The fifth sermon in a summer series
on Joshua and the Judges
“One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. But to sacrifice what you are and to live without belief, that is a fate more terrible than dying.” The words are attributed to Joan of Arc at her trial. St. Joan of Arc, who led the French armies to many victories against the English during the Hundred Years War, until she was finally captured, put on trial for heresy, and burned at the stake in May, 1431. She was 19 years old.
Ironically, because it was the English who condemned and burned her, some of the strongest words of praise for this remarkable woman came from Sir Winston Churchill. “Joan was a being so uplifted from the ordinary run of mankind that she finds no equal in a thousand years. She embodied the natural goodness and valour of the human race in unexampled perfection. Unconquerable courage, infinite compassion, the virtue of the simple, the wisdom of the just, shone forth in her. She glorifies as she freed the soil from which she sprang.”
Lofty praise indeed, when you consider that a powerful woman in leadership is still a figure of criticism almost 600 years after Joan of Arc…let alone, way back in 12th Century B.C. Israel…which is where we find ourselves in today’s episode.
Chapter 4 of Judges begins, “And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord…” It’s only been a few generations since the death of Joshua but Israel has already fallen into a recurring pattern. From strength, they turn to apostasy. Then, because Israel has turn from God, the Lord oppresses His people by the neighboring Canaanite tribes, until they cry out in their distress. Then God raises up another judge, a leader, to return Israel to strength and faithfulness. From which they turn again…and again…and again.
In this chapter, Israel is suffering. V2, Jabin, king of Canaan, and his military commander, Sisera, are the hand of God’s punishment. V3. 20 years Israel has been afflicted by this king.
V4, enter Deborah… “a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment.”
Now we hear that word, “judge,” and think primarily of legal matters. And, yes, the Judges in Israel performed that task, like successors to Moses. They were to interpret the application of the Law of Moses and advocate for its observance.
Yet like Moses, and then Joshua, the Judges were also to be military leaders when the occasion arose. Israel was only a loose confederation of tribes, not yet a unified nation with a king. And their army was more of a militia than a standing force.
Now that Deborah is called a prophet, is important. For not only does she administer the Law in Israel, but she also speaks for God. And that is remarkable because she is, after all, a woman!
Ah…yes…the title of this sermon is intentionally provocative! The place of men and women in the Church has long been a heated subject…a much confused subject. For centuries the culture and also the Church observed a kind of hierarchy of men up here and women down here. These days we have fallen off the other side of the horse, where Church is more and more a thing for women…and society’s push for the advancement of women comes at the expense of men. “It’s only fair!” goes the cry. We are so confused!
But as in so many of the hot button issues these days, the Biblical view is more subtle than the distortions! Look at Jesus. He has both men and women around Him, closely involved with His work. The apostle Paul, “Mr. Chauvinist of the New Testament” in many people’s eyes, lists women in the closing credits of his epistles. And, yes, often in the New Testament these women prove more faithful and admirable than the men!
Yet, Jesus chose 12 men to be His apostles. And that paradox is something with which we could spend more productive time. Because men and women together bear the image of God. That’s a foundational Biblical point. Yet God calls men and women to different callings. We always seem to turn that difference into a debate about power. “Who’s on first?!” It shows up here with Deborah.
Deborah is called by God to be Israel’s Judge and a prophet, an ancient kind of Joan of Arc. Vv6-7, “She sent and summoned Barak the son of Abinoam from Kedesh-naphtali and said to him, ‘Has not the Lord, the God of Israel, commanded you, “Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking 10,000 from the people of Naphtali and the people of Zebulun. And I [the Lord] will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the river Kishon with his chariots and his troops, and I [the Lord] will give him into your hand”?’”
Deborah speaks for God, the God who calls the army together under the command of Barak. Ah…but then there is this, v8, “Barak said to her, ‘If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go.’” And there’s Deborah’s reply, v9, “And she said, ‘I will surely go with you. Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.’” So what is this?
Of course, we hear the battle of the sexes in those words! And, clearly, there’s a cultural stigma implied when Deborah says that the glory God intended for Barak will now go to a woman. But for the writer, this is a matter of God’s call and faith in that call. God had called Deborah to be Judge and Prophet. God had called Barak to lead the army to victory over Sisera.
But Barak…well…he’s not ready to take God at His Word. He wants Deborah to be there, like the ark of the covenant leading Israel, to insure that God is true to His Word. After all Barak knows the strength of Sisera’s forces. They’ve been dominant for 20 years. V13, They have a massive panzer division of 900 iron chariots. All Barak has is a Word from God…by a woman…shades of the disciples on Easter. He’s not convinced.
Now whether Deborah is good with a sword or not, whether Barak is manly enough for this job or not, is beside the point for the writer. This is about God’s call and faith. Deborah has the faith. Barak’s faith is found wanting.
But the battle is engaged. And like the Maid of Orleans, Deborah rallies her troops, v14, “Up! For this is the day in which the Lord has given Sisera into your hand.” Israel routes Sisera’s army, v15. But while his army is slaughtered, v17, Sisera escapes, hiding among the neighboring Kenites. The general should have studied his history better. The Kenites were the people of Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro. They were sympathetic toward Israel.
V19, a Kenite woman, Jael, hides Sisera in her tent, giving him food and drink. But while the general sleeps off his defeat, v21, “Jael the wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand. Then she went softly to [Sisera] and drove the peg into his temple until it went down into the ground while he was lying fast asleep from weariness. So he died.” Eww! I’ll say!
Then, chapter 5, everyone sings! It’s reminiscent of Miriam’s classic song when Israel had crossed the Red Sea with Moses. There they celebrated, “Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; the horse and rider He has cast into the sea.”
In this song, called the song of Deborah and Barak, it’s Deborah who shines while Barak gets only a brief mention. And greater than Barak in this song is Jael, v24, “Most blessed of women.” That is a prescient phrase pointing ahead to another blessed, significant woman, by whom God gives birth to THE greatest victory in THE ultimate battle. The woman? St. Mary. The victory? Jesus’ conquest of all His foes, including death, on the cross. Because God called Him to that, and gave His foes into His crucified hands! Because God called Mary to be the Mother of Jesus.
You see…while this song sings the praises of Deborah for her faithfulness, and of Jael for slaying the mighty Sisera, the song is really about God. V3, “Hear, O kings; give ear O princes; to the Lord I will sing; I will make melody to the Lord, the God of Israel.”
And that is the writer’s point in this episode. This is not yet another round in the old war of male vs. female, though cultural echoes of that tedious debate are here. No, this is about God, His call, and faith. It’s about God’s call to men and women as He chooses, for whatever task God has decided to call them to do… not because one is greater or less than another, not because one is higher or lower than another.
It’s God’s call. That is the important thing. And that’s where faith looks. And that’s where faith rests secure. Whether a person’s call is to work of great renown in the eyes of the world or to work of seeming insignificance. It’s God’s call. And that is our place…whether we are male or female!