My wife, Gloria, tells about the time her mother used the story of Jael, Sisera and the fatal tent peg for the children’s story in church. Parents were aghast, but she just said, “It’s in the Bible.”
Indeed, it is found in the bloody Book of Judges. The book covers a 200-year period when Israel went back and forth between being faithful to God and worshiping the Baals, the gods of the Canaanites.
When God allowed the Israelites to suffer defeat, they cried for deliverance. God answered their cry, but the results were mixed. The judges delivered the people of Israel, but their unfaithfulness continued: “They did not listen even to the judges; for they bowed down to other gods. They turned aside from the way of their ancestors who had obeyed the commandments of the Lord” (Judges 2:17).
Of all the judges, Deborah, a prophetess, was the only woman. God spoke through her to call up a commander named Barak and told him to bring an army of 10,000 Israelites from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun. They were to fight a Canaanite king with 900 iron chariots. But Barak would go only if Deborah went with him. She agreed, but because he asked her to go along, she told him he would not get the glory.
They won the battle, but Sisera, the Canaanite general, fled on foot. Jael, a secret ally to Israel, told Sisera he could hide safely in her tent. While he slept, she drove a tent peg through his temple and killed him. Yikes! I wonder how my mother-in-law told that story to the children.
The story of Gideon is better known. When an angel appeared, called him a mighty warrior and said God was with them, Gideon asked: So why are we being oppressed? Why isn’t God doing mighty works like he did in Egypt?
Though the angel called Gideon a mighty warrior, he protested that he was from the weakest clan in Manasseh. Not only that, he was the least in his family — the weakest of the weak.
This story is all about God using the weak, but Gideon, in fact, was a man of courage and resolve. Before his famous battle with an army pared down to 300 men with pitchers and trumpets — even before his famous laying out the fleece for a sign from God — Gideon tore down his father’s idols and cut down his sacred trees. That took courage.
From these stories of deliverance we learn God uses the least and the weakest so no one can boast of their own strength or ability. Both Deborah and Gideon are leaders of great faithfulness to God.
We might take issue with an underlying assumption of the writer of Judges that God rewards the righteous and punishes or chastises those who stray. Things don’t always work out quite that neatly. Did the writer pick stories that bear out the presuppositions of his own faith?
The other underlying assumption that might raise questions for us is spelled out in Judges 1:19-36. The writer believes the problems the tribes of Israel struggle with stem from their failure to rid the land of all its other inhabitants. Each tribe of Israel is mentioned, along with the Canaanite tribes they failed to drive out of their land.
For all the bloody battles, the writer apparently believes it wasn’t nearly bloody enough. While it is true that these tribes influenced Israel to worship their gods, it doesn’t follow that the only faithful option was to destroy everyone who worshiped those gods. The people of Israel developed a theology based on an ideal of purity. But they put this into practice by imposing ethnic purity, enforced by ethnic cleansing. They had much to learn about blessing all nations and loving their neighbors.
Duane Beachey, author of Reading the Bible As If Jesus Mattered (Cascadia, 2014), is a Mennonite pastor serving two small Presbyterian churches in eastern Kentucky, where he and his wife, Gloria, served with Mennonite Central Committee for eight and a half years.