The Bible, like life, is rife with stories of gender-based violence. Abuse. Enslavement. Rape. Murder. Torture. Kidnappings. Forced marriages. Exploitation. It is there, in all its horrifying depravity, and the stories hint at realities that are even worse. Realities that untold numbers of women around the world are all too familiar with.
These texts become a stumbling block for many people—those who are unable to reconcile the ugliness of the stories with the beauty of a loving God. Why don’t the biblical authors roundly condemn every instance of such behavior? Why do they sometimes seem to approve of it, glory in it, or even on rare occasion, insinuate that it is God’s will?
While the Bible is the inspired Word of God, it is important to understand that it shows up dressed in humanity’s dirty laundry far more often than most of us would like. Just as Jesus, the ultimate Word of God, took on the constraints of human flesh and limited himself to a place and time in human history during his sojourn on earth, the written Word uses the particularities of language, culture, and context to communicate with human beings in the only way we are capable of understanding. And human language, culture, and context can be ugly, especially when viewed in retrospect.
Could God devise a way to download God’s perfect will about every situation directly into our brains? Certainly. Could we withstand it, much less comprehend it, in our current unglorified state? Certainly not. In Exodus 33, God tells Moses that God will cause all his goodness to pass in front of him and proclaim the holy name in his presence. But Moses will have to hide in a rock cleft and only catch a glimpse of God’s back, because no one could see God’s face and live. Just as we see by the light of the sun, but cannot stare directly into it, God is too much for us without some sort of filter to accommodate our humanity. Since we cannot raise ourselves to God’s level, God meets us where we are, mired in the grit and grime of this world. God is patient with us as we undergo the slow process of transformation that will not be fully realized until Jesus comes again and makes all things new. And so the wisdom of God comes to us wrapped in the words and stories of humanity, and those who have ears, let them hear.
Since stories about gender-based violence are as common as water, in the Scriptures and in our world, it may be interesting to look at a story where the script was flipped. Where the counter-narrative of women won out for once and was a cause for rejoicing. And no one knew how to flip the script like Deborah and Jael.
You may have heard the story. Judges 4:4 leads off with this startling statement: “Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time.” Wow! The understated way in which the author communicates this suggests that this situation wasn’t as shocking as later generations would find it. Indeed, women often have more influence in tribal societies than in nations with a strong central government. But in any case, Deborah was functioning as Israel’s spiritual and civic leader, just as Moses had done before her, and Samuel would do after her. A bully named Sisera, who commanded nine hundred iron chariots, had been oppressing God’s people for the last twenty years, and Deborah was fed up. She sent for one of Israel’s warriors, a man named Barak, and told him to gather an army and engage Sisera on the shores of the Kishon River, near Mount Tabor. Barak said he would only do it if she went with him, and Deborah told him that if he was going to be that way, the glory for this fight would go to a woman.
The battle went down just as Deborah had said it would. Barak and Deborah mustered Israel’s armies, God went out before them and routed the Canaanites, and Sisera wound up fleeing on foot “to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, because there was an alliance between Jabin king of Hazor and the family of Heber the Kenite” (Judges 4:17). Jael, apparently, had no such alliance in her own heart.
There is a danger in reading too much into Scripture, ascribing motives to people that are not clearly spelled out. There is also a danger in not reading enough into Scripture—of spending so much time gazing at the dazzling surface that you miss the depths beneath. The undertones of Jael’s story writhe with fury, and the sexual innuendo is hard to miss. One has to wonder. Was Jael a victim of Sisera’s cruelty? Was she a sister, or a daughter, or a friend of someone who was?
Jael went out to lure the fleeing commander into her tent, enjoined him not to be afraid, and tucked him into her bed. When he asked for water, she gave him a soothing skin of warm milk, and then stood guard at the entrance—until he had fallen asleep. Then Jael took up a hammer, crept over to the bed, and impaled the Canaanite commander with a tent peg. The Book of Biblical Antiquities, an ancient source of extra-biblical legends written around the time of Jesus, has Sisera crying out, “I die like a woman!” and Jael telling Sisera, “Go, boast before your father in hell, and tell him you have fallen into the hands of a woman.”
In a macabre twist of poetic justice, a lone, vulnerable woman impaled the powerful aggressor in her bed. And the Israelites went wild with joy. The Song of Deborah, immortalized in Judges 5, waxes poetic about Jael’s conquest, calling her “most blessed of women” and describing the slaying in gory detail. The song ironically imagines Sisera’s mother waiting and worrying at her windowsill, and her handmaidens comforting her with the idea that Sisera must still be dividing the spoils, “a woman or two for each man” (Judges 5:30). But not today, Satan! Jael flipped the script, and it was glorious.
Now, I am not saying that violence should be met with violence or that women should run around impaling rapists with tent pegs. But this is one instance in which the Bible gives us a glimpse into a female revenge fantasy, without moralizing about violence. The female counter-narrative won out, and there is a deeper symbolism to this story that we will look at in just a bit.
But Jael’s story isn’t the norm, is it? For every woman celebrated for outfoxing a predator, there are countless victims. Jael’s story may make us want to cheer, but it is just tit for tat, with the scales falling on the side that looks more like justice for once. And while Jael’s actions may have spared some innocent lives, in the end, tit for tat will destroy us all. No, if we’re going to address the epidemic of violence in general, and gender-based violence in particular, we can’t rely on outraged women wielding weapons. We need something more.
What if, instead of the male narrative or the female narrative, God’s narrative won out? What would that look like?
Find this story compelling? Read more! This is excerpted from From Risk to Resilience: How Empowering Young Women Can Change Everything.