Deborah’s People

Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost.

Judges 4:1-24 (The Message)

The People of Israel again did evil in God’s sight. With Ehud dead, God sold them off to Jabin king of Canaan who ruled from Hazor. Sisera, who lived in Harosheth Haggoyim, was the commander of his army. The People of Israel cried out to God because he had cruelly oppressed them with his nine hundred iron chariots for twenty years.

Deborah was a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth. She was judge over Israel at that time. She held court under Deborah’s Palm between Ramah and Bethel in the hills of Ephraim. The People of Israel went to her in matters of justice.

She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “It has become clear that God, the God of Israel, commands you: Go to Mount Tabor and prepare for battle. Take ten companies of soldiers from Naphtali and Zebulun. I’ll take care of getting Sisera, the leader of Jabin’s army, to the Kishon River with all his chariots and troops. And I’ll make sure you win the battle.”

Barak said, “If you go with me, I’ll go. But if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.”

She said, “Of course I’ll go with you. But understand that with an attitude like that, there’ll be no glory in it for you. God will use a woman’s hand to take care of Sisera.”

Deborah got ready and went with Barak to Kedesh. Barak called Zebulun and Naphtali together at Kedesh. Ten companies of men followed him. And Deborah was with him.

It happened that Heber the Kenite had parted company with the other Kenites, the descendants of Hobab, Moses’ in-law. He was now living at Zaanannim Oak near Kedesh. They told Sisera that Barak son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor. Sisera immediately called up all his chariots to the Kishon River—nine hundred iron chariots!—along with all his troops who were with him at Harosheth Haggoyim.

Deborah said to Barak, “Charge! This very day God has given you victory over Sisera. Isn’t God marching before you?”

Barak charged down the slopes of Mount Tabor, his ten companies following him.

God routed Sisera—all those chariots, all those troops!—before Barak. Sisera jumped out of his chariot and ran. Barak chased the chariots and troops all the way to Harosheth Haggoyim. Sisera’s entire fighting force was killed—not one man left.

Meanwhile Sisera, running for his life, headed for the tent of Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite. Jabin king of Hazor and Heber the Kenite were on good terms with one another. Jael stepped out to meet Sisera and said, “Come in, sir. Stay here with me. Don’t be afraid.”

So he went with her into her tent. She covered him with a blanket.

He said to her, “Please, a little water. I’m thirsty.”

She opened a bottle of milk, gave him a drink, and then covered him up again.

He then said, “Stand at the tent flap. If anyone comes by and asks you, ‘Is there anyone here?’ tell him, ‘No, not a soul.’”

Then while he was fast asleep from exhaustion, Jael wife of Heber took a tent peg and hammer, tiptoed toward him, and drove the tent peg through his temple and all the way into the ground. He convulsed and died.

Barak arrived in pursuit of Sisera. Jael went out to greet him. She said, “Come, I’ll show you the man you’re looking for.” He went with her and there he was—Sisera, stretched out, dead, with a tent peg through his temple.

On that day God subdued Jabin king of Canaan before the People of Israel. The People of Israel pressed harder and harder on Jabin king of Canaan until there was nothing left of him.

***

Once, while on Christmas break in college, my brother and I committed to watching the entire set of Lord of the Rings movies. 

The extended cut, mind you. Each of those clock in at around 4 hours long.

I have to admit they aren’t my favorite. I get bored with battle scenes and there’s just so many bearded men standing around talking seriously about everything. But there is a moment at the end of the final movie that still had the power to make me stand up and cheer. 

It’s the final battle, and there’s a prophecy surrounding the enemy King that no man can kill him. So, of course, in rides Eowyn—the true King’s niece and a warrior in her own right. Disguised as a man, she manages to kill the evil king, pulling off her helmet to reveal that it wasn’t a man who killed him after all. 

It’s the kind of moment that makes you want to clap. It’s the reason why so many girls love Eowyn as their favorite character, even when her role in the story is relatively small. Plenty of my middle school peers planned to name their daughters Eowyn, although I haven’t checked to see if they’ve changed their mind since. 

Of course, JRR Tolkein wasn’t the first to write a story about surprising warrior women. Our scripture today features two women from the Old Testament who make for great storytelling. 

The first is Deborah, a prophet, a judge, and a military leader. She is the third of seven judges raised up by the Lord to guide the newly established land of Israel, preceding more famous names like Gideon and Samson, as they deal with aggressive neighbors on every side—some of whom are not too happy that the Israelites took their land from them in the first place. It’s a makeshift political system that eventually gives way to the people’s desire for a King. The judges are not royalty, but they are called by God.

In the story, Deborah is dealing with a reluctant subordinate named Barak, who’s too afraid of the enemy to march out to war without her. She promises to go with him and his army, but prophesies that he won’t get the ultimate glory of killing the king—that will go to a woman. 

