Not Defined By The Past
May 17, 2015
NOT DEFINED BY THE PAST
May 17, 2015
Genesis 38:27-30; Ruth 4:11-12
Today we are looking at another set of twin boys, Perez and Zerah. The story surrounding their births is quite sordid.
But let’s begin with Jacob and his 11 sons after they entered the Promised Land.
The family first moved near the town of Shechem and lived there for some time. They then moved to Bethel, lived there for a while and finally moved again close to the town of Hebron where they joined Isaac. It was during this final move that Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife, died while giving birth to her second son, Benjamin – the 12th son of Jacob.
Isaac died as well and Jacob and his sons continued to live there for a number of years.
Of his 12 sons, Joseph was by far his father’s favourite. Not only that, he was a fink. He and his brothers looked after the herds that belonged to their father Jacob, and whenever Joseph saw anything that his brothers did that was wrong or questionable, he would tell their father. As you can imagine, this did not endear him to his older brothers.
What made things worse is that Jacob gave Joseph items that he didn’t give to any of his other sons. One of these was a colourful outer garment. This multicoloured coat would have been very, very expensive, and it would make the wearer stand out among the mostly drab looking shepherds.
When the older brothers saw the coat and realized just how much Jacob loved Joseph more than them, we are told that they were jealous (37:11), that they hated him, and that they had nothing good to say to him (37:4). They only talked smack.
Mind you, Jacob was just making matters worse when he related two dreams to his brothers where they all bowed down to him. After the first dream, we read: “And his brothers hated him all the more” (37:5,8). They hated his guts
So Jacob was a tattle-tale, he had the fancy, shmancy coat which he paraded around, and he had dreams where he was bowed to by the rest of his family.
One day, Jacob sent Joseph, who was 17 years old at the time, to travel back up to Shechem, where they had originally settled and where the older brothers had taken the flocks. Jacob wanted him to check on how his brothers and the livestock were doing and to come back to report to him. When the brothers and herds weren’t at Shechem, Joseph found out that they had gone a bit further north to Dothan.
The brothers saw him coming and thought that this would be a good time to get rid of their pesky and privileged younger brother by murdering him. However, not everyone was in favour. Reuben, the oldest, somehow talked the others out of killing Joseph, instead, convincing them to throw Joseph into a dry cistern where he would supposedly die of dehydration. Reuben’s plan was to come back and rescue Joseph from the cistern, but as it happens, he never had an opportunity to do so.
Reuben went off for a number of hours and was gone when the remaining brothers noticed a caravan of Ishmaelite traders on their way to Egypt. It was Judah, the fourth born of Leah, who suggested that the brothers sell Joseph to the traders, in this way they wouldn’t have to kill him or even leave him to die in the cistern, after all, he was their brother. So this is what they decided to do – and they received 20 silver coins for him (shekels).
Subsequently they tore up the fancy coat, dipped it in goat’s blood and told Jacob upon their return to Hebron, that they had found the coat - breaking their father’s heart.
Subsequently, Judah moved away about 15 km NW of his father and brothers to a place called Adullam, where he married and then to nearby Kezib, where he had 3 sons and saw those children grow up.
So Judah’s first three sons were Er, Onan and Shelah, born in that order. When Er was of marrying age, Judah procured a wife for his son, named Tamar (meaning “date” or “date palm”). However, we are told that Er was a wicked man, and before Tamar had any children, Er died.
The law of Levirate marriage basically stipulated that if a husband died before having a son, one of his brothers was obligated to marry his widow and the very first son would inherit his uncle’s name and property. So when Er died, Judah asked his second-oldest son, Onan, to marry Tamar. But Onan was also a wicked man and died before they had any children. This would mean that Shelah, the youngest of Judah’s sons would have been next in line to marry Tamar.
However he was still quite young and Judah told Tamar to go live in her father’s house until Shelah was old enough to take her for his wife. However, Judah had no intention of actually making this happen because he was worried that she had some kind of curse on her and Shelah would die as well.
Many years passed and Shelah was old enough to marry. Judah’s wife had died, and, after a period of mourning, Judah decided to travel to the town of Timnah, in the region where mostly Philistines lived, in order to shear his sheep which were grazing in the area at that time.
When Tamar found out where he was going, she got dressed nicely, put on a veil and went to a town named Enaim, which was on the way between Adullam and Timnah (some scholars think it’s the same place). She sat down at the town gate, through which she knew that Judah had to pass on his way to Timnah.
Judah saw her, but because of the veil, he didn’t recognize her as his daughter-in-law. He thought she was a prostitute associated with the pagan shrines of the Philistines. He was away from home so he likely thought that in this foreign culture he could get away with a sexual tryst without any outfall. You know, business trip, different city, anonymity, whose going to find out?
And so he went over and propositioned her. As payment he was willing to give her a young goat, but he didn’t have the animal with him, so as a pledge that he was indeed going to pay her, she demanded his signet stamp and the cord it was hanging on, as well as Judah’s staff.
