From the Book of Judges:
Most blessed of women be Jael,
the wife of Heber the Kenite,
of tent-dwelling women most blessed.
He asked water and she gave him milk,
she brought him curds in a lordly bowl.
She put her hand to the tent-peg
and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet;
she struck Sisera a blow,
she crushed his head,
she shattered and pierced his temple.
He sank, he fell,
he lay still at her feet;
at her feet he sank, he fell;
where he sank, there he fell dead.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary. – Judge 5:24-27 – August 4, 2012)
“Most blessed” be a murderess? What is this? Yesterday, a friend and colleague who was only a little older than I am passed away after several months of pancreatic cancer, so I’m a little sensitive on the subject of death this morning. So, really! What is this?
This is part of the song sung by the judge Deborah and Barak, whom she had made commander of the Israelite forces, as they celebrated victory over King Jabin of Hazor’s Canaanite forces of whom Sisera was the commander. I think folks can be surprised and somewhat taken aback by how bloodthirsty some of our Holy Scriptures are, how much death there really is in the Bible.
We never read these parts in church on a Sunday, even if Morning Prayer is used for the main service of the day (a rarity among Episcopalians now that the Eucharist has taken a central place in our worship). These bloody, violent bits of the story are not found in either the Sunday Eucharistic lectionary nor the Sunday readings for the Daily Office. As a result, tent pegs driven into skulls, she-bears tearing apart children (2 Kings 2:23-24), and babies being dashed against rocks (Psalm 137:9), biblical images of violent, bloody death seldom, if ever, enter the perceptions of church-goers. About the most violent we ever get in church is wreaking vengeance on the nations, binding their kings in chains, and putting their nobles in irons. (Psalm 149:7-8, Proper 18 in Year A and All Saints Day in Year C)
What we have on Sundays is a whitewashed and sanitized religion, cleaned of its gorier, more violent, deadly images – except, of course, the scourging and crucifixion of Christ, but that was done by others, the Romans and the Temple authorities, not by the “good” people. We never learn that “blessed” Jael drove a tent peg into Sisera’s skull, or that the “man of God” Elisha was protected from children’s taunts by wild bears, or that God’s People who batter infants to death are “happy”. Maybe if we did, maybe if these serious images of violence and death were more widely known, these gruesome reminders of how the brutalities of life can also be part of God’s plan for the world (or at least of God’s people’s life in the world), perhaps then religion would not be considered the “fantasy” many think it is, the “pie in the sky by-and-by” irrelevancy some believe it to be.
The religion of the God of Israel is, as the late Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple famously remarked, “the most materialistic religion in the world.” He meant that Christians (and Jews) believe more about matter, believe more positively about matter, and do more with matter than do the devotees of any other religious systems. But beyond that the religions of the Bible face the fact of the dirtiness of life, the downright violent filth of it, and assert that even from that can good come. And if something good can come from the deaths of children torn apart by murderous animals or of infants bashed against rocks by battle-enraged warriors, then perhaps something good can come from the crap, the utterly awful shit that happens in every human life. That, at its raunchiest, basest worst, is the glorious hope present in biblical faith, that even from the very worst of human suffering something good, something happy, something blessed can come. Thanks be to God!
May my friend and colleague Kelly (who I know has been greeted with those welcome words, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”) rest in peace and rise in glory!
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.