The book of Judges ends by stating, “In those days there was no king in Israel; and all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” I guess this is just in case one hadn’t already noticed, after reading 21 chapters of conquest, murder, civil war, rape, and general craziness. Not that having a king is going to change all that. The point, I think, is that this was an extremely volatile time for the people of Israel. A time with no centralized leadership. A time when they are surrounded by enemies on every side. A time of great uncertainty for what kinds of morality and ethics will come to define this people who have been called by God to be a blessing to all nations. Everyone doing what was right in their own eyes does not sound like a good recipe for success in this area.
It ends up looking something like the wild West; about as unpredictable and difficult to figure out as tribal Afghanistan.
The events of Judges take place after Moses has died, after Joshua has led the people into the land of Canaan and allotted different portions to different tribes, and before, we are reminded multiple times, there was a king in Israel – Saul, David, and Solomon being the first three who will come along a little later.
The book is based around different tribal leaders, judges, who deliver their people from harm at crucial points of conflict and challenge. Gideon, Samson, and today’s hero, Deborah, are some of the better known judges. The pattern usually goes something like this: the people are doing well, then are unfaithful to God, resulting in some kind of crisis that appears to need a military solution. They cry out to God who raises up a judge, who delivers them from this enemy, then the people have rest in the land for a certain amount of time; doing well, then being unfaithful to God. Repeat this eleven or twelve times and you have the book of Judges, with some other intriguing stories tied in as well.
The events of Judges present certain problems for those of us who like to think of ourselves both as peaceful people and as ones who see scripture as a guide for this kind of life. In Judges, and other parts of the Old Testament, not only are the people very violent, but so is God. Pacifists are used to not having many humans on our side, but, we figure, hey, at least we have God. Some have joked by saying that maybe Judges is the way it is because it was before God became a Christian…which is problematic in all sorts of ways, but still a decent shot at trying to make sense of all this.
A week ago Saturday I had the chance to attend the Nonviolent Conflict Intervention one day workshop put on by the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center – IJPC. The philosophy behind the workshop was that peacemaking, deescalating violence, bringing understanding and greater harmony to conflicted relationships, is a skill that takes practice, training, and hard work in a similar way that preparing for physical battle takes hard work. There are skills to be developed, and also a mindset of alertness, creativity, and risk-taking that must be nurtured. The goal of this and other similar trainings is to have a nonviolent peaceforce in the city that is ready to respond to particular needs that may arise and call for a peaceful presence. Although we didn’t speak of it in these terms, it occurred to me that this was something like a mini-boot camp for the 25 of us who attended and that there is a strong element of being a warrior that needs to be accepted and embraced in putting these principles into practice. Peace warriors. Waging peace.
What I’d like to do is to look more closely at this story in Judges of these women – Deborah, Ya’el, and a third character, the mother of Sisera – and consider what this has to say about peaceful warriors. And I’d also like to suggest that rather than these being in complete opposition to such, that the story from Judges actually calls out, even cries out, for a waging of peace.
The Deborah story is unique in Judges in a couple ways. One uniqueness is that the story is told twice, once is prose form in chapter four, and another time in poetry form, in chapter five. Scholars believe that this victory poem is more ancient and that the narrative is based on it. The other uniqueness is that Deborah is not a man. She is called a prophetess and a judge and, at one point in Israel’s history, was the go-to woman for matters calling for wise counsel.
We meet Deborah as she sits under a palm tree, her base of operations, to which people come to hear her judgments on various matters. The poetry of chapter five praises Deborah who arose “as a mother in Israel.” We don’t get many examples of her work as prophetess and wise-woman, but we get a sense that the Palm of Deborah was a destination point for people far and wide who look to her for leadership.
Apparently she also summons people to her to give them words of direction. She summons a man named Barak and tells him this, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, ‘Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.’” The Israelites were at a serious competitive disadvantage during this time because they did not have technology and knowledge for iron working, something mentioned earlier in Judges. We were already told in verse three that these chariots of Sisera are iron, and that he has been cruelly oppressing the Israelites for 20 years. Barak no doubt has those iron chariots in mind when he replies to Deborah by saying, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” Deborah then plays along with the sexual politics of the day with a little poke back at him, “I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.”
Deborah accompanies the army, and, with the help of the Lord, who throws that opposing army into a panic, the oppressive Sisera and his army are defeated. And, as was predicted, Sisera is delivered into the hand of a woman – that woman being not Deborah, but Ya’el. As Sisera flees the battlefield on foot, he comes into a territory he thinks is peaceful toward him. He is greeted by a woman named Ya’el who steps out of her tent and offers him hospitality, hiding him in her tent and giving him drink. But this does not turn out well for the mighty Sisera. Ya’el doesn’t have much power, hardly anything at her disposal, but she does have a hammer and a tent peg. Sisera drinks the milk he was given and goes to sleep and Ya’el goes for his temple with that tent peg, successfully driving it into his skull. How very resourceful of her. Sisera, the commander of the people who oppressed the Israelites, is dead. Game over.
