Deborah and Jael

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This summer at First Congregational United Church of Christ, we are spending some time with some of the women of the Bible. So we started with Junia, who is mentioned briefly in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome and who was outstanding among the apostles. Then we jumped back to the beginning of the Bible, and, so far, we’ve spent some time with Eve… with Sarah and Hagar… with Miriam… and with Rahab.

And if you’ve been keeping up with those stories, then you know… and if you keep keeping up with these stories, then you will know… that the women of the Bible are… all over the map.

They are heroes and they are villains. They are saints and they are sinners. They are modest and they are wild. They are reserved and they are dangerous. They are all of those things and more… often all at once… often all wrapped up in one person who is fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God… loved and worthy of love.

Just like everyone else.

So it’s a little weird that there is a whole industry that tries to teach women how to be biblical women. And it is especially weird that so much of that industry seems to think that biblical women are quiet and submissive, productive homemakers and industrious church members, and more.

And it is especially especially weird because the biblical women who we are spending time with today are Deborah and Jael.

After God led the Israelites out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, through the wilderness to the land of Canaan… the Israelites fell into a bad pattern.

When the Israelites were faithful to the Lord, the Lord would protect them. But after a while, the people would abandon the Lord and chase after other gods. So then the Lord would stop protecting them. 

And then the other people in the land of Canaan—the Moabites and the Midianites, the Ammonites and the Amalekites, and all of them—would attack the Israelites… and defeat the Israelites… and oppress the Israelites.

And then the Israelites would return to the Lord, and cry out to the Lord. And the Lord would hear the people… and raise up a judge… and deliver the people from their enemies. And while the Israelites were faithful to the Lord, the Lord would protect them.

But after a while…

And this happened again… and again… and again. Faithfulness and faithlessness; oppression and liberation.

At the beginning of our reading today, the Israelites are living under the rule—under the oppression—of King Jabin of Hazor, and his general, Sisera. And it has been twenty years.

So God raises up Deborah, a prophet, to lead Israel out of its misery. And Deborah raises up Barak to lead an army. But she warns Barak, “You and your men will defeat the army of Jabin. But Sisera… his general… the one you want… will be sold into the hands of a woman.”

A few weeks ago, for book group… we meet on the first Wednesday of every month at 6pm at the church, and our next book is Wholehearted Faith by Rachel Held Evans… 

A few weeks ago, for book group, we talked about The Hate U Give.

The Hate U Give was one of the books that some people found… controversial… last year. And one of the people at book group mentioned that before they started The Hate U Give, they had read one of the other books that some people had found… controversial… last year: Ghost Boys.

And that person mentioned that they had never heard of Emmett Till until they read about him in Ghost Boys.

And I want to be clear: that’s okay. We don’t have to know all of the stories. I don’t know all of the stories. No one knows all of the stories.

But if you don’t know the story…

Emmitt Till was a fourteen year old Black boy from Chicago, Illinois. And in the summer of 1955, he went to visit some relatives in Money, Mississippi. And while he was there, he maybe spoke to a white woman.

So, y’know, trigger warning: they lynched him. They kidnapped him, and they beat him, and they mutilated him, and they shot him, and they sunk him in a river.

And a few days later, some people found his body—broken and bloated—and sent it home to Chicago.

And his mother—thank God for the strength of Mamie Till—had an open casket at Emmett’s funeral. She said, “I just wanted the world to see.”

And here’s the thing:

This summer at First Congregational United Church of Christ, we are spending some time with some of the women of the Bible… because people often overlook the stories of women… people often oversimplify the stories of women… and people often twist the stories of women into neat little moral lessons about being quiet and submissive, about being productive homemakers and industrious church members, and about so much more.

But the truth is that the fierceness of women has led people out of oppression and shaped nations. Emmett died; Mamie changed the world. And someone in our scripture is about to learn what a woman can do.

If our reading today was a movie…

We hear a battle in the background: Deborah and Barak and the men of Israel fighting Jabin’s army. And we fade in on a man—on Sisera, Jabin’s general, who has fled the battle—running through the streets. The music is syncopated drumbeats and punches of brass. We can see the sweat dripping down his face. We can hear the shortness of his breath. We can see the panic in his eyes as he runs for his life.

The camera swings around as Sisera turns a corner. A little bit up ahead, he sees a woman standing in front of a door. And Sisera knows who she is; and he knows that her family is staying out of this fight. She is Jael. She is safety.

Jael waves her arms at him and whisper-shouts, “Quick! In here!” And we see the relief in his eyes as he ducks into the doorway… and the woman follows him… and the door closes behind them.

Jael sits Sisera down in the corner of the room… a place where he’s a little bit hidden away. She gives him a drink and covers him with a blanket. And they chat for a bit, until, exhausted and safe, he falls asleep.

And as he snores the snores of the battle-weary, Jael tidies the room and checks the door. She tiptoes over to Sisera—she doesn’t want to wake him—and she pulls the blanket up around him. And as he snuggles in a bit and drools a little… she pulls out a hammer… and, y’know, trigger warning… she bashes his skull in.

And I want to be clear: I’m not advocating for that sort of thing

Violence is always a failure of imagination. But sometimes our imaginations fail us. And the Jael who stood over Sisera’s body after that moment was not the same Jael who stood over him before that moment… any more than the Mamie Till who showed the world her son was the same Mamie Till who sent him to stay with relatives in Mississippi.

Jael’s soul was wounded for her people… just as Mamie Till’s soul was wounded for her’s.

But here’s the thing:

The women of the Bible are all over the map. They are heroes and they are villains. They are saints and they are sinners. They are modest and they are wild. They are reserved and they are dangerous. They are all of those things and more… often all at once… often all wrapped up in one person who is fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God… loved and worthy of love.

In the words: they’re just like you. They’re just like every woman, and every man, and every person alive today.

And all of us are called to the same work of listening to the voice of God, and seeking the way that God has laid out before us, and leading people out of oppression.

And sometimes that looks like Deborah, calling forth an army. And sometimes that looks like Jael, taking the only option that she can see. And sometimes that looks like Mamie Till, laying the violence of the world out in front of the world until it sees… and changes.

And thank God for the strength of the women.

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