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JAEL THE ASSASSIN
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Based on Judges 4 and 5
Assassins are never heroes in the history of Americans, for they are always those who seek to kill our presidents whom we admire. This is not always the case in other nations. The Jews, for example, have some assassins who are heroes in their history. Two of them are Hakim and Bet Zuri. They were sent to Egypt to kill Lord Moyne, who was the British Minister of State and the man who shrugged off a German offer to free a million Jews: "But what would I do with a million Jews" Their was justifiable hatred toward a man who would refuse to save the lives of a million people, and they targeted him for death. They succeeded in their mission, and though they were captured and hung, they became heroes of the Jews.
There are many heroic assassins in history. It does not sound like a noble profession, but it can be the very tool of God to bring judgment on those who are ripe for judgment. This is the case with Jael who assassinated Sisera while he was sleeping in her tent. It may not sound as noble as most assassin stories, but it was just as effective. Sisera has been the oppressor of Israel for twenty years, and finally God gave Israel a female leader who motivated the army to go to battle with this powerful commander of 900 iron chariots. He was watching his army being wiped out and so he leaped off his iron horse and high tailed it to a safer place, he thought.
He headed for the tent of an old friend, but Heber the Kenite was not home. His wife, however was completely hospitable. Jael invited him in and treated him like royalty. She assured him that he had nothing to fear. "Come on in." she said with a cheerful voice. It was just what he needed-a place of refuge. He did not hear the message behind the voice that was, "Come in said the spider to the fly." He was totally taken in by her friendly manner, and was confident she would protect him and even lie about him being there to lead any pursuers astray. She even gave him milk instead of the water for which he asked, for she knew this would help put him to sleep. Then when he was all comfy in bed and fast asleep, she took a hammer and tent peg and drove it through his temple and nailed him to the ground.
By that act of assassination she became a heroine of Jewish history. Deborah and Barek sing of her heroic deed in their great song in Judges 5. In 5:24 she is called the most blessed of women. But this act which made her so famous and praised also made her one of the most controversial persons in the Bible. The debate is over whether she can be considered honorable or horrible because of the way she carried out her plot. She did not face her foe and strike him when he could defend himself. She lied to him and deceived him. She broke all the codes of hospitality, and so many consider her a terrible person and not a heroine at all. Before we defend this woman as a biblical heroine we want to look at the negative perspective first.
I. THE NEGATIVE PERSPECTIVE.
We all know it is not fair to shoot an unarmed man, and it is not fair to shoot him in the back. There are rules for a fair fight, and it appears that Jael never read the manual for fair fighting. She broke all the rules in the book, and this means she is not to be admired. She is better off forgotten, and many have done just that so that millions of people have heard the Bible expounded all their lives and never once heard of Jael the female assassin. She killed a man in cold blood while he was sleeping, and this is never justifiable. Many feel her image is blotted with the foul taste of treachery, and is no model to be put forth for praise.
Rev Dr Susan Durber had done some great research on this issue and she quotes this sermon preached in 1876, which gives a typical Victorian view of Jael. "How are we to regard this deed of Jael? There seems to me to be no doubt as to the answer. Her act was one of vilest treachery with scarcely a single extenuating circumstance. . . . We are in no way bound to find excuses for the act, because it is recorded in God's Word. . . . Nor need we feel any compunction at speaking thus strongly, because Jael appears to have been a special instrument in the hands of God for bringing to pass a deliverance for Israel. . . . We must confess that Deborah actually praised this horrible act of Jael's. But the words of Deborah are not the words of God. . . . The song of Deborah is the utterance of human passion and human weakness, not of divine unswerving justice and strength."
Dr. Durber goes on to point out that this was the teaching in the textbooks of the time. William Smith's Concise Dictionary of the Bible from 1865 made it clear that there could be no justification for her act. I was reading the famous commentary by Keil and Delitzsch when I came across their perspective: "Such conduct as that was not the operation of the Spirit of God, but the fruit of a heroism inspired by flesh and blood; and even in Deborah's song it is not lauded as a divine act." There are some strong feelings against admiring and praising this female assassin.
