Most Americans (including me) are rooting for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression. We take that confrontation to be an unequal contest between a vulnerable peasant economy and a brutalizing, ruthless military machine. We have no doubt of the legitimacy and rightness of the Ukrainian cause, and lend it all the emotive support we can muster; we hope, moreover, that our government will give realistic support against tyranny. A tacit reality that we seldom acknowledge is that a positive outcome for Ukraine would mean an extension of the democratic capitalism of Pax Americana in which we have a great stake.
From this unequal brutal contest, I am glad to report some thoughts from a night when I could not sleep, thoughts that lead to no conclusion but that invite an extended pause for reflection. I was led, in the wake of the war, to reflect on the “Song of Deborah” (Judges 5) that is perhaps the earliest biblical poetry and certainly among the most vigorous and celebrative. This very early poem is echoed and reiterated in the prose narrative of Judges 4. That narrative is easier to follow, but it lacks the firepower of the poem. This poem is marked in at least three important ways. First, it is something of a feminist manifesto, as Deborah is the only woman judge. Her sidekick, Barak (whose name means “lightening”) gets some later mention in the subsequent tradition that she does not. The outcome of the poem, moreover, features a woman hero, Jael (who is also forgotten in the subsequent tradition). Second, the poem is militantly theological. It concerns the fresh embrace of YHWH in Israel, the God who is known to be emancipatory through the Exodus memory. What YHWH did to the enslavements of Pharaoh YHWH may do yet again amid the enslavements of Canaan:
To the Lord I will sing,
I will make melody to the Lord, the God of Israel…
When new gods were chosen,
then war was in the gates…
My heart goes out to the commanders of Israel
who offered themselves willingly among the people.
Bless the Lord (Judges 5:3, 8-9).
The poem recalls the cataclysmic coming of mighty YHWH from Sinai, and anticipates a like coming now to Israel:
Lord, when you went out from Seir,
when you marched from the region of Edom,
the earth trembled, and the heavens poured, the clouds indeed poured water.
The mountains quaked before the Lord, the One of Sinai,
before the Lord, the God of Israel (Judges:4-5).
Third, the poem reflects the sociopolitical circumstance of tribal Israel when the Canaanites held all the power. (I read the poem through the hypothesis of a “peasant revolt” best articulated by Norman Gottwald. That hypothesis proposes that the Israelite peasantry is vulnerable to the rigorous power of Canaanite city-states and their armaments.) Thus the poem sings of the victory of the helpless, hapless Israelite tribes against “Canaan,” a force of economic predation. Israel did so at the behest of the newly chosen God of the Exodus, YHWH.
The poem sings of the tribes who engaged the struggle:
Then down marched the remnant of the noble;
the people of the Lord marched down for him against the mighty.
From Ephraim they set out into the valley,
following you, Benjamin, with your kin;
from Machir marched down the commanders,
and from Zebulon those who bear the marshal’s staff;
the chiefs of Issachar came with Deborah,
and Issachar faithful to Barak;
into the valley they rushed out at his heels (Judges 5:13-15a).
Then the song continues by naming the tribes that refused to join the struggle and so refused the battle for Israelite freedom:
Among the clans of Reuben there were great searchings of heart.
Why did you tarry among the sheepfolds,
to hear the piping for the flocks?
Among the clans of Reuben there were great searchings of heart.
Gilead stayed beyond the Jordan;
and Dan, why did he abide with the ships?
Asher sat still at the coast of the sea,
settling down by his landings.
Zebulon is a people that scorned death;Naphtali too, on the heights of the fields…
Curse Meroz, says the angel of the Lord,
curse bitterly its inhabitants,
because they did not come to the help of the Lord,
to the help of the Lord against the mighty (Judges 5:15b-18, 23).
Thus the song is framed so that we can see the socioeconomic context of the Israelites who were led into risky combat by the bravery of Deborah and Barak, and by the surge of YHWH’s majestic power.
JAEL VERSUS SISERA
The framing of the poem, however, is only a set-up for the specificity that follows. As every good journalist knows (and Deborah knew before them), a good story requires specificity of names and identifiable events. That is what we have in verses 24-27 where the mighty systemic struggle between Canaan and Israel is given concreteness in the interaction of Jael versus Sisera.
