When life is messy, own your role in it
Well, this is embarrassing.
We’re wrapping up a series called “Stories We Don’t Tell Our Kids.” And today we find ourselves in one of those most gory, bloody, R-rated stories from one of the most gory, bloody, R-rated books in the entire Bible: the story of Deborah, Barak, and Jael from the book of Judges.
And yet, last Sunday, as I was getting my daughter ready for bed, I asked her what book she wanted to read for bedtime, and she asked for the last of her Bible Belle books.
Now, if you don’t know, and you probably don’t, the Bible Belle books are a five-book series for young girls about female Bible heroes, or “Bible Belles.”
We had already read the first four in the series, about Hannah, Esther, Abagail, and Ruth. There was only one left.
And wouldn’t you believe it, the last Bible Belle book was none other than the story of Deborah, Barak, and Jael from the book of Judges.
This is real, I brought the book, I can show you.
Here it is: Deborah, the Bible Belle. Today’s “story you don’t tell your kid” as a children’s book.
I mean, seriously, who thinks this story is the perfect one for a children’s book? I’m pretty sure even God was laughing at my face the whole time I read this.
You have to understand that the story of Deborah, Barak, and Jael takes place during the time of the judges, a period of Israel’s history marked by violence, lawlessness, and chaos.
It was a time when foreign rulers kept conquering the Israelite people and God kept raising up judges, who were basically combinations of warlords and mob bosses, in order to free God’s people from the foreign rulers.
This was a period of constant conflict and war, dominated by cultures that valued honor won through conquest and reputation earned through bloodshed.
I’m not saying we have to approve of all of that or that we have to live that way, but you have to understand that that is the world this story comes from.
And in Judges 4, a foreign king named Jabin does what all foreign kings do. He sends his general, Sisera in this case, to conquer the Israelites, which Sisera does.
And it’s Deborah, who is ruling God’s people as one of these warrior mob boss judges, who goes to war with her general, Barak, to overthrow Sisera and King Jabin.
If you need a note sheet, here you go.
I’m keeping it basic: good ruler and general, bad ruler and general. We’ll get to Jael in a moment.
Now things are going well in our story, until the time comes to battle Sisera, because Barak can’t bring himself to do it. Barak believes that they will win; that’s not the issue.
It’s simply that Barak isn’t confident or courageous enough to go into battle without Deborah. The time of victory arrives, and Barak doesn’t have the courage to seize it alone. Now, Deborah has some pity, she agrees to go with him, but she says something interesting.
Let me read from the CRB translation—that’s the Christopher Robert Basil translation.
“Alright, I’ll go with you,” Deborah tells Barak, “but since you’re too scared to go by yourself, you won’t get your climactic battle with your evil nemesis, General Sisera. You won’t get the glory or credit or celebrity status. Instead, your evil nemesis will be killed by a random woman you’ve never even heard of.”
Again, that’s the CRB translation.
So Deborah and Barak ride into battle together. They win the day and free God’s people from King Jabin.
Now, I do have to point out here that this is where the children’s book ends.
You’ll notice Jael is missing. When the battle is won and General Sisera runs off, the book tactfully says, “Don’t worry about him, Jael’s going to take it from here,” totally omitting the whole episode about the tent peg.
You got to hear Arlene read that part. Sisera, fleeing the battle he just lost, runs into a woman named Jael and asks her to let him hide in her tent.
Jael welcomes Sisera in and gives him some milk and a comfy blanket and then promptly drives a tent peg into his skull so far that he’s pinned to the ground.
No, the children’s book doesn’t have that part of the story.
No, the children’s book is about Deborah’s amazing leadership as Israel’s only female judge against a foreign king who was oppressing God’s people.
The moral of the children’s story is that God can give young women of today the same bold leadership that God gave Deborah so they can stand up against all those who oppress God’s children.
And that is a great lesson I want my daughter to learn. Credit to Miri’s Gigi for finding a good book.
But, as we’ve said a lot this month, we’re not kids anymore. And so, as adults, we can’t omit Jael from this story the way the children’s book did.
We can’t tactfully say “Jael’s going to take it from here” and ignore the whole “tent peg incident.”
Because, in reality, without the “tent peg incident” we can’t understand what this story is all about.
See, this story is all about courage, cowardice, and consequences. Remember what was supposed to happen.
Deborah, Israel’s amazing leader, tells her general Barak that the time has come to overthrow King Jabin and his general Sisera.
Barak was supposed to trust in Deborah and God and lead his army. And there would have been this massive battle and an epic showdown between the warring generals. Barak, of course, would have emerged victorious, as good generals are supposed to do, and he would have received honor and glory in battle, which, remember, is what the world at this time prized above all else.
Instead, Barak falters. It’s not uncertainty: he knows exactly what he’s supposed to do. And it’s not a lack of faith, he believes they will win because Deborah told him so. It’s simply a lack of courage.
So Barak chooses cowardice instead of courage, and there are consequences to that decision. For one, Barak is dishonored, the worst fate for anyone at the time, especially a general. He’s publicly humiliated and never gets accolades for defeating Sisera.
