Saturday, August 18, 2007


I'm preaching on Deborah and Jael this Sunday, the second installment in my series from Judges. There are so many ways to go with these chapters; both Deborah and Jael are rich characters, and even the minor characters offer preaching possibilities. Choosing a focus was the first hard decision to make.

I'm following one of the leads suggested by Joseph Jeter in his book Preaching Judges. He looks at Jael and the treatment her character has gotten over the years. There are some who think that she acted treacherously toward Sisera, offering him hospitality and then driving a tent peg into his head. There are others, including the biblical text itself, that consider her a hero for destroying Israel's enemy. I think it's that very ambiguity that is worth exploring.

Put it into contemporary terms. Suppose Osama Bin-Laden had reason to believe he could find sanctuary at my house, and showed up on my doorstep. Sisera was a Canaanite general and Jael was a Kenite; there was an understanding between the two peoples because the Canaanites wanted iron chariots and the Kenites were metalsmiths. So imagine that Osama's family and my family had connections, and he showed up. I give him a good meal, and he falls asleep in my bed. Partly I'm honoring the family code of honor, and partly I'm afraid of what he might do if I try to call authorities. But then the opportunity presents itself, and I take advantage of it. When I call the police to come, he's dead, with a bullet hole in his temple.

That's one way the story is told. The older version of the story, chapter 5, is much richer in sexual innuendo than that. In that version Sisera falls between Jael's feet; it's not clear whether he was trying to rape her or whether she was taking hospitality to a new level to let him think he was completely out of danger. So in this version of the story Osama's in bed with me, and when he is sufficiently "distracted" I pull out the gun and take care of a national enemy.

And that ambiguity seems to be the issue when it comes to deciding whether Jael is a harlot or a hero. Did she lure him to bed, or did she kill him in his sleep? And was she justified in killing him if he was merely sleeping, but not if she used her sexuality to trap him? These are the kinds of issues that we are still confronted with. A cop uses brutality to force a confession from a murder suspect; is his action justified by the fact that he removes a killer from the streets? Is a man who steals food for his hungry children justified? Is continued U.S. involvement in Iraq justified because of the fear that the situation will only get worse if we leave?
Dana Nolan Fewell suggests an even more intriguing possibility in her commentary on Judges in The Women's Bible Commentary. She believes Jael simply did what had to be done in order to save herself and her family. She says "Perhaps Yahweh too does what must be done in order to save the family of Israel." That's certainly one way to understand God's insistence that the Canaanites had to be exterminated in the first place; God was simply doing what had to be done for the survival of the family. Or does that let God off the hook too easily. It seems like an excuse that could be abused; Hitler had 6 million Jews killed because it was what had to be done. But she opens up the intriguing possibility that even for God the choices are not always between "good" and "bad"; perhaps the only available choices are between "bad" and "even worse."

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