The only thing we know about Jael is that she is married to a Kenite. In this scene she is alone; perhaps her husband is away to war. She lives in a tent as do her tent-dwelling people, the Kenites. She is said to be “blessed,” but we must hear these lines to know why she is blessed. Her counterpart in the narrative is introduced only as “he” (v. 25). Only in verse 26 do we learn his name was “Sisera.” We are told no more about him, except that he is hungry. In verse 25 Jael does not blink. He asks…she gives. She fed him a generous bowl of curds. She practices hospitality. Eventually he relaxes and lets his guard down. But Jael knows who he is. She recognizes him as an enemy. Thus after her show of hospitality in verse 25, the action turns abruptly in verse 26. This generous practitioner of hospitality knows he is an enemy. Now she has a tent peg and a hammer. She attacks him and he does not even resist. Only in the midst of the attack do we learn his name. Jael has all the active verbs. She put, she struck, she crushed, she shattered, she pierced. She beat his brains out! The attack is propelled by rage. Jael, on behalf of her Israelite people, has had enough of Canaanite exploitation. And so the long, ugly contested history of powerful Canaanites and vulnerable Israelites is resolved in this instance with a reversal of power. Now the smitten, helpless Canaanite receives his allotment of verbs: he sank, he fell, he lay still, he sank, he fell, he sank, he fell…dead! They are weak verbs! She has done it! The Canaanite is defeated, dead at the hands of a woman. She has been brave and violent and unrelenting. And now she is “blessed;” Israel sings of her!
Beyond the parallel narrative of Judges 4, Jael will never again be mentioned by Israel. But Sisera will. Beyond Judges 4 he will become a reference point for victories given by God. He will be mentioned in Samuel’s recital as the commander of the army of the great city-state of Hazor:
But they forgot the Lord their God; and he sold them into the hand of Sisera, commander of the army of King Jabin of Hazor (I Samuel 12:9).
It will be recalled that he took the Israelites as captive according to the punishing will of YHWH. He will be recalled a second time in Israel, this time as one who was destroyed by YHWH, an enemy who became as repugnant as manure:
Do to them as you did to Midian,
as to Sisera and Jabin at the Wadi Kishon,
who were destroyed at Endor,
who became dung for the ground (Psalm 83:9-10).
In I Samuel 12:11 wherein Samuel recites the name of the victorious “judges,” Deborah is not mentioned. Nor is this violent Jael of whom Deborah so gladly sings. The women are only inferred! They are nonetheless decisive players in the struggle of Israel vis-a-vis the Canaanites. Jael is at the center of this poem. The whole of Deborah’s song runs toward her. Deborah tells us of fast horses (Judges 5:22), of mighty waters (5:21), of stars in the heavens, all of which fought for Israel (v. 20). All of creation was mobilized for Israel. But finally it all depends on this brave woman. And she prevailed! She prevailed with her hammer and tent peg, and with her mighty verbs. And the pitiful, failed Canaanite is left with only his verbs of feebleness. We can imagine that those who listened to Deborah’s singing, generation after generation, joined mockingly in the recital of his feeble verbs:
He sank, he fell;
he lay still at her feet;
at her feet he sank, he fell;
where he sank, there he fell;
Jael has prevailed in her violent courage. And with her Israel has prevailed, just as the creator had intended. The poem ends with the glad reprise of verse 31. It ends flush with victory, voiced in song, confident in YHWH, grateful to Jael. The song has reached its triumphant conclusion.
We may imagine how this poem was taken up in Israel. We could, moreover, readily imagine how this same song would be reiterated in Ukraine. All we need to do is to change the name of Sisera to the name of a Russian general, or the name of any dead Russian soldier, or even the name of Putin. The vulnerable community, in its moment of triumph, would exult in victory, against such long odds, because of bravery…and because of the intent of the creator God who would mobilize all creation for the sake of this vulnerable community. The feebleness of Sisera, matched to the strong verbs of Jael, reaches conclusion in the ultimate, resounding “dead.”
Except that the song does not end there. It continues in verses 28-30 in a way that takes us quite by surprise. Deborah, with her remarkable poetic acumen, shifts our attention. Now, abruptly, we are in the safe place of the Canaanite enemy, at home with the women of the Canaanite officers and soldiers who wait in anxiety. Among those who wait anxiously is the mother of Sisera. There is his name again! (v. 28). She waits with the women who silently share her anxiety. She wonders, perhaps aloud:
Why is his chariot so long in coming?
Why tarry the hoofbeats of his chariots? (Judges 5:28)
Her companions never muster an answer to her wonderment. But she already knows. She has already drawn the inescapable conclusion.
