Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Opportunists

‘The kings came, they fought;
   then fought the kings of Canaan,
at Taanach, by the waters of Megiddo;
   they got no spoils of silver.
The stars fought from heaven,
   from their courses they fought against Sisera.
The torrent Kishon swept them away,
   the onrushing torrent, the torrent Kishon.
   March on, my soul, with might!

‘Then loud beat the horses’ hoofs
   with the galloping, galloping of his steeds.

‘Curse Meroz, says the angel of the Lord,
   curse bitterly its inhabitants,
because they did not come to the help of the Lord,
   to the help of the Lord against the mighty.

‘Most blessed of women be Jael,
   the wife of Heber the Kenite,
   of tent-dwelling women most blessed.
He asked water and she gave him milk,
   she brought him curds in a lordly bowl.
She put her hand to the tent-peg
   and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet;
she struck Sisera a blow,
   she crushed his head,
   she shattered and pierced his temple.
He sank, he fell,
   he lay still at her feet;
at her feet he sank, he fell;
   where he sank, there he fell dead.

‘Out of the window she peered,
   the mother of Sisera gazed
through the lattice:
“Why is his chariot so long in coming?
   Why tarry the hoofbeats of his chariots?”
Her wisest ladies make answer,
   indeed, she answers the question herself:
“Are they not finding and dividing the spoil?—
   A girl or two for every man;
spoil of dyed stuffs for Sisera,
   spoil of dyed stuffs embroidered,
   two pieces of dyed work embroidered for my neck as spoil?”

‘So perish all your enemies, O Lord!
   But may your friends be like the sun as it rises in its might.’

And the land had rest for forty years.   - Judges 5:19-31

I came down with a lot of various childhood illnesses the year I was in the third grade so I learned to like reading as a way of passing the time. I had my brother's Hardy Boys mysteries as well as some Nancy Drew of my own. I even read biographies of famous people. One that I remember reading was a biography of St. Joan of Arc. I'd never really heard of her until a new girl came to our school from a Roman Catholic school and she attended the RC church named for that saint. Southern Baptists aren't much known for saint stuff other than the four gospel writers and Peter, maybe, so it was all fairly strange to me. This was an adventure story with a girl as the heroine. That was something I didn't hear too much in church either, other than about Mary at Christmastime. To read of women who did exciting and extraordinary things like Joan or Florence Nightingale or our local heroine, Pocahontas, really gave me more of a charge than the biographies I read of George Washington (another fairly local hero), Abraham Lincoln or Daniel Boone.
As for Bible stories, there was always Adam (and Eve, who brought down the whole thing at Eden), Sarah the wife of Abraham who laughed and then had Isaac, another important man. Once in a while we'd hear about Ruth and at Easter we'd hear about the women at the tomb, including that reformed prostitute, Mary Magdalene (who has since been redeemed and is no longer considered a woman of ill repute except by some). Mostly what we learned about was the story of men and, of course, God the Father who occasionally displayed some feminine characteristics which were usually glossed over as a nice touch before moving on to more important attributes like kingly, strong, vengeful, and ready for battle when necessary.

We never heard the stories of women like Jephtha's daughter or Esther the queen who saved her people. Mostly the stories of women that were told were cautionary tales featuring women as troublemakers or those of whom it would be said that they were no better than they should be. Bathsheba seduced David the voyeur by taking a bath on the roof of the house next to the palace. Rahab may have saved some spies but she was also an innkeeper and probably a harlot to boot (at least in the interpretation of some). Miriam was a prophetess but she got leprosy for trying to upstage Moses while her brother Aaron, who was in cahoots with her, got off without so much as a pimple. One character we never heard about was Jael, the woman who broke the rules. It's got all the twists of a Hollywood plot, but it's not one we we're as familiar with as we are with Abraham, Noah, Moses or Jesus.
The part of the story we read today is the poetic version and one that is very easy to visualize it being told and retold around a campfire by a bard who knew precisely the inflection and cadence to use to make the words come alive, like the sound of the hoofbeats. It must have been really stirring to his listeners.

Jael was the wife of a Kenite man named Heber. Kenites were metalworkers and craftsmen which made them valuable neighbors. This group was probably semi-nomadic as they lived in tents rather than villages or cities. The men did the metalwork, the women took care of the tents, including raising and collapsing them as they moved. Heber and his clan were at a particular place at probably the right time – or maybe the wrong time, depending on how you looked at it. There was a battle going on nearby, one where Barak, commander of the Israelite forces, and Deborah the prophetess and judge, were pitted against Sisera and the army of King Jabin of Hazor, a Canaanite. With God on their side, the Israelites had the Canaanites on the run, including Sisera who sought concealment and safety in the camp of the Kenites, a people who had a gentlemen’s agreement with the king at Hazor. So Sisera, in seeking his escape from certain capture and death, ran to the Kenite camp and saw a woman standing at the doorway of a tent.

Now hospitality to even total strangers or one’s worst enemy was a given in that time and place. Since the Kenites were friendly to his king, Sisera had every confidence he would be safe in their camp so he rushed into Jael’s tent, claiming sanctuary and asking for water. The good hostess that she was, she gave him some milk instead and then beaned him with a mallet (or perhaps waited until he was asleep and pounded a tent stake through his head, depending on whether you read the poetic or prose account). In any case, after the deed was done, Jael sought out Barak the Israelite to announce that the commander of the opposing army was in her tent and very dead. It made her a sort of hero although it did sort of put a question mark on her hostessing skills and undoubtedly her ethics as well.

 Jael did something unthinkable; she harmed a guest under her roof and a man at that. To top it off, the guest was an influential member of the staff of a king with whom the group had cordial relations, so why on earth did she do such a horrible thing as to murder a man in cold blood? One interpretation is that she knew about the battle and decided to throw her lot in with the Israelites rather than the Canaanites, treaty or no treaty. Perhaps she was doing what God told her to do. At any rate, it was an opportunity of a lifetime. Carpe diem could have been her motto that day.

 There are two opportunists in this story, and the question is, which one was the greater? Sisera certainly took advantage of the confusion on the battlefield to run for dear life to somewhere, anywhere where he could save his own neck. Jael took advantage of the situation presented to her but in the process managed to break a sacred tradition of hospitality.

Opportunity knocks, but it sometimes presents itself in strange ways. We don’t know what happened to Jael after she showed Sisera’s body to Barak. It is another one of those Bible stories where the character we’ve been following simply seems to vanish into the shadows.

So what is the lesson we’re supposed to gain from Jael’s story? Perhaps some would say it is okay to kill someone who makes their way into the house to hide from a perceived enemy and thus put innocent people at risk. Some would say to simply comply rather than face a confrontation that might prove deadly. Maybe it was God using a woman to do a man’s job because she had the strength and cunning to do it as well as the means, motive and opportunity. I’m not totally sure which one really is the right one, but I appreciate Jael as a woman who evidently did what she felt she needed to do at the time to protect herself and her clan. She killed one to perhaps save many or perhaps only a few. Of course, she could have been listening to God and doing what she was told.

Sometimes the best man for the job is a woman.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 2, 2014.

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