Tamar and Judah: Might and Power do not Have to Be the Same

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.



Perceptual Distortions: Is Rebecca a Villain in Jacob and Esau’s conflict?

Is there a victim and a villain in the Jacob and Esau story? Recall that Jacob deceived his father by disguising himself as Esau, but that he did this because his mother, Rebecca, told him to do it. I described the concept punctuation of sequences in a previous post.  Punctuation of sequences means that each person in a conflict perceives the cause of their behavior as something  another person did.  In this post, I want to talk about other perceptual distortions that occur in conflict. We can apply these perceptual distortions to the story of Esau and Jacob and also to our own conflicts.

When we argue with someone, each person typically constructs a narrative in which s/he is right and the other person is wrong. Polarized thinking occurs so that we each believe we represent good, and the other person does not. We each can see all the terrible things the other person has done, while being completely blind to the things we ourselves have contributed. Even if we do admit that we might have behaved badly, we justify it!

In analyzing the story of Jacob and Esau, we can fall into the same kind of thinking. For the moment, let’s take the perspective of Rebecca.  Rebecca, after all, instructed Jacob to disguise himself. Let us imagine her situation with Isaac.  Isaac favored Esau, a hunter; Rebecca favored Jacob, a gentler son. God, however, had told Rebecca that Jacob would rule. Nonetheless, Isaac persisted in favoring Esau. As we analyze the story, we too can engage in the perceptual distortions that we enact in every day conflict. First, polarized thinking: Rebecca was right; she was trying to follow the word of God. Second, Isaac was at fault because he would not listen to her and had all the power. Third, even if what she did was not honest, it was justified because Isaac was about to make a terrible mistake.

In judging someone else, we can see the flaws in this kind of thinking. When we engage in these perceptual distortions ourselves, we are blind to them. The need to be right prevails. Watch for these perceptual distortions. Polarized thinking makes it difficult to see another’s perspective and contributes to conflict escalation because we rehearse the villainy of the other person and our own victimization. A key to managing conflict is to let go of the self-talk that demonizes the other person and contributes to polarization. We need to look at the other person’s story as well.


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.

Jacob and Esau: What’s Punctuation Got to To with It?

Though Jacob and Esau were twins, they were very different from each other, and to their mother’s dismay, their rivalry began before they were born, “The children struggled together within her” (Genesis 24:22)… and when they came out they emerged with “Jacob holding Esau’s heel” (Genesis 25:23).

The culmination of their rivalry occurred when their father, Isaac, lay on his deathbed. The narrative permits a wonderful illustration of the concept “punctuation of sequences.”  Punctuation of sequences refers to how we frame conflict to give it meaning. When we recount a conflict, we typically point to its cause—usually we perceive the other person’s behavior as the starting point for the conflict.  Rather than seeing the start of the trouble at point B, we “punctuate” the stream of events differently and see the starting point at A, which blames the other. Both parties typically do this. Usually, little is accomplished when each tries to convince the other, “You started it!”

In interpreting the story of Isaac’s blessing, the reader can also get stuck in this quagmire. Let’s look at the story to illustrate.  When Isaac lay on his deathbed, he told Esau to hunt and prepare savory game for him, and then Isaac would give him a blessing. Rebecca overheard the exchange. Given that God had told her “the elder shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23), Rebecca told Jacob to disguise himself as Esau. She cooked a delicious meal for Isaac and instructed Jacob to bring the food to his father. Jacob did as he was told. Isaac gave Jacob intended for his favorite son. When Esau discovered what had happened, he hated Jacob and said that when mourning had passed for his father, he would kill his brother Jacob. Rebecca heard the vow, and told Jacob to flee.

We could say that Jacob is to blame. He is the one who deceived his father.  But Rebecca told him to do it! But Rebecca was told by God that the younger had to serve the older, and Isaac, because of his favoritism to the hunter Esau, might have subverted the plan. Moreover, Esau, by his own volition, had traded his birthright for a bowl of porridge! And so it goes. Each attribution of blame “punctuates” the cause of events differently.

When two people get into this perceptual blame game, resolving the conflict becomes an exercise in futility. Dynamics of the conflict and defensiveness typically stall progress on resolving the conflict.  Usually the only remedy is to recognize what is going on and abandon the tactic. Blaming each other is unproductive. The real key is recognizing that each party made contributed to the conflict and focus on, “How else might we move forward?”

