AWAKE, AWAKE DEBORAH!
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When we started our look at Judges, I said that many passages might make us uncomfortable. There is a lot of violence and smiting and so on. This morning’s story is no exception. We have an entire army being wiped out. We have a military leader being killed in his sleep with a tent peg. At heart though, this story is about God’s justice and righteousness. It’s about what that means for us who pledge allegiance to God as King, who name God as our leader, who say we love God, who name God as our friend. It’s about the triumph of the underdog in the face of the oppressor. In this way I think this sermon would be easier to preach if we were in a Brazilian slum or the ruins of a bombed out church in Aleppo. Living in the secure and stable and affluent west, it seems to me that it’s much easier for us to identify with the Canaanites living securely in their fortified cities behind walls and looking out their windows wondering “When are our soldiers going to come home and I hope they bring back good stuff like some embroidery that would go nicely with what I’m wearing.” Deborah was a prophet, and I believe that the prophetic word in this story has something to say to us today. It has meaningful questions to ask us. Let us look at the story of Deborah, Barak and Jael and see what God has to say to our hearts. Let us pray.
We left our story with Ehud last time. The left-handed social bandit. The land having rest for 80 years. We’re told that the Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died. They chose the ways of the Canaanites – the way of oppression, of injustice. They are cruelly oppressed by King Jabin of Canaan. He lived in a town called Hazor. A city state. This was what Canaan was made up of – city states. On one side you have a collection of city states that control trade routes and use force of arms to maintain this control. You have this military leader Sisera – who is thought to be a type of mercenary who led King Jabin’s forces. The Canaanites live securely behind their walls, and they oppress the Israelites cruelly for twenty years. What does this mean? It means going out and taking their things. Raiding them. It means taking their women and using them. It means putting them to forced labour. It means putting prosperity above compassion while people are living a hard-scrabble subsistence life in the hills. It means using technology – in this case iron chariots, basically the tanks of the ancient world – to keep outsiders in their place. You can’t read about these chariots without thinking of Pharoah’s army which bore down on the Israelites bringing nothing but death and oppression themselves. Better tech you see.
With God though it’s not about the technology. We don’t need to depend on technology for deliverance when it comes to God. That’s what each of these stories in Judges is about you see. Each one is like a mini-exodus. A mini-deliverance. We’ve talked about the role of the judges as deliverers. I was talking about this book to a friend here and she said “There are some great women in Judges!” Here they come. Deborah. A judge who actually carried out the role of a judge as we know it. She used to sit under the palms of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came to her for judgement. She’s described as the wife of Lappidoth, but this could also be translated as “the torch-bearer.” Her lineage isn’t given as it was with Othniel, Ehud, and Shamgar. What is the first thing that’s said about her? She was a prophetess. She was God’s spokesperson, in other words. Prophets foretold – they talked of events to come – and they also forthtold – they talked about what it meant to live in covenant with YAHWEH – what it meant to reflect his ways of love and grace and mercy and compassion and justice and care for the marginalized and all the ways God had made himself known to his people. They spoke about it particularly when God’s ways weren’t being reflected by his people.
She summons Barak. His name means “Lightning”. As one commentator puts it, this bearer of the torch lights a fire under lightning. “Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphthali and the tribe of Zebulun. I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give them into your hand.” Barak won’t go unless Deborah goes along. Is he scared? We don’t know. Does he see Deborah as the mediator of God’s presence in this battle? Seems possible. Whatever the reason, Deborah agrees and tells him that the road he is going on will not lead to his glory, for the LORD will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman. She must be talking about herself yes? We’ll come back to this, but for the moment I want to bring our attention to what I think is a significant truth here.
We don’t do anything for our own glory. Later on in Judges we’ll see people who want to parlay military leadership into kingship. We’ll see people fighting for their own glory and fame. We mustn’t think of anything that God calls us to do as being done for our own glory. God does the fighting against the powers and principalities for us. We have a role to play in it, of course we do. The thing that we have to do is to say “Yes” to what God calls us to do. To be open to listening for God’s call. To be attentive to his voice. To listen. To offer ourselves willingly, as the song of Deborah puts it. We must never think of it in terms of our own glorification. Barak doesn’t. He goes back to Kedesh with Deborah. He summons 10,000 warriors from the tribes of Zebulon and Napthali and goes up to Mount Tabor.
In what seems like an aside, we’re told about Heber the Kenite, who had separated from the other Kenites (who were descended from Moses father-in-law) and was encamped as far away as Elon-bezaaanannim, which is near Kedesh. Hold onto that thought.
Sisera calls out his chariots and all the troops that were with him. Deborah, still speaking for God, tells Barak “Up! For this is the day that the LORD has given Sisera into your hand. The LORD is indeed going before you.” The LORD throws Sisera and all his chariots and all his army into a panic. What happened? It’s described in the song in the next chapter – “The stars fought from heaven, from their courses they fought against Sisera. The torrent Kishon swept them away, the onrushing torrent, the torrent of Kishon. March on, my soul, with might!”
