Yesterday we wrapped up our sermon series on the “Men of Judges” with a most amazing talk by our beloved Allyson Robinson. If you were not there, you should read it/listen to it here, because you will never hear a more eloquent and to the point summation of why we as Christians have an obligation to study and know all the stories of the Bible, including ones as awful as that of the Benjamanite bachelors in Judges 19.
And even though I put down the book of Judges a week ago to move on to other studies, some thoughts left over my own storytelling have remained. You see, one of the great lessons of an experience like this one, trying to take what looks like a simple yet inscrutable story and find in it a meaning worthy of people’s attention on an August Sunday morning, is the lesson I learned about what to include and what not to include. By nature, my attention quickly goes to all the wonderful geekiness of the study — the differences between the story details between Judges 4 and 5, the use of this word here and that word there, the actual location of the battles and the meetings, etc. and so forth and so on. But by the time Friday before the Sunday you will speak rolls around, you must be willing to let all those things drop away and focus directly on the message. You must always remember that you have 15 minutes, not a college semester, and that most of the people in the room simply do not care about the same things that you do. It is not your job to amuse with clever fact; it is your job to guide and illuminate and if you are lucky, to inspire.
So in my own post-game analysis, there was one point that I was unable to make that day that I think still bears discussion. I think it is particularly important as we sit now on the brink of yet more war and violence in our own day, as we listen to the stories of 426 children killed in a chemical attack in Syria, as we remember that over 100,000 have died in that country alone.
I think that, if we are not going to view the story of Deborah, Barak, Jael and Sisera as a story of triumph and a celebration of God’s victory over our enemies, and we are going to read it as a reminder that all of us are capable of resorting to the worst side of our human nature, there is a further question to ask ourselves: why is this story so riveting, why does the murder of Sisera horrify us so much more than the other stories of violence in Judges (until, of course, we get to the story in Judges 19). The answer is one that we might not want to admit: because Sisera is killed by a woman.
Even the strongest feminists among us, even those who believe so strongly in gender equality — even we must admit that we still are startled more by an act of murder/violence committed by a woman than one committed by a man. To quote that great sage of our times, Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard, “Women will never be truly equal until they are equal in death.” To carry Ducky’s wisdom further, I would say, women will never be truly equal until they are equal in violence AND death.
Jael takes a tent peg and a mallet and drives it through Sisera’s temple, with no apparent reason stated in the story. And the scholars of our day search desperately for a why, for a reason, for a justification — because women just don’t kill like that. Never mind that, if she had to choose a weapon, the tent peg and the mallet would be quickly available to Jael because putting up the tent in the camp was woman’s work. Never mind that for the story teller and the editor, she must kill him with the tent peg because to pick up a sword or knife or any other weapon belonging to a man would go against Torah law.
While the discussion of gender politics in the story is interesting, what is more interesting to me is our own reaction. Who among us cannot say that we are more horrified by this story because the hand of the murderer is female; who among us cannot say that we paid more attention to the reports from Syria after Secretary Kerry began to talk about the 426 children killed in the recent attack.
Maybe the story of Jael and Sisera is as much about the death of innocence, which seems to offend us all more than any other kind of violence. Perhaps because we remember the moment when our own innocence slipped away and made room for cynicism and judgement and maybe even violence (at least the seeming acceptance of violence all around us).
But the truth? Each and everyone of those deaths in the book of Judges was the death of a human being. Each and everyone of those 100,000 deaths in Syria was as important as those of the 426 children. And the death of our own innocence blocks our access to the grace and love that is our inheritance as followers of Christ.
Remember the words of Matthew 19:14: “But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” We must be child-like, not child-ish. We must remember that judgement is not truth; that separation and fear are not reality. We must remember that our innocence, our ability to view the world through the love and grace of a child’s eyes, must not be allowed to die. And only then can we find the way forward to work for the lives of others.