On "He had it coming" and a tent stake in the head
Updated: Jul 20
"I'm sure he had it coming."
I'm with an Italian tour group in Budapest, and we're at the Museum of Fine Arts standing before the 1620 painting by Artemisia Gentileschi entitled Jael and Sisera, the backstory of which is heard in our first lesson today from the Book of Judges. In a nutshell, there's a Canaanite baddie by the name of Sisera who ends up not being so bad after all, and gets trounced in a battle by one Barak, an Israelite. Instead of taking his licks like the rest of his army, yellow-bellied Sisera scrams with his tail between his legs, and ends up at the house of one Jael, a Kenite woman. She rolls out the red carpet, gives Sisera a rather wholesome glass of milk, and basically says, "You've had a long day, why don't you have a little rest? Don't worry - I won't let that mean old Barak get to you!"
She won't let that mean old Barak get to him because she takes matters into her own hands and drives a tent stake into poor Sisera's temple whilst he's sawing logs, belly full of milk.
The painting by Gentileschi shows a closed-eyed Sisera curled up like a cat, resting his head on his arms, sword nearly out of reach. Jael, with the hint of a smile on her face, has the tent stake lined up to his temple in one hand, and, in the other, she's raising the mallet, ready to strike. One wonders why she just didn't pick up the sword and thrust it into some part of Sisera's body, but - I guess we'll never know why - she decides that a tent stake through the head is just what this particular recipe calls for.
"I'm sure he had it coming," the woman repeated.
Did he? I mean, let's start with the fact that he was a guest in her home. Sure, I've had the odd guest every now and then who maybe stayed too long or annoyingly smacked his lips when he ate his toast, but I've never even entertained the notion of driving a stake through anyone's head because that would - in my mind, anyway - seem to go against some pretty basic rules of hospitality. Saint Benedict, for example, wrote "Treat all guests as Christ" and just left it at that; I think it safe to say that "Don't drive a stake through a guest's head" is most likely implied.
And then there's the fact that poor Sisera was asleep. I understand that getting him in his sleep was probably the safest way for Jael to off him, what with him being a notorious warlord and all, but it still seems a bit harsh. One wonders if there wasn't another way, like sneaking out on tiptoes and getting help. Besides, was she even in any danger at all? He was on his own and just wanted to have a rest and perhaps dream of not being beaten and alone, and this nice lady opened her home to him. Why would he want to hurt her?
And then there's the not-insignificant fact that none of this was Jael's fight at all. The battle had been between the Israelites and the Canaanites, and Sisera had done nothing bad to the Kenites. Why did Jael even care? She really had no pony in this race. Maybe the Israelite generals would give her some sort of reward, but, if so, that makes her seem all the more cold, as driving a tent stake through someone's temple is one thing, but doing it in hopes of a few shekels makes it seem more sordid somehow. Or at least in bad taste.
I didn't, however, say any of this to the woman who thought that Sisera had it coming, for a few reasons. For starters we were behind schedule, and I needed to get the group to the restaurant I had booked for lunch so as not to anger Laszlo, the thorny restaurateur who could be a little volatile. Also, most of the group didn't seem too interested in the museum, maybe because they had come from Italy and standing a stone's throw from the Danube and looking at portraits by Italians wasn't high on their list; most just wanted to move on to more central-Europeanish things.
But mainly I didn't say anything because, although I thought the story was pretty clear, that woman did as well, saying not only once but twice that Sisera had it coming. Stories by their nature invite people in largely by forging connections, and if my take on it was that there was some rather unnecessary and gratuitous violence on the canvas, that interpretation was, in large part, due to what I was bringing to it from my own story. I had no idea what kind of life that woman had led before ending up in my tour group in Budapest (although I did - unsuccessfully - try to discover a bit at lunch).
Was Jael the heroine about whom they would eventually write songs? Or was she unnecessarily violent, a Biblical Lizzie Borden? Was Sisera a ruthless warlord who'd rather kill you than look at you? Or was he just some tired, beaten soldier who wanted a glass of milk and a bit of a lie down? It all seems to be present in the story, depending on how you look at it. In that sense, it's all terribly complicated - capable of giving one a splitting headache. (I'm sorry - I just had to.)
But in another sense, it's fairly simple. At the heart of it is the story that God loved those frequently-wayward Israelites with a shocking love, and wanted to be a part of their story. And - when they paid attention - their eyes were opened, time and time again, to events where this shocking love broke through in the most improbable ways. Longing to be a part of God's story made them begin to see God's story in their lives and world. And - like any good story - it just begged to be told.
I'd probably never be able to convince that woman to see the story of that painting from my point of view. And that's OK. What was important is that we stood there and looked at it together. Maybe he had it coming. Maybe he didn't. But maybe the whole reason that story began to be told in the first place - an odd link with God's love and protection of his people - is really the story for which we should be listening.
And then, hearing it, it just begs to be told.