The book of Judges is a book about military conquest. The drama is written with God as a warrior and deliverer of the people. I realize that in order to experience the story of Deborah, I need to put aside my disturbance of the notion of warfare. Warfare seems to be the rule for most of our world these days. While young men and women are boiling in the Middle East, we hear of the desire to use the shift of Washington power to once and for all fix Iran, which may well break the fragile illusion of peace. Dr. La Wu said that while most people celebrate the release of Aung San Suu Kyi this week in Burma, they fear that chaos will ensue, chaos which could very easily become violent. Such a delicate balance. I also realize that we look at this book the week that we remember Veteran’s Day. The veterans among us know well the complexity and horror of war. My perspective comes from never being in a war. Most of us have never fought in a war on our soil, although many of us feel that our city streets and even our home lives can at times resemble war zones.
Here, the story tells of a battle from the perspective of the Hebrew people—voices from the front lines. I wonder what the Afghani or Iraqi people might write about their experience of war. We might as well look at what the Palestinians and Israelis would say while we’re at it. Words from the front lines carry a different tone than intellectual theories and ethical conundrums worked out from miles and centuries away.
Guatemalan activist Julia Esquivel reflected on Deborah’s violent story this way: “It breaks the tradition of submission and calls on us to place our bodies before machine guns. It observes that we continue to talk instead of taking our liberation concretely into our own hands while thousands of our people are being massacred. It breaks through the false understanding of pacifism that masks the face of God, reducing God to ineffectual neutrality in the face of injustice and oppression.” (Liberation, Theology and Women, p. 22)
The most notable judge I remember was Gideon who slew the Midianites with 100 men. And then there was the mighty warrior Samson with his super-human strength and his long hair. All the judges were men, except for one, Deborah. Her story is in the 4th and 5th chapters of Judges. The 4th chapter gives you the prose while the 5th chapter tells it in dramatic poetry. She’s the only judge with two versions of her story.
But the story is left out of the lectionary. I think there are at least four reasons.
1. There are too many stories and we don’t have enough Sundays for all of them.
2. It’s a bloody story and not suitable for a Sunday morning.
3. It’s a story about a woman, or two women who wield power in a new way.
4. The power they wield looks like male power. It’s cunning and ruthless. It doesn’t look like the finer sex.
So aside from all of that what’s so special about Deborah? Well, for one thing, she’s the only judge who’s called both a prophet and a judge. She’s also the second woman to be named a prophet. The first is Miriam. It seems from the Biblical record that it was uncommon for women to be leaders, if for no other reason, the sheer dominance of male figures and male focus of the biblical witness. It still looks that way in the leadership of churches today.
But in Deborah’s story the fact that she’s a woman does not seem to deter her or her followers. She has the same power as any other male judge. In fact, her gender seems to be immaterial, which is pretty amazing. No one questions her authority. Churches and the society at large have been telling women that they are not as good as men for a long time. Somehow it seems that they did not look very closely at the story of Deborah.
So let’s look at Deborah, this woman of unquestionable power and wisdom and obvious leadership capabilities. So why is she all but forgotten?
Joan of Arc, because of her military prowess was burned as a heretic because she as doing what was normal and natural for only a man to do. Salem “witches” were often midwives.
Deborah is identified as “Wife of Lappidoth”. But the Hebrew word for “wife” can also be translated at “woman”. Lappidoth can be translated as “On fire”. So Deborah wife of Lappidoth might mean Deborah the Spirited or Fiery Woman. Now that’s a provocative image.
It so happened that after the judge Ehud dies, the Israelites came under threat by Jabin, the king of Canaanites. Jabin and his people oppressed the Israelites for 20 years. Judges 5:6 says that trade stopped because of their oppression. This was enforced by 900 chariots of iron in the Canaanite army lead by General Sisera. The people went to the prophet Deborah. She was sitting under a tree that bore her name—like a guru, prophesying the word of God. And she gave the commander of the army, Barak, a plan which should go down in military history. How can a rag-tag army on foot possibly hold back 900 chariots? Such is the question for a prophet of God. She told them that God would deliver them. But there would be a twist. God would deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman. We all expect the woman to be Deborah, the Hebrew prophet-judge. But it is a foreigner with no dog in this fight that metes out the final punishment, hitting the nail on the head, so to speak.
