Pastor of Decatur United Methodist Church
When I am home alone I like to eat steak and watch movies. It’s become kind of a tradition for me. When my family travels without me, I buy a steak, usually a nice ribeye, and watch a movie. Also, I always watch the movie at home because I hate going to the theater. Anyways, the last time I did this, I watched the 2016 movie, Hacksaw Ridge. (www.imdb.com/title/tt2119532/)
Hacksaw Ridge tells the true story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventists and an pacifist who joins the military during World War II as a combat medic. During training and early service his superiors and peers berate him for his pacifist stance. It is downright cruel what they do to him and what they put him through.
Doss survives training and is deployed to the Pacific theater and his unit faces the Battle of Okinawa. Their objective was to climb the ridge and defeat the Japanese who held the Island. This was a particularly brutal battle, and it seemed as if the Japanese had an endless supply of soldiers. Heavy losses were sustained on each side. At one point, the Americans retreat off the ridge because it becomes apparent that it’s impossible for them to beat back the Japanese counterattack.
As you can imagine, many are wounded during this retreat. This retreat from the ridge left many behind, injured on the battlefield. Doss hears the cries of the injured and dying soldiers and returns alone behind enemy lines to save them. Each time he brings one to safety, and then he prays to God asking God to help him save one more. Overnight Doss saves dozens of men that were presumed dead. For his heroism, he is awarded the Medal of Honor.
While Doss is praised as a hero, he was the most unlikely war hero. He was a pacifist who refused to pick up a weapon in training or even on the battlefield. Because of his faith that it was wrong to take a life, Doss refused to fight back. Instead, in the face of certain death, he showed unlikely courage to save the lives of dozens of men. Perhaps God used Doss, an unlikely man of faith, to the save lives of his fellow soldiers. Sometimes unlikely people are the ones who save the day.
For the past few weeks we have been talking about some unlikely leaders, specifically bold women who lead us. To this point, all the women we have discussed have been mothers. Not only have they been mothers, but because they are mothers they are praised. So while these women teach us things about leadership and how to boldly live the faith, they are also functioning within a fairly typical role within their society.
Today, I am going to share with you a story where a woman completely breaks away from that model of leadership. The story that we are going to look at today is not one that many are very familiar with, and it comes from the book of Judges. It is a story where God works through an unlikely person to bring hope.
If you recall the story of the Israelites, this is what has happened. They were enslaved in Egypt and God led them to freedom by the hand of Moses. Moses led the people until they reached the new land that God was giving, the promised land. Moses died before entering into this land, and a new leader took charge, a man named Joshua. The book of Joshua tells the story of how the Israelites come into the land and are opposed by their enemies. Then Joshua dies.
After Joshua dies the people begin to forget the goodness of God and begin to worship other Gods and their enemies begin to overtake them. Then God raises up a leader to fight back against their enemies. Throughout the book of Judges we see a pattern of the people falling into unfaithfulness and loosing to their enemies and then God raising up a leader to deliver the people. These leaders that God raises are known as Judges. Now they aren’t judges like we think of judges, instead these are leaders who lead the people with strength.
Now, I will warn you, there is a lot of violence in these stories from Judges. And the violence in these stories can raise a lot of questions. In fact, we could devote a lot of time talking about some of the violence we see in the Bible. However, today, I just want you to realize that our modern values are not always the same as the values of those that we read about in scripture. Their sensibilities are often different from ours. And just because we read about violence, often violence done in the name of God, does not mean that God wills violence or the God commands people to commit violence.
In today’s story, the Israelites are fighting King Jabin of Canaan and the commander of his army, Sisera. We read in Judges 4:3 that “Sisera had nine hundred iron chariots and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly for twenty years.”
The leader of Israel at the time is a woman named Deborah, and she crafts a plan to defeat Sisera. She makes a plan with her general, Barak, to confront Sisera on the battlefield. What we find is that Barak and Deborah are successful in their fight against Sisera’s army. In Judges 4:15 we read:
15 The Lord threw Sisera and all the chariots and army into a panic[c] before Barak; Sisera himself got down from his chariot and fled on foot. 16 Barak pursued the chariots and the army all the way back to Harosheth-ha-goiim, killing Sisera’s entire army with the sword. No one survived.
17 Meanwhile, Sisera had fled on foot
So, Sisera’s army is gone, and he is fleeing on foot. He is trying to escape certain death from Barak. Up to this point, Barak has been the hero; he has been the one who brought deliverance to Israel from its enemies, but this is all about to change with a woman.
