When I was a kid I loved reading the Bible. I’d start at Genesis and read all the way through. Okay, that’s not quite true. I’d start at Genesis with the intent of reading all the way through, but I always seemed to get stuck at about the same part – the middle of Exodus. Once that book turned from an exciting story of daring escape, of plagues and miracles, to talk about laws and the very detailed ways to worship God, I stopped reading. I suppose I have enough OCD tendencies that skipping ahead just wasn’t an option. So when I picked up the Bible again, I’d start at Genesis. Once, I got through the whole of Exodus but I didn’t make it much further. If I thought the second half of Exodus was as boring as it could get, Leviticus proved me wrong. Needless to say, in these childhood marathon readings of the Bible, I got to know Genesis and Moses real well and that was about it.
Had I known that just past Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Joshua, there would be a book like Judges waiting for me, I might have kept on reading just to get to the good part. Judges is a fascinating book about the twelve people who were designated as judges, rulers over and saviors of Israel – and this history of Israel’s pre-monarchial society is quite a juicy read.
While there are a few judges whose brief entries read like the cliffs notes to the cliffs notes version of their lives, other judges’ stories are told with such passion and engagement that I don’t need to be a kid with a wild imagination and a yearning for adventure to appreciate them. The history of Israel’s early period is filled with fascinating people who perform feats that seem impossible for mere mortals, people who defend their nation against indescribable odds.
You could say these stories are the big action summer blockbusters of their time. Instead of seeing Spiderman swinging from skyscraper to skyscraper, we have Samson tearing down buildings with his God-given brute strength. Rather than Will Smith saving the world from yet another alien invasion with yet another unrealistic save-the-day solution, there’s Gideon sending the enemy into panic and subsequently defeating them by surrounding them at night with his mere 300 men and creating such a cacophony of blowing trumpets, breaking jars, shouting war cries.
Unfortunately not unlike your stereotypical action movie, the book of Judges has some troubling roles for women. We, of course, have Delilah, who seduces Samson and cuts off the source of his power, literally. Delilah may come only second to Jezebel in giving women a bad rap. Along with Delilah, there are several women in Judges who give more serious concern to readers. The stories of Jepthath’s daughter and the Levite’s concubine are some of the most disturbing narratives in the entire Bible. Stories about the violent fates of women at the hands of men who were supposed to protect them. Stories that make it a true and honest challenge to see within them a just and loving God.
Though Judges bears these two disturbing stories, it also contains two of the most powerful women in the whole of our sacred texts. Perhaps it wouldn’t surprise most of you to know that I come from a large family full of strong women – many of whom are here this morning. I have a great appreciation for powerful females. In our text, we meet two of my favorite strong femmes, Deborah and Jael.
Our story begins by setting the stage for Deborah’s introduction. Israel does evil in the sight of the Lord, something it seems to do rather frequently in this particular book, and finds itself being oppressed by King Jabin and his military commander Sisera for 20 years. Israel cries out to God for relief – enter Deborah. Deborah is a prophetess and has become a judge over Israel. After all this campaigning we’ve seen for the governor’s race among others, I find Deborah’s claim to leadership rather refreshing. She didn’t seek anybody out, pass out bumper stickers or flyers, spend millions on negative ads or political advisors. Her wisdom and charisma, her fiery nature, were more than enough to draw people to her. She just sat under a tree and let the people come.
As this wise leader, she preaches God’s prophetic word to the people, here in particular Barak. And Deborah isn’t just a guru who stays under the relative calm of her tree’s shade, passing out proclamations. She accompanies the military commander Barak on his mission and inspires the charge for battle. For a woman of unassuming origins, sitting under that adeptly named tree, she proves a captivating character.
Our other fascinating female at first seems rather unassuming as well. Jael enters the scene innocently enough, coming out to meet Sisera, the man whose leader was her husband’s friend, offering him assurances and the comfort of her tent. I’ve lived most of my life in the South, a place – as I’m sure many of you know – that prides itself on hospitality. Now at first it seems Jael would fit right in, be a perfect example of our Southern hospitality. She gives this man on the run who has just seen his entire army destroyed (well, had he stayed for the battle would have just seen his entire army destroyed) a place of refuge. She covers him with a rug and gives him milk when he just asked for water.
Of course, what Jael does next, you know driving a tent peg into Sisera’s temple until it reaches the ground, might disqualify her from winning any Sweet Southern Miss contest. Though she starts out so seemingly sweet, she, uh, hammers home just how fierce she can be. It is Jael the homemaker, not Barak the military commander, who ends up wining the day and the glory; though Barak defeats Sisera’s army, Jael defeats Sisera himself.
