Vulnerable but Victorious: The Tale of Jael

I have a long history of not taking risks.

It started with making friends as a small child. I wanted friends. But I was shy. Outwardly it did not appear this way. I was outspoken and always had a vivid personality. But I only became friends with people who sought me out. I am not quite as bad as I used to be but I am slow at forming friendships.  I won’t even go there with dating..eh. Let me put it this way: as a kid, I always was the President of the boy-hating club every time I suffered a little crush.

People called me gutsy because I got on the stage to act, I sang, I even danced and that looked horrific. I have never had stage fright, but I have had risk fright. Off stage and out of my many books and writings, I did not do much. Sometimes I did not even go outside even though I loved playing in the sun. I wanted to try out for a soccer team, but I never got the nerve to even start practicing in my yard. It was a different kind of stage fright.

My last post on being a woman said many things and made many statements without quite putting substance around it. It was a rant. It was a reaction.

In writing this post, I am going back to motives. To not be scared of my motives, but to notice when I am making choices and writing blogs out of mere reactions or true holy discontent.

Many people who grew up in the church have heard of Deborah, but less of Jael. I admit, my first discovery of Jael was through a Half-Handed Cloud song. That musician is responsible for a lot of my familiarization with the Old Testament before taking a class.

Here is a quick synopsis of Judges 4 and 5:There was once a prophetess named Deborah, who was a distinguished woman in her own right. She called out Barak for not taking up his role as a judge (judges were tribal military leaders before kings were established in Israel). The Israelites were being oppressed by the king of Canaan, and the commander of the king’s army, Sisera was responsible to make them miserable. Deborah sent for Barak and asked him to defeat Sisera. Barak chickened out. Deborah asked again, and Barak demanded her to go with him as the judge, as the leader. Deborah was put in a vulnerable spot- women were not on the front line. She told Barak “Fine. I will go with you. But you will not have victory. Your victory will be taken by a woman.” Remember, the Israelites were under intense oppression, and Barak who had the skills to be leader wasn’t doing squat.  In an anti-climactic scene, Deborah and Barak lead Israel to victory against Sisera’s army. Sisera, like a sissy (ha. ha.) runs away. He ran to Jael’s, (a married woman) tent. She told Sisera he is safe with her. Gave him milk when he asked for water, gave him a blanket…may have done more?  And then, when he was fast asleep, she slammed a tent peg through his temple and into the dirt. Ouch. Finally Barak, who was pursuing Sisera, arrived at the tent. Jael lets him in and voila- body found! The man Barak was hunting was given over to Jael for victory. Ouch. Deborah and Barak sing over Jael and call her most blessed of women.

See Judges 4 and 5 for complete story. It is much better than how I told the story.

Jael is pretty cray cray, right? Most of us would see her that way. We would not invite a man into our bedrooms to engage in misleading and maybe seductive behavior and then kill him. But let’s think outside our social conventions and enter the story of a woman living in this violent, brutal time period.

The problem is that the story is set in about 50 shades of grey (forgive me, bad joke).

The narrator is silent on many details. Yahweh himself is silent through much of it.

Motives are never dramatically played out. In acting class, I was taught that a character’s motives determine everything. But sometimes they are difficult to find, and opening up a responsible, genuine rendering of the character is difficult and directs the actor to make choices.

And yet, we are never told Jael’s motives. We are just left with choices on how to genuinely interpret this woman.

We do not know if she does what she does – running a tent peg through Sisera’s temple and killing the 20-year fugitive oppressor of the Jews – because she believes in the God of the Israelites or because she’s sympathetic to their oppression. Jael is part of a splinter group and is the wife of Heber the Kenite. Is she afraid of the Israelites overpowering her land and acts out to be cast in their favor (like the revealed motives of Rahab)?  Motivations remain untold.

But her motivations are not the drive of the story. She is a heroine, clearly shown through the exuberant blessing of Deborah and Barak: “Most blessed of women be Jael.” She did something bold, culturally defying, and vulnerable. Whatever her motives, she placed herself in a difficult position, and got glory for it in the end. She took a risk.

A risk with very high stakes.

When the stakes are high in my own life, I cower away from taking risks. We are told to guard our hearts, but we tend to over-guard ourselves completely. We place ourselves in bubbles where we cannot be touched, where we cannot be touched or harmed.