The mother is war-worn and war-smart. She knows that if her son, the commander, is delayed, it may be because of big trouble. She can still hope that her son has captured the enemy, his enemy, her enemy, Israel, with their fancy embroidered uniforms. She can foresee that her son, in gleefulness, is dividing up the captured uniforms as trophies and sharing the confiscated young women as well. If her son has their uniforms, he is certainly victorious. She does not say a negative word in response to her questions; but she knows. And the other women know as well, though they do not speak. The word, “dead,” has already been applied to her son in verse 27 by the singer. And now she knows beyond any doubt, and the rest is left unsaid. The poem offers a scenario of the Canaanites in their wait for death as the truth of defeat and death seeps into their awareness. The truth is spoken in two questions in verse 30:
Are they not finding and dividing the spoil?—
A girl or two for every man; spoil of dyed stuff for Sisera,
spoil of died stuff embroidered,
two pieces of dyed work embroidered for my neck as spoil? (Judges 5:30)
Yes, they are dividing spoil and allotting women. She wishes that it was her son who was so engaged; but she knows better. Now everyone knows. The mother can offer vivid detail of the conduct of the greedy winners! Only she knows that the winners are not the men of her son’s charge. Her son is the one who has lost his fancy uniform, and with it all his famous triumphalism.
The reprise of verse 31 savors and voices victory that sorts out “friends” and “enemies”:
So perish all your enemies, O Lord!
But may your friends be like the sun as it rises in its might (v. 31).
Enemies of YHWH! Friends of YHWH! The Canaanites and their general are defeated. And so there could be a calm—forty years’ worth!
A SECOND SEEING
We may be dazzled and astonished by the episode in verses 28-30. The verses offer us a second seeing of enemies. The first seeing in verses 24-27 is celebrative of the ignoble defeat of the enemy. That is quite ordinary, just as expected throughout all war poetry. This is what people do to exult in victory! But this second sighting in verses 28-30 is unexpected amid the victory celebration. Now we are given a glimpse into the sadness of the Canaanite women over the deaths of their sons. Deborah invites Israel, in its jubilation, to pause for an instant to recognize that war victories are not unambiguous gains. They are not unambiguous, because every soldier has a mother. Every soldier who dies has a mother who grieves. Every victory leaves someone bereft in defeat. This unexpected acknowledgement is testimony to the depth and agility of the character of Deborah who sings. She has the passion of honesty sufficient to interrupt the victory celebration with a second scene. As a result we are able to see the “enemy”… twice! First we see “the enemy” defeated and shamed, the outcome of Israel’s victory of the war effort (vv. 24-27)! But then, we see “the enemy” a second time, bereft in death and loss. Seeing the “enemy” in this way a second time places some restraint on our first “seeing” in victory.
We might tilt this twice “seeing and seeing again” to the war in Ukraine where we root for Ukraine and hope for Russian defeat. The first scenario is a popular war. For that reason we are glad for every dead Russian soldier. We are elated for every abandoned Russian tank. We are energized by every failure of a Russian general. And we hope that the sum of dead soldiers, abandoned tanks, and failed generals will add up to the defeat of Putin. That scenario is affirmed and fostered by our media and savored by our political leaders, including our generals with their endless charts. It is the business of the media and our leaders to support the war effort and bring us every iota of good news that is on offer.
This second scenario, not so much. The media seeks no great access to the behind-the-scenes anxiety of Russian families who have sons as soldiers. Political leaders do not have the luxury of the second sighting, for that would be to be “soft” about the war. As result, what we get is the first scenario that is celebrative of the now familiar sequence: “sank, fell, sank, fell, sank, dead!”
So consider this. The second scenario is peculiarly entrusted to the church. It is the work of the church to bear witness to the unnoticed reality of war: every soldier has a mother. Every family grieves the death of a son-soldier, even enemy families. Every soldier who dies is remembered as heroic and brave, even the ones who have cowered in fear. It is the work of the second scenario to relativize war and to remind us of our common humanity. Our shared humanity—and the common way we all love our children—is much more elemental than the fight over oil or even over territory. It is our common humanity, our capacity for common grief, and our eagerness for the common cherishing of our children, that constitute the ground for new historical possibility. It is the peculiar work of the church to remind us of our common humanity.
THE CHURCH’S LEGACY
Those who know only the first scenario always anticipate victory, always exaggerate the glory of war. The church’s legacy is otherwise. We belong to the community of peacemakers, because peacemakers are called “blessed” (Matthew 5:9). Jael may be celebrated as “blessed,” but our faith tradition tells us otherwise. It seems likely to me that Jesus had something like the second scenario in mind when he taught us:
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44).
We could imagine a prayer of consolation for the mother of Sisera. Jael would not have prayed it. But Deborah hoped for something otherwise. She lets us be troubled with the second scenario concerning our common humanity. We followers of Jesus must linger a while with the second scenario. It is the work of realism about war, and about shared human prospects. Sisera’s mother would likely have traded all the tanks and all the territory for the wellbeing of her son. Few mothers would have done otherwise.
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