Does power always mean that person who is mightiest wins? Does it mean that the person who is appointed leader wins? Our contemporary world provides evidence that people without guns or appointed role can prevail. We can find similar examples in the Bible as well. Today I want to look at power.
Power is a variable in almost every conflict. One definition of power describes it as “the ability to influence or control events.” People vary in the amount of resources they can draw upon to use power. What are some of the resources we can use to exert power? Most of us immediately think about the power to reward and punish. Omar Ghadaffi could reward and punish. King Saul could reward and punish. We actually have a wider range of resources with which to exercise power.
Sometimes people have power because of the role they occupy. If we are appointed leader, people generally grant a certain amount of influence to us. Power can also come from expertise and intelligence. Hence the saying, “Knowledge is power.” Another type of power is “referent power”, i.e. people may do what we want simply because they like and respect us. Sometimes we acquire power by whom we know. Real life and many stories in the Bible illustrate well that any resource is effective only as long as someone else endorses the resource. In other words, in many conflicts, might does not necessarily mean that the apparent stronger party prevails. Let’s look at the story of Tamar and Judah as an example.
Tamar was Judah’s daughter-in-law. She had married his oldest son, Er. According to the culture, after Er died she was supposed to marry Er’s brother, Onan. Judah did arrange for this marriage, but Onan also died. Rather than follow through and have her marry his youngest son, Judah sent Tamar back to her father’s house telling her she needed to wait until the youngest son, Shelah, was older.
Years went by, and Tamar was trapped because Judah never sent for her. According to her tradition, she had no future without marriage and a child, and no ability to remarry outside of her first dead husband’s family unless released by Judah.
At first glance, it might seem that all the power rested with Judah. As male, older person, father-in-law and patriarch he had legitimate power. He could reward Tamar by sending for her or punish her by ignoring her. Perhaps Tamar waited as long as she did due to referent power, i.e. her respect for her father-in-law. When referent power coincides with legitimate power, leaders have an especially strong power base. What power base could Tamar use? Tamar’s strongest source of power was her expert power in the knowledge of the law. Through her actions, she was able to use knowledge of the law to leverage her expert power.
Whenever we feel “powerless” in a conflict, we could benefit but reviewing our resources.Knowledge can lead to power!
Dr. Elayne Shapiro is an associate professor at the University of Portland and co- author with Dr. Carol Dempsey of Reading the Bible: Transforming Conflict published by Orbis Press.