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Heroines of War, Heralds of Peace

Sermon 11/13/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Judges 4:1-9, 5:24-31

I shared with you last Sunday my realization that because of our stewardship campaign being earlier this Fall, I'm now confronted with texts that I normally would not preach on because they just didn't seem to be appropriate in the stewardship campaign.  And I've really got a doozy for you this morning.

I hope you have enjoyed the past couple weeks as we've been exploring the story of Joshua, which tells the story of the conquest of the promised land.  The conquest is really a misnomer, as it becomes quite evident in the story in Judges, because the Hebrew people never quite gain complete control of the territory.  And so in Judges we have the story of the twelve tribes before the time of Kings when they were ruled by a series of Judges.  And in the second chapter of Judges, a pattern is set forth that is repeated over and over and over and over again.  And in that chapter we read how after the first leader dies (in this case it's Joshua), without their revered leader the people do what is described in the text as 'evil in the sight of the Lord'.  And therefore they are punished by God until they come to their senses and cry out to God from the suffering for God's help.  And every time, every time in the story God hears their cries and responds by sending a new leader who restores the nation to a time of peace and to the ways of God.

Now, the names of some of those judges would be familiar to you -- like Gideon, and Samson, others are quite obscure, we don't remember.  But the most surprising of them is the person we are considering in our text this morning, and that is Deborah, a woman who is the judge of the nation.  And so we read in chapter 4 of Judges:

The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, after Ehud died. 2So the LORD sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera [remember that name], who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. 3Then the Israelites cried out to the LORD for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron [this is the beginning of the iron age, by the way], and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly twenty years. [So Sisera, commander of the Canaan army, has 900 chariots of iron]

4 At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. 5She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment. 6She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, "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. 7I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin's army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon [that's a stream, a valley] with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.'" 8Barak said to her, "If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go." [10,000 burly soldiers aren't enough, you see, he's got to have Deborah to go with him] 9And she said, "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." Then Deborah got up and went with Barak to Kedesh.

And so the story continues, and sure enough Sisera comes forth with his chariots and there is a storm and they get bogged down in the mud.  And thereby this fearsome military weapon is neutralized.  Deborah tells Barak to send his troops forth, and they go down and they wipe out Sisera's army.  But Sisera escapes.  He flees to the home of an ally, that of Heber, but Heber is not home, his wife is -- Jael.  Jael welcomes Sisera to her tent in a good middle-eastern fashion.  She plays the good hostess.  'Can I give you something to drink, Sisera?'  'How was your day?'  'Have you had a rough time?'  'Here's a blanket to keep you warm'.  And she tucks him in for a nice good night's sleep so he can rest from all of his weary travels and battles.  And it's just a very touching story.

And then we come to verse 21, where we read:

But Jael wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground--he was lying fast asleep from weariness--and he died.  

Well, duh!  If only she had given him something for his splitting headache, maybe he would have survived J.  Do you see what I mean by a doozy of a story?  

At the Rice-Siefke Institute the Lieutenant Colonel Karen Diefendorf, who is a chaplain in the U.S. Army, very high mucky-muck of that whole system, and responsible for many people under her, and teaches soldiers and chaplains alike, she was here to reflect with us on the theme of ethics and preaching.  So I was in one of the workshops with her and I asked her "What do we do with the ethics of a text like this?"  To which several of my colleagues said 'well, you preach from the New Testament text for that morning, you know, the gospel of Matthew, or Thessalonians'!  

If nothing else, this is a phenomenal story of the role of women in ancient Hebrew society.  First we have Deborah, without whom Barak appears to be hopeless.  And then we have Jael, with 10,000 men chasing Sisera, she is the one who finally has him pegged J.  And I particularly liked the artful way that the song of Deborah retells the story in the 5th chapter of Judges (and by the way, scholars think that this is probably one of the oldest written sources of scripture that we have, the song of Deborah).  And so we read there (Judges 5:24-27):

"Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, of tent-dwelling women most blessed. 25He asked water and she gave him milk, she brought him curds in a lordly bowl. [Isn't that so wonderful and touching] 26She 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. 27He sank, he fell, he lay still at her feet; at her feet he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell dead. 