Deborah told Barak to encamp at one side of the river Kishon with 10,000 people. For good measure, Deborah went alongside Barak. It seems that she would also lead a set of troops which would lure Sisera into a trap. Deborah was not only a prophet and a judge. She was also a military strategist and warrior.
Michael Williams says, “Deborah was tough. She would taunt the generals, saying, “If you think the hardships of military life are harsh, then you should carry a small dog inside your body for nine months, then let him climb out through your nostril. Anyone who can endure birth can endure anything.” Needless to say, the generals didn’t take kindly to her.” (From the Storytellers companion to the Bible, Abbington, 1993: p.86) But neither could they ignore this fiery woman.
Deborah lured Sisera’s army within eyesight of Barak. She wisely waited until a rainstorm. When the rain hit, she ordered Barak to flee down into the river valley. They did so with Sisera right on their tails. But by the time they got to the bottom, the river had swelled from the rain and Sisera’s chariots got stuck in the mud. With their advantage nullified, Sisera’s army, those old stick-in-the-muds, easily fell at the hands of Barak’s troops. We remember how Moses, a few centuries earlier, also got an army to get stuck in the mud. And the people were delivered once again by God, through Deborah. And Deborah the prophet, like Miriam the prophet, sang as an army was defeated in the water.
Now this is certainly a gruesome story. It get’s worse as Jael takes out her revenge on Sisera by impaling him with a tent stake. Jean Lubke says she may have to give back her Shalom Award after singing Jael’s recitative. Judges 5:24 calls Jael “Most blessed among women”—a title given to Mary the mother of Jesus. It that why Handel set this to music?
I do not tell this story to glorify warfare. In fact, the book of Judges is full of more stories that are even more gruesome than this. But oh, I am tempted to ignore it. Wouldn’t it be easier and neater to only concentrate on the positive stories? I could, and we do, but such a practice waters down the diversity of the Bible. We take the Bible too seriously to ignore its dark side. We can’t ignore the fact that the Bible, especially in Judges, Joshua and even Revelation depict God as a warrior. We make choices when interpreting the Bible to focus on one aspect or depiction of God and God’s people. Remember, the Bible is not just the static word of God. But people reading the Bible with the Holy Spirit as the guide and the community as the sounding board find the word of God for our lives. This includes the stories that make us squirm.
So here are a few things that might redeem the story.
The battle was the last against the Canaanites. It was a war against oppression, the only one in Judges. It was meted out by volunteers and lead by women. It was another example of God working miracles in unexpected times and places. In these days when things look really down and out, it is good to know that God is still there, seeking to overthrow those who are oppressing and abusing the people—seeking to redeem the victims of abuse and torture.
Here’s another thing to consider.
Did Jael just seduce and kill an innocent, or did she also save her sisters from being raped? Remember that Sisera and his army had oppressed the Hebrew people for 20 years. They had 900 chariots and the upper hand in all battles. That is, until Deborah and Jael came along.
In Judges 5:30, the women awaiting Sisera’s return assume he is late because he is out pillaging and raping. They even say, “Are they not finding and dividing the spoil?—a girl or two for every man..?” Boys will be boys and their reward for triumph is a girl or two for every man? Jael and Deborah put an end to this.
Finally, God even delivers us from such people, using unsuspected people and situations to bring about deliverance.
However you take this story, remember that the Biblical narrative tells us that God has not left us comfortless. The people of God will always be supported by a God who remembers them and brings up judges like Deborah, peasants like Jael and commanders like Barak to save us from oppression and deliver us from evil. And God will inspire folk like Clyde, Don, Tony, Gene, Dan and even conscientious objectors like Hoard to be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice so that others might live.
May we remember Deborah as the woman who broke the stereotypes of a man’s world and brought about deliverance for her people. And here’s the question for us. As we sit under our tree, wondering about the world and bemoaning the oppression around us, how do we listen for God? How do we rely upon God? What risks do we take to liberate the people of God?
Maybe as we look at that, Deborah the judge can offer some insight with her cunning, her bravery, her wisdom and her strength. It is strength wisdom, bravery and audacity that is here in spades in this very room. All we need is for Deborah to step forward and live into her calling.
Who will be the next judge? And will she judge us worthy as followers of God?