What a great song!
The river Kishon overflowed its banks. I said earlier it’s not about the technology. The waters overflowed their banks and the chariots became bogged down. It’s like the German invasion of Russia in WWII. Technology didn’t help in the face of the Russian winter. Barak’s men come down from the hills and do a lot of smiting. What does this tell us? Evil will not triumph. Evil will not have the last word. The Canaanites will not represent a threat to Israel throughout the rest of the book. It doesn’t mean that threats won’t come from other quarters or by the time all is said and done from within Israel itself. For now, though, the Canaanite oppression is over.
Apart from the matter of Sisera, of course. This is where the whole tent peg comes in. This is why we were told about Heber and where he was encamped. In the midst of all the carnage and confusion Sisera flees on foot – no going down with the ship for Sisera. He comes to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber – who we met a little earlier. Commentators have been really really hard on Jael. She’s treacherous. She violates codes of Middle Eastern hospitality by not ensuring Sisera’s safety (quite the opposite in fact!). We need to look at what’s going on in the story though. Sisera has already violated the code of hospitality. This whole world is upside down, in other words. You don’t go to the wife’s tent to look for shelter. You don’t ask for things. In fact when things are offered you say “Oh no I really shouldn’t” (which persists in many cultures today). You don’t ask your host to lie about your whereabouts with an implied threat (It’s like a scene where someone is being held hostage and there’s a knock at the door and they’re told “Tell them you’re alone or I’ll kill you.”) She covered him up, gave him some milk to drink (maybe to make him extra sleepy), waited until he fell asleep, took a tent peg and hammer, went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground – he was lying fast asleep from weariness – and he died.
I get that the violence can be a problem. This image is gross. Even when we become inured to such things. We hear about stabbings in our city almost every weekend. We get inured to them. We get inured to images we see on TV. This same sort of scene is played out on shows like CSI in microscopic detail. Slow motion too. I get that the violence is a problem.
I think the bigger picture here is what Sisera represents. The system he represents. There is a scene at the end of the song where Sisera’s mother is waiting for him to come home. Waiting in vain of course. You might think it’s merely a bit of Israelite gloating, but let’s look at it: “Out of the window she peered, the mother of Sisera gazed through the lattice: ‘Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why tarry the hoofbeats of his chariots?’ Her wisest ladies make answer, indeed she answers the question herself: ‘Are they not finding and dividing the spoil? – A girl or two for every man; spoils of dyed stuff for Sisera, spoils of dyed stuffs embroidered, two pieces of dyed work embroidered for my neck as a spoil?’”
This is Sisera’s mother. She is wondering what is keeping her son and thinking that maybe it’s because he’s getting more stuff – literally dyed stuffs and maybe some will have embroidery on them and won’t that look great around my neck as she leans on the window in her house in her walled city and thinks about what kind of stuff her son might be stealing from these Israelites who are living in the hills trying to eke out an agrarian existence because “Won’t that look good on me?” If you think that’s bad, she’s also thinking that they’re probably finding two women for every Canaanite man – not in a Surf City “two girls for every boy” way – but in a “We are going to carry off your women (or wombs) so they can be used by our men and bear slaves for us” kind of way.
Through the actions of Jael God is saying “No.”
Practices like that are as dead to God as her son is. Drive a tent peg through that stuff.
This is the difficulty for me if I’m being honest with myself. The message of this story is that the Lord loves righteousness and justice and will work to bring it about. So on that day God subdued King Jabin of Canaan before the Israelites. This was all God’s work. What might it look for us to fight against injustice? What has it looked like? For MLK JR it meant peaceful protest. It meant marching peacefully in the face of a lot of violence. It meant imprisonment.
How are we being called to hear the prophetess’ voice when she says “Go, the Lord commands you, the Lord goes before you.”? What might this life demand of us? What might God put in our hearts if we ask him? It’s a challenging part of this Christ following path. Because when we’re talking about deliverance we’re talking about Christ ultimately. Deborah’s song calls Jael “Most blessed of women.” Do you know who else was called blessed like that? Mary by her cousin Elizabeth. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” The one who came to bring good news to the poor and release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free (note) and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
We’re asking the question “Who will go up for us?” Who will lead us? Do you love this King? Ultimately this story is about justice and righteousness. It ultimately asks the question of us “Are you his friend?” Evil won’t triumph in the end. Deborah’s song ends like this – “So perish all your enemies, O Lord! But may your friends be like the sun as it rises in its might.” May your friends reflect your ways – love, compassion grace, mercy, forgiveness, justice. These are the things that God’s word tells us that the Holy Spirit will inspire in us. It’s not an easy thing to think about the injustices we might be a part of, to think about what changes God might command us to make. The good news is that we’re not expected to do this on our own. The Lord goes before you. God will never command what God won’t enable. May we be a people, friends, who are coming ever more to reflect his ways; who are becoming ever more friends of God.