Jael is a morally ambiguous character. Her methods do not seem quite right. It is possible she and Sisera “laid together” a couple times. Would her decisions and rule-breaking be accepted today? More than likely not. I am of a different culture and different time —  who am I to be her judge? In fact, she was a foreigner, who knows how well-aware of God’s law she was? She worked with the cultural moldings around her and with the rules around her. She more than likely did not know the God of the Hebrews and her ignorance helped her. She was willing to do something truly courageous to bring down a mighty oppressor who probably spent a lot of time personally oppressing her.

Her husband was friends with the same stock of Sisera. That d-bag came around a lot. In my imagination and speculation, I do not see her husband being a very good man. He was either passive or absent, letting Sisera march right up to Jael’s tent. Jael broke the conventions of her marriage, killing a man who had peace with her husband.

Jael was not her own. Yet she claimed autonomy apart from her husband. She had her own identity. If her husband was as unjust as I suspect, she went against it. Remember, marriage was not always love-based. Who knows what kind of oppression she endured as his wife? Law of the Hebrews at least protected Jewish women from many disadvantages. It protected them from rape and from hunger. It protected the fact that they women were physically weaker. I do not know anything of the Kenite law, but did it offer her the same protection?

Jael’s actions are violent and deviant but socially revolutionary and challenged the prevailing views of women, particularly in the relationship between husband and wife.

Yahweh Stands Triumphant

We women love glory. We all want to be blessed among all women like Jael. Yes. Let it be, Lord! There is a really stupid generalization out there “Men want significance, women want security.” Uh, no. Sure, security is nice. I am sure Jael would have wanted it. She was already in an insecure position with her husband letting some d-bag into her tent. But we like significance, too. In fact, Jael is rewarded with the glory that was originally due to Barak.

Deborah commissions Barak to take men into battle to find and kill Sisera. Clearly, Deborah is speaking on behalf of the Lord and Barak recognizes that. Barak will not go after Israel’s enemies without her. Even though Deborah was kind of a ruler, I don’t think she was all about the frontlines. I think she knew that the battlefield was not safe for women, it would leave her vulnerable to more oppression. If she was captured, the consequences would be grievous and all her dignity would be stripped away. I think Deborah, though she was confident the Lord would prevail, was looking out for herself as an individual and as a woman.

Barak’s insistence shows his insensitivity to Deborah’s plight as a woman and it shows his cowardice. He is not willing to man up, so he takes Deborah on grounds women do not mean to tread. Many feminists today would cheer this on, that she walked into battle. But this is not an honorable thing in this culture.

Both Jael and Deborah have their lives made more vulnerable by the men around them. And yet, they step out and take real true risks. And this is out of the Lord’s providence.

Even though Yahweh is silent in the telling events of Jael’s story, he does speak into it. The Lord speaks through Deborah as she warns Barak “I will surely go with you. Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead you to glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.”

Booyah. God set it up. Jael may not know God, but he declares His victory through her. It is not Jael, and Jael alone who gets victory — after all, she is a fallen human being and probably not of super-strong moral fiber. But God gets the victory and that is seen through blessing Jael.

Our actions determine our course. Barak is a coward, and he lives the consequences. He is probably humiliated when he enters Jael’s tent to discover Sisera, with a tent peg driven through him. He was Sisera’s hunter and Sisera’s death would be his triumph. But Barak does something unwise and untrusting of the Lord. He does not take a risk.

Jael puts her life on the line by murdering this oppressive fugitive. Imagine her husband’s reaction. Imagine the sudden weakness and vulnerability she realizes she has plunged herself into because of her actions. She not only defeats Sisera but she defeats Barak– she takes his hunted and kills him herself.

Yahweh has the control in this story, whether Jael realizes it or not. As Deborah and Barak sing over her, they make it known to her who God is- and he has done these things through her. It is God who blessed her, and He will continue to bless her for putting her own life on the line. After all, she takes the initiative to do what needs to be done. She could have been greatly rewarded by her people through offering asylum to Sisera (back story: Her household were friends with Canaan). Even if she did not insist on being involved with the Israelites, she interceded for them and became involved with a people who were not her own.

So what?

In considering her story, we cannot apply her actions in this culture to ours and conform to what she did. But we can learn from her boldness.

Women, we do not know Jael’s motives. And often, we question our own motives. But when acting in Yahweh’s Kingdom Story of Redemption, we need to desist in our overanalysis of every single point we dwell on (for those of you women who do not overanalyze, please teach me your ways.) We particularly overanalyze our motives, hindering upon some possibly heroic actions Even though Jael’s motives weren’t clear, she still fought against injustice. Her motives do not define the story, her actions do.

We can be so afraid of ourselves and how badly we can mess everything up in our relationships or within ourselves, or within our communities that we become paralyzed by fear, and we step back. Not forward.

