31 December 2015

Shunammite Woman: Hoping against Hope

2. Kings 4:8-37

A hole in my womb,
desperate to be filled.
A gap in my heart,
longing to be complete.
A space in my arms,
waiting to hold
a child of my own.

A dream unfulfilled,
turning into a nightmare,
as month after month
my hopes are dashed,
as year after year
my womb remains empty
and my wish retreats
into resignation.

So don't give me false hopes now,
Man of God,
for my faith has been stretched
beyond belief
and I couldn't take
another disappointment.

A quickening in my womb -
the answer to my prayers!
Love in my heart
ready to be shared.
Complete at last,
for lying in my arms:
a child of my own.

An ache in my womb:
childless again.
A stab in my heart
as it tears apart,
as in my trembling arms
he breathes his last:
the child of my own.

Is this the price
for becoming a mother:
to receive this precious gift,
then watch it slip away?
to be granted a miracle,
but only for a while?
to hold my own son,
only to watch him die?

So don't give me false hopes now,
Man of God,
for my faith has been stretched
beyond belief,
and I couldn't take
another disappointment.

And yet
you are the only one
I would still turn to now,
hoping against hope
that the hope you give me
is not false.

You gave me no false hopes,
Man of God:
Now my faith has been stretched
beyond belief,
as I have seen
miracle after miracle,
received gift after gift,
and in my arms lies again
this child of my own,
returned to me once more.


[31. December 2015]

The Shunammite woman was a rich woman who supported Elisha's ministry. Wanting to reward her, Elisha offered to give her what she wished for - she did not tell him directly, rather Elisha's servant Gehazi told Elisha that she wished for a son. I find her answer quite intriguing: "No, my lord, O man of God; do not deceive your servant." (2. Kings 4:16) I based the "don't give me false hopes" bit on that. The first section (I.) is about her barrenness and longing for a child.

The second section (II.) is about how the Shunammite woman's wish was fulfilled, and she had a son. However, one day the boy fell sick or something (he went around crying "My head, my head!", so probably had some pain in his head) and died in her arms (v. 18-21) (III.). His mother went to Elisha - and insisted that he help her, and no one else (though interestingly enough she didn't directly ask for help, but just alluded to something being wrong with her child). I find it interesting how in this story and in the story of Naaman, Elisha does not show very much interest in getting personally involved (he sends his servant instead). But on the woman's insistence, he goes himself. The child comes back to life - actually the second miracle this mother has experienced (IV.).

First she received a child against all hope - then she lost him, and received him a second time against all hope! Quite an experience!
I wanted to combine here the themes of longing for a child, faith when it's hard to believe, the woman's doubts ("do not deceive your servant" / "don't give me false hopes"), loss of a child, and how the woman experienced two miracles - receiving, losing, and receiving again.

Picture by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout - the scene where the woman goes to Elisha and insists on him coming to help.

27 December 2015

Foreign Wives: Paying the Price

Ezra 9-10

So I pack my bags again,
a few bags more than when I came,
a child at each hand and on my back
the heavy load of your shame.

You say it was a sin,
marrying me -
yet I am the one who is punished.

The day I arrived
I was a girl,
lost and confused,
thrown into a world
I was not ready for.
Given to a foreign man
whose dialect I could not understand,
to warm his bed and bear him sons,
to get to know him,
learn to love him,
to overcome the fear
and my longing for home,
and become his wife.

You say it was a sin,
marrying me.
yet I had no say in the matter.

The day I arrived,
I was a girl,
frightened and lonely,
facing you - the man my parents chose.
Now I am a woman,
a wife rejected,
unwanted and scorned,
sent home in disgrace
back to the fools who sent me here.

We had our differences,
our disagreements,
barriers in language we never quite overcame.
We had our arguments,
our misunderstandings.
We had a life together,
though we never understood each other,
and today as I leave you,
I feel I never knew you.