If we go back to Sisera, we have to imagine that he is on the run and the remainder of Barak’s army is chasing after him. So he is probably worried about what to do next, and in v.17 after we read about him fleeing on foot we find that he ran:
to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, because there was peace between Hazor’s King Jabin and the family of Heber the Kenite.
Sisera flees to the tent of Jael, and he thinks that this is a safe place. He thinks it is safe because his king has a peace with Jael’s husbands family. So if Jael is a good wife to her husband, it is assumed that she will keep the peace as well.
18 Jael went out to meet Sisera and said to him, “Come in, sir, come in here. Don’t be afraid.” So he went with her into the tent, and she hid him under a blanket.
19 Sisera said to her, “Please give me a little water to drink. I’m thirsty.” So she opened a jug of milk, gave him a drink, and hid him again. 20 Then he said to her, “Stand at the entrance to the tent. That way, if someone comes and asks you, ‘Is there a man here?’ you can say, ‘No.’”
Jael offers Sisera a place to hide and gives him something to drink. Then Sisera asks her to stand guard outside of the tent and to lie if anyone asks if she has seen him. Sisera could have never guessed what would come next.
21 But Jael, Heber’s wife, picked up a tent stake and a hammer. While Sisera was sound asleep from exhaustion, she tiptoed to him. She drove the stake through his head and down into the ground, and he died. 22 Just then, Barak arrived after chasing Sisera. Jael went out to meet him and said, “Come and I’ll show you the man you’re after.” So he went in with her, and there was Sisera, lying dead, with the stake through his head.
Now, that’s some story! In the face of danger, Jael is a strong and courageous woman. She plays the part of warrior and defeats this general that Barak was unable to track down. Not only that, it would have been pretty easy for Barak to take the credit for this victory. He could have thanked Jael and reported back that he, Barak, was the victor and that he should be praised for this victory over Sisera. But that’s not what happens. In the next chapter in Judges, Deborah and Barak sing a victory song, and in it, Jael is praised. Of Jael, they sing:
May Jael be blessed above all women;
may the wife of Heber the Kenite
be blessed above all tent-dwelling women. (Judges 5:24)
According to this, Jael is blessed above all women. This blessing of Jael, is the same exact blessing that is later said of Mary, the mother of Jesus. When Mary learns that she will give birth to Jesus and goes to visit her relative Elizabeth. And Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit loudly proclaimed, “God has blessed you above all women” (Luke 1:42).
This blessing of Jael is huge. It recognizes her place in leadership and recognizes her as someone who is praised by God for boldness. In this story, it is praised that a woman on the side of God can take down the most powerful general in region. On the side of God, a woman can be praised for her leadership above a man.
This is so unexpected. Too often in the Bible and in history we find that women are continually being oppressed and being treated at second class citizens. Even in the founding of our own country, only white men who owned property were allowed to vote. Our Declaration of Independence says, “All men are created equal,” and when it says men it didn’t mean women much less people of color.
But here in Judges chapter 4, God sees our inequality and laughs. God raises up the most unlikely person to deliver Israel from its enemies. And this is a decisive victory. After Jael takes the life of Sisera, we read in Judges 5:31 that the land was peaceful for forty years. Because of the victory of Jael, because of this woman who is praised for her leadership, the people of Israel have peace for forty years. And forty years, at the time, was basically a lifetime. So people were born and died a natural death in peace because of Jael’s leadership.
Looking at Jael it could be easy to praise violence as a means to an end. But, when we think about someone like Jael, I don’t think the lesson for us is to hammer tent stakes into people’s heads. If that were the case, I’d never go camping with anyone. There are many other passages in scripture and tradition that specifically tell us not to do this.
When Jesus comes to bring new hope to humanity, he teaches us with words that speak against violence, he says in Matthew 5:43-44
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[a] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
Even though Jesus teaches us a new way to deal with conflict. Even though Jesus teaches us to pray for our enemies and to seek out the way of peace. It is still important to think of Jael; to see her as a women called out by God to lead the people into a long season of peace.
That’s the thing with God, throughout scripture and throughout history God chooses some of the most unlikely people to do the work of God. God called Jael to bring peace to Israel. God called Mary to bring the hope and light and life of Jesus into the world. And God calls people like you and I to follow in the footsteps of these women. God calls ordinary people like us to bring hope into our community. God calls ordinary and unlikely people like us to be bold in offering a hope to the families and children all around us.
Decatur United Methodist Church
Our hope is that these messages will be relevant in your life and encourage you in faith.