Jael is an interesting choice as a role model, I’ve never heard a sermon preached on her and when you read the text you’ll see the dilemma. What can we possibly learn from a woman living in a time of war who drives a tent peg through the head of a sleeping man?
‘Now Sisera (captain of the enemy army) had fled away from the battle on foot to the tent of Jael wife 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. The 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 there?” 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 into the ground – he was lying fast asleep from weariness – and he died. Then 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 Caanan before the Israelites.
Then Deborah and Barak sang...
’Most blessed of women be Jael,
The wife of Heber the Kenite,
Of tent dwelling women most blessed.
He asked for water and she gave him milk,
She brought him curds in a lordly bowl.
She put her hand to the tent-peg
And her right hand to the workman’s mallet;
She struck Sisera a blow,
She crushed his head,
She shattered and pierced his temple.
He sank, he fell, he lay at her feet;
At her feet he sank, he fell;
Where he sank, there he fell dead.’
See what I mean? How on earth could she a) be a heroine, b) inspire us today? Well some background information will help. In a time when Israel & Caanan are at war she’s a nomad. Her husband is away from the tents – probably with his flocks – when a renegade army officer on the run for his life turns up and asks for sanctuary. She says yes, gets him drowsy and… tent peg time! (I joke because, to be honest, I’m pretty uncomfortable with it.) Surely if she’d offered him hospitality, didn’t ancient culture mean that she was honour bound to treat him well? Yet Deborah honours her, singing about her courage, this mighty act she’s done for God. She does appear to be a heroine.
This is a pretty precarious existence. If it doesn’t rain, or there is disease or an enemy attack a nomadic tribe are in BIG trouble.
It doesn’t take rocket science to realise that there are a number of cultural and historical issues for us to overcome with this story. It is an ancient, nomadic culture. Living in the desert in a time of war; a time of violence. This is Jael’s world; subsistence living, struggling to survive. And she appears to be alone, defenceless without men to protect her (and presumably) the other women and children in the camp. And in rolls an enemy soldier.
Let’s stop and think for a moment. What would your assumptions be? What is going to happen?
I read an article on this very subject. I really can’t take credit for these thoughts, they are someone else’s. (I wish I could give you the reference but it’s evaded all my attempts at rediscovery –sorry.) However, they struck me so much that I’ll pass them on to you, while we struggle with Jael in our western 21 st century worldview. The author (an American) discussed this passage with a group of Korean women at a conference and explained that western women struggled to know what to do with Jael’s murder of Sisera.
As a nation that had been occupied during the Second World War they understood what it was to be invaded, exploited by powerful enemies. The Japanese ‘comfort camps’ where thousands of Korean women were systematically raped had left a generation of women who know what armies can do. Armies can rape.
I know we like to think that only nasty enemy soldiers do that – the Nazi’s, the Vikings. I’m not saying every soldier does, or would; of course not. But the historical facts are there, the reality is that in war, armies do sometimes rape. Certainly some have been more deliberate, like in the former Yugoslavia where it was used as a military strategy, to demoralise and ethnically alter the population. Other armies officially deplore it, training their personnel to respect the human rights of civilians. But let’s be honest, we’ve seen the news, we know that all soldiers do not always do as they are commanded. Let’s not kid ourselves - where people are vulnerable, where law and order has broken down, where they have weapons, impunity and live in constant fear for their own lives, soldiers sometimes disobey orders.
The Korean women read Jael’s story not from a perspective of safety but one of vulnerability, of fear, with the threat of violence hanging over her.
The euphemism ‘He lay still at her feet’ (Jud.5.27) does actually have a sexual over tone.
Had they had sex? If Sisera had not had either voluntary sex or raped her yet, in their minds he certainly would. They saw that as inevitable and her act as one of self-defence. As far as they were concerned anyone who strikes a blow against an invading army is part of the resistance, a freedom fighter.
Using the only weapon she has – a tent peg. She is a heroine to them.
Interesting eh? Made me think. Would the story read differently to us if we were a member of the French resistance under German occupation? If we were an ancient Saxon facing marauding Vikings? Living in a refugee camp in Africa somewhere? I think it might.
