Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, October 2, 2016
Taken from Judges 4: 4-10, 12-16
These stories of the Judges are ancient history for us. This account of the Judge, Deborah, is well over a thousand years back before the birth of Jesus. What helps me begin to get a hold on who these people were, are different figures from mythology. And by that, I mean pop culture mythology.
So in my mind, for example, Samuel is Gandalf the Grey from Lord of the Rings. Samson has got to be Conan the Barbarian. And, Deborah? Deborah is unique among any women we find in Scripture. For me, Deborah is Xena, Warrior Princess, without a doubt.
Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, she’s Gabrielle. Who knows who Gabrielle is? Gabrielle is the farm girl whom Xena inspires to take up Xena’s warrior’s way of life.
Xena moves among the male warriors of her day, and she is fearless and even ruthless. No man will conquer her, neither in battle nor in wits nor in love. Xena intervenes to spare the weak, rescue the defenseless; she rights wrongs inflicted on the innocent. No doubt, Xena is aided in all this by her distractingly well-cut leather mini-skirt, along with the accoutrements of warfare.
So, with Xena firmly fixed in our minds, let’s take a look at Deborah. I don’t know whether Deborah rode a horse; probably not. I’m very sure Deborah did not traipse around Canaan in a leather mini-skirt. What Deborah did share with Xena was a kind of dominating charisma that overcame all others in that male-dominated place and time.
As judge over Israel, Deborah, like Xena Warrior Princess, intervened on behalf of the weak, she rescued the defenseless, she righted wrongs inflicted on the innocent. And Deborah did all this not with sword, but through the power of her personality, her wits, her wisdom, which everyone acknowledged God annointed.
It was indeed a harsh time to be God’s point-person for justice there in Canaan. The people of God are not yet one people. They are twelve distinct tribes who have settled down, each tribe with its own domain, each tribe looking to its own survival.
The stories of the Judges are knit together by these condemning words: The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord….every man did what was right in his own eyes. (Judg. 6:1; 21:25)
But every few generations, a personality so strong, so charismatic, so commanding, would arise from among the people. These were the judges; these were the men, and the woman, Deborah, who would re-forge that bond of consciousness founded upon the Lord’s covenant with the Israelites.
The times called for such a leader as was Deborah, and Deborah stepped forward to shape the times that were handed to her. For twenty long years now, as verse 3 tells us, Jabin, King of Canaan, and his powerful general, Sisera, have cruelly oppressed the people of Israel.
Sisera’s troops have superior weapons made from iron. They have the mobility of iron-wheeled chariots. Deborah grew up seeing Sisera’s troops treat her people with brutal disregard. Deborah saw the tribes weakened by their own divisiveness, each clan, each family simply looking out for itself trying to survive.
Deborah also grew up, hearing the elders tell the stories of God’s deliverance of Abraham’s descendants from Egypt; she learned of the aspirations of God for her people, as Moses and then Joshua had taught her forebears.
Deborah emerged from that crucible of suffering a woman invigorated, daring, dreaming, demanding that life as it was among her people should yield to what life might become, if her people would only embrace what God desired for them.
All the while, Deborah also studied their enemy, Sisera. She studied how Sisera commanded his troops and how those troops moved and ruled over them. She realized Sisera’s own iron-clad chariots could be his downfall.
Deborah calls Barak to gather 10,000 Israelites up in the hill country, to prepare to do battle with Sisera and his army, down in the river plains below. Sisera learns of the impending revolt among these few northern tribes of Israel. He and his charioteers are stationed out on the north-western end of the Kishon River.
The seasonal flooding of the Kishon River, now behind them, has scoured a flat and clean plain over which Sisera’s chariots could swiftly travel inland. So, Sisera and his chariots and his footmen head out, traveling south-eastward down the Kishon River valley, heading to the Plain of Meggido where he would draw the revolting tribes down out of the mountains to do battle on the plain.
What Sisera overlooks in his hurry down the Kishon River valley is what Deborah sees from her mountain vantage point. As chapter 5 narrates, Deborah sees storm clouds in the distance. Storms clouds that will soon drop torrents of rain that will quickly overflow every creek and stream flowing down those mountains, racing down to form a tremendous flash-flood of water that will soon turn the Kishon River in a raging muddy torrent, flooding over that nice flat river plain. Just right for bogging down and trapping iron-wheeled chariots.
And that’s what happens. Sisera and his chariots are sitting ducks, to be speared and hacked to death by 10,000 Israelites swarming over them. Sisera slashes his way through the mayhem of blood and bodies and muck. He flees northward.