He slept with her, left the next morning, and thought everything was going splendidly. However, when he sent the young goat through a trusted friend, the friend couldn’t find the shrine prostitute anywhere and the locals told him that there hadn’t been one around.
Judah was stumped, but before he embarrassed himself in front of his people and family, he let it ride and put it out of his mind. Let her keep the signet stamp before things became public.
Three months passed. And then he was told that his daughter-in-law, Tamar, is pregnant. He was outraged, so he ordered to have her burned. But Tamar sent the staff and seal to Judah with the message that these belonged to the man who had gotten her pregnant and maybe he would recognize them. As you may have guessed, this made Judah call off the execution, and likely because of guilt and shame and public disgrace, completely distanced himself from Tamar after that.
38:27 When the time came for Tamar to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. 28 During delivery, one of them stuck out his hand. The midwife took a red thread, tied it to his wrist and said, “This one came out first.” 29 But when he drew back his hand, his brother ended up being born first, so she exclaimed, “Why did you force yourself to break through?” And so he was named Perez. 30 Then his brother was born, the one with the red thread on his wrist, and they named him Zerah.
There are a number of points with regard to this passage. Much like Esau and Jacob (their granduncle and grandfather), there seems to be a struggle between the two boys in the womb, even before they were born.
Also, like the situation with Esau and Jacob, there is the whole issue of who is to receive all of the rights and privileges of being the first-born son.
At first it would seem that Zerah, a name which means reddish shine or brightness, based on the red twine tied to his hand, would be the one born first.
However, it seems that Perez, a name which means break through or breaking out or bursting forth, somehow squeezes by his brother in order to become the firstborn, and therefore receives the rights attached to this position.
What this story reminded me of all the things that could potentially set the course of our life and determine who we become.
For example, I listened to a talk describing a study in the US of the potential effects of childhood trauma, called the “Adverse Childhood Experience Study” conducted from 1995 to 1997.
17 ½ thousand adults, 75% of them Caucasian and 75% college educated, were asked about being exposed to some trauma during their childhood. Of those individuals, 67% had experienced at least one of the following 10 situations:
A parent struggling with a mental illness
A parent who is incarcerated
A parent struggling with substance abuse
Parents divorced or separated
64% of the 17 ½ thousand had experience at least one of these childhood experiences.
25% of women and 16 % of men had been sexually abused. This was back in the 90’s and statistics are indicating that things are getting worse rather than better.
12% had experienced 4 or more of these adverse childhood experiences.
What they found is that of the last group of 25% had a much higher chance of being diagnosed with ADHD, 5 ½ times more likely to struggle with depression, 12 times more likely to have attempted suicide, and much more likely to have cardio-vascular disease than those who did not experience any of the indicators. They also found that the average life expectancy is reduced by 20% for those exposed to 7 or more of these stressors.
There have been many other studies that have shown that childhood trauma will lead to a much higher chance of drug abuse, promiscuity, PTSD, memory, attention and learning difficulties, high school drop-out, delinquency and arrest, smoking, alcoholism, and psychiatric disorders. As adults there is a greater chance for heart disease, cancer, obesity and high blood pressure.
I listened to another researcher who spoke about what he discovered that mass murderers have in common. One of these common factors is that they all had been exposed to severe violence at an early age – something that is common in warzones, for example.
So on the one hand, those of us who are parents or grandparents, we need to realize that our children or grandchildren pay a heavy price if we expose them to or are the reason for childhood trauma. Thankfully, there is greater honesty about this than years ago when it was hidden away and denied. The sad part is that while victims may be more prone to speak out, it still occurs at such a prevalent level.
Yet the untold story in these studies is of those individuals who were able to somehow deal with the abuse, the rejection, the loneliness, the fear, the pain … and, while not unscathed, were able to not let it determine their lives or their identity … who they became when they grew up.
resilience in the face of adversity.
There are some studies on resiliency. They looked at individuals who experienced chronic adversity as children, and should have been in that high-risk category, yet who had good outcomes as adults, demonstrated sustained competence even under stress, in other words, those who somehow recovered. if they have positive social relationships, if they learn to problem-solve, and if they develop competencies valued by self and society.
Usually, what helped them to develop this resiliency were healthy and positive relationship with a competent adult – often with a person of faith (a youth pastor, a Christian friend).
It helped if they were good learners and problem solvers and if they were likable and possessed good social skills.
It helped, if they were able to pay attention to what is happening in the moment and are aware of and accepting of their thoughts and feelings.
It helped, if they were able to be aware of the very wounds they suffered long ago, be aware of the way this trauma can haunt them and set the direction of their lives, and try to use that pain and trauma to become people who turn their lives around, often helping others in the process. Examples of these abound.
I was also reminded of potential generational sins that get passed down from generation to generation. I think this is what Ex 20:5 is all about … one person’s poor decision negatively affecting his or her offspring to the 3rd and 4th generation.
I know of one family where a woman got pregnant out of wedlock when such things really mattered, and subsequently had a shotgun wedding. Her daughter also got pregnant prior to being married, as did two of this daughter’s daughters. As a result, this woman was a great-grandmother at age 38. I know of another family where a man was a womanizer, as was his son, two of his grandsons and one of his great-grandsons.