You say it was a sin,
marrying me.
I say you don't undo it
by sending me away.
For either way
someone must pay -

and so it is I,
trudging home shamed,
a child at each hand,
weighed down with the burden of your sin,
paying the price
for your mistake.


[27. December 2015]

When the Israelites were allowed to return from exile under the Persians' reign, many (especially among the elite) intermarried with the Canaanites - thereby breaking God's law which forbade intermarriage with the people of the land (Dtn 7). When Ezra heard of this, he was deeply shocked - and together with the people came to the conlcusion that the mixed marriages should be separated, the women and their children sent home.

To understand the concern behind this, we need to remember that in those days, religion was closely connected to nationality and ethnicity, and note the "matrilinear" workings of Judaism. To this day, children are "born Jewish" only if their mother is Jewish (which is why in the OT intermarriage was so problematic). In OT times mothers were the ones responsible for bringing up children, and for their religious education. A mother from a different people would follow a different religion, and bring up her children in that religion. A few OT stories (notably the example of Solomon's wives and Jezebel) show foreign wives having a bad influence on their Israelite husbands. After the exile, the Israelites' identity was fragile - they couldn't use that kind of negative influence or confusion.

But what about the wives? In those days, being sent away by one's husband must have been a deep disgrace. Women would be sent back to their parents, vulnerable and dependent, probably having a hard time finding a new husband because they had been married before. In those days, people did not usually marry for love, so I doubt the "enforced" divorces caused much heartbreak of that kind. Still: the women were most likely not in those marriages by choice, and probably nobody asked for their opinion either when they were sent away.

My conclusion in reading this uncomfortable story is that this is a dilemma. Sin cannot be undone, even though the men repent of it. The damage is done and the damage will continue unfolding; sin has its consequences and it is a great grace of God if those are stopped, but He does not always stop them. (An example I keep thinking of is David's sin with Bathsheba: God forgave him, but still let the consequences happen - havoc in David's family, Absalom's rebellion.)
In the case of the mixed marriages, it would have been bad for the men to keep their wives - but it was also bad for them to send them away, because in doing so they hurt these women who were not really at fault. It was the men's sin, but the women bore the consequences. The best solution would have been not marrying the women in the first place (they knew it was forbidden) - as it was, in trying to amend the wrong they had done, the men ended up causing more pain. Sin can be forgiven, but it can't be undone.

I wove in a bit about intercultural miscommunications and difficulties that would have come with an intercultural marriage - intercultural marriages are challenge enough when you marry for love; I'm sure the situation is less than ideal if it's an intercultural arranged marriage!

Picture by Jakub Schikaneder

19 December 2015

Job's Daughters: Beauty from Ashes

Job 42:10-15

"He named the first Jemimah, the second Keziah, and the third Keren-happuch. In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers." (Job 42:14-15)

I grow from the dust of memories,
shadows that went before me,
the brothers and sisters I never knew.
I rise from the ashes of yesterday,
a new beginning after suffering and death,
a new morning that rises again.
I pour out sweet from the cup of bitterness,
a balm to comfort your tormented soul,
adorning your days of old age.

Sometimes I live
as though they did not,
forgetting that we
are not your only family.
Then I remember:
I am dancing on a grave
and there are still cracks
in your mended heart.

I cannot replace them,
the faces and voices
that still haunt your dreams.
I cannot fill the empty spaces
in our home and in your heart,
cannot drive out the memories
or undo the past.

But, precious father, I will try
to relieve your pain by giving you joy.
I will pour my love on you
and be somebody you can love
and tell your story to.
I cannot replace what you have lost,
but I can help you find purpose again,
raising beauty from the ashes,
letting life begin anew.


[18. December 2015]

I based the first stanza on the meaning of the names: Jemimah means "dove" ("I rise from the ashes" - more the image of a phoenix but it is a bird...), Keziah means "cassia" ("I grow from the dust" - growing plant), Keren-happuch means "horn of antimony", antimony being a cosmetic. So yes, I'm taking a short-cut again and writing one poem for three girls, but I think it worked well this way...