This is kind of the Dr. Seuss version, I think, of a very gruesome story.  But you can just imagine them singing and making light of it, I'm not sure which.  But it calls to mind for me, this scene from Lord of the Rings, in the final climactic battle for Minas Tirith, the city that is the crown jewel of Middle Earth.  And Eowyn, daughter of a good King, has disguised herself as a soldier so that she can go to battle with her father.  And the Lord of the Nazguls, those evil creatures that come back from the dead, is confronting her.  So let's see what happens (video played in church):


Nazgul:  "No man can kill me.  Die now!"

Eowyn:  [Removes mask and says]  "I am no man".  Stabs Nazgul in the face, destroying him.

That scene, I think, comes right out of this story (in Judges).  The victorious woman here, who defeats the enemy of Israel.

Beyond the victorious role of women, this story is ripe for problems for us.  Back at that Rice-Siefke Institute, Colonel Diefendorf said in response to my question on what to do with stories like this:  "Some scripture is meant for repetition -- go and do likewise, while others are meant for reflection".  For instance, she said Psalm 137, which is a lament for the destruction of Jerusalem, concludes "Happy are those who dash their babies upon the rocks", referring to the babies of their enemies.  And the Colonel's point was until you can get to that point where you can identify with their anguish and their anger that you too have that kind of feeling, you can't begin to work through that feeling and to get over it.

And so this is a text, then, that is for our reflection, not for our repetition.  The first problem that occurs when we read stories like this of Jael is if we see it not as a story for reflection on the brutality of war but as an ancient confirmation of God's judgment on modern sins.  And then self-appointed prophets tell us that they know the mind of God better than anyone else and know what God is punishing us for, for such sins.

The latest example of this occurred just this week, after the voters of Dover, Pennsylvania, ousted all 8 members of their school board.  Did you catch that story?  People who had required the inclusion of intelligent design in the science curriculum of their biology classes.  Now keep in mind, intelligent design is the idea that the universe is so complex that it had to have been created by an intelligent force outside of the universe.  And this is supposed to be a scientific alternative to that of evolution, and not a religious belief.  So why, then, when these voters ousted those 8 members of the school board, did the Reverend Pat Robertson proclaim on his television show that the citizens of Dover had voted God out of their city, and therefore they should not expect God's help if there is any disaster in their neighborhood.  I mean, how Christian is that?

Asked by the media to clarify his answer, given a little chance to do a little spin-control, the Reverend Robertson said "we can't keep sticking our fingers in God's eye forever.  If they have future problems in Dover, I recommend they call on Charles Darwin, maybe he can help them".  

Three comments:

First, I believe God created the universe.  That is a deeply held religious belief that science can neither confirm nor refute.  Evolution or no evolution, which I also believe is an accurate portrayal of science.

Second, I believe science should be taught in our schools and religion should be taught in our churches.  And if you want children to believe that God created the world, bring them to church.

Third, if you want evidence of intelligent design, look no further than not one, but two miraculous victories in the last two weeks of the Oregon Ducks J

And if you want evidence that we are descendents of apes, why study evolution when we have tele-evangelists?  (Some have evolved further than others and do very good work).

The problem comes, you see, when we read texts like the story of Deborah and Jael and see not the mercy of God in responding to the cries of suffering, but the judgment of God in punishing those that we consider to be ungodly, without realizing as Pogo, the great theologian of the comic strip from yesteryear said 'We have met the enemy and he is us'.  And never has Pogo been more true than today.

The Washington Post reported this week our government is holding an unknown number of prisoners in secret detention centers abroad, in violation of the Geneva Conventions.  It has refused to register these detainees with the International Red Cross or to allow visits by its inspectors.  Its prisoners have disappeared like the victims of some dictatorships.  Is that the government we want?  I don't care how evil they may be (the prisoners).