One could argue that this was a just war that Deborah initiated. One could argue that in killing Sisera, Ya’el has saved the lives of countless Israelites. Both Deborah and Jael are celebrated in the poem that follows as courageous strong women. But the poem also contains an element that I found pretty shocking when I read it, really unexpected and not something I remember seeing before, an element that unsettles us from any simple interpretation of what this story is supposed to mean. It occurs in verse 28 of chapter 5 right after the lines recalling Ya’el’s bold use of the tent peg that killed Sisera.
Now we hear from a third woman. One we are supposed to forget, or keep silenced, in times of war. The mother of the dead warrior. The poem, abruptly, makes a shift to her perspective, imagining how this is experienced by her. To get a sense of this shift, and to get a sense for the feeling in the language, I want to read a translation offered by Rabbi Shefa Gold, starting with the honoring of Ya’el, which would be verse 24:
Blessed above women shall Ya’el be,
The wife of Hever the Kenite,
Above women in the tent shall she be blessed,
Water he [Sisera] asked, milk she gave him;
In a lordly bowl she brought him curd.
Her hand she put to the tent-pin,
And her right hand to the workmen’s hammer;
And with the hammer she smashed
Sisera, she smashed through his head,
She pierced and struck through his temples.
At her feet he sank, he fell, he lay;
At her feet he sank, he fell;
Where he sank, there he fell shattered.
Through the window she looked forth, and wailed,
The mother of Sisera, through the lattice:
“Why is his chariot so long in coming?
Why are the hoofbeats of his chariots so delayed?”
The wise women among her attendant princesses answer her;
Indeed, she responds by speaking to herself:
“Are they not finding , are they not dividing booty?
One slut, even two sluts, to each warrior cock (changed to crotch for church).
To Sisera the booty of dyed embroidered clothing,
Two dyed embroidered garments for the neck of every booty-taker (plunderer).”
So perish all Your enemies, O Breath of Life!
May those who love You be like the sun in power, striding forth.
And the land lay quiet forty years.”
The appearance of this third woman serves to break any trance we may have been in that is too caught up in the celebration of the moment, which includes massive loss of life. Instead, we are turned toward lament, toward compassion, toward one mourning the devastation that has taken place.
If there is one thing that challenges our celebration of violence, it is giving voice to the mothers of the dead, the mothers of the enemy, who provide the link of undeniable commonality – the yearning of the human spirit for the wellbeing of one’s child; that sorrow we can all feel on some level, looking out the window, longing, for one who will not be coming home. One of the Bible’s best answers to the perennial problem of violence is the voice of lament. In this case, the mother of the enemy crying out to the Breath of Life, the Compassionate One.
One of the creative, powerful, responses I saw to the events following 9/11 and the characterization of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as an “axis of evil” was a music project. It was called Lullabies from the Axis of Evil, and involved traveling to these and other “enemy” peoples, nations, to record lullabies sung in their native tongue. The originator of the project wrote this: “Lullabies lead us to the deepest and most fundamental way of communication between human beings. It is where all sharing of ideas and feelings starts. Between mother and child, between father and child. It is a universal culture. And it is amazing to see how many aesthetic similarities, musically and lyrically there are in lullabies from country to country all over the world. The text-issues are often the same, so are the musical structures. Differences in scales, language, metaphors and religion cannot cover the fact that in the lullabies, the cultures of the earth meet each other. Or rather: from this common starting-point they grow into diversity.”
Here’s the mother of Sisera, whose voice is still strong.
And you can order Lullabies from the Axis of Evil online, if you wish.
At the IJPC Nonviolent training we heard a number of stories of peacemakers. One that I think corresponds to Ya’el, taking great risk and having little resources, is of a woman who was driving through a neighborhood and saw two gangs approaching each other in what was almost certainly going to be a bloody battle. The woman, a friend of Kristen Barker of IJPC, got out of her car and started dancing toward and then between the gangs, singing music from West Side Story. The gangs both stopped and watched her. And they had no idea what West Side Story was – way before their time. So it gave her the chance to briefly tell them. And they went their separate ways. True story. The bold, courageous, resourceful Ya’el pins the enemy of gang violence to the asphalt, at least temporarily.
Another story was told of Desmond Tutu, the small, but charismatic South African priest who helped bring down apartheid. For South Africa, Bishop Tutu is a national icon, a Deborah type figure. At one time a leader who was responsible for many of the abuses against the people was being walked down the street. The crowd started angrily pressing in on him, looking like they might tear into him. Desmond Tutu saw this crowd and ran toward the leader and hurled himself on his back, becoming a human shield from the crowd, which stepped back in shock. Deborah becomes the champion and leader of an entire nation, delivering them from oppression.
There’s another interpretation of that statement about everyone doing what is right in their own eyes. It can also mean that every situation that each of us are faced with is unique, unprecedented, and calls for its own Spirit-inspired God-honoring response. There are no rules that tell us exactly what to do in these situations, no set guidelines that are guaranteed to get certain results. We must do what is right in our own eyes, and not allow our actions, or nonactions, to be dictated to us by a violent culture. Be ready, trained for peace. Be courageous, be resourceful, cry out in lament, sing out, to the Breath of Life, the Compassionate One.