Meet Barak . . . no, not that one!
14 Then Deborah said to Barak, “Go! This is the day the Lord has given Sisera into your hands. Has not the Lord gone ahead of you?” So Barak went down Mount Tabor, with ten thousand men following him. 15 At Barak’s advance, the Lordrouted Sisera and all his chariots and army by the sword, and Sisera got down from his chariot and fled on foot.
16 Barak pursued the chariots and army as far as Harosheth Haggoyim, and all Sisera’s troops fell by the sword; not a man was left. 17 Sisera, meanwhile, fled 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.
18 Jael went out to meet Sisera and said to him, “Come, my lord, come right in. Don’t be afraid.” So he entered her tent, and she covered him with a blanket.
19 “I’m thirsty,” he said. “Please give me some water.” She opened a skin of milk,gave him a drink, and covered him up.
20 “Stand in the doorway of the tent,” he told her. “If someone comes by and asks you, ‘Is anyone in there?’ say ‘No.’”
21 But Jael, Heber’s wife, picked up a tent peg and a hammer and went quietly to him while he lay fast asleep, exhausted. She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died.
22 Just then Barak came by in pursuit of Sisera, and Jael went out to meet him. “Come,” she said, “I will show you the man you’re looking for.” So he went in with her, and there lay Sisera with the tent peg through his temple—dead.
23 On that day God subdued Jabin king of Canaan before the Israelites. 24 And the hand of the Israelites pressed harder and harder against Jabin king of Canaan until they destroyed him.
I was amazed in 2008, how many Americans thought the junior senator from Illinois had a thoroughly Islamic name. Yet here it is in the Hebrew scripture as a militia leader during the time of a female judge of Israel. The judges were charismatic leaders who emerged when there was a national need, for the tribes of Israel had no continuous government: a situation that modern anarchists might idealize.
No, the Barak for today’s complex character review is not the recent president.
Yet, how interesting that both Baraks, the one of our era and the one of the 12th century BCE in ancient Israel, would have no problem with a woman in leadership. Neither would have called a woman who aspired to such a role “that nasty woman.” Today, the rise of populism and nativism on both sides of the Atlantic are seen by many who are concerned about the status of women as an assault on the gains for women’s rights over the past half-century in most western democracies.
In the passage from Judges, Deborah recruits the military aid of Barak, assuring him that the enemy Canaanite general, Sisera, would be delivered by God “into the hands of a woman.” One might think, and perhaps Barak did think, that Deborah was referring to herself. Not so! The story unfolds with clandestine subterfuge. The end of General Sisera would come when he accepts the apparent hospitality of Jael, wife of Heber, who gave him some nice warm milk to relax him, covered him with a rug, and calmly drove a tent stake into his brain. He was beyond the relief of aspirin.
That may seem ghastly to modern sensibilities, but I am reminded of the subterfuge of the Hebrew midwives in the Exodus story who refuse to obey the orders of Pharaoh to kill the baby boys of the Hebrew slaves. Sometimes injustice must be met with severe lawlessness, especially when the legal power is enforcing evil, like South Africa’s apartheid or America’s Jim Crow laws. The biblical Barak celebrates in song the grisly subterfuge of Jael. The modern Barak has broken with tradition and celebrated the protests against the threat of the new populist president against women and refugees.
Where will we fit into these unfolding events of the 21st century?
I’m celebrating, Lord God, the empowerment of women like Deborah,
who has arisen in Israel. And the deed of that tent-dwelling Jael,
who shattered the threat of Sisera with a peg.
Help me to know what really needs doing,
That peace may dwell with us for forty – or more – years. Amen.