And it does, but not to Deborah. Deborah and Barak manage to rout the enemy army and send its king running for safety. And then the scene shifts to the home of Jael and Heber, where the husband and wife have divided loyalties. Heber is an ironsmith who makes chariots—the ultimate weapon of war in the ancient world—for Israel’s oppressors. The enemy king expects to be safe in his supplier’s house. But Jael feels differently—perhaps she is sick of the war, or perhaps she remembers that one of her ancestors married Moses, the great leader of the Israelite people. Perhaps she is a warrior woman, or perhaps she is a psychopath. Either way, in a scene straight out of a thriller, she welcomes the fleeing king to her house, gets him a bottle of milk and tucks him in for the night, and once he’s asleep, drives a tent peg through his skull.

When Barak arrives in pursuit, she’s proud to show him the corpse. 

It’s both an awesome story and an icky one. I was pulled to preach on it this week because I don’t think we can ever talk too much about the women of the Bible, and because I’m almost certain I never heard about Deborah or Jael until I went to seminary. But as I prepared to preach on this scripture, I started to grow uneasy. 

In a fairytale world, Deborah and Jael are super cool, women who lead with strength, confidence, intelligence, and fearlessness in a world of men. They do what they have to do to protect their people when the enemy is at their door. But at the same time I’m made uneasy by all the stories of violence, and especially by the cold-blooded, gruesome murder that ends the chapter. Is this really what God champions for us?

I realized I had skimmed over the first verse of our passage in my eagerness to get to the juicy stuff with my favorite girls. Do you remember how this story started? Not with Deborah, but with her people: “The People of Israel again did evil in God’s sight.”

Again.

All this happened—the wars, the murders, the violence, the fear, the death—because the people refused to walk in God’s ways.

The Book of Judges has a thematic cycle. The people do evil, their enemies begin to triumph, they cry out to God—not in repentance, but in pain—and God has pity and raises up a leader, that leader delivers them, and peace reigns for a few decades. But nothing changes in the long term. The people revert to their disobedience, and the whole thing begins again. 

The Book of Judges is both about the power of great leaders and the futility of great leaders. Without the whole community being willing to make changes, the leaders’ victories are short lived. 

Deborah, for all her wisdom, all her skill, all her faithfulness, all her prophecies, only managed to set in place a few decades of peace. As long as Deborah’s people were unwilling to set their hearts on God’s vision for the Israelite community, she, like all the other judges, was always bound to fail. 

It’s not just about the leaders. It’s about the people. 

We like the narrative of great leaders who save us, who change things, who singlehandedly fix what’s wrong in the world. We we all love to praise a superhero who can swoop in and save the day. But what those narratives ignore is that nothing really changes until whole communities of people buy in to the change. 

One of the greatest triumphs of American history was the at home war effort of World War II. While there were certainly famous leaders who set the course of policy and strategy during the war, it was the daily struggle and sacrifice of whole American community that enabled the Allied armies to be as strong as they were. Women balanced single parenting with full time work in factories. Chairs sat empty at the holidays. Newpapers ran the daily death toll. My own grandparents were in high school then, and they tell stories about lining up for gasoline, making cakes without sugar, and collecting cans to turn into metal recycling. Everyone was anxious and scared and sad. But, in their memory at least, everyone also had a sense that this was a war to be fought together. 

The greatest generation had known the hardship and struggle of the Great Depression, and it had formed in them a resiliency and strength to sacrifice for the greater good. In this pandemic, whenever I start to get tired of wearing my mask or bored with confining my social circle or itchy to pretend it’s all over with just because I want it to be, I think back to those members of the greatest generation, who lived with fear and anxiety and sacrifice and hardship for four years—and some with grief and trauma for much, much longer—and I try to find the resolve to face another day, and to make choices not to make me happy, but to keep all of us safe.

It’s not the great generals that won WWII. It was the ordinary soldiers, and the rosie the riveters, and the grandmas making victory gardens, and the engineers designing armor, and the children collecting tin cans. It wasn’t just the leaders. It was all the people coming together. 

There’s been lots of talk about leaders and leadership in 2020. As waves of crisis and chaos have hit our cities, we have been desperate for leaders to help guide us through. We’ve looked to presidents and governors, doctors and scientists, pastors and activists, anyone who seems to know what they’re talking about. We’re drowning in expert opinions about how best to conduct ourselves. 

Yet all the wisdom these leaders have to offer us about how to keep each other safe—wearing masks, keeping distance, sacrificing routine and comfort, enduring temporary hardship for the sake of future security—none of it matters if we don’t all buy in. 

This war won’t be won by our leaders, no matter how many graphs or policies or big words they throw around. This war will be won by us, by our choices, by our desire to protect life, by our obedience to God’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves. 

Deborah and Jael are awesome leaders. I’m glad their stories were preserved in our scripture. But I’m glad also for the warning hidden behind the drama: that it takes all of us together to create the kind of community God has in mind. 

I give thanks for wise leaders like Deborah. But I also pray that we would be a people who pursue wisdom together, so that we walk in the ways of life.

Amen. 

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