If you can recall such a conflict in your own life, I hope you will leave a comment.

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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.



How does Jeremiah make Zedekiah so Defensive?

In discussing Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, I said that when “face” (self-image or identity) becomes an issue, work on the task ceases. Why? Most of us have an extreme need to be right. Commonly, in conflict, the idea of being wrong, at some level, threatens our face, our self image. Rather than putting our energy into problem-solving around the task, our energy goes into saving face. We can see this in several stories we’ve talked about so far. For today, I’d like to focus on the story of Jeremiah and King Zedekiah.

The prophet Jeremiah tried to convince Zedekiah that he should surrender to the king of Babylon; he tries to convince him that God was not with him. As the story goes, “The king said to Jeremiah, ‘I have something to ask you; do not hide anything from me.’ Jeremiah said to Zedekiah, ‘If I tell you, you will put me to death, will you not? And if I give you advice, you will not listen to me’” (Jeremiah 38:14-15). Jeremiah also tried to convince the people to repent. In both cases Jeremiah was ineffective. Why is that? Of course, we can find multiple reasons, but I would like to focus on an important dynamic in many conflicts: defensiveness. Among other things, Jeremiah’s ways of communicating attacked “face,” and defensive responses prevented Jeremiah from achieving his goal. Jeremiah’s story can be instructive for us all.

We can look at defensiveness from the perspective of the message receiver, the message itself, and the sender. As receivers of messages, some of us are simply more defensive than others. Characteristics of highly defensive people include:
• They ignore their feelings as long as possible.
• They deny their feelings to themselves and others.
• They concentrate on rebuttal arguments.
• They blame others for their reactions.
• They dwell on the perceived injustice long after the argument is over.
To some extent we all do this, but highly defensive people more so.

Defensiveness has four dimensions. First, we respond physiologically (when we feel attacked our “fight or flight” reflex kicks in). Second, the physiological response generates emotional arousal (we get angry or try to avoid the person who is sending the message). Third, we respond cognitively (we mentally blame the other person and explain to ourselves why we are right and they are wrong), and finally, we generate behavior (we give them rebuttals, or try to get even which escalates the conflict). Although King Zedekiah specifically asked Jeremiah for advice, when he heard the answer, he threw him in jail.
The fault, however, lay not only with King Zedekiah. We know this because when Jeremiah preached to the people, they did not listen to him either. What was it about his communication that was so face threatening?

When we have something critical to say, we have a choice between evaluative messages or descriptive messages. Evaluative messages use labels, “You are a slob.” “You are insensitive.” An alternative way of framing a message, describes the behavior and our reaction to it. “When I come home and dirty dishes are in the sink, I feel frustrated because I left the kitchen clean. “ Or in the second example, “When I told you what happened to me today, and you sided with the other person, I felt hurt.” Again, highly defensive people may respond defensively regardless, but good listeners can hear the information .

Defensiveness that prevents us from hearing and learning from others’ feedback can hurt us in a variety of ways. We may react without really thinking. We may not hear information that may be useful in doing our job. We may generate defensive behavior from our opponent. We may cause or intensify conflict and wreck a relationship. We limit our learning, and finally, we may embarrass ourselves due to loss of control.

As receivers of critical messages, we have several ways of improving our ability to respond non-defensively. The first step is self-awareness. The sooner we notice our physiological response, the better chance we have of keeping the message from contributing to conflict escalation. Second, rather than responding with denial, we can seek more information. Third, rather than impute the intention of the other person, we can do a perception check, “When you said X, you might have meant a or b, could you help me out here?

We will have more to say about defensiveness in future posts. King Zedekiah could not hear Jeremiah, nor could the people. Defensiveness in both instances proved disastrous. We can do better.

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.

Saving Face in Conflict: Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife

When I wrote about Joseph’s encounter with Pharaoh, I mentioned the concepts face and facework. “Face” relates to one’s self-image and how one wishes to be seen by others. In every day interactions we talk about “saving face” or “losing face”.  Researchers Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson point out face can be damaged in at least two ways. First, someone can tarnish our good self image (positive face) or they can impinge on our autonomy (negative face). In either case when face is threatened in a conflict, focus on the content level goal of the conflict shifts to an identity goal: defending or restoring the threat to face. We can apply these concepts to the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife.