The reason I know about these families is because I’m related to them.
Yes, childhood trauma, generational sin, the social-economical status of our home of origin, even genetic predisposition or some other factors can and will affect our lives. But what I thought about, as I considered Perez and his parents, is that it does not have to determine our identity.
So you may think that Perez and his brother would be stigmatized because of the unethical behaviour of both their father and their mother. Or the fact that their father had nothing to do with their mother at any point in their lives. I wouldn’t be surprised if Judah did not particularly treat Perez and his brother as fully his sons, although that is pure conjecture.
You may think that the situation with his their parents would have made the boys objects of scorn, at a time where sexual mores were ultra-conservative. And you may think it would have disqualified them from playing any kind of positive role in their nation’s future. But none of this came true.
They were able to move past this stigma, in the same way that some people who have undergone childhood trauma are able to minimize the influence of their past, so that they end up living healthy and productive lives; just as some people can decided to break the pattern of generational sin or to move beyond the dysfunctions that was their home of origin.
One example is Claudia Gomez. She grew up in South-Central LA where you are more likely to be enrolled in a gang than college. She was a good student until she was 12 years old. Her oldest sister was brutally murdered and then a few months later another older sister was shot dead right in front of Claudia.
Claudia went from a grade A student to become a problem student. She became defiant, got into a lot of fights. Her grades dropped. She was kicked out of the classroom, suspended from school, and then expelled from school. Soon she was pregnant and lived a very, very tough life when she was 14 and 15.
She ended up meeting one caring adult, her independent study teacher, who helped her see the connection between her trauma and her life. She taught her about not allowing the past to determine her future and spoke of the infinite possibilities when it came to how she could lead her life.
Claudia ended up a leader at the Youth Justice Coalition in South-Central L.A. where she worked with the school system and, in a short time her efforts resulted in a 55% reduction in suspension rates.
In the case of Perez, one of many, many of Jacob’s grandsons, he would be the one from whom the lineage of the kings of Israel would come. In fact, it was from him that the Messianic King would come. And this would be the individual who would be the fulfillment of the promise that Abraham’s seed will be a blessing to all nations.
Now, notice that the red line runs from Judah to Perez, rather than to his other two sons.
Many, many, decades later, during the time of the judges, when Naomi’s widowed daughter-in-law Ruth, a woman from Moab, gets married to Naomi’s relative, Boaz, the elders of Bethlehem pronounce a blessing over her:
May YHWH make the woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you have standing in Ephrathah and be famous in Bethlehem. Through the offspring YHWH gives you by this young woman, may your family be like that of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.
The family and clan of Perez became much greater and more important than the clan of Shelah or Zerah. The following is the genealogy of Jesus as recorded by Matthew:
Perez – whose mother was Tamar
Boaz – whose mother was Rahab
Obed – whose mother was Ruth
Jesus – whose mother was Mary
I want you to notice that the four women named in this genealogy all are tainted in some way, including Jesus’ mother Mary, who was pregnant prior to her wedding.
When I look at Perez, I am reminded that our home of origin, or our family of origin, may have given us a poor legacy, and that we may feel the consequences of its dysfunction in the way that we feel about ourselves, conduct ourselves, the issues we struggle with, and even our health concerns.
Tracy McMillan, a successful television writer and relationship expert, was born to a prostitute mother, who gave her up, and a criminal father who also was a pimp.
Her dramatic childhood involving foster care, prison visits, and multiple moms, as well as a lot of opportunity to interface with some of the darker aspects of human nature. She made many mistakes in her life, but she is one of those resilient survivors.
She defines bad parents as those who do whatever they want, whenever they want, without thinking about how that will affect their children.
She decided that she would not allow herself to be a victim of her past, but to be in charge of her life, and start it over. She gave up on blaming others and she decided not to indulge her wounded and complaining self. And she also realized that some people in her family and friends do not have her best interest in mind or want her to continue in her dysfunction and self-destructive behaviour rather than grow out of it, and that she had to set boundaries or disassociate herself if they were trying to drag her back into destructive behaviour.
So we do have the ability, often with the help of others and with the help of God, to at least learn to deal with the effects of childhood trauma or whatever else is negatively impacting us … in order to become to a significant extent, the person we would really like to be.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with finding a counsellor who is a trained trauma therapist. There is nothing wrong with joining a support group for trauma survivors. Volunteer. Go walking with a friend. Get enough sleep, exercise, eat right.
Challenge all the negative, condemning self-talk. Find ways to relax and de-stress.
But also lean on God, who can give you the fortitude you need to move forward and move upward.
I had to give my wounded self to God. I recognized that God really wants the best for me and is willing to help me work on myself. He made me feel loved, valued and forgiven for all my mistakes and sins. He gave me the courage and strength to rewrite my life … and he will help you do the same.
IF I FEEL IMPRISONED BY MY PAST, WHAT CAN I DO TO SET MY LIFE ON A BETTER PATH AND HELP OTHERS DO THE SAME?