Sermon from October 25: Deborah the Judge

Deborah the Judge
Reformation Sunday (O. T. 30); October 25, 2020
Judges 4:4-10

A warning: there is violence in this story. I’ll try to tell the story without emphasizing the violence, but it’s there and the story cannot be told without it. Remember that these oldest stories in the Bible come from a much more violent era. In our day, we consider it wrong for people to act violently against one another, largely because of the influence of Jesus, but in the ancient world it was much more common. Well, here goes.

There is a pattern in the Book of Judges, which tells about the confederacy of the Twelve Tribes from the death of Joshua to the establishment of the monarchy, about 175 to 200 years. The pattern goes like this: Thus-and-so was Judge – which meant both someone who decided disputes between people but also a military leader – over Israel, but when Thus-and-so died, the people did evil and the Lord let the Philistines (or Canaanites, or Moabites, or somebody else) oppress them, so they called out to the Lord for help, and the Lord raised Fulano-de-Tal to be Judge and they had peace once again, usually for forty years.

The story of Deborah followed that pattern. After Ehud the Judge died, the Canaanites ran roughshod over the Lord’s people, especially a certain general named Sisera. The Israelites cried to the Lord for help, and the Lord made Deborah, wife of Lappidoth, Judge over Israel. She judged from under a palm tree in Ephraim, and she planned the people’s campaign against Sisera. She summoned Barak to lead the Lord’s people in battle, and he agreed to do it as long as she accompanied him.

Time out: why did he insist on that? Some commentators have suggested that he was a bit of a coward, and didn’t want to go to battle without her along as assurance that he was doing the Lord’s work. Perhaps, though, he had a more positive motive. Perhaps he wanted to honor her, to make sure that everyone knew that any coming victory would be hers as much as it was his; or perhaps he wanted to show others that they were going into battle in the name of the Lord, because the Lord’s prophet was there at the head with him. For whatever reason, he said he would go only if she would go with him, and she agreed to that but warned him that the credit for Sisera’s downfall would go not to him but to a woman.

Barak and Deborah went to war against Sisera and the Canaanite army with ten thousand warriors at their back; even though the Canaanites had superior military technology, the Israelites were fighting the Lord’s battle and they had also chosen a spot that gave them a strategic advantage – prayer and good strategy are always great companions – and they put the Canaanites to rout. There was a great slaughter of the enemy and Sisera, deprived of his chariot, fled on foot.

Now Sisera came to the encampment of the family of a man named Heber, whose wife was named Jael. Heber and his clan were allies of the king Sisera worked for, so it seemed a good place for him to hide. Sisera went to Jael, who invited him into her tent. He asked for shelter and a drink of water, but she did better than that. She gave him a comfortable place to lie down, covered him with a rug, and gave him warm milk to drink. Worn out from the battle, relaxed from the milk, Sisera fell asleep. While he slept, Jael took a tent peg and a hammer, and drove the tent peg into Sisera’s temple, straight through his head, killing him.

About then, Barak came in pursuit of Sisera, and Jael called to him, “Turn aside here, my lord, and I will show you the man you are seeking.” Barak went into her tent, and there he saw Sisera, held fast to the ground with a tent peg through his head. Thus the Lord God delivered Israel from the King of Canaan and his general, Sisera.

Now, the Book of Judges follows that story with a magnificent, triumphant poem attributed to Deborah. Imagine Deborah and Barak leading the victory celebration, standing in front of the people, singing a loud duet. Well, it isn’t all loud. Read it sometime in Judges, chapter 5, and there is a lot of celebration of military might and the power of God, and some snotty rebuke of those Israelites who didn’t join the fight. And they particularly praise the cleverness of Jael.

But there is a discordant note at the end. It is a note meant to be celebratory – actually, it is meant to be scornful of Sisera and his family – but I find it rather sad. Deborah’s voice sings about Sisera’s mother, standing at the window looking out, wondering why her son hasn’t come home yet. Her maids say to her that he must be delayed because he won such a great victory that he and his men are dividing the spoil: dyed cloths and other goodies that he will bring home to you, madam, and a girl or two for every man. What? Well, that was part of the spoils of war in those days. And so these women encourage Sisera’s mother that he is delayed because he and his men are not yet finished pillaging and raping. Meanwhile, she is left there, staring out the window, wondering what has become of her son.

Why did I tell you this story? There are some points in it that I wish to highlight, that I hope will encourage us in our pilgrimage as people of God. But also because I want to remind you that not all the leaders of Israel were men. Although all the other judges were men, you should remember that one of the first judges was the prophet Deborah, who judged Israel and, with Barak, freed the people of God from an oppressor.

Some points that occur to me: One is that nobody in this story seems to care much who gets credit for things, so long as the right thing is done. Deborah tells Barak that a woman will get credit for destroying Sisera, and you and I can be forgiven if we think she’s talking about herself. No, the credit goes to Jael. And when Deborah tells Barak that he won’t get to be Sisera’s downfall, he shrugs his shoulders and does what he’s called to do anyway.

You have heard before that there is so much that we can do as long as we don’t care who gets the credit. I have found that to be true. When people are jockeying to be noticed, they are more concerned with the spotlight than they are with accomplishing the task. But when they are willing to shrug their shoulders and get on with it, then so much can be done. Who really gets the credit for freeing Israel from Sisera and his boss? Deborah, Barak, and Jael – but Deborah gives credit to someone else too. She sings (5:20-21) that the stars fought against Sisera, and the waters of Kishon swept them away. That is, the Lord God too played a part, in some clear way, in their victory against the Canaanites.

This occurs to me too: there is something repugnant about the way Deborah and Barak gloat over Sisera’s mother wondering why her son has not returned. It is certainly a very human reaction, to gloat over the enemy’s misfortune, but I can’t see the Lord Jesus commending it. I hope that from the ways of Jesus we have learned better ways to deal with defeat and victory. Of course, when the people are oppressed, we pray for freedom from oppressors, but Jesus does tell us to pray for our enemies. And he doesn’t mean that we should pray that they end up with a tent peg through their heads.

I find this difficult myself, because when I think of those who have made my own life difficult from time to time, I do rather enjoy hearing when something is going badly for them. As I say, it is a very human reaction, but I also know that it is one that a disciple of Jesus struggles to overcome. So I’ve set myself to praying regularly for those who have harmed me, praying that they are doing well, praying that they are finding joy in the Lord. The spiritually weak side of me wants to pray something about a tent peg, metaphorically, but that isn’t what my Lord Jesus asks of me. The story says that after this conflict the people of Israel had forty years of peace; perhaps in that time Deborah rethought her attitudes as well.

Finally, I think it appropriate to point out that Sisera did get what he had coming to him. Jesus said to a disciple that those who live by the sword will die by the sword (Matthew 26:52). In Sisera’s case, he was a warrior of his time: cruel and oppressive, and given to raping the women among his victims. It was a feature of the conflict of the time that conquering warriors would kill or enslave the defeated men and boys and would rape the women and girls; here those who would ordinarily be victims triumph over the oppressor.

Although the sermon is nominally about Deborah the Judge, the unexpected hero in the story is Jael. What motivated her to turn on her husband’s ally, no one can say. And in 2020 we certainly are discouraged from adopting her methods. Even so, quite to our surprise, with tent peg and hammer in hand, she helped the people of God.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska