Yesterday, I posted the following observation in a tweet: “Fundamentalist Christians mystify me: they insist that creation must’ve occurred in six 24 hour days or God would be ‘lying’ and yet they don’t bat an eye at the idea of God commanding genocide.” In other words, I’m perplexed by the moral reasoning that says it is always wrong to lie, but genocide? Eh, it depends on the circumstances!
People do not naturally acquire a moral calculus this out of whack. They learn it. And part of that learning process comes about by a particular way of reading the Bible and processing the violence contained therein. I provide an overview of some key factors in a chapter in my book Jesus Loves Canaanites under the four criteria omission, misrepresentation, distraction, and blunted affect, four criteria that you can commit to memory with the following mnemonic: over my dead body.
These reading strategies provide ways of engaging with biblical violence that keep it at a distance from the reader thereby normalizing what would be shocking moral content in any other context. When you imbibe that way of reading long enough, you become effectively blinded to the most shockingly violent and immoral content in the Bible.
In the remainder of this article, I want to focus on the way one infamously violent text is treated in popular devotionals. The text of which I speak is found in Judges 5 and it is the story of how the pious young woman Jael assassinates a man named Sisera while he is sleeping in her tent. And she does so by driving a large spike through his temple. As we will see, each of these three treatments with the text normalize the violence by treating it with a casual nonchalance and even humor.
Let’s begin with Pamela McQuade et al’s treatment in The Top 100 Devotional Collection(Barbour Books, 2014). My interaction with this devotional will be brief. After describing Jael’s shocking action, the text quips, “Interestingly, Scripture does not portray Jael as one of the bad babes. Deborah’s song of praise pictures her as a heroine….”
“Bad babes?” As with so many youth-oriented devotionals, an attempt to come across as cool and irreverent just sounds lame and sexist. As for the spike hammered into Sisera’s temple, it’s hardly worth a shrug. We move immediately on to revering Jael as a model of devotion.
Our next two examples are more disturbing as they engage in macabre puns that would be right at home in an old Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. The devotional Revolution (Zondervan, 2007) refers to “Classic Bible riddle #29: What was the last thing to go through Sisera’s mind? Answer: a big tent peg, compliments of a quick-thinking woman named Jael.”
Not to be outdone, Randy Southern and Chris Hudson’s Revolution Devotional (Zondervan, 2005) offers the following witticism: “While Sisera slept, Jael grabbed a tent peg and a hammer, snuck into the tent and, well, let’s just say she gave Sisera a splitting headache.”
As I said, it’s like a pun from an old Schwarzenegger movie. Remember the scene in The Running Man when Arnie cuts the character Buzzsaw in two with a chainsaw and then quips “He had to split!” These devotionals are giving the same treatment to Jael and Sisera.
However, this isn’t a joke. It’s a deeply disturbing violent text which valorizes an assassination. To be sure, there are many morally serious ways that one might read and appropriate these stories. For example, the text could be viewed as a rich repository of feminist readings as with Sarah Jobe’s essay “Reading Jael’s Story in a Women’s Prison” which explores the concept of women who fight back against abusers.
But these three devotional reflections with their sexist language and cheap puns offer little by way of sophisticated engagement. Instead, all we see is a base attempt to diminish the violence by way of humor and the distancing effect of blunted affect. At the risk of hammering my point home, I must conclude that these devotionals did not peg Jael’s actions very well. (And yes, my puns are ironic.)