A Doctor Lord de Tabley wrote a long poem titled Jael back in 1893, and in it he implies that Jael had ambitions to get notoriety, and that was the motive for her treachery. He wrote, "And in his sidelong temple, where bright curls Made crisp and glorious margin to his brows- So that a queen might lay her mouth at them Nor rise again less royal for their kiss- There, in the interspace of beard and brow, The nail had gone tearing the silken skin; And, driven home to the jagged head of it, Bit down into the tent-boards underneath; And riveted that face of deadly sleep." This was a poetic description of what the text says, but then he decides to make a judgment of the motive behind Jael's act. He wrote, "This woman was a mother, think of that; A name which carries mercy in its sound, A pitiful meek title one can trust; She gave her babe the breast like other wives, In cradle laid it, had her mother heed To give it suck and sleep. You would suppose She might learn pity in its helpless face; A man asleep is weaker than a child, And towards the weak God turns a woman's heart; Hers being none. She is ambitious, hard, Vain, would become heroic; to nurse babes And sit at home, why any common girl Is good enough for that. She must have fame; She shall be made a song of in the camp, And have her name upon the soldier's lip Familiar as an oath." Now we need to look at her defense and focus on-
II. THE POSITIVE PERSPECTIVE.
The first line of defense is that those things that are not acceptable in daily life are a normal part of life in warfare. You do not lie and deceive people as a way of life or you are a villain of the worst kind. But if you are a commander in time of war you do all you can to deceive the enemy. You set up an ambush if possible and kill them before they have a chance to fire back. We say all is fair in love and war, and though that is not an absolute, it has much truth to it. In war it is kill or be killed, and so the primary rule is get them before they get you, and this may call for all kinds of deceit and trickery. This is what we see Jael doing to Sisera. She has a plan to kill him, and the best and safest way to do that is to lure him into a sense of security where he will take a nap. Who would expect this housewife to try and take down an experienced man of war, who has killed many a man in hand to hand combat?
It is folly to criticize a woman for doing what a woman does best in such a situation. She is not alone in using her feminine charms to lure a man of war to his death. Another of the great female heroes of Jewish history is Judith, and she did the same thing as Jael. She deceived a warrior leader into thinking she was a friend, and that she would be willing to share some sexual favors. She was exceedingly beautiful, and he was captivated by her beauty. He gladly allowed her to have a time in private with him where she got him drunk and cut off his head. She thereby saved her people and became a heroine. Assassins are not held to the same code of ethics as are the non-assassin. Any woman doing what Jael or Judith did in time of peace would be arrested as murderers in the first degree. But in time of war they did what no man could do, and that is why they are heroines.
Someone has beautifully summarized the famous story of Judith that is told in the Apocrypha. I believe it was the Rev Dr Susan Durber "Book of Judith opens with Assyrian emperor Nebuchadnezzar's conquest of the Near East. As his forces mount the invasion of Israel, the town of Bethulia is besieged by his foremost general, Holofernes. The pass defended by the town is strategically vital: if Bethulia yields, the whole country will fall into his hands. Ground down by famine, the populace begs the city's elders to surrender, and they agree to do so within days should the Lord fail to rescue his people. When Judith, a respected widow, hears of this, she summons the elders to a meeting and upbraids them for their lack of faith. Who are they to set time-limits on God? She herself undertakes to save the city within five days, although she will not reveal her plan. However desperate the situation may seem, she avers, God shall overcome.
Divinely inspired and fortified by prayer, she departs for the Assyrian camps. There, claiming to have foreseen Bethulia's doom and offering to reveal a stratagem for taking the city, she is welcomed. Holofernes himself, much smitten with her remarkable beauty, invites her to a banquet after which he intends to seduce her or failing that, rape her. When he retires to his bed in an alcoholic stupor, they are left alone in his tent. Judith takes up his sword and decapitates him. With his severed head she steals back to Bethulia. When its general's corpse is discovered, the Assyrian camp is thrown into confusion. Meanwhile, displaying the head to the Israelites, Judith encourages them to seize their advantage by a rapid surprise attack. They are victorious. From start to finish, Judith is a self-reliant heroine." "Judith led the community with a feminist anthem written specially for the occasion. 'The Lord Almighty has thwarted them by a woman's hand It was no young man that brought their champion low; no Titan struck him down, no tall giant set upon him; but Judith, Merari's daughter, disarmed him by her beauty.'
