"Tell us a story," the children cried. "Yes, tell us a story," they said to the wise old storyteller of the circle.
In the flickering glow of the fading campfire the faces of the children glowed with innocence as the light shone on their smooth, rounded cheeks. But on the wise old woman whose story they sought, the light found the folds in her wrinkled skin, throwing shadows across her face that gave her an air of mystery. Only her eyes shone with full force.
"Tell us a scary story," one child said.
"Yes, yes! A scary story," the others agreed. And it was the time of night to tell such stories. Under the stars, in the darkness of the forest, among a circle of friends, it was time to tell a chilling tale.
"Are you sure that you want to hear a scary story?" the old woman asked.
"Oh, yes!" the children cried. "A monster story!"
"Well, in that case, listen well. For this is a story you may wish you had not heard when we finish. It's a monster story from the Bible."
"The Bible!" a child cried. "We want to hear a scary story! Bible stories are all about sheep and arks and rainbows!"
"Oh, but you're mistaken, child. Some of the scariest stories of all come from the Bible. Let me tell you the story of a woman named Deborah. Deborah lived a long time ago in the time before Israel had a king. She was a powerful leader and a prophet."
"Hold on," a little boy said. "A woman prophet?"
"It is true that this was a rare thing. Most women were never allowed to speak in public places in those days. Most of them wouldn't have been respected as leaders. But God doesn't always obey our rules. So God chose Deborah to be a prophet. Deborah used to sit beneath a palm tree in the hill country of Israel. And people would come to Deborah for justice. She was a wise woman and a strong woman and a fair woman. So people who had disputes would bring them to Deborah because they knew she would hear them with the ears of God."
"Wait a minute!" a little girl cried. "You said there was a monster in this story!"
"Oh, there is, little one. And I'm about to come to that. You see at this time the Israelite people were being oppressed by a foreign King -- King Jabin of Canaan. And King Jabin had an army commander who was fearsome enough to inspire terror in the heart of the bravest person.
The Jewish legends say that he was a giant of a man. It is said that he could freeze a lion in its tracks just by screaming at it. And he could destroy the walls of an enemy's city with a shout -- just like the Israelites had done at Jericho! He had 900 iron chariots and the Israelites had none. And it is said that it took 900 fire-Ã¯Â¿Â½breathing horses to pull those chariots.
Oh, he was terrifying. And his name sounded like something being spoken by a thousand snakes -- Sisera. Sisera. Sisera. For twenty years he had oppressed the Israelites. Twenty long years. Until that day that Deborah called upon Barak.
Now Barak was an Israelite who had some military experience and who feared God, but he was a little too fearful. God can sometimes speak in a still, small voice, but even when God spoke very loudly to Barak, he convinced himself that it was just the wind. And so, even though God had been calling Barak for some time to go and face Sisera, he refused to believe it.
Deborah called Barak to her palm tree and told him in words he could not ignore -- 'Barak, God is calling you to march to Mt. Tabor with 10,000 warriors. And there God will bring you Sisera and his chariots and his army and will give you victory.'
But Barak was still afraid. On his own he knew that he would never have the courage to face Sisera's 900 chariots. Even if he had 10,000 warriors he knew he couldn't do it. He needed someone with unshakable faith and a solid belief that it would be done. Someone like Deborah.
So he said to Deborah, 'If you will go with me, I will go; if you won't go with me, then I won't go.'
Deborah did go, but before she did, she told Barak that he wouldn't get any of the glory from the battle because Sisera would die at the hands of a woman."
"So Deborah got to kill him!" a boy said.
"Ah, wait and see," said the storyteller with a slight smile. "Now Sisera heard that the Israelites were gathering to oppose him on Mt. Tabor. So he gathered his men and his 900 chariots of iron with their fireÃ¯Â¿Â½breathing horses and headed for the Wadi Kishon -- a normally dry valley at the base of the mountain.
Sisera sent spies into the camp of the Israelites and they came back with wild reports. A goodÃ¯Â¿Â½-sized army had formed and it seemed to have two generals -- and one of them was a woman. The rumor in the camp was that Sisera would die at the hands of a woman.
Well, Sisera thought this was funny. Hilarious, in fact. And he threw back his head and laughed in his voice that could break walls and freeze lions. The valley rumbled as if from thunderclaps as he laughed and cried out, 'A woman? The Israelite god would defeat me, the mightiest general in the world, at the hands of a woman?'