I wrote this thinking about how on the one hand Jemimah, Keziah and Keren-happuch (and their brothers) were a new beginning for Job, while on the other hand they could never be a replacement for the sons and daughters he had lost. I imagine it would be odd, knowing that before one was even born, one's father had a different life, another family, which no longer exists and one can never get to know. Hence "dancing on a grave"...

I find William Blake's picture of Job and his daughters (above) very interesting (and very well thought-out): in the background, it shows Job's losses. So I think it fits really well to this poem. Things go well for Job in the end, and he receives a lot of comfort, not least through his daughters. But the past can't be undone. Still, that doesn't mean things remain dark and hopeless. Job has a chance to enjoy what he has now, and though it does not take away completely the pain of his loss, I think his new family does relieve the pain, giving him something new to live for, encouraging him again.

Job's wife's poem is here.

07 December 2015

Athaliah: Turning Tables

2 Chronicles 21-23

Dear Father: You have used me,
turned me into a commodity.
My body is the bribe
with which you buy friendship,
selling me like a slave
into the arms of a stranger.
I am nothing but a pawn
in your game of politics -
now watch me turn the tables
and rise.

Dear Husband: I will use you,
turn you into my puppet.
I will bewitch you,
twist you round my little finger,
till you beg me for mercy
and do all that I wish.
I will make you a pawn
in my game of politics,
as I turn the tables
and rise.

Dear Father-in-Law: You have used me,
bought me as your commodity.
Now I rob you of your success,
and I rob you of your sons,
throw your glory down,
make you twist in your grave.
You are all pawns
in my game of politics -
now watch me turn the tables
and rise.

Dear Son: I will use you;
as you rise, so will I.
I will rule the land through you,
you will do as I advise.
You will stay in my pocket
and I will twist your mind.
You are my pawn
in my game of politics,
as I turn the tables
and rise.

See me now, all you men,
who thought you were strong,
and thought I was weak.
See me now, all you who used me,
who bought me and sold me:
see me and grovel,
see me and die:
I am your Queen
who spills your blood
and ends your line.

Dear God: They have used me,
so I had my revenge -
but I cannot fight for freedom
by binding others down.
Injustice can't buy justice;
evil can't end evil.
By becoming a queen
I made others my pawns -
now they turn the tables
and I fall.


[5. December 2015]

Athaliah was the only queen of Judah; her reign was short (7 years) but had a violent beginning and end. While writing this I viewed her as a girl bundled off into an alliance marriage against her will, rising up and taking power for herself.
On the one hand I wanted to understand her situation as a woman used by men as an object and political tool to fulfill their purposes; on the other hand it's clear she chose the wrong solution, in which she (the formerly oppressed) became an oppressor. The way Athaliah was treated was not right - but her violent reaction was not right either. The solution to oppression is not retaliation, because retaliation and revenge only create more victims. Athaliah's reign, which began with the killing of her own sons and grandsons for the sake of securing the throne, ended just as violently in a coup where she was deposed. Nobody missed her; in fact they were happy about her death (2. Chron 23:21).

Stanza 1:
"Now Jehoshaphat had great riches and honor; and he made a marriage alliance with Ahab." (2. Chronicles 18:1)
Athaliah, daughter of Ahab, is given to Jehoshaphat's son Jehoram in marriage.

Stanza 2-3:

"When Jehoram had ascended the throne of his father and was established, he put all his brothers to the sword, and also some of the officials of Israel. [...] He walked in the way of the kings of Israel, as the house of Ahab had done; for the daughter of Ahab was his wife. He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord." (2. Chronicles 21:4+6)
Athaliah is an influence on her husband Jehoram. He kills all his brothers (thus making sure none of them will try to claim the throne) - hence "rob you of your sons". Athaliah also robs Jehoshaphat of his success by propagating idolatry which he fought against all his life.