Sisera makes it far enough to where he believes he is among allies of the king. In fact, we are told in a little side note in verse 11, that a Kenite chieftain name Heber had abandoned the Israelites and allied himself with King Jabin. So, when Sisera realizes he’s stumbled into Heber’s encampment, he knows he is among allies.
It is Heber’s wife, Jael, who gets first sight of the exhausted general Sisera. Jael is to Deborah what sweet Gabrielle is to Xena. Jael quickly welcomes Sisera into her tent, so he can rest and eat and await help for his journey to Hazor. Sisera, totally spent from battle and from running, quickly falls into a hard sleep.
By every expectation of her clan, Jael should have gone to find her husband and her brothers and her uncles. But she does not, because Jael does not share her husband’s decision to abandon the Israelites. Jael’s loyalty still lies with God and with God’s people. Here, now lying sound asleep in her tent, is the general who has made the Israelites’ lives so harsh these many years.
So, Jael instead picks up a tent stake. Now, this is not your wimpy little aluminum-wire tent stake like what comes with modern tents today. This is a big solid, wood stake. This is a kill-a-vampire kind of wood stake.
Jael picks up that stake in one hand; she picks up a massive club in her other hand. She ever so quietly and carefully squats down next to Sisera. She places that pointed shaft just above sleeping Sisera’s temple and raises the hammer with her other hand.
Now, keep in mind, Jael is member of a Bedouin tribe. Every time their clan moved and set up camp, it was the women’s job to stake out the tents. Jael is an old-hand at driving tent stakes into the ground.
Jael squats down; she brings that pointed stake just shy of sleeping Sisera’s temple; she raises that wooden club up high, and with all her might…WHAM! Drives that stake in one side of Sisera’s head and out the other side, pinning him to the ground! Without Sisera and his army, King Jabin’s grip over the northern tribes of Israel is broken.
When Will read this Scripture for us, we concluded the reading with our usual response, didn’t we? “This is the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God,” we said. Well, I ask us, how is this “the Word of the Lord”? What in the world could God possibly be saying to us through this brutal, violent story of Deborah and Jael?
According to those who first told the story of Deborah and Jael, God’s hand is all over this from start to finish. They thoroughly accepted that God enabled the destruction of Sisera’s army, that God engineered Sisera’s own violent death at the hand of Jael.
Yet, how is this revelation of God for us? We are followers of Jesus Christ. We follow the One who did not drive a spike into the head of his enemy; we follow the One who willingly received spikes driven into his own body, pinning him to a cross, for the sake of his enemies’ salvation.
God’s revelation moved and manifested itself in real time among real people. Through the poor lens of human suffering inflicted by mortals and through the inspired lens of human aspiration lifted up by the Spirit of God, God spoke. God could have held back that revelation, away off in Heaven, patiently standing aside waiting for humanity to catch up to some pristine, enlightened stage in its evolution. But, God did not wait for some perfect, future day.
Instead, God offered revelation through an ancient, primitive people who credited God with good and bad, with triumph and failure, who credited God with enlightened benevolence and who equally credited God with harsh brutality.
They did so knowing God was present and working among them. Of that conviction they gave true testimony. God was not afraid of their flaws; instead, God embraced their faithfulness. God did not insist they first be what they could not be…they could not be perfect human vessels of God’s revelation. God only called them to be faithful vessels of that revelation.
By the Holy Spirit’s inspiration and empowerment, these ancient people progressed; they grew further into God’s vision for humanity, a vision founded not on suppression and warfare. Instead, they caught sight of a humanity founded in transformation and mercy. They grew into the people who produced Jesus of Nazareth.
If we insist the Bible be either/or…either all its words from cover to cover are the infallible Word of God, or none of its words can the Word of God, we will end up with a very thin Bible indeed.
But, if we read this Bible as the Bible itself testifies for itself such as in the Book of Hebrews, chapter 1, verses 1-2, where it says: “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days God has spoken to us by a Son, who….reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of God’s nature”…
If that’s our Bible, then we have a full, rich inheritance of God’s truth, clothed though it be in flawed human flesh, until that moment 2,000 years ago when God’s truth finally took up that same flesh, perfect in faith, perfect in obedience, perfect in revelation, God’s own Self incarnated in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
It is in the truth of that perfect revelation of God, to which God calls us to live. It is in that truth, now, we gather ourselves as the people of God, around this table of bread and cup signifying God’s perfect covenant with us, through Jesus.
* exegetical notes from Arthur Cundell & Leon Morris, Judges & Ruth, Tyndale OT Commentaries, D.J. Wiseman, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1968), pp. 81-101.