In the story, Joseph is serving Potiphar, Pharaoh’s captain of the guard. Potiphar’s wife propositions Joseph, and Joseph tries to deflect her advances.  At the content level, this is a tale about an unfaithful wife trying to commit adultery. From the perspective of conflict, however, the dynamics of the story revolve around face and facework. Facework is communication which builds or protects one’s own self image or supports or threatens another’s self image.

When Potiphar’s wife tries to get Joseph to lie down with her, she threatens his face at several levels. First, she damages his image of himself as an honorable person. Second, it damages his image as a loyal servant of Potiphar. Third, he recognizes it would be a “sin against God”. In three ways, her overture threatens his positive face, his identity, and puts him in a conflict. If he yields to her request, his identity and image are threatened. Complicating matters even more, unless he yields to her request, he risks contributing to her face loss. He tries to say “no” gracefully in the story without damaging her face, but her overture put him in a double-bind: he either damages her face or her own. Three times Potiphar’s wife asks; three times he turns her down. Ultimately, the conflict results in damaging his “negative face;” he loses autonomy. She takes revenge by making up a story that he tried to attack her. Joseph goes to prison.

Joseph’s story is instructive in many ways and one of them is the importance of considering “face” in conflict. When someone’s face is damaged, identity becomes one of the issues in the conflict. Focus moves from addressing content issues to saving face or getting even for face loss.

Recently, I mediated a case involving a tenant and landlord. At the content level, the case was about whether money should have been withheld because the apartment did not meet the standards the landlord held for post-move clean-up. At the identity level, however, the tenant was angry and insulted because she felt the landlord took advantage of his power position. In essence, her identity as a competent, honest, clean tenant was challenged. Much of the mediation revolved around that issue and interfered with her ability to lay out the facts that supported her factual claim.We  can benefit by noticing and addressing the impact of face threat, face loss, and restoring face in handling conflict.


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.

In what way is the conflict between Moses and Pharaoh about identity?

I already addressed one aspect of the interaction between God, Moses, and Pharaoh, namely how distributive conflict can lead to serial conflict.  In this entry, I would like to address some puzzling details in the story. First, elsewhere in the Bible, God handles disobedience with swift punishment. If God wanted Pharaoh to free the Israelites, why wasn’t a single great cataclysm sent all at once? Second, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart so that after each plague, Pharaoh reneges on his willingness to set the people free. What did that accomplish? Answers to these questions have been provided by many different sages. For the purposes of studying conflict, however, I would like to couch my answers using the principles of “Face Theory” and  facework.

“Face” relates to our identity and how we wish to be seen by others. Facework is communication which builds or protects one’s own self image or supports or threatens another’s self image. A conflict may have as its goal an issue of content, e.g. Pharaoh wants to keep his slaves; Moses wants them free. A conflict may be about process, “OK, I maybe I can do without the slaves. What if we see how things go for three days?” A conflict may simply be about power. “I can do whatever I want.” I’d like to focus on one of the goals of this story, a goal of identity and the concept of face. This is one of the stories in which God establishes his identity for the Israelites, for Pharaoh and for the Egyptians, gradually, and in a way that cannot be misinterpreted .

A clue that face issues matter in this story appears in Exodus 7:5. God says “Egypt shall know that I am God, when I stretch out my hand over Egypt and bring out the children from among them.”  Similar wording accompanies each plague. Theologically God establishes God’s identity and power for the Israelites, Pharaoh, and the Egyptians by a succession of plagues. In the beginning of Moses’ encounters with Pharaoh, Pharaoh’s magicians compete with Moses and Aarons feats. By the third plague the magician’s magic cannot match God.  The plagues damage the face, the image of Pharaoh’s power; they are lessons for the Israelites; they establish the power of God particularly in light of the injustice of slavery.

All need time to absorb the identity of God as different from the gods of the Egyptians. Egyptians worshiped animals, birds etc.; God demonstrates that God, Creator of the universe, is in charge. Notably, several times Pharaoh relents momentarily and tells Moses, “I will let the people go to sacrifice to the Lord” (Exodus 8:9; 8:25; 8:28). After the plague of hail, Pharaoh says, “This time I have sinned; the Lord is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong” (Exodus 9:28; 10:16).  After the death of the first born, Pharaoh says, “Take your flocks and your herds, as you said, and be gone. And bring a blessing on me too!”  (Exodus 12:32). In these words, Pharaoh recognizes the Israelite God.

