Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Women of War: Deborah and Jael (Judges 1-5)

Low Angle Photo of Coconut Trees

Welcome to Judges!

Today, we begin looking at the book of Judges. Other than the story of Rahab, which we covered last time, there were only 2 more places in Joshua, our last book, where women are even mentioned, and both of those stories are also found in other books. One, the story of Zelophehad's daughters, we dealt with already when we were reading the Law. The other is here in Judges, and we'll look at it briefly in this post because it's pretty short and somewhat inscrutable. It's the story of how Othniel, the first judge of Israel found his wife. But the main part of this post will look at the lives of Deborah and Jael, such a treat for our study of women in the Bible! Deborah is always held up as an example of a biblical woman in a non-traditional role, so I am really looking forward to examining her story! Bound up with it is one that's perhaps even more fascinating, the story of Jael of the mighty tent-peg, who you may not have heard of unless you read your Bible quite diligently. 

One opening observation about the book of Judges: I said above that Joshua hardly speaks of women at all. They aren't even listed as existing in towns where wars are taking place, it is only Joshua and his men against the Canaanite men. But Judges is just full of female characters in roles large and small, tragic, and heroic. We are going to enjoy this book. 

What we learn about women

  • In the three stories in this post, women are contrasted with men whom they outshine.

  • Deborah was a prophet and a judge, but saw Barak's request for her accompanying presence in battle as detracting from his own military glory.

  • Jael is honored for her decisive action in luring Sisera into her tent and then killing him.

  • Deborah's song provides commentary that honors God for his action in giving victory to his people when they are a weaker military force. It also gives a strongly female perspective on the death of Sisera and the effect it has on his people.

What I'm wondering

  • Is Deborah an example for all women to aspire to this kind of leadership? What do we make of her rebuke to Barak?

  • What is Jael's back story? The text refers to "The days of Jael." It also says her family was allied with King Jabin, but she acts purposefully to kill Sisera, his commander.

  • What was going on in Barak's mind through the story? We know as little about him and his thoughts as we often know about women in the male-dominated stories we've looked at.

Acsah and Othniel and the wedding gift

Let's begin with our first woman in the book of Judges, Acsah. She is the daughter of Caleb, who offers her hand in marriage to the person who captures the town of Kiriath-Sepher. Othniel, Caleb's nephew, is the one to achieve this and they get married. At the marriage, the text gives us this strange detail, all the information we really have about their marriage. "When Acsah married Othniel, she urged him [or he urged her] to ask her father for a field. As she got down off her donkey, Caleb asked her, 'what's the matter?' She said, 'Let me have another gift. You have already given me land in the Negev; now please give me springs of water, too.' So Caleb gave her the upper and lower springs." 

This story is short but intriguing. So many questions: who was urging who to ask Caleb (translators can't tell whether Othniel urged her to ask for this gift or the reverse)? why are we told she was getting off her donkey? did they want a field or springs? I think we can at least guess that it was Acsah who wanted the springs. If Othniel wanted the field, Acsah could have changed the plan and asked for springs. If she wanted the field she probably wouldn't have then asked for springs instead. Right? The other place where this story is recorded word for word is in Joshua in the part where land distributions are recorded. So one guess is that it is there just to point out that those springs do in fact belong to Othniel's family. (Which is also Acsah's family anyway. . . ?) But is it also a foreshadowing of the way women frequently enter the narrative in Judges almost to shame men who are not doing what they ought to do. Here, the story introduces Othniel who will be the first Judge of Israel. If Othniel wanted the field, maybe he should have asked for it himself, and perhaps he would have gotten it instead of the springs? Maybe that's reading too much into it, but it loosely fits a pattern we'll keep seeing.

Continuing on in Judges, chapter 3 tells us that the Israelites have fallen completely into idolatry and intermarriage with foreigners. Because of God's anger over this, they have been "turned over" to King Cushan-rishathaim of Aram. They cry out to the Lord who raises Othniel up to bring about military victory over Aram for Israel, which leads to peace in the land for 40 years. Othniel is followed by Ehud, the assassin who kills the obese King Eglon. It's quite a colorful story complete with toilet humor and graphic descriptions of Eglon's large body. Ehud is succeeded by Shamgar, who is described with only one sentence, "He once killed 600 Philistines with an ox goad." What a legacy! But his story is almost skipped over--next, Deborah's story begins by saying that after Ehud's death (which was before Shamgar's time) "the Israelites again did evil in the Lord's sight." Because of this evil, God allowed them to be oppressed by King Jabin, and his fearsome army commander Sisera.