I’m guessing that deception and murder are probably not what Jesus would encourage us to do. (Call it a hunch!) But Deborah calls her ‘Most blessed of women’ and graphically praises her for her violence. She appears to commend her for behaving like a warrior. Now that raises some interesting questions. Is the reason we react to Jael because of what she does, or that fact that she’s a woman doing it?
Do we feel like that about Ehud, who slyly assassinates King Eglon? (Jud 3), David who kills Goliath? (1Sam 17), Samuel who hacks Amalekite kings up? (1 Sam. 15.33) Or Elijah who slaughters the prophets of Baal? (1 Kings 18).
I appreciate we may not be over the moon about all the killing in the Bible, but do we react to Jael because it just isn’t lady-like? Nice girls don’t go round smashing tent pegs through people’s skulls!
Men should be strong, decisive leaders, dynamic, confident outspoken and logical. Women should be pastoral, sympathetic and gentle. Often, if our personality or giftings don’t match the stereotypes, even in a forward thinking church, we can find ourselves ‘not quite fitting’.
Let me give you an example – flags and dancing. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking – Vicar of Dibley - right? Lets embrace the caricature; middle aged ladies in floral dresses, prancing in a slightly embarrassing way. God blew that stereotype out of the water for me a few years ago. I met a guy with a ministry in flags (yes, really). Watching him use them in worship was like watching a warrior – seriously, it was awesome! (Frankly if I’d been a demon I’d have been running!) He was so focussed, so passionate, so dynamic.
I also met a group of Maori’s who were using the ‘Haaka’ as a prayer, performing their native war dance as an act of spiritual warfare. It took my breath away – the power behind it!
I also have a friend with the most awesome pastoral gift of encouragement and kindness. His entire ministry is in counselling, helping people to walk free from their pain and struggles. He asks deep questions, hands out tissues and loves people towards Jesus. Which of them are ‘real’ men?
For women, surely the same is true? Some of us are gentle, tender, lady-like; fantastic! Some of us are assertive, dynamic warriors - also awesome! Jael inspires me that we are made to fight sometimes; not flesh and blood (as Paul says) but the enemy. (Eph.6.12) As God’s children we are all called to be warriors, to fight against evil, that may not be physical, but it is certainly spiritual. Our weapons may be love, truth, mercy, hope; but God does not call us to be pushovers; he calls us to be meek - and meekness is not the same as weakness. It is ‘power under control’. It is recognising the power we have ‘in Christ’ but knowing when to fight and when to wait. Spiritual warfare isn’t about physical violence but it may involve drastic steps; acts of great risk and courage in challenging circumstances; Things that are not ladylike. Perhaps we need to consider some alternative models of what ‘mighty man’ or ‘mighty woman’ for God might mean?
Certainly that is cultural, men did the fighting (they are in general physically stronger and women have rarely been in armies). But Jael was not expecting to be a warrior, she found herself in an extreme situation and her gut response was not to wait for someone to rescue her, but to defend herself and others. To do what she felt she had to, what God had apparently given the opportunity for; radical as that seemed. She reminds me of Aowin in ‘Lord of the Rings’. Faced with a wraith, (Terrifying monster with fangs, wings and ridden by a hooded warrior - for those of you not into all that.) she is challenged with, “No man can kill me!” Her response before she hurls herself at it, sword drawn…? “I am no man!” In general it’s not a girl-power film, but that one scene has Jael-esque leanings. ‘There’s no one to rescue me, I’ll take responsibility, I will fight against evil myself!’ Sometimes it’s just us and God. Jael inspires me to be ready, just in case God gives me the opportunity to do something remarkable, unusual, un-ladylike, for his kingdom! You?
© Ruth Perrin 2008. Last revised on 22 November 2008
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Cloud of Witnesses is a series of Bible studies on the men and women of scripture. You'll find everyone from Gideon and Andrew through to Tamar and Tabitha.
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Ruth Perrin, the author, is on staff at King's Church Durham and holds an MA in Theology and Ministry.
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