Later posts will elaborate on the important of face and identity issues in conflict.


Dr. Elayne Shapiro, Ph.D. is an associate professor of Communication Studies at the University of Portland and co- author with Dr. Carol Dempsey of Reading the Bible: Transforming Conflict published by Orbis Press.******


Moses and Pharaoh: When Distributive Conflict Turns into a Serial Conflict

The story of Moses trying to get Pharaoh to free the Israelites (Exodus 7:10-12:32) is a classic example of a distributive conflict: one party uses dominance to get as much as he can at the other’s expense. Distributive conflict defines the conflict as a win-lose confrontation. It bets on the odds that the conflict partner’s resources are not a match for one’s own power sources. One may decide that the character of God in the story epitomizes such a conflict partner, or one may decide Pharaoh believes he can prevail over Moses.

Initially, Moses engages Pharaoh by requesting that Pharaoh free the people. Moses’ brother Aaron spars with Pharaoh’s ministers in a simple power contest meant to persuade Pharaoh that Moses has access to a power greater than Pharaoh’s. The need to be right contributes to the course of most conflicts, and Pharaoh, believing himself to be a god, has a greater stake than most of us in proving that he is right and that he is more powerful than Moses. Moreover, when an individual has a dominating conflict style (which Pharaoh most assuredly does), an additional element kicks in: conflict in and of itself can be an exhilarating communication event, and winning is a priority. Moses and Aaron are merely God’s instruments.

Conflict research suggests the course the conflict will take. In general, dominant influence messages generate negative reactions. As we might predict, Pharaoh rejects Moses’ bid for dominance and the conflict escalates.

We can also learn little about serial conflicts from the interaction between Moses and Pharaoh. Serial conflicts are arguments about the same topic over time. These difficult conflicts pop up in many contexts: between countries, political parties, management teams, intimate couples, or between parents and children. As in the case of Pharaoh and Moses, typically episodes are linked, and when one party attempts a dominant move, the other party resists and then retaliates. Recurring episodes impact relationship quality, and serial conflicts can result in fighting simply to enrage the conflict partner. While Moses’ instrumental goal is to liberate the Israelite people, the successive plagues are linked and are attempts to bring Pharaoh into submission.

Our contemporary conflicts can deteriorate in the same way, with each party upping the ante to hurt their opposition. Transforming long embedded serial conflicts often requires a third party unless the parties simply cease hostilities out of exhaustion.

If we do want to end a serial conflict without a third party, what options are open to us? In intimate relationships serial conflict generally results in both parties feeling attacked and unaccepted when they try to share thoughts and opinions. Changing the climate in a serial conflict means dialing back attacks. It requires small steps. Unilaterally, one party can initiate a change in the climate of a conflict by not reciprocating hostility for hostility. Sometimes announcing an intention to reduce tension helps. Finding a way to express positivity is another way. Positivity means refraining from criticism, being cheerful, acting friendly, and looking for opportunities to restore a gentle sense of humor to the situation (bypassing the temptation to be sarcastic). In the same way that we create negative spirals, we can also create positive spirals.

Such options were not open to Moses and Pharaoh. Most of us, however, do have an option to reverse the climate of serial conflicts. Just as in international conflict, one country makes an initiative to defuse tensions, so too can one person begin the process.


Dr. Elayne Shapiro, Ph.D. is an associate professor of Communication Studies at the University of Portland and co- author with Dr. Carol Dempsey of Reading the Bible: Transforming Conflict published by Orbis Press.


Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Grudges in the Joseph Story


Last week, I wrote about the beautiful symmetrical narrative elements in the story of Joseph forgiving his brothers.  The story is profound, however, in what it illuminates about forgiveness and reconciliation. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks makes the argument that this is the first place in the Bible where one human being forgives another.

Experts on the topic of forgiveness make distinctions that are useful for us in understanding the story. They make a distinction between unilateral forgiveness, bilateral forgiveness, and reconciliation. Forgiveness can be unilateral, i.e without any action on the part of a offender. We can decide on our own to forgive the other person, to let go of our anger, resentment, and perhaps hatred. Forgiveness however, can also be bilateral where both the offender and the victim are involved.