The Israelites on the mountainside trembled as the valley shook from Sisera's laughter. Night fell and down below they could see the lights of enemy campfires twinkling in the Wadi Kishon. But by those campfires the men of Sisera's army had reason to tremble as well. They had heard stories. Stories about how the Israelite god had defeated the Egyptian Pharoah who came out with chariots against them. Stories about how God used unlikely people to win great victories. And though they feared Sisera, they feared the coming day as well.
As daybreak grew closer, black clouds shut out the light from the stars above. At dawn the clouds opened and rain began to fall on the armies below.
Sisera awoke in a foul mood. He was ready to destroy the Israelites. He despised them for their insult to him in sending an army led by a woman. So he ordered the men into their chariots and then yelled, 'Charge!' in a voice that once again shook the earth. And 900 chariots led by fire-Ã¯Â¿Â½breathing horses rumbled forward to meet the army on the mountain above.
On the mountain above there was a command to charge as well -- this time in a woman's voice. Deborah told Barak to move forward because God was with them on this day. And the army of 10,000 moved to meet the dreaded general and his 900 chariots of iron.
The rain continued to pour and soon the chariot drivers found themselves mired in the mud of the Wadi Kishon, which was quickly becoming a torrent. And as the army of Sisera realized that they were becoming hopelessly stuck, the army of Israel suddenly thundered down upon them -- catching them in their moment of weakness.
There was panic, as there must have been so many years before for Pharaoh's army as the Red Sea closed around them. Swords flashed in lightning blasts. Men cried out in agony. Horses fell into the mud.
And mighty Sisera thought that he saw, on the hill above, a face -- the face of a determined woman overseeing the chaos below. Deborah. God's leader and prophet who was not to be denied victory. And Sisera fled.
Mighty Sisera ran. He jumped from his chariot and ran as fast as he could. Fleeing from the Israelite god. Fleeing from Deborah. Fleeing from the sound of a battle in which all of his men were killed."
"But wait!" a little girl said to the storyteller. "Deborah said that Sisera would be killed by a woman! Did she chase him?"
"No. She didn't chase him. Sisera ran until he came to a tent far from the battle. It was the tent of Jael -- a woman who was not an Israelite, but a Kenite. The Kenites were distantly related to the Israelites, but Jael's husband was in an alliance with the Canaanites so there was no reason that Sisera should have feared this tent, not that he had ever been afraid before. But he should have been, because Jael lured him to her tent with seductive promises of security. And once inside the tent Sisera began to feel a little safer. Though his army had been destroyed, he had eluded Barak and that woman whose presence meant him harm.
In his ease he asked Jael for water but she, like a gracious hostess or a caring mother, gave him milk. And he crawled beneath a rug telling her to lie if anyone came asking if he were there. But when he had fallen asleep, Jael took a mallet and a tent stake and felt around beneath the rug for just the right spot. Then she drove the stake through Sisera's skull, killing him instantly and pinning him to the ground."
"She was the woman!" a little girl screamed.
"Yes," said the storyteller. "She was the woman by whom God's prophecy was fulfilled."
The little girl smiled. "So the monster was finally dead."
"Oh, no. The monster is not dead. In fact the monster is still very much alive."
"But you said..."
"I said that Jael Killed Sisera, but Sisera, fearsome as he was, was not the monster. When Deborah sang about the victory in later years she remembered that even Sisera had a mother who waited for him on that day. His mother stood at the window waiting to hear the hoofbeats of those 900 chariots of iron coming home in victory once again. But her son never returned and the hoofbeats that she heard in the distance were those of Barak and his army coming to plunder her home.
No, Sisera was not the monster -- evil though he was. The real monster is the horror of violence that causes us to reach for swords and hammers and tent stakes, even in the name of good causes."
There was silence for a long minute and then a child asked, "So what's the point of the story? It is a scary story, but I don't believe God wants us to treat anyone like that. Jesus said to love our enemies. What's the moral?"
"Well," said the storyteller with a sly smile, "the moral could be 'Beware of strangers in tents offering you stake for dinner.' But more likely the story is about surprises.
Deborah surprised Barak with God's command. Jael surprised Sisera in her tent. And God surprised everybody by overthrowing the Canaanites. God used unlikely people -- a woman prophet, a fearful man and even a foreigner with a tent stake to deliver the people of God.
But there's still that monster, isn't there? The monster that stalks our streets and our homes and our relationships even today. There's still that monster of violence and even though God sometimes seems to use even it to bring about good, violence, the monster haunts us. And we still struggle to end its reign of terror. The monster of violence can never have the last word -- not on a hill called Calvary and not here tonight."
Finally one of the children said, "Why does God give us scary stories like these?"
"So that when the time is right and there is a chill in the air and you ask an old woman for a monster story, there'll be something to tell."