“Tell us a story,” the children begged. “Please, we want to hear a really good story.”
As the campfire crackled and glowed, the children waited innocently for the older woman to respond. But before the woman could open her mouth, the children threw out another request.
“Can you make it a really scary story? Like maybe a story with a monster in it…?”
The wise, older woman hesitated for a moment and then she answered. “Well if you’d like to hear a story about a monster, I’m willing to share one with you. But just so you know, this is a monster story from the Bible.”
“What do you mean a monster story from the Bible? Stories in the Bible are all about sheep and arks and mangers and rainbows.” The children looked at each other surprised and in agreement nodding their heads.
“Actually, my child, some of the scariest stories come from the Bible. Like the story of a woman named Deborah, who was a judge and a prophet in the time before the people of Israel had a king to rule over the land.”
“Hang on a second…a woman prophet?” a little boy interrupted.
But the older woman continued on with her story… It is true in those days that women were rarely allowed to speak in public and almost none of them were leaders. Nevertheless, God chose Deborah to be a prophet. She used to sit down underneath a palm tree in the hill country of Israel and people would come to her with their disputes and complaints. And Deborah, full of wisdom and fairness would help people reach settlements.
“What about the monster? You promised there would be a monster in this story!” a little girl called out.
Patience, patience. We’ll get to that part. Now back in those days the Israelite people were being oppressed by King Jabin of Canaan. And King Jabin had a particular army commander who was scary and intimidating. Jewish legend said he was a giant who could freeze a lion in his tracks just by yelling at it. And he could cause the walls of any city to crumble just by shouting in a loud voice. This Canaanite commander had 900 iron chariots at his disposal pulled by 900 fire breathing horses. And the Israelites had not one single chariot. Nor a single horse.
The commander was so menacing he even had a menacing name. Sisera. For twenty long years Sisera tortured the Israelites. Until one day, Deborah called upon a man named Barak.
Now Barak was an Israelite who had limited military experience. And he had some faith in God. But he was also a bit timid. Even when God spoke loudly to Barak and told him it was time to go and face Sisera, Barak tried to convince himself God’s voice was nothing more than the sound of the wind.
However, when Deborah summoned Barak to the palm tree where she was busy passing God’s judgements, Deborah informed Barak he had no choice. God wanted Barak to march to Mount Tabor with ten thousand warriors by his side to confront Sisera face to face. And if Barak did as God instructed, God guaranteed Barak would emerge victorious.
Barak couldn’t avoid God anymore. But before he walked away from his encounter with Deborah, he struck a deal. ‘Deborah, if you go with me into battle I will go. Then again if you won’t go with me, I’m not going either.’
Deborah agreed. But she also had a surprise of her own. Before she set off to the battlefield, Deborah informed Barak that no matter what happened he would get no credit for defeating Sisera. Because according to God’s will, Sisera was to die at the hands of a woman.
“You mean Deborah got to kill him!” a boy interjected. The excitement level around the campfire was clearly building.
“Just wait and see,” the storyteller responded…
Well Sisera heard word of the Israelites plans and he gathered all his men and his 900 chariots and his 900 fire breathing horses and he headed for the valley of Wadi Kishon, which was a dry valley at the foot of Mount Tabor. As they marched in formation, Sisera sent spies ahead to scope out the Israelite opposition. One by one the spies returned with crazy reports. Yes, the Israelites had a sizable army. But they had two generals. One man and one woman. And the rumor in the Israelite camp was that Sisera would die at the hands of a woman.
When Sisera heard the report, he thought the rumor was hilarious. He threw back his head and laughed in a voice so loud it could have frozen lions and crumbled city walls. A voice so loud that the Israelites on the mountainside heard it in the distance and trembled in fear. They looked down into the valley, saw Sisera’s enemy campsites, and slept fitfully, dreading the arrival of dawn.
When the light of dawn came but it was accompanied by dark clouds and a driving rain. Sisera awoke in a foul mood ready to destroy any Israelite he could get his hands on. He had heard stories about a powerful God who fought alongside Israelite armies in skirmishes past. Nonetheless rage and ferocity bubbled up inside Sisera and he confidently barked out the order.
