“The Hand of a Woman”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church
November 12, 2017
Judges 4:1-10, 12-24, 5:31
After Ehud the previous judge died, the Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. So the Lord sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly for twenty years.
At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgement. She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, ‘The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, “Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.” ’ Barak said to her, ‘If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.’ And she said, ‘I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.’ Then Deborah got up and went with Barak to Kedesh. Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh; and ten thousand warriors went up behind him; and Deborah went up with him.
When Sisera was told that Barak son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor, Sisera called out all his chariots, nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the troops who were with him, from Harosheth-ha-goiim to the Wadi Kishon. Then Deborah said to Barak, ‘Up! For this is the day on which the Lord has given Sisera into your hand. The Lord is indeed going out before you.’ So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with ten thousand warriors following him. And the Lord threw Sisera and all his chariots and all his army into a panic before Barak; Sisera got down from his chariot and fled away on foot, while Barak pursued the chariots and the army to Harosheth-ha-goiim. All the army of Sisera fell by the sword; no one was left.
Now Sisera had fled away on foot to the tent of Jael wife of Heber the Kenite; for there was peace between King Jabin of Hazor and the clan of Heber the Kenite. Jael came out to meet Sisera, and said to him, ‘Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; have no fear.’ So he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. Then he said to her, ‘Please give me a little water to drink; for I am thirsty.’ So she opened a skin of milk and gave him a drink and covered him. He said to her, ‘Stand at the entrance of the tent, and if anybody comes and asks you, “Is anyone here?” say, “No.” ’ But Jael wife of Heber took a tent-peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground—he was lying fast asleep from weariness—and he died. Then, as Barak came in pursuit of Sisera, Jael went out to meet him, and said to him, ‘Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.’ So he went into her tent; and there was Sisera lying dead, with the tent-peg in his temple.
So on that day God subdued King Jabin of Canaan before the Israelites.Then the hand of the Israelites bore harder and harder on King Jabin of Canaan, until they destroyed King Jabin of Canaan.
And the land had rest for forty years.
How many of you, before this morning, had never heard the stories of Deborah or Jael?
The story of Deborah is part of the lectionary, the three-year cycle of scripture readings we and many other denominations follow. Yet although our Jewish sisters & brothers often tell the stories of Deborah, Jael, Miriam, Sarah, Esther, Ruth, Naomi, Susanna, and more, in the Christian church we rarely preach on these stories. Which is a shame, because not only does skipping over these women reinforce the idea that the church treats women as “less than,” we miss out on some great stories!
A short aside related to this – every name on the founding charter of the community church which would later become PACC belongs to a man. But listed as a footnote in our church’s history is the fact that it was the women of the church who raised the money for the first church building to be built by hosting a fair. That fair is the same one we just celebrated this past weekend – it’s continued all these years, and while I’m thrilled to say that the men have long since gotten on board and we now have a multi-gendered list of people to thank for this event full of camaraderie, community, and hard work, I want to lift up that it was by “the hand of a woman” that this church came to be.
And now for a very different take on what “the hand of a woman” can do!
We joked at Bible study last week that Judges 4 and 5 would make for an epic Hollywood blockbuster. The scene is set: the Israelites have been oppressed by a neighboring king for 20 years when they finally decide they’ve had enough. They cry out to God, and who responds? Deborah, a prophet and judge whose name means Woman of Fire, rallies the volunteer Israelite forces and the reluctant general Barak to fight a professional army twice their size.
Barak assembles his men at Mt. Tabor while the enemy takes a shortcut to the battlefield, riding their imposing iron-wheeled chariots through a level, dry creek bed. The Israelites, on foot and with impromptu weapons grabbed from the fields, must have been shaking in their sandals watching almost a thousand chariots roll inexorably toward them; but Deborah, whose job description includes Braveheart-style pep talks, gives the command, and the Israelites rush toward the enemy.
Judges 5, the next chapter, is an account of this same battle in poetic form, and it tells us that at this critical juncture, a rainstorm rolls in and floods the dry creek bed, turning the ground into a sea of mud that stops the chariots in their tracks. (The lesson we learn here, with credit to Mike Rich, is “never take a shortcut named Dry Creek Bed”!)
Veritable sitting ducks, the enemy army is now overrun by the much smaller, poorly equipped Israelite forces, who claim total victory. Sisera, the enemy general, is the only one to escape; he flees on foot to the encampment of a nearby ally, whose wife Jael shelters him in her tent. She lulls him to sleep and then kills him by driving a tent peg through his head – what!! – before presenting his dead body to Barak, who shows up moments later, in hot pursuit of his foe.
And the land had rest for 40 years.
There’s a lot going on here – we spent almost an hour last Wednesday talking about the socio-political context of this story. (See what you’re missing out on at Bible study?) But this morning I want to talk about just a couple of things, namely: violence, and women.
This narrative, like much of the Hebrew Bible, is not just epic – it’s epically violent, with an entire fighting force slaughtered and a tent peg to the head. What’s more, the Israelites attribute their victory to God – not merely that God gave the Israelites strength to overcome their oppressors, but that God was on the battlefield, making strategic moves and setting up the coup de grace: “I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.”
Especially after this week’s brutal shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas I hope that this portrayal of a God who not only condones violence but who participates in it feels unsettling to us. Indeed, many of us have written off good chunks of the Hebrew Bible because the corporate and personal violence in it turns our stomachs. It should.
Here’s the thing, though: like every ancient people, the Israelites looked at what was happening to them and ascribed every good fortune and every downfall to divine forces. Crops failed? Natural disaster? Plague? The gods were mad at you for some reason. Crops thrived? Your child survived an accident or illness? You defeated your enemy in battle? Those sacrifices you made asking the gods to forgive you must have worked.
