I was in high school the first time I ever heard the story of Jael. One of the Bible courses I took through A Beka was a study on the book of Judges, and I was fascinated by many of the tales. Stories like left-handed Ehud, or even Samson, as problematic as his character was for me. But I devoured any story about women. We only covered two of them as part of the study, but it prompted me to go looking for more. Someone had given my mother a copy of All of the Women of the Bible, and I spent a lot of my time that school year digging through it.
Over the years, though, Jael remained one of my favorites. Her story was untainted, almost entirely untouched, by the culture I was raised in. It was like she didn’t exist for them– like her story was a secret I could keep to myself. I held her story close to my chest, protecting it. Cherishing it. I had Jael and the Tent Spike, and no one would be able to take that away from me.
My freshman year in college I was enrolled in the mandatory speech class. We gave impromptu speeches, memorized poems– but one of the bigger class assignments was reading a passage from the Bible. It had to be at least seven verses long, and sequential. I didn’t even have to think about it– I was reading Judges 4:17-22.
When the day came for all of us to stand up and read our selected passages, I drew the last spot to go. As I listened to the passages all 15 of my classmates had selected, I started shrinking down into my seat. Almost without exception, they had chosen from various Psalms. No one besides me had even chosen to read a story, let alone a story about someone’s head getting bashed in.
My nervousness had quadrupled by the time I finally had to walk to the front of the room. My teacher nodded at me, her signal that I could start reading. I was being graded on this– on elocution, on diction, and most especially on my ability to read a story and make it come alive. It was go out with a bang, or nothin’.
I opened my KJV Bible to Judges 4 and began reading.
Howbeit Sisera fled away on his feet to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite: for there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber. And Jael went out to meet Sisera, and said unto him, “Turn in, my lord, turn in to me; fear not.” And when he had turned in unto her into the tent, she covered him with a mantle.
I lifted my eyes off the page to “make eye contact with my audience,” a requirement of speech-giving, and realized that most people seemed curious– I wasn’t reading a Psalm, after all– but no seemed to recognize the story.
And he said unto her, “Give me, I pray thee, a little water to drink; for I am thirsty.” And she opened a bottle of milk, and gave him drink, and covered him. Again he said unto her, “Stand in the door of the tent, and it shall be, when any man doth come and inquire of thee, and say, Is there any man here? that thou shalt say, No.”
Again, I glanced around the room. A few people were shifting now– they’d recognized it.
Then Jael, Heber’s wife, took a nail of the tent, and took an hammer in her hand, and went softly unto him . . .
I dropped my voice to a conspiratorial whisper, leaning forward, animating the story, doing my best to create a sense of anticipation.
And smote the nail into his temples, and fastened it into the ground: for he was fast asleep and weary.
So he died.
I delivered “So he died” with all the straight-man aplomb I could manage. It was a dramatic place to stop, so I closed my Bible and went to sit down. Shocked silence followed me, and as I looked around, people were shifting uncomfortably. I decided it must have been because I’d chosen something violent, and ended it so abruptly. Maybe I should have read Deborah’s Song instead. That line of thinking seemed to be confirmed when a friend of mine approached me after class and asked me why I’d chosen that particular story, and told me there “must be something wrong with me” if “that was the only story you wanted to do. There’s so many other, better, stories you could have read.”
At the time, I thought that’s all it was.
Until dinner, when he announced to the rest of the group what I’d read in class that day. Some of them did seem uncomfortable with me choosing such a violent tale when most of them had opted for Psalms, too, but I discovered over cafeteria Salisbury steak and broccoli that the violence wasn’t really the part they had a problem with.
A lot of reasons got thrown at me that night. I’d read a story about a woman– and not just any woman, but a woman who “usurped authority over a man,” and was one of the greatest shames to the Kingdom of God. All my protestations of “but, it’s in the Bible!” didn’t make any difference. Because I couldn’t read it “in context,” I shouldn’t have read it at all. And they were quite specific about the context: that Jael was being used as a tool to prove to the men of Israel that they were a sorry lot. “Look, see what you made me do!” God was saying. “I had to use a woman because none of you men would step up!”
I tried to explain what this story meant, although I barely even understood why it was so important to me. Explaining that I felt some sort of connection to Jael, that because she had her story, it meant, somehow, that I mattered. These thoughts were just snatches of emotions– a resonance that pulled at the deepest parts of me. All I knew was that Jael was there, and that was significant.
But, in the long run, It didn’t matter that Deborah called Jael “most blessed among women,” or that her story is one of the oldest in the Old Testament– the only thing that mattered about Jael’s story was that she was Barak’s punishment for being a pansy.
But, I was stubborn.
A few weeks later, there was open auditions for a small play. I’d always loved being in the Christmas pageants my home church put on, and decided I was going to try out. The audition had to be delivered from memory, and it had to be short. Something with impact and punch.
Guess what I chose.
I didn’t make it into the play, but I did get a callback. It felt like some sort of validation, no matter how small.
Jael and the Tent Spike remains one of my favorite stories, and, as I look back over my life, especially my teenage years when I was soaking up Bad Girls of the Bible on the sly, in tiny snatches at the library, I realize that I was destined to become a feminist. So many infinitesimal things were gently guiding me to this place, where I am big and loud and proud and glorious– so many things in my life that were mustard seeds.
Being a feminist . . . it just makes sense for me.
And I owe it all to Jael and her tent spike.