If I Had A Hammer

Judges 4:1-7 – The 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time – for Sunday, November 16, 2014

“I’ll lure Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, to assemble with his chariots and troops against you at the Kishon River, and then I’ll help you overpower him.’” (Judges 4:7)

Jael and Sisera have different bedtime plans . . .

I’m in over my head with Judges. I’ve spent hours reading and wondering and studying about Adam and Eve’s creative fling in the garden, Moses’ trudge toward the promised land, and David’s royal travesties and triumphs.

But I haven’t dwelled in the Biblical pages of Judges for much quality time. I could only talk about the history in a general way. Can’t easily explain the theology. Not sure when it was written, or by whom.

Frankly, given the brief glimpse of Judges provided in this week’s “lectionary lesson,” I would’ve preferred to spend time with Jael, a woman mentioned later in the book’s fourth chapter. Not long after meeting Deborah, the “star” of Judges 4:1-7 and the focus of Judges 5, the strong-stomached Biblical reader will be introduced to another woman named Jael. Jael served God’s, er, “good” purposes with some common—common, if you’re part of a tribe in the desert—household items. The final verses of chapter 4 with Jael were edge of the seat stuff compared to Deborah’s mild opening.

But . . . Judges 4:1-7 was the official reading. And so the opening of Judges’ chapter four involved the serene, let-me-share-insights-with-you Deborah. As the prophet Deborah sat under a shady palm tree in the lovely Ephraim highlands, settling disputes between . . .

Hey, hold your holy horses! What about Jael? What did she do?

Glad you asked!

*       *       *

Back in the day (aka, the time of the Judges), the Israelites weren’t exactly on God’s good side. Evil was done. The Lord was more often ignored than worshiped. Those that lorded over the Children of God, the “chosen,” seemed to have the upper hand. One particularly nasty soldier by the name of Sisera was giving the generations that followed Moses a gnarly time. Sure, the Israelites were able to defeat him in one battle, but Sisera ghosted away, eager to fight another day. Sisera was a mean dude, a mighty warrior, and a clever foe. The savage Sisera would continue to be a thorn in the side of the Israelites unless something was done.

Ah, something!

Sisera sought shelter with the alluring Jael (okay, the later part of the fourth chapter of Judges never said “alluring”). She beckoned the feared warrior into her bed and led him to believe he’d be as safe as a newborn in a cradle. After all, following a horrific skirmish where the Israelites had prevailed over Sisera’s army, the Lord’s soldiers were hunting the hated leader.

Sisera, all tuckered out and tucked away in Jael’s boudoir, probably smirked as he overheard Israelite soldiers shouting his name and growing frustrated as they came up empty in their pursuit of him.

Did Sisera still have a smirk on his sleepy-time face when Jael grasped a tent peg, propped it against the warrior’s temple (Judges 4:21), and hammered the sharp object into his brain?


See . . . wasn’t that lots more exciting than Deborah the Judge prophesizing and settling trivial disputes under a palm tree?

And yet it was Deborah who predicted Sisera’s demise. She wasn’t specific about how the wicked warlord would be defeated—I’ll help you overpower him, she’d promised Barak, the Israelite commander—but she seemed confident. Would a disease get him? Would Sisera be struck by lightning? Might an inadvertent Israelite arrow pierce his dark heart in battle? Or would a woman with a blunt hammer and sweet smile rearrange Sisera’s future?

Can we say that Deborah delivered on her promise? If you read the so-called Song of Deborah, pay attention to Judges 5:24-27. Jael, merely a “tent peg” in the vast traveling circus of Judges, was referred to as a most “blessed woman.” (Though Sisera, if he had a say in these events, might protest that description.)

One woman, linked to another.

I don’t know much about the history of Judges. Couldn’t tell you much about its theology. But I do know, as a guy who went to seminary in the the 20th century, and who continues to ponder the old, old (and bold, bold) words of the Bible in the 21st century, that we’re finally in a time when women of faith get more than a few words or a few partial chapters here and there. The expansive library known as the Bible was written by men, for men, and about God and men. I am oft wary of the Bible because, whether in ancient songs found in places like Judges or the later Psalms, or even the more “recent” words of the New Testament, about 99.99% of our sacred text was male-centric.

Nonetheless, there are moments, unavoidable in the telling and retelling of the tales of the Judeo-Christian faith, where the Bible celebrated and remembered a confident woman trusting in God’s future, and a bold woman handy with tools.

*       *       *

And yet a final question can’t be avoided: can we modern faithful, who worship a loving God, enthusiastically applaud Deborah’s fatal propheteering and Jael’s literal if-I-had-a-hammer proclivities?

Well, we answer, this is the Bible and things were different back then. (Like they had savage wars about territory, values, vanity, and religion . . . and we don’t?)

Well, we answer, at least action-oriented women were mentioned. (Great role model, with Jael killing a fellow she never met and had nothing against.)

Well, we answer—perhaps feebly now—God works in mysterious ways. (Always convenient to claim ignorance about the Holy agenda.)

I’ll leave you with this equally feeble answer . . . I don’t cheer or jeer the bloody female-centric actions in Judges. But I remain grateful that we can’t deny that men and women were and are a vital part of faith.

(Painting from here.)

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  1. Thank you an insightful column! We over look Jael, and Deborah I’ve studied off and on. But you are right, I don’t cheer or jeer the sometimes blood thirsty stories in the Old Testament. And we women, mostly unnamed in the Bible do get a bad rap. We were considered property. And some writers are doing more to bring to the fore front the work the women did.

    1. Thanks, Nancy!

      I wrote you a “private” email where I mentioned Robin Cohn’s website (www.robincohn.net). She’s doing a lot of research and writing about women in the Bible. I’d encourage you, and others, to check out Robin’s site. I met her at the Whidbey Island Writer’s Conference.

      Take care, Nancy, and (again) thanks for reading!!

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