A Tale of the Other

So today we continue talking about the men of Judges and we ponder the question: why should we read these stories and what might they say to us today. We’ve heard about Gideon, Samson, Ehud and Jephtha…but you might have noticed that it is getting harder and harder to talk about the “men of Judges” without talking about “the women” around them…Samson AND Dalila, Jephtha AND his daughter…

My assignment for today is to talk about Sisera—Sisera, who is not a Judge, not even an Israelite.  Sisera was the enemy. Sisera was the oppressor.  Sisera was an outsider. Sisera was the loser.  Sisera gets murdered.  By a woman.

There are a lot of characters in our story and they all serve their purpose.  You heard their names – Deborah, the JUDGE and a prophetess; Barak, who acts as the hand of God and leads Israel to victory over the Canaanites, and Jael, who according to the text, carries out God’s prophecy delivered by Deborah, Jael, who, in Jewish tradition is called one of the “mothers of the tent” along with Sarah and Rebecca, Jael who is called “most blessed of women” in the poetic version of the story in Judges 5.

And then there is Sisera.

It is really hard for Christians to know what to do with these stories.  And as we have moved through this sermon series you have listened to each and every one of us struggle with these stories, stories that seem so far removed from our own ideas about God and community, right and wrong. It is no wonder that the book of Judges is excluded from the Lectionary cycle; that neither great reformer, Luther nor Calvin, wrote a commentary on the text (although they wrote commentaries for the rest of the Bible), that over and over again Christian teachers and commentators just simply exclude these stories rather than grapple with the questions they raise.

By now we all know that the Book of Judges is the 7th book in our Christian biblical canon, but I would invite you to stop and remember that long before the Book of Judges was adopted by Christian worshipers, these stories were (and still are) part of the tradition and holy text of Judaism.   Let’s take a minute a talk about how the text appears in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible.

The Tanakh is divided into three portions – the Torah, this is a word that we are used to hearing, meaning the law and referring literally to the Five Books of Moses – Genesis Exodus Leviticus Numbers and Deuteronomy; the Nevi’im, which includes the books we would call the histories and the prophets (which is the meaning of the Hebrew word); and the Ketuvim, or writings, which includes the Psalms, Song of Songs, Ruth, the wisdom literature and the more “literary” and definitely later prophetic books like Daniel and Ezra.  Judges, or Shoftim in Hebrew, is included in the Nevi’im.

Just as Christians developed the Lectionary Cycle to guide our reading biblical text for study and worship, in Judaism, synagogues follow a cycle that divides the text of the Torah, the first five books, into 54 segments.   Just as we have a Gospel reading each week, a synagogue service will have a reading from the Torah and a reading from what is called the Haphtarah – a text from either the Nevi’im or the Ketuvim that is specially paired to a Torah text.  The Haphtarah is generally sung by the cantor.

It just so happens that our story today from Judges 4 & 5 belongs to a special service – the Shabbat Shirah, literally, the Sabbath of Song.   And on Shabbat Shirah, the Torah reading is Exodus 13-17, where the Moses and the men sing the Song of the Sea and his sister Miriam and the women sing the Song of Miriam. Paired with this reading is the story of Deborah, particularly the song in Judges 5.

These two passages tell stories that are among the most honored victories in the Jewish tradition, those rare and powerful moments when God made his face known and delivered the Israelites from seeming destruction.  In the synagogue, this story is a story of celebration.

But can we read it that way?  Not if we think about Sisera.

No one ever talks about Sisera.  No one ever talks about the Canaanites.  No one talks about the violence and the murder.  Like Luther and Calvin, we just pass it by.

Let’s go back for a moment to our story.  This is one of the most studied and the most written about stories in the Hebrew Bible and yet if you are not looking for a justification to support the modern state of Israel’s ownership of land or if you are not looking for a juicy feminist tale to tell, what is there here other than a lot of violence and yet another battle.

Remember the literary pattern imposed by the Deuteronomic editor we have been discussing in each of our stories?  Well that cycle is present here with some interesting twists.

First, the Israelites did something that was offensive to God – we don’t know exactly what, but it was bad, because the Canaanites had been oppressing them for 20 years already.

Second, God gave the Israelites over to the oppressor.  In this story, that meant the Canaanites. The Canaanites were serious oppressors– they had a great general named Sisera who had 900 iron chariots, the biblical equivalent of say, the German Panzer divisions of Rommel in World War II –it was weaponry at its most frightening.  In comparison, the Israelites might have had some wooden chariots; most likely they had shields and knives, and well, a lot of rocks.

Third, God raised up a hero to deliver Israel.  Now here’s our first complication in the formula.  The judge in this story is named Deborah.  That’s right – the judge was a woman.  She was not only a judge, she was a “fiery woman”, and she was a prophet. But she was still a woman. Deborah had a message from God, but she needed an agent to carry out that message, and so she called Barak of Kedesh Naphtali (the tribe named for the 6th son of Jacob).  She gave him God’s message.