No matter what happened in the Bible, the Israelites were going to see God’s hand in it, because that was how they understood the world to work. God was seen as the moving force behind everything outside of the people’s control – which in an agrarian tribal society dependent on weather and the goodwill of neighboring tribes, was pretty much everything.
You can hear, by the way, the writer of Judges growing weary with this viewpoint – Judges is nothing but a cycle of “the people did evil in God’s sight, then were punished for it, then fought off their oppressors, then the land had rest…until they did evil again. And again. And again.” Over and over the people go to war, yet they gain nothing but a steady decline in leadership and a fractured relationship with God. Author and pastor Rob Bell argues that Judges, despite appearances, is really a manifesto on the futility of violence, and I’m inclined to agree.
Let us liberate scripture, and ourselves, from the brutality of imaging God as a murderous, vengeful warlord, and instead hear this text as an instance of people trying, as we do now, to figure out how God works and why things happen the way they do.
So that was violence in the Bible. Now: women in the Bible.
Again, reflecting the male-dominated culture of the time, women’s stories in the Bible are so often overlooked and even untold; many women who feature in biblical narratives don’t even get a name, let alone the chance to speak or to act on their own behalf.
And yet here is Deborah, a prophet seen as the mouthpiece of God and a judge to whom all of Israel brings their disputes, seeking her wise counsel. The name Deborah means “bee,” which might sound sweet and pastoral until you think of a swarm of bees chasing after you. She’s also referred to as “wife of Lappidoth,” a title which is more correctly translated as “woman of torches” or “woman of fire.” She outlines bold military strategy, gives her general commands, and leads the troops into battle, putting her own life on the line for the defense of her people as they struggle to throw off their oppressors. I have to admit I’m starting to picture Wonder Woman in my head.
And then there’s Jael. Her husband, Heber the Kenite, was a nomadic metalsmith who had made a friendly alliance with the Canaanite king, the oppressors in our story. In light of her family’s politics, it’s tempting to see Jael as a deceitful backstabber – or rather a headstabber? – who welcomes an ally into her tent only to kill him.
But imagine it from her point of view: she is minding her own business when Sisera, the Canaanite general, comes running into camp. Startled, she welcomes him into her tent with the reflexive hospitality ingrained in her culture. But as he collapses on the floor, asking her to hide him, she realizes more is at stake: why is the general of an army with 900 chariots traveling alone, on foot? Why is he exhausted, and why is he asking her to hide him? There is only one answer: he has suffered defeat at the hands of the Israelites, and they will most certainly pursue him, looking to finish him off. When they arrive, what will happen to the woman who gave the enemy general shelter, and what will happen to the clan who had made an alliance with the losing side in this conflict?
Jael’s actions, though undeniably brutal, protect her and her family from certain destruction. By the hand of a woman, with the only weapon she would have had access to, Jael both turns the tables on the man who endangered her and positions her family to form a new alliance with the victors. Like today, the victims who suffered the most in ancient war were women and their children; but Jael refuses to be a victim. She is, instead, a survivor.
Perhaps you’ve heard the wisdom of TV’s Mr. Rogers (who, by the way, was a Presbyterian minister) about tragedy – wisdom which has come in handy all too frequently these days: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news,” he shared, “my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers.'” In the midst of disaster or violence, it’s tempting to be overwhelmed by the bad, but we can find hope – and we can find God – by looking for the people trying to do good in the face of evil.
This is also my approach to scripture: to recognize the bad – violence attributed to God; war glorified – but to focus in on the good: a weariness with that same violence, and a portrayal of women as respected leaders and active agents in their own lives, deciding their fates in a world that conspired to make them bystanders. These moments are evidence of a movement, however shambolic, towards the peaceable kindom Jesus speaks of, a kindom marked by the valuation of every human being as worthy of dignity, compassion, and justice.
There is a movement throughout the Bible of taking wherever the current culture is and moving it, sometimes slowly, sometimes in great leaps, closer to a realization of the kindom of God.
We may cringe at the story of the flood destroying nearly everyone on earth – but every other ancient near eastern religion had flood myths that ended in total destruction, while this story ends with God saving Noah & his family – not to mention many animals! – and promising never to do it again.
We may balk at Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac, his long-awaited son; but the story takes the then-universal practice of child sacrifice and turns it on its head, replacing a beloved child with a ram.
We may feel weary at the endless cycle of violence in Judges – but we can see that it gets Israel nowhere.
We may chafe at the restrictions more literalist versions of our faith have placed on women, on people of color, on LGBTQ people, but the scripture from two weeks ago where Peter hears God’s voice commanding him to reorder his worldview reminds us that God is forever deepening and expanding our understanding of who is “in,” who belongs, who is valued.
And as we approach Advent, we remember that our entire faith is based on God doing a new thing – coming to be with us, to assure us in person of our belovedness and to usher in a kindom of peace and justice, despite all the darkness in the world.
After the shooting in Sutherland Springs this week, local resident Mike Gonzales explained why he and so many others had gathered at a candlelight vigil: “to show the world that now, in the midst of darkness, there is light.”
We are part of a tradition that believes in God calling us to new, more whole, more just, more loving ways of being; a tradition that believes in looking for and working toward the good, no matter the circumstances, because that’s where God will be found. It’s a powerful message, and in light of how dark things sometimes feel, a prophetic one.
In response to the tragedies and disasters, the lack and injustice of the world, it may be tempting to throw up our hands and turn away from the chaos around us. May we instead take inspiration from Deborah and Jael, from the women who built this church, from those at the Sutherland Springs vigil – to be people of fire, people of light, boldly proclaiming a new vision, using what we have at hand to shape a different story, one that bends closer to the kindom of God.