Deborah – Judges 4:4-10
Last Sunday, 3 members of the Ministry of Adult Faith Formation met with me to read and discuss Judges 4 & 5, on the heroine Deborah, and her side-kick Yael, who was equally daring and brave.
My conversation partners, Wendy, Baxter and Dan, urged me to say something about the book of Judges as a whole. So here goes. Judges continues the story of Israel’s conquest and gradual occupation of the land of Canaan. The judges were Israel’s charismatic leaders in the days before the monarchy. Altogether, the book follows the exploits of twelve judges. Six are usually called the “minor judges,” hardly more than names attached to a single incident only barely remembered: Shamgar, Toala, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon. The other six are the “major judges”: Othniel, Ehud, Barak (with Deborah), Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson. They were renowned for their brave exploits in battle and were really warlords rather than legal judges, with the exception of Deborah, who was specifically identified as a judge. Strife was constant throughout the age of the judges. As some writers have remarked, it was like the Wild West of American folklore.
But now we focus on Deborah and Yael, two women remembered in both story and song. The story is in Judges 4, and the song is in Judges 5. The Song of Deborah in chapter 5 is a very ancient poem, one of the earliest writings that the Bible preserves: it was most probably written in the eleventh century BCE, soon after the events it records. The story in chapter 4 reached its present shape much later in Israel’s history.
Wendy noted that it is rare in Hebrew Bible to read the story of women, even more noteworthy — women who are named. How refreshing, in a world dominated by men, to find the story of a woman who is both a visionary and warrior!
As the stories of women were rare in Biblical times, perhaps so today. Baxter shared an illustration of women being overlooked in more recent times. Since 1851, The New York Times has published thousands of obituaries: of heads of state, opera singers, the inventor of Stove Top stuffing and the namer of the Slinky. The vast majority chronicled the lives of men, mostly white ones.
Charlotte Brontë wrote “Jane Eyre”; Emily Warren Roebling oversaw construction of the Brooklyn Bridge when her husband fell ill; Ida B. Wells campaigned against lynching. Yet all of their deaths went unremarked in the pages of the Times. Now, however, The New York Times runs a column called “Overlooked,” sharing the obituaries and telling the stories of women who left indelible marks on society.
Returning now to Deborah, our little group was fascinated how she “held court under the Palm of Deborah, where the Israelites came to have their disputes decided.” The only other person reported to have performed this function for the Israelites was Moses. Dan quipped, “Perhaps she was giving out good advice, and was in effect the first Ann Landers!”
The four of us saw a repeat-pattern in Judges. In story after story, the Israelites broke the covenant and rebelled against God; God disciplined them by turning them over to their enemies; then the people called upon God, who sent them a deliverer who led them into a period of peace and tranquility. As prophetess, was Deborah possibly hearing messages from God, warning Israel about the errors of their ways, helping the people get back on track?
Baxter asked if we all don’t need Deborahs in our lives from time to time, people who recognize our brokenness, fallenness, lostness and rebellion, and as healers lead us back into reconciliation with God, with ourselves, and with others.
It didn’t escape our notice that it was a woman sending for Barak, charging him to go and take with him ten thousand men to defeat the Canaanites. Who are the Deborahs calling us to action today? And to what action are they calling us?
And what about this curious conversation between Deborah and Barak? Barak says, “If you go with me (into battle), I will go; but if you won’t go with me, I won’t go.” Deborah agrees to go with him into battle, but he won’t get the honor of the victory. She explains that the Lord will hand Sisera, the commander of the Canaanite army, over to a woman. Some label Barak a coward, but we wondered if it was to his credit that he acknowledged a woman as the real genius of the operation, not a man!
We shouldn’t think for a minute that this curious conversation is about whether it’s a woman or a man who gets to take credit for the victory, because Deborah is quite clear that it is the Lord who gives Sisera into their hands. “Has not the Lord gone ahead of us?!” she exhorts.
With our 21st century sensibilities intact, we might be suspicious of any teaching that God is on one nation’s side and not another, one team’s side and not another, one person’s side and not another. In that respect, we may wonder how healthy it is for the Jewish people of Biblical history or American right-wingers of modern times to think “God is on our side.”
On the other hand, we might pay attention to the hidden wisdom behind the culturally bound perspectives and language of ancient times and affirm that human beings are always at their best when they humbly acknowledge their weakness, vulnerability and dependence on God and each other.
We may read about Deborah humbly giving God the glory for the victory over the Canaanites, but then, in response, humbly give God the glory for the victory over our own greatest enemy — ourselves. What I mean by this is if we take care of the beam in our own eye, we’ll be less preoccupied with the speck in someone else’s eye.
Our group noted that Deborah is called a “mother in Israel” (5:7), and as such is fiercely protective of her own. Her name means “bee.” Like the queen bee, she raises up the swarm for battle, sending out the drones to protect the hive and conquer new territory.
Who is Deborah? A prophetess calling her people back to God, a judge deciding about the disputes among her people, a visionary calling Barak and ten thousand soldiers into action, a warrior leading her people into battle, a mother fiercely protecting her own, a humble servant giving God the glory for any human accomplishment.
As I mentioned before, Deborah isn’t the only hero of the story. The poem reveals that God sends a flash flood, with the result that Sisera’s 900 iron chariots get stuck in the mud. Sisera flees on foot, and is met by Yael, who invites him into her tent, lures him into a false sense of security until he falls asleep, then kills him by driving a tent peg into his temple with a mallet.
When Biblical scholar Tammi Schneider reflected on this event, she wrote, “When a warrior approaches a tent in wartime, we normally fear, not for the warrior but for the woman inside. We brace ourselves for a violent rape in which the warrior brutally penetrates the woman. Instead, it is Yael who penetrates with her weapon. Women in tents are not always victims!”
And some think the Bible is dull and boring!
Deborah and Yael’s stories convey a powerful message to people who are feeling (and probably are) weak, small, and vulnerable. These women are paradigms for individuals, groups, and nations who find themselves in disadvantaged situations, a dramatic representation of how they can nevertheless rise to redeem themselves and others. Like these women, the people of Israel can persevere to preserve their destiny. The gifts of faith, persuasion, persistence, and cunning can allow the nation of Israel to be victorious when surrounded by, besieged by, and even conquered by more powerful nations.
Last Wednesday noon, a member of our discussion group on Paul’s Letter to the Romans commented, “After visiting memorials and museums honoring Jews who were persecuted and exterminated in Nazi Germany, I marvel that the Jewish people have found a way to persist to this very day! Despite all odds and obstacles, the Jewish people survive!”
Some would say it’s not mere determination or sheer willpower that live on in the Jewish people, but rather the sense that God’s strength is made perfect through weakness.
Does it seem the odds are against you? Are there obstacles in your path that seem insurmountable?
Then with the psalmist exclaim, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God” (Psalm 20:7)
With the prophet Zechariah affirm, “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Zechariah 4:6).
With the apostle Paul cry out, “When I am weak, then I am strong!” (2 Cor. 12:10).
With the writer to the Hebrews assert, “What more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about the judges: Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah (hey, where’s Deborah?!!!), who through faith conquered kingdoms and administered justice…whose weakness was turned to strength” (Hebrews 11:32-34).