Sunday, January 9, 2011

Death of Sisera

Yesterday I spent the better part of the day with the book of Judges as part of my book project for The Saint John's Bible. Judges chronicles a time for the Israelites between the death of their leader Joshua, who brought them into the Promised Land, and the time of the kings. The goal is for the people to be led directly by Yahweh, but they aren't up to it. The Lord "raises up" judges. They do more than keep the peace among the people; judge are deliverers, leading, directing and offering guidance in battle.

One of the judges is Deborah, and although I'd heard of her, I didn't really know her story. Deborah is a judge who leads the people with her military leader Barak (who insists that she go with him into battle) against the forces of the great military man Sisera. The Lord throws Sisera's troops into panic, and they are routed by the Israelites. All of Sisera's men are killed, but he escapes and flees to the tent of Jael, the wife of one of his allies. However, Jael, after luring Sisera into her tent, drives a tent stake through his head and into the ground while he is sleeping. This is a double humiliation for Sisera, whose forces are routed by a woman (Deborah) and who then is killed by a woman (Jael). To see the illumination on the SJB web page, click here.

What drew me to the passage, though, was the fact that it is told first as a narrative in Judges 4 and then, in chapter 5, as a poem/song.

The Song of Deborah is a classic ballad telling the story of triumph in battle. The opening suggests the purpose of the song is to retell the story: "When locks are long in Israel, when the people offer themselves willingly-- bless the Lord." In the times of prosperity to come, when your hair has grown long, remember how the Lord delivered you from your enemy Sisera. Later it will directly instruct people to retell the tale to all people and throughout time. Then the poem tells the story of three women.

It first recounts the sorry state of the Israelites in the time before Deborah arose, when "caravans ceased, and travelers kept to the byways," a time of "new gods," "plunder" and "war in the gates." After much praise of  Deborah, the narrative turns on the short verse: "then down to the gates/marched the people of the Lord," followed by a list of the peoples.

"Then loud beat the horses' hoofs/ with the galloping, galloping of his steeds." After the poetic telling of that "most blessed of women" Jael, and her dreaded tent spike, the poem makes its most interesting move.

It moves to a distant scene and introduces a third woman. "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 the chariots?'"

Isn't that great? This mother and "her wisest ladies" imagine the soldiers of Israel "deviding  the spoil" and taking "a girl or two for every man." It's a really unusual and striking move, from an unabashed celebration of victory in battle to the women left behind, now at the mercy of the victors.

In this writing project, I find it tricky to figure out how to present what I'm reading. I do not read the Historical Books as actual, literal history. These books are more akin to the Greek histories and tragedies, or perhaps the "histories" (and often the tragedies) of Shakespeare. They are literary and, although as a Christian I believe in their ability to tell me about God's relationship to humanity, I do not of course find the battle scenes or violence instructive of how "the people of God" should behave. Let us concentrate more on the opening of this and so many stories in Judges: "The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord... So the Lord sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan." This opening phrase will be repeated again at the opening of chapter 6, after we are told "And the land had rest for forty years."  Ultimately, the story of violence is the story of disobedience, the people's inability to follow God.

In the end, what I'm really enjoying is the stories. After my first weekend of writing, I really kept my amazement that the story of the movement into Canaan begins with two Israelites hidden and protected by the prostitute Rahab, who is later spared when Jericho is destroyed. What a strange and wonderful opening to this "history." And this week, I have the great Song of Deborah to take with me into the week, a wonderful poem that seems to speak across the centuries, of a warrior woman, a treacherous queen and the mother of a warrior on top of Mt. Tabor, realizing her son will not return from battle.

Image: Death of Sisera, Donald Jackson, ©2010, The Saint John’s Bible, Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota, USA.  Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Catholilc Edition, ©1993, 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

1 comment:

Amy Borrelli said...

I teach sixth-grade PSR at our church, focusing on the Old Testament. I was never a big OT reader until I moved up to this grade level (I had taught fifth grade in New York for four years). In fact, I had always thought the Old Testament was, quite frankly, boring – numbingly so.

What a mistake! Teaching this class has opened my eyes, and gotten me to pick up my Bible and read the Old Testament so much more. What rich writing, and what crazy characters and stories! And, of course, I appreciate that underlying message that God loves and forgives His people, no matter how badly we mess up, and that's what I try to convey to my class.

This year, for the first time, I had the kids read the story of Sisera, and of everything we did all year (measuring out the size of Noah's ark in the fields behind the church; writing and performing a play about Saul being anointed the first king of Israel, despite being so clueless that he couldn't find his donkeys; eating matzos as we compared the Mass to a Seder meal), I think the thing that they will remember years from now is the story of Jael and Sisera, and Deborah's song. They were all blown away by how cool and calculating Jael was to lull Sisera into a sense of ease and then murder him in cold blood. With a tent stake and hammer, no less! And talk about cold – Deborah's song, mocking the dead guy's relatives? Whoa.

It's no "Hunger Games," but the Old Testament is pretty good reading, in the eyes of my sixth-graders.