These women are strong and brave, so brave in fact that they have been at the center of some heated discussions. Women need to be sheltered, you say? How could women be considered in need of shelter and protection when you have the example of Jael, a resourceful woman who took instruments she would have on hand, and simply and apparently calmly takes on a man who until a few hours before had been commander of 900 iron chariots? It’s hard to see women as weak and helpless with Jael around.
And in conversations over the centuries, people have turned to Deborah as an example of why women can and should be leaders in the church – a woman once was a leader of the whole people Israel after all. On the other side of that debate, people such as our own favorite theologian John Calvin have said that Deborah was a special case, that not all women should be regarded on her level and she was just unusually gifted.
Some have gone further than limiting the potential found in Deborah’s amazing story, by trying to discredit either Deborah or Jael’s achievements. More than one commentator, classic and contemporary, has suggested that though Deborah was a prophetess and offering wisdom and governance to Israel, she wasn’t a complete judge because she needed Barak for the all important military prowess. Now, true, the other judges in this book were men who fought battles, and so Deborah doesn’t quite fit the mold. But if we remember the story, then we know that Barak refused to go into battle without Deborah, and that it was she who commanded the day of attack and even gave the big rally the troops speech.
As for Jael, well some have been quick to point out that she broke rules of hospitality. In the ancient world, hospitality was not just about offering someone a nice meal or a place to crash – it was about survival. With no motels or rest stops along well-paved highways, the people of the Middle East had to rely on the kindness of strangers when they were crossing long distances or fleeing from an enemy. When you invited someone into your home, you were promising them protection against harm by nature or by humans. Jael, well, she doesn’t let either nature or Sisera’s persecutors get him, but he certainly doesn’t stay safe in her care.
However, I would think that one cannot really accuse Jael of breaking the rules of hospitality if one considers Sisera’s own acts. You wanna talk breaking the rules – how about a commander abandoning his troops when things get a little hairy. And while Jael offered it, given the rules of their time, Sisera should never have accepted her hospitality – only the hospitality of her husband. By accepting her offer to hide him, Sisera proved himself a doubly unworthy man and perhaps even left Jael to suspect he might want more from her than shelter and a drink of water.
Lest we think it’s just a gender thing, I really should point out that while there are those who would lessen Deborah and Jael’s contributions, there are also those who would diminish Barak’s role. Poor Barak, sandwiched between these two unique women, he tends to get lost in their glory. Deborah is the brains and Jael the brawn and Barak, he’s the filler. He’s what gets us from Deborah’s wise leadership to the grand and gory finale; a plot device, really, and nothing more meaningful or important.
Except that’s not it either. Amid all the commentaries I’ve read and in conversations I’ve had recent and past, most people don’t know how to handle this trio of actors. And I don’t blame them. The world of judges is inverted in this story. The pattern of every other judge isn’t followed here. Instead of one strong man freeing Israel from oppression, we have several strong people, including two women. So folk keep trying to play around with the story, to find a way to make one of these people more important than the other. You would think we Christians would find it a little easier to understand and accept that through three persons Israel was delivered. Instead, many of us keep trying to force one or another into the role of true hero.
But that’s not going to work. Think square peg, a square tent peg if you like, in a round hole. Without Barak, Deborah wouldn’t have had any army to charge; without Barak, Jael wouldn’t have had any one to chase Sisera off in her direction. Without Deborah, Barak wouldn’t have heard the command of God to start the whole thing off and without Jael, Deborah and Barak wouldn’t have seen an end to Sisera’s tyranny. Each needs the other and each is important to the others.
When we try and force one or another of these characters into being the star of the story, we miss out on the beauty of this collaborative effort. We miss out on interplay of each person’s different gifts as they weave together to create this story of freedom.
And what’s more, by trying to show one of this human characters as the true actor of salvation, we forget the source of that salvation. We forget that though Deborah was a wise leader, Barak a good military commander, Jael a brave, resourceful woman, God is the one who spoke first to Deborah, God is the one who sent Sisera’s army into a panic that caused him to flee. God is the source of all their gifts and their call to action. God is at work in these people’s actions and it is God who is savior, who is the true judge, true leader of the people. God is, or at least should be, the focus of our attention just as God is the focus of this narrative.
The story does not end with a summation of Deborah’s works or Jael’s bravery, or a list of Barak’s military conquests. It ends with: And so on that day God subdued King Jabin of Canaan before the Israelite. It ends with a statement ascribing to God the glory for what came to pass. And following the narrative is a beautiful song that beings and ends the retelling of this story with ultimate praise to God.
God’s part in this story as with our own story, is as source of the gifts which bring about good things, as inspiration to seek out freedom from our oppression. And just like our forbearers of faith, our part is to be inspired by God and to seek out what God would have for us, whether we be Deborahs, Baraks, or Jaels.
So glory be to the God who works within us all, who weaves our gifts together, and moves us toward freedom from all that binds us.