I don't want to talk to you, though, about known or suspected abuse of prisoners in our care, or how much physical pain and discomfort constitutes torture, or who is committing what atrocities to whom.  I want to tell you about Frau Frisch:

Frau Frisch is an elderly German woman who lived above me in my apartment in Berlin back in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  She was such a delightful woman.  She took in my laundry, she darned my socks, she constantly was doing things for me like her own son.  She was so dear to me that when I was in Turkey two years ago I had to stop by and visit her and others in Berlin on my way home.  And sat there once again at her kitchen table as she prepared a very traditional German coffee and German Apfelkuchen, a German pastry, and we reminisced old times.  And I can't tell you how often I sat at that table 25 years ago as I learned history from Frau Frisch.  I learned about the war from her own experience.  I learned about the hardship she endured.  I learned why and how Hitler was received so well among the German people.  And how he had them all fooled.  And she looked me straight in the eye and she said "we never knew about the Holocaust.  We knew the Jews were being taken away to Poland and elsewhere but we didn't know about the Holocaust."

How long will it be, people, that we will say the same thing?  'We never knew about the abuse in Abu Ghraib'.  'We never knew about the torture that wasn't really torture'.  'We never knew about the secret facilities designed to avoid the formalities of international law'.  'We never knew about the thousands of our veterans returning home from Iraq with severed limbs'.  'We never knew about ten thousands more with mental and physical disorders from exposure to trauma and chemicals and depleted uranium, not to mention those in Iraq'.

How long will we continue to say that we never knew what the rest of the world sees as obvious?  How long?  Are we not called to be the children of light and not the children of dark?  I don't know what the answer is or how we are ever going to get out of this mess, but I do know this:  God is much more concerned with the cries of those who suffer from war and terrorism than the results of school board elections, as important as they may be.  If we don't get that former right, if we don't get in tune with God, we will become the victims of our own ignorance and arrogance.

When we accept the image of God as a warrior bent on destroying our enemies, then there is no evil we can't do, whether it is killing a sleeping man with a tent peg, or stacking naked prisoners in a pyramid of human shame.  Because God is on our side, all is justifiable.  When the reality is, because God is just, God is not always on our side, and it is only when we are on the side of justice that we can say we are on God's side.

So mark my words:  secret prisons and torture are never on the side of justice.  And that's why Senator McCain, who was a true hero of Vietnam, is a true hero of this time, is calling for an end to such practices.  

So what do we do with Jael, who secretly using deception and lies assassinates the enemy of Israel?  Should we not do as the song of Deborah does and sing of her victory and celebrate her cunning ways?  Well here's what the song of Deborah does -- after praising Deborah's wisdom and Jael's courage, it concludes with a third woman.  Not a Hebrew woman, but a Canaanite woman.  Waiting for her beloved son to come home.  We read (Judges 5:28-30):  

28"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?' 29Her wisest ladies make answer, indeed, she answers the question herself: 30'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?' 

And so with this haunting image of a mother fantasizing what her son is going to bring home (her now dead son) as a spoil of the war, the song of Deborah ends.

The reality of the terror of war is brought home, and the grief of an enemy's mother has no less grief than that of anyone else.  And in the end, instead of celebration, there is only the grief of the survivors and the mercy of God that some are spared such grief.

One final story from this week's news that gives me hope as I reflect on this gruesome tale, in this time of many such tales.  And it comes from the very same land, from this very same place, from Palestine, that source of so much conflict and terror.  Ahmed Khatib, 12 years old, shot to death in a Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank by soldiers who mistook him for a militant because of the toy gun he carried.  A Palestinian who died in an Israeli hospital.  By all rights his family should be angry like so many others in that unending conflict of more than 3,000 years, seeking revenge in their anger and hatred as all others before them.  Instead, the parents asked that his organs be donated to whomever needed them.  A Muslim, dying in a Jewish hospital, his heart, liver, lungs, and the like went to 6 Israeli citizens ranging in age from 3 to 58, including 4 Jews.  His father expressed the hope that "maybe this would touch the heart of everyone to bring an end to the killing."  His son had known Israelis only as soldiers and used to throw stones at their tanks.  To give away his organs was a different kind of resistance, he said.  "Violence against violence is worthless, maybe this will reach the ears of the whole world so they can distinguish between the just and the unjust."

Israeli leaders have called this act the most remarkable gesture of peace they have ever witnessed.

Those with ears for the good news, listen.  May we ponder the deaths of these two Palestinians, 3,000 years apart.  And revere not the killing by Jael, but the dying of Ahmed, who in so doing, has given life to many.

For it is in such transformations of death into life that is the heart of our gospel.  May we so live.  


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