This female assassin has suffered the same criticism as Jael. The history of art has portrayed her as a femme fatale who used sex to allure poor Holophernes to a violent death by her betrayal. She is pictured as a cold hearted man killer. She is seen as no more than a cut-throat prostitute. The critics cannot bear to face the truth that a woman can, just because she is a woman, be used of God to do what a man cannot do. It is true that their sexuality and beauty can lure men to do evil, but they can also lure the enemy into a state of carelessness so they can be defeated. God has used women for this very purpose. God delights in using the weak to defeat the strong. When women are his best tool that is what he uses.
The men these women killed were cold blooded killers who had no compassion on people. They violated all the rules of humanity, and anyone who could rid them of the planet would be honored with songs of praise. You notice that both of these women went for the head. They were not taking any chances that their victim would recover. The Encyclopedia Judica tries to make Jael more justified in her deception by claiming Sisera had sex with her 7 times, and so she was an abused woman getting revenge and justice. There is nothing in the text to support this, but it does illustrate my point. When you are dealing with an evil person who kills and abuses others, there comes a point where justifiable homicide is in order. Korean and Filipino women who kill for the purpose of freedom are seen in a positive light, and any of us would see them that way if it was our necks being saved by their courageous acts of assassination. These stories of heroic female assassins are well known in the Philippines and in Asia, but are hardly ever preached on in the Western nations. We have not needed women to be deliverers and so we look down on the very concept.
In the Eastern world Jael gets more honor than Deborah, and Deborah gives her more credit than she gives herself in her song. The song of Deborah is probably the primary reason that we must take a positive view of Jael. It was gruesome, as was the cutting off of the head by Judith, but they were agents of God's judgment and they are praised in Israel and celebrated. It is going against the revelation of God to say these words of praise are not God's word. If we can pick and choose what parts of the Bible are truly God's Word and which ones we say are just the flesh speaking, then we have returned to the day of Judges where every man did what was right in his own eyes. We must accept the song of Deborah as God's authentic Word. She was God's spokesperson of the day. She predicted that a woman would kill Sisera, and when it happened she praised God and the woman he used to fulfill the prophecy. It takes a great deal of audacity to claim that these two women who dominate this chapter are not pleasing to God in all that is recorded here. Reading in our own opinion is not expounding the Word. To expound it is to explain what it says and not to explain it away and reject what it says.
Read it again in 5:24. "Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, most blessed of tent-dwelling women." I do not read it saying cursed be Jael for not conforming to my ideas of what is fair for women to do in times of warfare. I do not read it saying how terrible that such an act of treachery should be honored. I do not read it implying that Jael should be sent to jail for her brutal assassination. I read it clearly saying "Most blessed of women be Jael." I have written my own poem to honor this woman so honored by the Word of God. Seldom does one hear a tale Like that of the women whose name was Jael. It was by faith she did prevail Over Sisera, a powerful male. All hail to Jael, Who with hammer and nail, Did this wicked male impale. She was female and frail, But she did not quail, nor sit and wail, And let the opportunity go stale. Her true intent she did wisely veil, And showed no fear with face gone pale. It was a victory of grandest scale When this evil man she did derail And did his oppression forever curtail. She won the day and did not fail When she worked out every detail, And conquered the foe with hammer and nail.
She had Sisera pegged from the start. He was a man who abused women and used them as things. We know this from his own mother's testimony. She wonders why he does not return from the battle and she speculates that he is delayed because of the great spoils and the women they are taking, as stated in 5:30. He was a man who took women as spoils of war and made them sexual slaves. Jael knew the ways of such a pagan leader and she was not about to let the chance slip through her hands to let him live and abuse more women. She may have known some of his captives from previous battles, and she saw herself as a liberator of woman by this assassination. There is no way to know all that motivated her to do this deed, for that is as hidden as was her hatred for him when she treated him as a favored guest. Such secrecy and deceit are valid weapons of warfare.
