Blessed Be Jael Among Women
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"Blessed Be Jael Among Women"

Judges 4:4-24, Luke 1:46-55

The Rev. John L. Bell

We may wonder why this story is in the Bible.

Good stories are not always about moral virtue. I don’t have a television, but about four years ago I spent one night at my brother’s house in London and watched television from 7:00 to 10:00 p.m., in the course of which I watched thirty-one people being murdered — and this in Britain where we don’t espouse the use of pistols and other kinds of armory in the private sector or in private homes.

The best stories are not always morally acute. Think of jokes: they are very seldom about things which are morally neutral. They’re usually about a person’s idiosyncrasies, or they verge on the blue.

Stories that are memorable tend to have within them something which is odd. So maybe this story is in the bible because it’s a good story, and as the Jews would tell — grandmother to granddaughter, grandfather to grandson — the stories of their race, this one would certainly be easy to remember.

Or maybe it’s there because the Bible is our family album. This is a way in which the Celtic Christians of Ireland and Scotland looked to the Bible because, apart from the monks and the priests, they were illiterate. And yet in their literature and oral tradition, in their poems and prayers handed down through 400 or 500 years, there are nuggets of scripture, lines from obtuse parts of the Bible which surface because they used their memory, they used their imagination, and they saw the bible the same way as we would see a family album. When they opened it, they saw people who, through Christ, were linked to them. You see, they believed what we don’t believe, in our idolization of the nuclear family: that in Church, within the Christian community, water is thicker than blood. The water of baptism is thicker than the blood of genealogy, and through baptism into Christ we’re linked with all those who are in Christ’s family of whom this woman Jael is one notable person. She’s one of our great aunts in Christ; she’s in the family album. And why should she not be there? And, as is the case with our family album, many of the people whom we see as we are shown pictures by our grandparents of those who went before, many of them are quite quirky creatures.

She’s in there, or rather the story is in there also because she’s a woman. And in a book (either the Old Testament as a whole or the book of Judges in particular) where women don’t have a high profile, there are beautiful moments where women appear almost always when they are in situations of conflict or when they are taking on powerful men. And some of these women who take on powerful men are quite quirky. Perhaps you’ll know stories of women who have taken on powerful men, who are quite quirky. Two of the most formidable women in my life were my first dead grandmother (I mean my first grandmother who died after I was born), and a woman named Bella Brown. I could happily stand here from now until four o’clock and tell you stories of these two women.

My grandmother was known as "God-fearing," probably because the Lord feared her more than she feared the Lord. She did atrocious things. After my brothers, who were twins, had been born, she asked my mother to lie on a bed. She covered her breasts with brown paper, soaked it in vinegar, and then put a hot iron on top of my mother’s breasts. She said that it would scatter the milk. Now she’d be locked up, but in those days that kind of folk cure was presumed to be above board.

Bella Brown, another formidable woman who took on men, was the mother of my best friend at school. David, her son, tells stories about his mother that are legends. One of them — which I know well to be true — is that her daughter Margaret was a hematologist, which meant that she worked with blood in a hospital. Sometimes she’d bring home blood that was past its usable date. And Bella would use the blood to put on her roses, which she believed would help them to grow and give them a beautiful fragrance and colour. But she did not keep the tidiest of houses, and when Margaret brought back the blood in glass containers, which looked just like glass jars, they would frequently appear at the kitchen window. David used to doubt whether when his mother was short of gravy she’d use gravy mix or take from the jars. Now, it’s a revolting story, but so is the one about Jael. Sometimes powerful women have quirkinesses about them which are worth relating and keep them memorable in our mind.

But other people may have said that the story is in the Bible because it shows God’s bias for choosing the unexpected as saviours of the people. The book of Judges is definitely a book where that is crystal clear from beginning to end; that the people who appear in Judges are not the Moses’s or Davids of the world. They’re minor saviours, and each one of them has something dubious in his or her character. There’s a story in Judges, in as graphic detail as the story of Jael, where a man called Ehud takes taxes raised by the Jews for their oppressor, King Eglon. In great detail it talks about how Ehud sticks his sword through Eglon’s fat belly and the sword sticks out the back and he falls down dead (Judges 3:15-25). It may just be that the story is in there because Ehud is left handed and you’d know perhaps in your generation as I knew in my early days that left handed people were seen as being suspect, or perhaps as in some cultures, slightly demonic. Yet here God chooses the outsider to be the saviour of the people.

If you look at the Samson stories it’s not all about a man with long hair whose wife, or whose mistress, cuts it. But it’s a pretty appalling story about him feeding honey, which he found in a lion’s belly, to his parents without telling them the source of this delight. Samson may well have been psychotic and yet he is seen as a man in whom the spirit of God dwells. God chooses unlikely saviours, and this woman, just a wife of a warrior, just a woman who was looking after her tent: she is the unlikely saviour.

So Jael does something that men can’t do. You women do that. There are things that women can do which men can’t. One of which is to speak quietly on a mobile phone when in public transport. Another of which — as I saw yesterday in Toronto — is to use space well. Women will sit in one space when men will splay their legs and take up two. Women also know the difference between straight lines and circles. If I am doing a seminar or workshop, I invariably ask that the chairs be in a three-quarter circle or in goal-post formation. When I get into the room I know whether it has been set up by a man or a woman. Women will have a circle all the way around or on three sides of equal dimensions; men will always have straight lines with a slight curve right at the end. There is something about the control model: we men want to know who’s in the front, who’s in control, whereas women are quite prepared for the engagement of the community. There are some things that women can do that men can’t. And seducing a man to come into her tent, to cover him up, to offer him milk when he wanted water, is something no man could have done with this enemy of the Jews. It had to be a woman.

But I believe that there is another reason why that story is in the Bible; why God inspired it to be created. It’s because of a poem. Not a poem which we know very well, but a poem which was written in celebration of this event. I read from one chapter of the book of Judges and in the next chapter Deborah, who is one of the judges, begins to retell the story. And with that facility which many women have for embroidery, she puts on her own embellishments:

Blessed above all women be Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite, blessed above all women in the tents.

He asked for water: she gave him milk;

she offered him curds and a bowl fit for a chieftain.

She reached out her hand for the tent-peg, her right hand for the workman’s hammer.

With the workman’s hammer she struck Sisera, crushing his head.

With a shattering blow she pierced his temple.

At her feet he sank, he fell, he lay prone.

At her feet he sank down and fell;

Where he sank down, there he fell down to death.

The mother of Sisera peered through the lattice;

Through the window she peered and cried, "Why is this chariot so long in coming?

Why is the clatter of his chariot so delayed?"

The wisest of her ladies answered her, "Perhaps he’s sharing out the booty;

Perhaps he’s with a woman." (Judges 5:24-30)

Which he certainly was. But did you notice how that poem, or that part of the poem, begins? Did you notice how Deborah speaks of Jael? "Blessed be Jael among women." There is only one other woman in the Bible to whom that assignation or that title is given, and that’s Mary, the mother of Jesus. And she, as a Jewish woman, might well have known the songs that Jewish women wrote, and were recorded in scripture. I wonder how she felt when she heard said of her, "Blessed are you among women." Remembering that story of Jael, would she then feel that her engagement with God was to be one of carefreeness or conflict? Would the son that she bore be one whose life was carefree or destined for conflict? Who knows? But we may ponder these things as this day progresses.