But Sisera suffers as well. I know he’s the bad guy, but remember, in the culture of the time even bad guys were supposed to die a glorious death on a battlefield. Instead, Sisera is killed in his sleep by a woman of no status,
which is about the worst death a general of that day could possibly imagine.
But Barak’s cowardice has consequences for Jael, most of all.
See, in order to kill Sisera, Jael has to violate one of the most sacred rules in that culture: the rule of hospitality. It was the one thing everyone agreed on—if you invite someone into your home, you are responsible for their safety and wellbeing. You feed them, provide a bed for them, make them comfortable, even if it means going without yourself.
We don’t have time to get into why this was so important in that culture, but it was a rule no one, good or bad, would ever dream of violating. But Jael violates the rule of hospitality, in a big way.
She invites Sisera in, tucks him in bed and gives him milk like she’s his mother, and then drives a tent peg into his temple.
There is no more dishonorable act imaginable at that time then what Jael is forced to do. And there were consequences.
Understand that Jael’s husband had been allied with King Jabin. Jael’s husband was on the bad guy’s side. The Bible doesn’t tell us how Jael’s husband reacts to the news that his wife violated the rule of hospitality and assassinated the general of his ally, but we have to imagine Jael paid a price for her actions.
Everyone suffers because of Barak’s cowardice. That’s the grown up version of this story. And it’s not one we tell our kids, but it’s one that we have to hear as grown up people of faith.
See, Church, I don’t know if you know, but we live in messy times, times of economic upheaval and social change and political turmoil and global unrest.
Living in our times, just like in the times of the judges, it’s not easy and it’s not simple. It’s messy. In many ways, we are often living a Judges 4 kind of story.
And so, Church, it’s our job—your job—to figure out who you are in this story.
Maybe you’re Debora. The children’s story was right. Deborah was a great leader, but also an unexpected one. In the book of Judges, Deborah was the only female judge.
No one would have expected her, of all people, to lead Israel, least of all herself. And even when she did lead, things didn’t go according to plan. Remember, Barak was supposed to be trustworthy, but he failed her.
But maybe that’s who you are. You never would have thought God would ask you to lead, especially in these times. Nevertheless, you’ve realized that you have a job to do. And people will fail you, and doubt you, but that doesn’t change what you’re meant to do.
Maybe you’re Deborah.
Maybe you’re Jabin and Sisera. Hey, we’re the bad guys sometimes, too, you know. Jabin and Sisera were products of their time. They got what they could however they could and were considered honorable by the standards of the day. Yet they pursued that honor without a thought of the cost others were paying.
And maybe that’s who you are.
Everyone has always thought well of you, but now you’re realizing that a good reputation with people isn’t the same thing as being at peace with God. And now you’re starting to realize that you might not be on God’s side as much as you thought.
Maybe you’re Jabin and Sisera. Or maybe you’re Barak. You’ve known God and trusted God for years. But when the time came to do the hard thing, you chose cowardice over courage. And you’ve paid a price for that cowardice, but others have, too.
Maybe you’re Barak.
Or, maybe, you’re Jael. Someone who could have and should have done the right thing, didn’t, and now there’s no one but you to clean up the mess.
Someone who should have known better or done better instead handed you a dysfunctional family, or a harmful theology, or a toxic work environment, or one of a million other situations.
And now it’s on you, but now there’s no easy solution, only messy ones. And you will pay a price for fixing someone else’s problem.
Maybe you’re Jael.
So while I don’t usually end my sermons with multiple messages, I will today.
To the Deborahs here today:
I challenge you to embrace the role God has given you, to trust that you have been given all you need to lead even if you don’t quite fit the mold most people have of a leader.
I promise, God’s got you, God will lead you, and others will come to trust you. And while you may not think you’re up to the task, God knows better.
God has made you into someone, to quote the Bible Belle book, “who makes a different kind of noise.” And God has already factored all your shortcomings into the situation, and still thinks you’re the right person for the job.
To the Jabins and Siseras here today:
Open your ears and your hearts to the knowledge that the path of self-promotion only has one ending: utter defeat.
The details vary, but everyone willing to push others down so they can rise up themselves meets the same end eventually. The only other path before you requires repentance, but repentance is always open to you. And you can have a future full of much greater things than personal glory or a stunning reputation. Choose it, before you meet a Jael.
To the Baraks here today:
Yes, you faltered. Yes, you let cowardice win over courage. And yes, you and others will pay a price for that. But you cannot stop God. Remember, the battle was won, God’s people were liberated, despite what Barak did.
Yes, you chose cowardice, but your cowardice cannot ruin God’s plans.
God’s people, whom you were meant to save, will still be saved, just by someone else. Take comfort in that, and in the fact that you are still a child of God, and God will save you, too.
And to the Jaels:
Jaels, it’s not fair, what you have to do. It was someone else’s job to fix that problem or that relationship.
It’s not fair that you have to pay a price greater than they would simply because they lacked the courage to do what was right.
But God sees you, too.
Just because your life is messy and people don’t understand doesn’t mean that God thinks less of you. In fact, according to Judges 5, you are the most blessed of all.