But wait, there was another complication – – Barak didn’t want to go! So they make a deal – Barak says to Deborah, I’ll go if you will. .  Deborah agrees, saying words that have thrilled feminist scholars of the Old Testament for decades:  (4:9) “Very well, I will go with you,” she answered.  “However, there will be no glory for you in the course you are taking, for then the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.”  So Deborah and Barak head off to Kedesh to end the oppression of the Canaanites by defeating Sisera.

And now, we have what is known as a dramatic aside in our story, you know, like one of those “meanwhile back at the ranch” moments in an old western, those moments that seem to mean nothing but eventually are very important to the story. The Canaanites weren’t the only people waiting in Kedesh.  In verse 11 we meet the clan of Heber the Kenite.  The Kenites were the descendants of Cain (remember Able and Cain), and the most famous Kenite so far in the Hebrew Bible was Jethro of Midian, the father-in-law of Moses. Heber the Kenite has decided to pitch his tent and rest awhile under an oak tree near Kedesh.  Dramatic aside over – return to the battle.

The action is getting serious now. Versus 12-17 detail the military action of the battle.  And at last we get to see Sisera in action. But here’s another twist:  Verse 15 tells us that while Barak and the soldiers of Israel were winning the battle, “Sisera leaped from his chariot and fled on foot…” Barak followed the chariots, Sisera ran away.  Where did he go?  Remember Heber’s tent…Sisera  must have seen Heber’s tent, because he RAN AWAY from the carnage, thinking that he could hide out with Heber and his wife Jael because Heber’s family was friendly with the King of the Canaanites. Never mind that the Kenites were long-time friends of the Israelites (perhaps the Kenites were everyone’s friends?).

Sisera thought he was finding safety when Jael invited him into their tent; he thought he was receiving hospitality when she wrapped him in a blanket and gave him milk instead of water.  But when he was comfortable and sleeping soundly from exhaustion, Jael took a tent peg and a mallet and –this is my favorite description – “stealthily” drove the pin into his temple, nailed him to the floor and killed him.

Barak arrives at the tent, to find that Deborah’s message from God has been fulfilled:  the Lord had delivered Sisera into the hands of a woman.  (PAUSE)

I don’t know what your first response to this story is, but I will tell you mine.  My first response is to know that I have been changed by my worship in this community.  I can no longer see this just as the story of a people (the Israelites) and their quest for nationhood and land; I can no longer read this story as source for a feminist critique of the patriarchy, I can no longer accept and justify the violence in the text.   I just keep thinking about Sisera and the Canaanites and all the people who lost their lives that day and all the people who lived in fear of violence. And I just keep thinking how not so very different things are now, in so many parts of this world, our world, both near and far.

If we take a look at Judges 5 for just a moment, we are reminded that Sisera had a mother…a mother who was sitting by the window, waiting for her son to come home from the war.   The Canaanites had wives and mothers and uncles and aunts, they built houses and cities, they baked bread and wove clothe – they had lives.   And yet we have before us this set of stories that portray them simply as an obstacle to be removed.  A nameless, faceless people, who weren’t like the Israelites, didn’t worship in the same way, probably didn’t look like them or dress like them or talk like them.  And because they were different, it was okay to murder them; to kill each and every one of them.  And the tale of this battle is told again and again in song as a glorious day of victory.

All of this brings me back to the implicit question behind this whole sermon series:  why read these stories?  The reason is very simple and yet at the same time very frightening.  We are human.  We are capable of committing great acts of violence as well as great acts of heroism.  We are Deborah and Barak; we are also Sisera and Jael.  Great heights and great depths are our birthright as human beings, and the only hope we have of grace and love comes through following Jesus Christ and living out the words of the Great Commission, to love our enemies as we love ourselves.

Did Jael have a reason for killing Sisera?  Most likely, but despite the best effort of scholars to prove what that reason was, we do not know.  Does it matter what her reason was?  Not really.

We are here in Washington, DC today, as all around us, people celebrate and remember the 50 year anniversary of one of the greatest acts of nonviolence in our recent history – the March on Washington.  That day, unlike Jael, people made another choice.  A few people chose to stand with a group that had been treated as ‘the other’, as ‘different’, as less than human and expendable.  They chose to stand together for what was right and just. They chose peace, not violence.  They chose to love their neighbors (and maybe their enemies) as they would love themselves.  And they chose to sing a very different song –

Only by understanding and remembering that violence is a choice can we also understand that peace and love are choices, too.   That’s why I read these stories. What about you?

Sermon Delivered at the Calvary Baptist Church (www.calvarydc.org), August 25, 2013, 11:00 a.m.

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