God who is sovereign over the heavens and the earth was sovereign over Hannah’s fertility too. And she knew it. She knew it as she wept and as she prayed, and so ‘she made a vow, saying, “Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.”’ (1 Samuel 1:11).

Hannah’s misery is because the Lord has forgotten her. He has turned from her. He has taken his favour away from her. The child, when he comes – if he comes – will be a delight, not only for himself, but because he will be a sign of the Lord’s blessing.

For Hannah, knowing that she has been remembered by God, that she has enjoyed his favour and received his blessing, will be enough. That is what is most precious to her. For that, she will even be willing to relinquish the child himself.

She prays. The priest asks for God to show her his favour. She and the rest of the family worship the Lord. And then God answers. The next time she has sex with her husband, the Lord remembers her.

Hannah gets pregnant and gives birth to a son. The first year, when he can have been no more than 3 months old, she stays home while the rest of the family make their annual pilgrimage to Shiloh. But the following year she must fulfil her vow. She finds the priest and she hands him her son, Samuel, saying, “I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked of him. So now I give him to the Lord. For his whole life he will be given over to the Lord.” (1 Samuel 1:27).

And then she sings. And the wonder is that it is not a song of lament. It is not a song of bitterness at being parted from her small son. It is not a song of anger at God for taking her child away.

It is a song of joy.

It is a song of praise.

Hannah’s opening line makes that clear: “My heart rejoices in the Lord.”

Hannah delighted in her son, no doubt. But she delighted even more in knowing that the Lord’s favour was on her.

Hannah loved her child, no doubt. But Hannah loved the Lord her God more by far.

Hannah was glad to receive an answer to her prayer, no doubt. But Hannah rejoiced at being able to offer back to God the most precious thing she had.

There’s no question about who came first in Hannah’s life. Not her husband. Not her son. But the one of whom she said, “there is no one besides you;    there is no Rock like our God.” (1 Samuel 2:2).

Forty women: 25. Peninnah

Once a year is enough for most celebrations. Christmas and Easter. Passover and Purim. Birthdays and anniversaries. Once a year is enough for sad commemorations too. Remembrance Day or the death of a loved one.

Once a year Elkanah and his whole family decamped to Shiloh, the home of the tabernacle, the place where God dwelled among his people. Once a year Elkanah insisted they all go, to worship the Lord and to offer the appropriate sacrifices to him.

And all of that would be fine. Just fine. I mean, it’s no mean feat, travelling with all your children, and organising everything you’ll need along the way, and making sure your household can run smoothly in your absence. But sure, it’s important to Elkanah, and it’s only once a year, and that doesn’t seem an unreasonable expectation from the Lord.

But that’s not the part that hurts. That’s not the part that’s like a bruise you carry with you all year, painful whenever it gets touched. That’s not the stabbing pain you have to brace yourself for when the time comes round each year. Every year.

Because, of course, you aren’t the only wife Elkanah takes with him. There’s two of you in this household. And maybe from the outside it looks as though you’re the favoured one. You’re the one blessed with all those fine sons and daughters. But you know different.

And every year, when you all trek up to Shiloh, you know that everyone in the family will have that made plain to them. Because when the sacrifices are made, and the meat is divided up, you’ll get your portion, and your children will get their portions, and Elkanah will get his portion. But she will get a double portion.

Because he loves her.

And you can’t help yourself. It’s so public and it’s so painful and you can’t stop yourself. It’s not much. A snide comment. A roll of your eyes. Forgetting to wait for her. Not passing a message on to Elkanah.

It’s not your fault she’s so touchy. What has she got to cry about anyway? She’s the one in the honoured place. She’s the one with the double portion. She’s the one he loves.

The pain will settle back to a manageable level. Years of experience have taught you that. But it won’t ever go away. And every year you set your face towards Shiloh it will get that little bit harder to make yourself keep going.

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