This study by Ruth Perrin first appeared on the Cloud of Witnesses website which she created.
- Who do you know that you would consider to be brave? Why?
- Does courage look the same in men and women, or different? In what ways and why?
Take a moment to read Judges 4:17-23 and Judges 5:24-27
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 and 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.
A mighty act of murder? How is that inspiring?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 21st century worldview. The author 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.
The Korean women had a whole different perspective
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.
Had they had sex? If Sisera had not had either voluntary sex or raped her yet, in the minds of the Korean women 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.
Jael is not just fighting for herself and her own honour, but that of her people, striking a blow (literally!) for freedom.
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.
So, what can we westerners learn from Jael?
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?
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! Do we feel like that about Ehud, who slyly assassinates King Eglon? (Judges 3), David who kills Goliath? (1 Samuel 17), Samuel who hacks Amalekite kings up? (1 Samuel 15.33) Or Elijah who slaughters the prophets of Baal? (1 Kings 18).
We have inherited a culture that often tells us how we should behave based on our sex.
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? Let’s 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!
Then I 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. (Ephesians 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?
There aren’t a lot of female warriors in scripture.
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 Eowyn 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?
For further discussion
- In what way do or don’t you fit typical ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ qualities? How do you feel about that?
- How far do you think, as Christians, we try to stereotype people based on their sex and how might we change that attitude?
- When have you found yourself in a challenging situation where it was just you and God? What did you do and what was the outcome?
- What situations are you currently aware of that might be described as a ‘Spiritual battle’? What do you think your part in that battle might be?
Ruth Perrin is on staff at King's Church Durham and holds an MA in Theology and Ministry. She is the author of the Cloud of Witnesses website where this study first appeared.
Photo: Bucket o Lia