Stanza 4:
"Ahaziah was forty-two years old when he began to reign; he reigned one year in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Athaliah, a granddaughter of Omri. He also walked in the ways of the house of Ahab, for his mother was his counselor in doing wickedly." (2. Chronicles 22:2-3)

Stanza 5:
"Now when Athaliah, Ahaziah’s mother, saw that her son was dead, she set about to destroy all the royal family of the house of Judah." (2. Chronicles 22:10)
After Ahaziah's death, Athaliah kills all her grandchildren - she "ends the line", removing all male heirs (hence: "I am your Queen / who spills your blood / and ends your line"). If not for Jehoshebah who saved one of the children, the line of David (upon which lay God's promise) would have ended! (Which is why I believe this story - like many stories in the books of Kings and Chronicles - shows how God keeps His promise and protects the family of David despite all the attacks, setbacks, unfaithfulness etc.)

Stanza 6:
The coup happens (2. Chronicles 23): Joash, the child saved by Jehoshebah, is crowned king, Athaliah is put to death.
This last stanza is probably not what she was thinking (since I doubt she came so far as to regret her actions and see the wrong in them), but my interpretation / conclusion. Athaliah suffered injustice, and she had her revenge by turning things around and controlling the men around her, her husband and her son, and (almost) destroying the line of David. She rose to power, but by doing so she only inflicted suffering and oppression on others, and in the end had to pay for it with a fall from power and a violent death. We can't vindicate ourselves by taking revenge. We can't heal our wounds by wounding others. That's the lesson I take from this story.

Picture by Gustave Doré

03 December 2015

I Want To Love You

I take thee
to be my wedded husband,
to have and to hold
from this day forward,
for better for worse,
for richer for poorer,
in sickness and in health
to love and to cherish
till death do us part.

I want to love you
when my heart no longer races
every time I see your face,
when it is no longer mystery
that entices me,
when I have memorised you
and being with you is ordinary.
When the emotions fade away
into the dull everyday,
I want to love you still.

I want to love you
when I am distracted
by work and chores and worries,
when my attention
is drawn elsewhere;
when you are distanced
and cares weigh you down,
when troubles come
to cloud our horizons,
I want to love you still.

I want to love you
when my desires grow cold
and you no longer can satisfy me,
when strength fails
and I feel you slip away,
when I see you fall apart
before my very eyes,
gnawed by time.
When at last I have to let you go -
I want to love you still.

I want my desire to be for you,
and not for my fulfillment.
I want to love you for who you are,
not for the emotion
that grips me, then leaves
and cannot last.
I want to give myself,
sacrifice completely,
entrust myself to you
you will love me this way too.
I want to love you,
spirit body soul,
till death do us part.


[12. October 2015]

I was inspired to write this while visiting my grandparents, who are in their late 80s and both in an old-age home. When you truly stay together until the end, there are a lot of challenges. I don't usually think of that when I think about marriage - but watching my grandparents I realised some of the consequences (if one can call it that..) of love, and the full meaning of the marriage vows quoted at the start of this poem. I feel that when/if I get married, I want to say those vows and seriously mean them: that I'll not only stick with my husband when things are fine and nice and happy, but also in all the challenges ahead - and not just stick around because I must, but out of love.

I believe the kind of love that lasts is something more than the "Hollywood love" most of us believe in nowadays. I believe true love is more than feelings, that it needs to be an act of the will (of sorts) sometimes, something I want and make an effort for. Which is why even if my emotions are right, I don't feel I can honestly say "I love you" to the man I care about until I am able to fully entrust myself to him and accept the hard times, the conflicts, the differences etc too. If I only love him when my emotions are running sky-high and when everything is all right, is that true love?

I guess these are very high expectations, to be able to love someone through all the difficulties of life. I don't want to be naive about this either. But this is the standard I want to aim for, and I believe God will help me in my striving.
Important to me is also this: "believing / you will love me this way too". Fully giving oneself to someone else needs to be reciprocal - otherwise you just get trampled on, which is not the idea either!

Picture by Rembrandt