Yes, we want to keep ourselves in check, but we overdo it. We protect ourselves so much that we neglect one of our biggest strengths: vulnerability.

We become victorious in our vulnerability.

“Participation in the Kingdom of God is praiseworthy. Nonparticipation is shameful.”- K. Lawson Younger Jr.

I took acting classes in college and that was when my stage fright started.  Acting is not performing. Acting is playing a motive. Acting is taking risks and making choices for character. Acting involves relationship with your acting partner (s) and trusting in each other and in the process. I could not be a good actor, because I had never been good at that in real life.

God is passionate, zealous, and loves justice. As His people, His image bearers, He expects us to do the same. Christianity is not a spectator sport– it’s a movement of the Lord’s people bringing about His good news to the ends of the earth. In the end, the Lord is sovereign and He gets the praise. This is pivotal but does not take away from the fact that we need to be moving and acting; we do so to reflect His praise.

Participation isn’t pretty. It is gritty. It involves a few metaphorical “tent pegs slammed through temples.” As women, we get discouraged from whatever isn’t externally beautiful or clean. We like things to be tidy. But that is not what the Lord wants of us.

He wants us to move in faith towards him, to step out and take risks. He wants us to do things which make us vulnerable.  But I am sorely afraid of my weakness. I see myself as less of a person than other people but God makes use of all sorts of odd, eccentric characters in the Bible: prostitutes, tent-dwelling women, poor shepherd boys, tax collectors, fervent persecutors, crazy prophets who go crazier after directed by God, women who have had 5 husbands, rash fisherman, etc.

I am weak. But that is nothing too hard for God to take care of. He can use my weakness in fact to become a better actor– I can be more genuine in my story and my journey in relationship with Jesus. I can use my weakness to engage more in the problems of everyone around me as I sensitively can listen and reflect with them. Weakness is a powerful attribute. And I haven’t owned it.

The Lord is our strength in our weakness. He uses the weak in the world to bring down the strong. He loves in our vulnerability and blesses us in it.

You are my strength when I am weak,                                                                                                                           you are the treasure that I seek,                                                                                                                                        you are my all in all.

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.  But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.- 2nd Corinthians 12: 7-10

Acknowledging our weakness, and stepping deeper into it, is part of humility. Humility is being part of the story in that, while you remain aware and in the process of knowing your story, you become more invested in THE STORY and in keeping other people in the story more in your thoughts, prayers and actions than yourselves.

No one is truly humble. Not like Jesus, who being God, came down as man, to dwell with us in our afflictions. He became afflicted to be with us.

I hate that I am not humble, and that makes me really question motives. It’s a weird thing. We need to become more humble, but we can’t think about how we are becoming more humble or we dwell too much on ourselves and not being in the story.

Jael’s motives were not considered. It is what she did which revealed her heart, and the Lord honored that. She embraced human weakness and did not do things perfectly. But she did something. She helped save a people.

I have never done anything  I have perceived to be heroically consistent with my high ideals. I have never even lived out my ideals because I get scared of what living in God’s community is really like. I am scared of risk and a little hard work. I am scared of my own faults and my desires. Obama is in office right now and I join the echoes of other Christians on Facebook in saying he is not going to change things (and no one person in Presidential office can).

We are the agents of change, whether Republican, Democrat, another party, or politically apathetic. Together, we can fight poverty, we can share in the misfortunes of others when hurricanes severely impact our communities; we can even reform our corrupt, money-centric two-party electoral process. But we probably won’t, because we are scared to move out of our comfort zones. Change is too much work. It is too much risk to challenge the status quo– we often do not like to interrupt what we perceive to be a superficial sense of shalom. Inciting incidents are to be avoided, not moved towards. Risks are something we are uncomfortable with.

I did take a risk to go to seminary- I uprooted from the East Coast to the middle of the Midwest and took out a loan. Whoa. Scary stuff. It was in seeing how God has used the weaknesses’ in my life that I finally decided to go back to school to pursue counseling, not knowing if it will work. Knowing it will be a lot of emotional work. Knowing it will force me to go deeper. And uncover the Band-Aids I try to place inadequately over my wounds

In learning more about Jael, I can begin to connect a story from thousands of years ago to my own. Jael’s story is Janelle’s story. I learn from her, as I begin to go deeper, despite the murkiness of the waters beneath, despite the vulnerability of showing myself to others. We are agents of the story. We are invited to go deeper and deeper (I have a poem about this).

But we prefer the surface. Where not one risk with a high stake exists. And where you can most easily become stuck.

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