God's victory at the hands of Deborah and Jael

Verse 4 of chapter 4 introduces Deborah as the wife of Lappidoth, and as the prophet who was judging Israel at the time. She would hold court under the "Palm of Deborah" (what a fun visual) and people would come to see her for judgment. But as this story opens, Deborah actually is the one seeking out Barak from Naphtali with a message from the Lord. 

God's message for Barak is a command and a promise. He must call his 10,000 warriors from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun, and confront Sisera's army. God promises to give him victory in the battle. Barak's response to this commission is a little odd, "I will go, but only if you go with me." This army commander seems to want hand-holding from Deborah the prophet. What does he hope she will do? Is he looking for her to commit to her message and put her own life on the line? Deborah agrees to go with him but declares, "you will receive no honor in this venture, for the Lord's victory will be at the hands of a woman." This makes it sound like she will actually be leading the troops, but the text says that Barak calls the troops and leads the attack. Somehow Deborah's presence and moral support is enough to compromise his glory. This is an obvious episode of women in Judges serving to point out the failings of men.

Deborah, though, is fully confident and prophetic as she accompanies Barak and inspires him to lead the troops to victory. In accordance with her message from God, Sisera's army is thrown into complete confusion and panic during the attack, and they all flee. Sisera escapes on foot. The rest of the army is chased and slaughtered by Barak and his troops. Enter our second female heroine, who's story is even more intense than Deborah's and whose confidence is nearly equal.

White and Brown Lighted Cabin Tent at Woods

Jael is related to Moses's father-in-law Jethro. Jethro's family is settled among the Israelites in the promised land, not far from the Kishon river where this battle takes place. After Sisera escapes the battle he runs straight to Jael's tent because her husband is on friendly terms with King Jabin. However, Jael's part in the story throws that detail into doubt. Jael welcomes Sisera into her tent, even telling him, "don't be afraid." She gives him milk and settles him comfortably to rest with a blanket. As I summarize it here, it strikes me as a lot of motherly imagery. But it's leading up to quite a twist. When he is asleep, Jael creeps up to him with a hammer and a tent peg, and hammers the peg right through his temple! This is a more familiar role than Deborah's for a woman, inside the tent, providing food and comfort. But her action is maybe even less what you might expect from a woman. Can you imagine the chutzpah necessary to plan and execute this killing by hammer and tent peg? I feel like even just using a hammer would be less intense. Phew!

Next, Barak arrives at Jael's tent in search of Sisera. Again he has lost his chance for battle glory to a woman. Jael says, "Come, and I will show you the man you are looking for." She has the situation under control, and Barak is a day late and a dollar short. Though I'm sure she was glad to have Sisera removed from her tent! 

Deborah's Song

This military victory is decisive, leading to Israel's eventual destruction of King Jabin's rule. We can find some more hints on how to process the great contributions of women to this conflict in Deborah's song, which runs the length of Chapter 5. Judges is full of long speeches and dialogue, but this is maybe the most spectacular example in the book. 

There are several things about Deborah's song that I want to point out. First of all, it gives us a window into Deborah's thoughts about this battle. She is completely focused on the Lord and his victory. She does point out her role, alongside Barak, as being used by God. She praises Barak for leading the troops, but is proud of her own actions as well. She describes how Israel was languishing under King Jabin and Sisera. "In the days of Shamgar son of Anath, and in the days of Jael, people avoided the main roads, and travelers stayed on winding pathways. There were few people left in the villages of Israel-- until Deborah arose as a mother for Israel." This passage is so interesting for a few reasons. First of all it mentions Shamgar, who as we said above is rather skipped over in the storyline of judges. It also talks in what seems to be a parallel construction about "the days of Jael." What does that mean?? Jael was not a judge. Is this implying she had some military power or prowess even before she killed Sisera? We've got to leave that one there. But what warms my heart is that Deborah sees herself as a mother for Israel. She is clearly in a high position with many roles: judge, prophet, you could even say general. But she sees her overall role as mothering her nation. And she sees mothering as delivering messages for God, serving as moral support in military action, and composing epic poetry. 

As her song continues, she praises bravery of those who volunteered and went out to war, marching as "the few" against "the mighty." Again and again she emphasizes that God is the one who delivered Israel in this battle. She even uses cosmic imagery, the stars were fighting against Sisera and the river swept his army away. She also casts blame on the people of Israel who did not come to help. 

