Texts: Judges 4:1-10; Psalm 123
One of the most prominent ancient interpreters of the Bible, a fellow named Jerome, said that reading the Bible—really reading it—is like eating a fruit that has a tough, dry husk. It takes some work. It takes time to peel back the layers, to get at the sweet, succulent fruit within. Jerome would know, he produced the authoritative Latin translation of the Bible. You can recognize paintings of Jerome because he’s usually depicted with a large book and a skull.
Our main text today, a story from the book of Judges, is one of those that has a tough outer husk and sweet inner fruit.
The stories contained within the book of Judges take place at a point in time when ancient Israel is still little more than a loose collection of tribes. There is no central authority. There is no king. There is no standing army.
God’s hope, as described in I Samuel 8, is that there would be no need for a king. God wants to direct and protect the people without a monarch standing in between. Remember, the mandate of these tribes, these descendants of Abraham and Sarah, is to be a contrast community. They are called to show their neighbours what it looks like to live virtuously and truthfully within the loving care of the creator of the universe.
However, it would not be so. What the book of Judges ends up being is a chronicle of cyclical failure. One phrase occurs over-and-over again throughout the book. We heard it too in chapter 4 verse 1: “The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD . . . .” The cycle goes like this: the Israelites would do evil, God would then expose them to the natural consequences of their actions, they would cry out to God for help, God would provide a leader (judge or prophet) to restore them, then after some time of relative calm, the Israelites would again do evil.
The cycle turns over-and-over again throughout the book. It culminates in a terrible sequence of events of abuse, conflict, and violence at the end of the book. Scripture scholars believe that the book of Judges was written to highlight the need for a king.
Old Jerome, I think, would tell us that this violence and this depressing cycle of unfaithfulness is part of the tough husk of the book of Judges. Looking at this outside layer, it’s hard to see what could be encouraging about such a collection of stories.
The first part of our reading yields little of better taste. The Israelites have done evil, and are now oppressed by the powerful King Jabin who, we read, possessed “nine hundred chariots of iron.” This is the Iron Age. Jabin had advanced military technology. The tribes of Israel have nothing comparable. They are at the mercy of King Jabin and his military commander Sisera. King Jabin and General Sisera are not inclined toward mercy. And so the tribespeople of Israel do the only thing they can do: they cry to God in their despair and frustration. To be at the mercy of the violent is a terrible place to be.
Now here is something interesting. Up until this point in the book of Judges the leaders whom God has provided to rescue the Israelites had been men. There was Othniel the war hero. There was Ehud, who hid a long knife on his body, and stealthily assassinated an enemy king. There was Shamgar who killed six hundred occupiers with an oxgoad.
The liberator whom we meet here in Judges chapter four is a woman. Her name is Deborah. We learn that Israelites from all over would come to her to have disputes settled. She was a judge and a prophet.
When the Israelites cry out to God because they can do nothing in the face of King Jabin’s power and violence, Deborah is the one through whom God’s salvation comes. She commissions a fellow named Barak to lead the tribesmen. She tells him that God would deliver the forces of King Jabin to him if he will prepare to ambush General Sisera’s iron chariots near Mount Tabor. But listen to what Barak says, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.”
We’ve all been there, in mundane ways at least. We have not been able to find enough courage on our own. We’ve said, “I’ll do it if you do.” We’ve said, “You go first.” We’ve said, “You don’t know what it’s like to be me.” There are times when we cannot summon enough courage. Some of us may be nearly there now.
What is Deborah’s response? Does she mock Barak? Here’s what she says, “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 hands of a woman.” And so Deborah led the way. Barak went too. And ten thousand warriors followed them.
If you know the story, you know that General Sisera is indeed captured by a woman, a woman named Jael, who knows how to use a hammer and a tent stake.
Now, it’s important for us to recognize here that we’re still chewing on the husk of the text. The goodness of this part of the Bible is not found in patterning our lives after these ancient women warriors to say nothing of the men. This part of scripture does not provide for us a direct moral example. Later parts of the Bible make this clear. We do not address the roots of violence with swords and pointy tent stakes. And yet, Deborah’s presence in this story hints at something most profound.
Like Barak we may lack courage. In our minds the forces lined up against us, have nine hundred chariots of iron. We feel like peasants, with nothing but farming tools to defend ourselves.
What calls for courage in our lives? Is it the fact of our loneliness? Is it our worry about sickness? Has life simply swamped us, robbed us of emotion, stolen our hope? Or are we, perhaps, at the mercy of the merciless? What calls for courage in our lives? The story of Deborah asks this question of us.
Ancient readers of the Bible, people like Jerome, would have reminded us that even this story somehow connects to Jesus. Jesus, the light of God, presented to the world by a woman, shows us the deep intent of God. And in that way the entire Bible contains hints and links to Jesus, unknown, and unanticipated before the Advent of Incarnation.
At some point or another we are all in Barak’s sandals, knowing what must be done, but simply lacking in courage. So who do we look too? Who is our Deborah? Well, ultimately, it is the one who bears God’s truth to us. It is the one who goes ahead of us. It is the unlikely one who invites us to follow. It is the one who secures our liberation. It is Jesus. Jesus is to us as Deborah was to Barak. That is the gospel in miniature.
I wonder if you can remember the first time you rode a really scary rollercoaster. If it was a good one there was at least one moment when your body told you that you were about to die. There was a moment when you were hurtling toward the ground at such a speed that your stomach knew you were not going to make it home. And yet, even at that moment you had fun because before you got on the rollercoaster you saw other people get off and you knew they were just as human as you—and somehow they survived. If they could do it, then so could you. Their experience became your experience. Their courage became your courage.
Barak looked to Deborah. We look to Jesus. The courage of the anointed one, who suffered just like us, can be our courage too.
God of all life, grow courage in us, the courage of Deborah, courage inspired by your presence. Amen.