Women of the Bible: Deborah and Jael
Today we’re turning our attention to the book of Judges as we continue to explore the stories of some of the women of the Bible. This book represents the story of Israel between the time in which the Israelites moved into the Promised Land after the death of Moses, and the time when Israel began to be ruled by earthly kings, as other nations were. In the interim period, somewhere around the 12th or 11th century BC, they were ruled by judges. They served two functions: the first was like the role of judges today. These leaders settled legal disputes for the Israelites. But the biblical judges also served as military leaders. They were commanders-in-chief of Israel’s army.
The Book of Judges provides us with glimpses of the leadership of these judges and into the hearts of the Israelites. According to the author, the people and their leaders seem to go through these repeated cycles where they are “do[ing] evil in the sight of the Lord.” Over and over, the people seem to make the same mistakes, seem to turn away from their faithful God, seem to do the very things that they know have always resulted in pain and heartbreak in the past. If you know any stories from the book of Judges, it might be the story of Samson and Delilah. Samson was one of the judges of Israel. But I’m guessing that the story of Deborah and Barak and Jael is new or unfamiliar to many of you.
Deborah, the fourth of the twelve judges in this time period, follows one of these time periods of wandering away from God. The opening verses of chapter 4 tell us that the Israelites were doing what was evil in God’s eyes, and their actions resulted in their being sold into the hand of King Jabin. The commander of Jabin’s army is a man named Sisera, who commands a fierce army of nine-hundred chariots of iron. For twenty years, King Jabin oppresses the Israelites. We don’t know exactly what this oppression looks like, but it’s a long enough time to be feeling pretty desperate and downtrodden. Twenty years of cruelty.
Into this setting, Deborah rises as judge of Israel. She is called a prophet, a title not given to the other judges, and a title only given to a handful of women in the scriptures – a little study project for you to track down other women prophets in the scripture! A prophet hears God’s voice and speaks God’s message to the people. When our scene opens, Deborah summons Barak, a military commander, and tells him: God commands you to take 10,000 soldiers from the tribes of Israel to fight against Sisera and his army, and God will give them into your hand. Barak responds saying to Deborah, “If you go with me, I will go. If you will not go with me, I will not go.” It’s unclear why he responds this way. You could think of his words as flattering – he wants Deborah’s wisdom and leadership there with him in the battle. Or you can think of him as skeptical, doubting Deborah’s words, or God’s words, or fearful, unwilling to step up and lead on his own. Deborah agrees to go with him, but perhaps because of his reluctance to just lead as God had called him to, she tells him that the glory of the journey, the victory will not fall to Barak, but to a woman.
As the battle unfolds, Deborah sends Barak out saying, “The Lord is indeed going out before you.” Sisera’s chariot are thrown into a panic – later in Judges we find that storm has caused all the chariot wheels to get stuck in mud, rendering them useless. And the army of King Jabin is being steadily conquered. When Sisera, the commander, sees this, he runs away. He flees and seeks safety in the tent of Jael, the wife of a man named Heber. Heber is part of a clan of people called Kenites, and they are allies with both King Jabin and Israel. Sisera expects welcome, and indeed, Jael tells him, “Have no fear.” She covers him with a rug, and gives the thirsty man a drink of milk. He asks her to guard the entrance of the tent and to turn away anyone who approaches. And then he fall asleep. And Jael takes a tent-peg and hammer and drives the tent-peg through his skull, killing him as he sleeps. Barak shows up at her tent, only to find his foe already defeated – by the woman Jael.
After the battle, Deborah and Barak raise their voices in a song Deborah composes, saying, “Hear, give your ear, I will sing to the Lord, I will make a melody to God.” The song that they sing is thought to be some of the oldest material in the entire Bible, and recounts in dramatic fashion all the events that have unfolded, naming Deborah a Mother of Israel.
So, what do we make of this intense, crazy story? Weeks ago, I was seeking advice from colleagues about what hymns might be suitable to go along with this scripture text. And of my colleagues responded saying that it depended on what the “good news” was that I planned to share from this passage. That was such a helpful focusing question because my first response was to think, “Wait, where is the good news in this story?” I’ve wanted to share with you some of the stories of women in the Bible, since their stories are often overlooked. But is there any good news in this vividly gory story?
Perhaps the good news is in the victory: the Israelites were freed from their oppression through Deborah’s leadership, Barak’s military action, and Jael’s, well, decisive actions. After these events, Israel experiences a peace under Deborah’s judgeship that lasts for forty years, a meaningful duration of time in the scriptures. Is that enough good news for this story? One of the struggles I often hear folks express when reading through the Hebrew Bible, the stories in the Old Testament is about the level of violence that takes place that gets attached to God’s name. I’m glad people are so uncomfortable with it. I’m glad we don’t read story after story of war and violence and wonder if that could really be God’s plan. It would be worse if we didn’t raise such ethical questions. They are contemporary questions after all: Is there such a thing as just war? Does God choose “sides” in a war? Is God with one side and not the other? We can think of the religious crusades of history, of action and inaction during World War II, of turmoil over our role in Vietnam to more contemporary questions: What is the right response to genocide, like in Rwanda in the 90s? How do we respond to war and destruction in Syria? Rev. Alex Joyner writes that there’s a monster in the story of Deborah and Jael. It’s not Jael, not Sisera, but the monster of violence. He says, “But there's still that monster, isn't there? The monster that stalks our streets and our homes and our relationships even today. There's still that monster. The monster of violence can never have the last word -- not on a hill called Calvary and not here." (1) Can we give thanks for freedom from oppression, even while we lament the violent means that brought about this new peace for Israel? I think, at least, it is good news when we faithfully wrestle with texts like this, because we’re paying attention, we’re searching, and seeking God’s wisdom and clarity, and realizing how contemporary this ancient story is, how God’s word is a living word.
Perhaps we find some good news in the fact that this story is yet another testament to the fact that God surprises us, uses unexpected people, works in unexpected, mysterious ways. There are very few one-dimensional “hero” figures in the scriptures, even if we thoughtfully like to gloss over the less savory parts of the stories of biblical figures. At our animate faith study this spring, we talked about a phrase reformer Martin Luther used – “simultaneously sinners and saints.” Sometimes we think of God’s followers in the Bible as a bunch of saints. And they are that, but they’re sinners too, struggling and sometimes failing to do what God desires. Deborah, in her victory song, gloats, taunting Sisera’s mother, saying she’ll watch for her son who is never coming home. Jael – she helped deliver Israel – but she had to take some questionable actions to do it, certainly disregarding concepts of hospitality and sanctuary. I’m thankful for these women, these complex women, who aren’t painted as perfect by any stretch. But God doesn’t look for perfect. God perfects us as we learn to love and serve God over our lifetime. And so God can use people as complicated as Deborah and Barak and Jael, and draw good out of the messes we make, when our motives and actions are less than God desires for us.
And we find good news in this: God is faithful, offering us redemption again and again, offering us paths to freedom even when our captivity was a result of our own destructive choices, present with us even when we doubt God’s plan, surprising us even when we sure we’ve got it all figure out, giving us grace even, perhaps especially when it is undeserved. Deborah and Jael and Barak are part of a compellingly strange story, but it is one story of many in this long cycle of judges, and one story of many in our long story of turning away from God who never turns away from us, and one story of many where we fail to see God’s constancy through victory and failure. Thank God for unsettling stories, and God’s consistent grace within and throughout them. Amen.