Those who criticize her make their sexism apparent, for they do not criticize men who used these same weapons to be successful assassins. One of the other judges did the same thing and you will find that he is honored for his cleverness. His story is in chapter 5:12-30. He lied and deceived the king of Moab who was Eglon. Then when he had him alone under the pretense of wanting to tell him a secret he plunged a hidden knife into his stomach until it came out the other side. This enemy was brought to his death by clever deception, and he is a hero in Israel. Jael does the same thing and men want to say she was not a hero for doing it under the conditions of such deceit. Such critics know nothing of the rules of war. They expect her to have found a more pleasant way to have dispatched this bloody tyrant. The fact is she had only this one chance to kill him and rid the world of a most cruel man. She took it and God's people considered her a heroine. And so do all who accept the Word of God, which gives her honor.
There have been women of other cultures that did what was similar to Jael, and they are honored for their courage. For example, Tomyris, Queen of the Massagetae (sixth century B.C.E.) Ruler of the Massagetae, a tribal people who lived east of the lands of Persia, Tomyris is most famous for her defeat of Cyrus the Great, the powerful king of Persia. When Tomyris's son was captured by Cyrus and committed suicide, the queen promised Cyrus "more blood than he could drink." After her troops had destroyed the Persians in battle, she cut off her enemy's head and put it into a bag filled with blood, thus fulfilling her vow.
The role of women in warfare has been varied and so not all of their role is in the killing of the enemy, but much has been in the role of spy and deceiver in order to help men defeat the enemy. Some have been very clever in saving their loved ones who otherwise would have been killed. God's providence worked through Michal, the first wife of David to save his life. We need to keep in mind that he was a major player in God's plan, and that it was essential for him to live and reign and be the bloodline to the Messiah. He was spared to be this by the clever acts of a woman who loved him. The whole story is found in I Sam. 19:11-17. In Exodus 1:17-21, Hebrew midwives were able to outsmart the Pharaoh and save the lives of the Jewish baby boys. Joshua 2:1-16 describes how Rahab, a prostitute, hid two Israelite spies and saved their lives by misdirecting the soldiers.
Some non-biblical examples of women of warfare show us that there have been many women in history who have been honored because of their ability to defeat an enemy. Amanirenas, Queen of Kush (late first century, B.C.E.) Like Zenobia, this queen of Kush took advantage of unrest that distracted Roman troops from her realm, the kingdom of Meroe. The Emperor Augustus had recently attempted to tax the Kushites and Amanirenas, one in a long line of ruling Kushite women, took offense. With her son Akinidad, she attacked a Roman fort at Aswan, left the few survivors a warning message about unwarranted taxes, and returned to Meroe with the bronze head of a statue of Augustus. This they buried under the threshold of Amanirenas' palace. When Augustus mounted the expected retaliation, under the general Petronius, the Romans were at first successful, but Amanirenas herself took the field against them and forced them to the bargaining table. She sent her ambassadors to the island of Samos, where they negotiated return of all conquered lands and the remission of the controversial tax. Amanirenas' title, Kandake, is thought to be the origin of the common woman's name Candace.
Matilda, Countess of Tuscany (c. 1046-1115) After all her brothers died or were killed in battle, Matilda succeeded her father, Bonifacio II, as ruler of a territory much larger than the modern Italian province of Tuscany. Supposedly, she was an athletic girl, who studied weapons and strategy with a soldier named Arduino della Paluda, learning to handle lance, pike, and battle-axe. She was also a linguist, and literate in an age when many nobles were not. This was a period of virtually unbroken conflicts between the Holy Roman Empire and the Pope. In these, she sided undeviatingly with the Papacy, even leading her own armies into battle to protect the various popes (most notably Gregory the Great) from division and deposition. Her steadfastness and her tactical skill left a lasting impression on the chroniclers.
These and many more examples make it clear that woman can be anything that men can be in terms of heroic actions of courage in warfare. Jael was one of the women God honored by giving her assassination account in His Word. It could have been left out and who would be the worse? But he had it recorded so that we might see that women can be his chosen agents for terrible and well as wonderful tasks. They can even be godly assassins.
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