T HE BOOK OF JUDGES features the stories of leaders in Israel called “judges.” Over time there were 12 judges. They generally were military leaders. Before kings in Israel, God raised up temporary warriors to rescue the loose coalition of tribes from a series of oppressive enemies. The events in each judges story follow a similar cyclical pattern:
■ Israel sins and worships other gods while living in the promised land.
■ God becomes angry and allows enemies to attack Israel.
■ The Israelites cry out in pain because of the attack.
■ God has pity on them.
■ God raises up a judge who delivers Israel.
■ The people return to proper worship for a time.
■ When the judge dies, the Israelites return to their old ways.
■ The cycle begins all over again.
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OUR READING TODAY presents an interesting variation on this pattern. First off, the judge is female. Deborah is the first — and only — female judge in the book. We first meet Deborah as she is seated in the shade of a palm tree in the hill country, going about her work settling disputes among her people.
The phrase “wife of Lappidoth” could mean she’s married or it can be read as “woman of Lappidoth,” referring to where she comes from. Or, the phrase could be descriptive of Deborah’s character; the word means “torch,” or “lightning,” so Deborah could be a “fiery woman.” Whatever that phrase means, her roles as prophet and judge are clear.
And while the judges were leaders, mostly in military battles, Deborah is also a judge in the sense of adjudicating disputes.
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THE STORY PICKS UP as Deborah puts on her prophet’s hat and brings a word from the Lord. She summons a military leader named Barak and tells him that the Lord wants him to call up 10,000 troops from Naphtali and Zebulun. They are to march to Mount Tabor. There the Israelites will battle the Canaanites under Commander Sisera and will defeat them.
But the story is just getting started.
Barak says he’ll carry out this order from the Lord, but only if Deborah goes with him. Is Barak uncertain of the message? “I didn’t receive this message from God. You, Deborah, have to put yourself in harm’s way to validate the order.” Some claim Barak is a coward.
Of course, the Canaanites have 900 iron chariots. The Israelites have zero iron chariots. I’m not sure I’d be in a hurry to wage war either.
Still others say Barak so respects Deborah’s leadership that he hesitates to venture forth without her at his side.
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WHATEVER THE REASON, Deborah agrees to go into battle but tells Barak he will not get any fame from his leadership in battle. (That sort of sounds like a punishment for his hesitance.)
The Canaanite commander Sisera will be the loser, but he will die at the hand of a woman! At first blush, you might think this “woman” is Deborah. But it turns out to be Jael who carries out the gruesome killing of Commander Sisera.
“Before” Barak arrives for the fight, God routes Sisera’s army.
Commander Sisera leapt off his chariot and “fled away on foot.” The exhausted and terrified Sisera finds his way to a friendly camp, where he receives what appears to be typical Middle Eastern hospitality from another woman, Jael.
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INSTEAD OF SAFETY, Sisera finds a monstrous and brutal death at the hands of this Jael, who turns out to be the woman that Deborah warned would gain the glory of God this time.
The pathetic Barak finally finds his way to her tent (4:22), but, as always, he is too late. Sisera has been dispatched by the clever woman, Jael, and Barak can only view his mangled body.
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TWO THINGS I want us to take away from traveling with Deborah.
■ First is how God responds to people’s actions. The first two verses in the chapter narrate it almost in a matter-of-fact way, “The Israelites again did evil in the Lord’s eyes … so the Lord sold them into the hand of King Jabin in Canaan … .” God does not ignore what God’s people do. And, God does not arbitrarily punish them. Their oppression by the Canaanite king is because they did evil, and God responded.
The people cried out in their oppression. God, true to the cycle, responds to the cries of his sinful people. This exemplifies God’s gracious character. But we should note that the repeated sins of the people finally lead to the destruction of Israel. God’s grace is not to be taken for granted.
■ This leads us to the second take-away. God acts in response to cries for help by speaking and working through other people. In this story, God works through three people — Deborah, Barak, and Jael — to bring deliverance to God’s people.
Particularly of note is God’s use of a woman to lead the Israelites. Deborah — a woman, a prophet, an arbitrator, a military advisor and leader — may surprise us. Her gender did not stand in the way of God using her in the exercise of power, leadership, and the proclamation of God’s word to her community, even in her ancient and often male-centered world.
It is a great misunderstanding of the biblical tradition to think that women were totally subservient to men and had no voice or role in public affairs. Deborah worked as both a judge and a prophet, roles most often associated with men.
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GOD OFTEN WORKS through unlikely people.
Jael, a non-Israelite, plays a vital role in the victory that God and Israel won against the enemy. Jael becomes a second role model of a strong and courageous woman.
In any case, God’s initiative uses a variety of human helpers. God promises to give Sisera into the hand of Barak, but Barak’s request for Deborah to accompany him seems to lead to a change in God’s plans. The book of Judges offers a wide range of female experiences, some negative and some positive.
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ONE OF THE SLOGANS floating about churches these days is “God’s work, our hands.”
I’m glad our church, our denomination, supports women leaders. That we challenge women to do and dare great things. That we support them toward intellectual and spiritual achievements.
These stories remind us that those hands carrying out the work of a mighty and merciful God are women’s hands, too.