“Charge!” Sisera’s men and the chariots and the fire breathing horses rumbled forward toward the mountain to meet the Israelites.
Meanwhile, the order on the mountainside was no different…charge! But the command to the Israelite army came from a woman. Deborah’s word sent ten thousand Israelite soldiers down the mountain to face Sisera’s army head on.
As the two armies closed the gap between them, the rain continued to come down in torrents. And before they could reach their adversary, Sisera’s iron chariots began to stick in the valley mud. No man and no fire breathing horse could extricate the chariots and the harder they tried, the deeper the chariots sank. Until suddenly Sisera’s army were sitting ducks.
Panic quickly set in on the Canaanite side as the Israelites approached. Swords flashed. Men cried out in agony. And horses toppled over into the mud. As he watched his vaunted army disintegrate before his eyes, Sisera looked up on the mountainside and saw a face. A woman’s face. It was Deborah, overseeing the triumphant slaughter.
The carnage was overwhelming and Sisera quickly calculated the odds. Then he jumped off his own chariot and ran away from the battlefield. Fleeing his own men and all their foes. Fleeing Deborah and Barak. Fleeing the Israelite God who surely had something to do with this unexpected outcome…
“Oh, let me guess,” one of the girls around the campfire raised her hand. “Deborah took off after him and she was the one who killed Sisera. Just the way God promised, right?”
“Actually, no. Deborah did not chase him,” the storyteller paused. Sisera ran as far away as he could until he reached a tent far away from the scene of the battle. The tent was occupied by a woman named Jael, who was not an Israelite, but a Kenite. Convinced he was in the safe company of an ally, Sisera stopped running and Jael encouraged him to spend the night. At long last, Sisera assumed he had escaped from the clutches of those who sought to destroy him.
Sisera soon fell asleep peacefully, worn out from the day’s events. But Jael looked down on Sisera with disdain. And as he was sleeping, Jael took a mallet and a tent stake and drove the stake through Sisera’s skull, killing him instantly.
“You mean she was the woman?” a number of the children cried out simultaneously in disbelief.
“Yes, she was the one,” the storyteller nodded. “She was the woman by whom God’s prophecy was fulfilled.”
“Well thank God the monster was finally dead!” the children giggled to themselves.
Yet the storyteller was not finished. “I told you that Jael killed Sisera, but Sisera was not the monster in the story. To be sure Sisera was evil. But he was not the monster. The real monster in the story is the violence that causes people to reach for swords and chariots and hammers and tent stakes in the name of God, even when they think they are doing the right thing for the right reasons.
The children pondered the storyteller’s words. Until one of them spoke out. “So what’s the point of this story. It’s a scary story, but I don’t think God wants us to treat anybody like that. God wants us to love each other. We’re supposed to love our neighbors.”
“You’re right,” the storyteller agreed. But for thousands of years the monster hasn’t gone away. The monster of violence stalks human streets and human homes and human relationships. The monster of violence causes us to lash out against our sisters and brothers thinking we are doing the right thing for the right reason. But the monster of violence can never have the last word. Not in the Bible. Not in our Christian faith tradition. Not on a hill called Calvary where Jesus died on a cross.
As the children fell asleep around the campfire, the story of Sisera and Deborah and Barak and Jael ended. But the question raised by the story lingered. “What do we do about the monster…?”
When I think about the adult education seminar starting here at Wapping Community Church tomorrow night and lasting for the next few weeks, I continue to ask myself that very question. Why do people of faith too often use faith as their rationale for perpetrating violence on others. And what can we do in 2016, Christians, Muslims, and Jews of faith, to tame the monster of violence that results in fear and mistrust and tragedy and destruction?
I hope to see you here at church tomorrow night and over the next five weeks as we hear stories and tell stories and imagine a new, peaceful story for God’s faithful people. A monster-free story we can tell our children and their children for thousands of years to come. Amen.