Jael, Warrior Woman

This story was originally preached at an online sermon of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square on Sunday, August 23 as part of a series on the “Stories You Don’t Hear in Church.” Relevant readings can be found here.

When Pastor Erin and I were throwing around the idea of a season of preaching focused on the “stories you don’t hear in church,” this was the story that immediately came to mind for me. We get a small snippet of this story once every three years or so, the part of the story about Deborah which is told in narrative form in Judges Chapter 4. When I say that the Bible is wild, Judges is a great example. There are so many stories in this book that are shocking and silly and powerful and strange. The tiny morsel of the portion of Judges Chapter 4 we get is the only time that the book of Judges shows up in the Revised Common Lectionary at all, and in my opinion, it leaves out the best parts.

Today we read Judges Chapter 5, which is a poetic rendering of the same story in Judges in prose form in Chapter 4. The version we read is completely left out of the lectionary, and it is one of the oldest pieces of scripture, dated by scholars around the 12th century BCE. This version that we read is also a song. It’s Deborah’s song. Deborah is a prophet, and like other prophets who were women –  like Miriam after the parting of the Red Sea or like Mary Mother of God in the Magnificat – Deborah’s proclamation comes in the form of a song.

Before the monarchy in Israel there were Judges. These judges helped to settle disputes in Israel and took on the role of military leaders. One of these judges was the prophet Deborah, the only woman in this role. Israel had been oppressed by King Jabin, the Canaanite king who scripture says had an enormous, technologically advanced army and treated the Israelites cruelly for 20 years. Deborah called upon the commander of the Israelite Army, Barak, to defeat the Canaanite Army led by Sisera and overthrow the tyrannical rule of King Jabin.

When Barak heard that Deborah wanted him to fight the Canaanite Army, he thought the idea was absurd. This was the area’s military super power! They were not at all matched. This was a situation, like in the musical, Hamilton, they were, “Outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered, outplanned.” So Barak called her bluff and said, basically, “Um. I am not going to go to war with these people unless you come too.” And Deborah said, ok. I will go too. And just you watch, God will deliver Sisera, the commander of the enemy Army, into the hands of a woman. And won’t that be just, so embarrassing for you.

Deborah was a brilliant military mind. She led Sisera and the Canaanite army with all of their fancy chariots into a Wadi, a dry riverbed that only fills with water when it rains. But it did rain. And the Wadi was marshy and it gummed up the wheels of the chariots of the Canaanites, not unlike the Egyptians who tried to follow the Israelites through the Red Sea. The Canaanite soldiers all panicked, unable to move, and the Israelite Army picked them off one by one.

Except for their commander, Sisera.

Sisera ran off until he came to Jael’s tent. Jael was married to Heber, the Kenite, who had made peace with King Jabin. And so when Sisera ran away he thought he was going to a tent of someone who was an ally, or at the very least, neutral in this battle between the Israelites and Canaanites. With an exchange heavy in innuendos, Jael invites Sisera inside her tent. When he asks for water, she gives him milk, covers him with a blanket, and promises him that she will keep guard at the entrance of the tent. Instead, she waits for him to fall asleep, and then drives a tent peg all the way through his skull, nailing his head to the floor.

Jael is somehow a controversial figure. And by somehow I mean because of sexism. Because we have no problem celebrating a very similar story in scripture; a smaller person with no military experience slaying a giant enemy warrior with an unconventional weapon. Except in that story, it’s David and Goliath. And I grew up going to VBS weeks where we had games with slingshots and where this story was acted out for children. This story of David and Goliath is violent and even graphic and gory. Yet this very similar story of Jael killing Sisera feels shocking. That is, in large part, because Jael didn’t merely kill someone. She transgressed our gender norms when she did it.

Both Deborah and Jael operate outside of so-called traditional roles for women in this story. We have Deborah, a courageous military commander in a role otherwise held by men. And then there’s Jael.

Jael was subversive in her own way. She was different from Deborah. She wasn’t a woman in a male dominated field or a stereotypically male role. Her domain wasn’t the battlefield; it was the home. The tent at this time was something typically associated with women. And things of the tent were also coded as feminine. We could imagine Jael in our own context as a stay at home mom.  She certainly acted maternal as she gave Sisera milk and tucked him into bed.

Normally, if we would hear the story of a male military leader entering the home of a woman all by herself during a time of war, we would fear for the safety of the woman! But Jael leveraged this very fact to her advantage. Jael knew that Sisera underestimated her; Jael, in her pearls and her apron, the very image of June Cleaver. She used her identity as a housewife and utilized an object of that identity to deal the fatal blow, beating Sisera to death with a symbol of femininity like a stiletto or a frying pan.

Jael didn’t ask permission to take this action. She kept her own counsel. She didn’t care, apparently, that her husband had made an alliance with King Jabin. She ignored the expectations and rules of the day of hospitality. She was not respectable or civil or decent or accommodating; she acted in a way that was culturally taboo. She was not pleasant or polite.

And scripture calls her, “Most blessed of all women,” an honor we don’t see conferred again until it is given to Mary, the Mother of God.

Maybe some of you are hearing this story and thinking that it is basically just a run on sentence of Fun Bible Facts with Elle. Which is true. It’s definitely that, in fact, I could’ve given a sermon 3 times this long and still share only a fraction of the fascinating aspects of this story.

But for me this story is more than that, too, it is full of Good News.

I feel seen by this story with a woman like Deborah in a male-dominated career field. And I feel liberated as a femme by the example of Jael, whose gender expression not only didn’t hold her back from being a warrior – it was PART of being a warrior.

Women are frequently caught up in rules that society places on us where no matter what we do, we cannot win. It is a double bind. We are criticized if we don’t perform femininity correctly. And we are underestimated when we do portray aspects of femininity; we are called shallow or frivolous. We are wrong whether we are Generals or housewives. If we are strong, we are too intense. If we are soft, we are too weak. It seems like there’s no way to be the right kind of woman.

Sometimes even those of us who are women reinforce systems that harm women, even though those very patterns of thought hold us back too. At the end of Judges 5, we see Sisera’s mother waiting at the window for Sisera to come home from battle, coldly discussing with her friends the sexual violence and plundering she imagines Sisera must be doing. 

But what God tells us in this story and all throughout scripture is that actually, there are many right ways to be a woman. There are prophets and canonizers, house church leaders and political leaders, there are Apostles and witnesses. There are women who work outside the home, women who work in the home, and even a woman who housed God in her very body. There are many ways to be a prophet, a warrior, a mother. There are many ways to be a woman of God, to be a person of God of any gender. There is no one size fits all for faithfulness or ministry. God doesn’t only choose one kind of person. In fact, as soon as we think we know what kind of person God would choose to work through, God chooses someone else that completely surprises us.

The choices God makes and the people that God chooses often make us uncomfortable. So we don’t tell their stories in our children’s Bibles or  we sanitize their legacy or we dismiss them as hysterical. The people God chooses are frequently people who are not polite or pleasant or civil. They don’t follow the rules. They are the kind of people that make us say, “I agree with their message but not their methods.” They are blocking traffic and yelling through megaphones, they lack impressive CVs, they speak in strong, colorful language.  They are too much or not enough. They are hot messes, really.

And when we underestimate them, we underestimate God… to our own peril.

Our God overthrows tyrants. Our God frees people. And God does it by raising up the people we least expect in those roles, on purpose.

Thanks be to God.

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