Joseph’s story may involve both unilateral and bilateral forgiveness. Over the years, Joseph may have unilaterally relinquished the cold emotion of unforgiveness as he came to realize God’s plan for him. However, the brothers’ behavior when he meets them many years later contributed to bilateral forgiveness. As the story unfolds, Joseph witnesses Judah and his brothers recognizing the wrongs they had committed; he hears them express out loud the harm they inflicted, “They said to one another, ‘Indeed we are guilty concerning our brother inasmuch as we saw his heartfelt anguish when he pleaded with us, and we paid no heed; that is why this anguish has come upon us’ “(Genesis 42:21-23).

When Judah asks to be enslaved in place of Benjamin, Joseph may hear a desire on Judah’s part for restitution, “So now let me remain as your slave in place of the lad. Let the lad go back with his brothers.” (Genesis: 44: 33)”.

Joseph’s belief that his brothers had changed may have contributed to the final stage of forgiveness, reconciliation. Reconciliation implies renewing a relationship. Not all transgressions that are forgiven result in reconciliation. Though a person may release his or her anger and hatred, trust may be so broken, that renewing a relationship is not seen in his or her best interest. The reverse may happen as well. A relationship is renewed, but the grudge still holds sway.

So common is lack of forgiveness, Dr. Roy Baumeister proposed a theory. He called it “grudge theory.” What value do people find in holding a grudge? Grudges allow one to nurse wounded pride. They allow one to hold something over the head of the person who has offended and perhaps get a concession from another. They may guard against being hurt again. They may be a reminder to the offender that they have compromised a moral transgression.

Joseph, however, goes to great lengths to convince his brothers that he does not bear a grudge. His brothers tried to obliterate him, and Joseph’s response is to sustain their lives.


Dr. Elayne Shapiro, Ph.D. is an associate professor of Communication Studies at the University of Portland and co- author with Dr. Carol Dempsey of Reading the Bible: Transforming Conflict published by Orbis Press.

Transforming Conflict:Joseph Reveals himself to his Brothers

The story of Joseph is beautiful in many ways, not the least of which is its narrative symmetry. To appreciate this symmetry, let’s go back to the beginning of the story. Jacob tells Joseph, “Lech-na reeh et-shalom acheycha, “Please go, see whether your brothers are…” literally, “at peace.” (Genesis 37:14). Joseph obeys his father, and on his way he meets a man in a field. The exchange between them is quite poignant. The man asked him, “What are you seeking?” Joseph replies, “I am seeking my brothers…”

We can look at those words literally, but also figuratively, with the greater resonance of what brothers and family are supposed to be for each other. But as Joseph approaches his brothers, the narrator’s words are telling, “They saw him from a distance.”
Joseph is not only physically far away. More importantly, he is emotionally distant from them. Jacob told him to check on whether the brothers were “at peace”, “et-shalom”. Rather than being at peace, they were actually plotting against Joseph.

The rift is underscored by the brother’s actual words when they spot him. They might say, “Here comes Joseph” or” Here comes our brother” They do not. They remove personal attributes when they speak of him. Instead they say, “Here comes the dreamer.” There is a concept in social-psychology called “deindividuation.” Deindividuation occurs when we remove the personal attributes of a person or group and only relate to them by a label. In the movie Hotel Rwanda, we heard the government refer to the Tutsis as “cockroaches.” In Germany, a similar thing happened as Hitler and the Nazis dehumanized the Jews. Deindividuation makes it easier to act out atrocities on other humans. Instead of finding his brothers “at peace,” the narrator tells us that the brothers conspired to kill Joseph.

Fast forward to the scene towards the end of the story (Genesis 44:18). The scene begins with the Hebrew word, “Vayigash”– Judah approaches; Judah comes close.” Again, we can see this literally and we can also take this figuratively. Judah moves toward Joseph physically, but he also moves closer to him emotionally, balancing the symmetry of the earlier words of distancing. Judah’s emotional speech draws Joseph closer and leads directly to the revelation of who he is. After his first outburst, how does Joseph introduce himself? Most simply: “Please draw closer to me. I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.”

At the start of the story, enmity between Joseph and his siblings prevented the brothers from being close as we all wish for our family members. At the end of the story, the family has moved both physically and psychologically close.
Notably we are very near the end of the book of Genesis, and we see themes of sibling hostility, distancing, and reconnection, which have been present throughout Genesis, having a positive ending in contrast to fratricide and permanent separation that characterizes earlier sibling conflicts.

My next blog will talk about the mechanism of forgiveness that contributes to this phenomenon.

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.