The last eight verses of her 31-verse song are about the killing of Sisera by Jael. Deborah has high praise for her sister in arms. "Most blessed among women is Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. May she be blessed above all women who live in tents." If you have any kind of Catholic background, you'll notice that the first part of that blessing is remarkably close to a line from the Hail Mary prayer, which comes from the angel's visitation to Mary, "Blessed are you among women." This is clearly not referring to that, being long before it in time. And I doubt the angel had this on his mind when he was greeting Mary. But it makes for quite a contrast in our minds!

The next part of the song is a poetic retelling of the events in Jael's tent. It ends with the somewhat lost in translation verse, "He sank, he fell, he lay still at her feet. And where he sank, there he died." I've always thought it was kind of redundant to the point of being silly. But if you think of him first sinking in exhaustion, falling asleep, and then laying still, and while laying still, then dying, it makes more sense.

The last part of Deborah's song is so interesting. It gives a brilliantly female perspective that is rare in the Bible. Deborah paints a picture of Sisera's mother looking out the window waiting for her son to come home from battle, wondering why he hasn't arrived. Boy is this waiting for men to come home common in the world of women! She speaks with her wise women about her concerns and they reassure her that he must be dividing the plunder. They hope for "a woman or two for every man"--yikes!, and also, completely understandably "colorful robes for Sisera and embroidered robes for me." "Yes," she muses, "the plunder will include colorful robes embroidered on both sides." 

These details are so illustrative to me about the way the world of the Bible was so different and so similar to our own, especially for women. How can we possibly understand hoping for two captive women for each man in our community? How can we deny our full understanding of waiting for a son to come home from danger and trying to distract ourselves from worry by thinking about awesome clothes (ahem, retail therapy)? And the way we turn over a problem with our wise women and repeat their words of encouragement back to ourselves? Is this Deborah's genuine female take on the world coming through over thousands of years? Or a historically based song put in her mouth by an inspired author? Whoever wrote it was at least making a reasonable attempt to think from a woman's perspective. If you are thinking I have been hugely stereotyping what the female perspective is in this paragraph, that's true. But the point is that something this stereotypically female has rarely made its way into the Bible at all in our reading up to this point, even as a stereotype. The author of judges really saw women having a place in the action.

There is no resolution to the vivid dramatic irony in which Sisera's mother waits. In the next verse, the song finishes beautifully, "Lord, may all your enemies die like Sisera, but may all those who live you rise like the sun in all its power!" Then the story of Deborah, Barak, Jael and Sisera ends. "Then there was peace in the land for 40 years." Just like after Othniel's life.

So, does Deborah prove anything about women's roles and identity?

What can we file away for our main project of hunting for God's thoughts about women in the Bible from this often referenced important story of Deborah the Judge (and Jael the Warrior!)? In case you somehow missed my interpretive assumptions for all of this, I do think God has different callings for men and women based on our biology that lead to real outworkings in our vocations. You probably didn't miss that. ; ) So what I say here will reflect that. 

God certainly gave evidence of using Deborah to deliver his messages of prophecy and judgement. This is not such a new thing for biblical women--we have already learned that Miriam was called "the prophet" and held a leadership role alongside Moses and Aaron until her harsh rebuke from God. But Judges is so often frank about what is happening in Israel, recording even really evil deeds with no moral commentary other than, "In those days Israel had no king and everyone did as they saw fit." So we can't automatically say everything the main characters do should set an example. But that sentence doesn't appear in this story, where the main point is God's deliverance of Israel, using even women to accomplish this. The tone feels less like, "should women be allowed to lead?" and more like "wow, God can even work through women when he wants to!" It's unexpected and amazing. But the expectation for Barak was that he should have done this without so much help from Deborah, and later from Jael. A pattern is being broken, and it doesn't look good on Barak.

Specifically because of Deborah's message to Barak, delivered in the same tone of voice as her other messages from God for him, that he is missing out on glory intended for him when she joins him in battle, I don't think we'd be justified in saying, "See? God doesn't care if men or women are the leaders." But, I think we would be right to focus on God's action and the importance of joining his plan without focusing on particularly who must practically lead in specific circumstances. Deborah is happy to jump in in an unexpected role, that ultimately does support Barak as the military leader, and she is proud of what God has done through her. But she is really the most proud of God, not herself as an empowered female. Does Deborah's story serve as an example for women to try to level the playing field or get authority over men in leadership? No. This was not Deborah's goal--it would be more self-serving than God-serving for any of his followers to be primarily concerned with their own status. Does it give us encouragement to follow God wherever he leads when our leaders are failing us? Yes. But instead of focusing on which people get to be leaders, with Deborah and Barak we should be rejoicing over what our true overarching Leader has accomplished. 


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