Strong Women of Faith: “Deborah”
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Judges 4 and 5 (selected verses)
July 10, 2022
We continue today our summer series on Strong Women of Faith. Today we highlight the narrative of Deborah – a prophet, poet, and judge. Deborah, a female name of Hebrew origins, means “bee.” You could say that Deborah was a “Queen Bee” of sorts. Her fascinating story of leadership is recorded in the book of Judges, in one of the oldest pieces of literature in the Old Testament.
In short, Deborah spurred an important battle in which divine intervention enabled the oppressed and desperate Israelites to gain freedom from a cruel Canaanite king. Upon victory, Deborah gave all the glory to God alone.
Before we turn to Deborah’s story, it may be helpful to remember the context of the Book of Judges. Netflix movies, Amazon Prime series, and even that recent series “Game of Thrones” have nothing on the Book of Judges. Adultery and prostitutes, lies and deceit, blood and violence, human sacrifice, assassinations, kidnapping, murder and rape. The stories of Samson and Delilah, of Gideon and Jephthah, and of the virgins of Shiloh all would make rousing and controversial plots for modern filmmakers.
Deborah’s story itself could be called “Queen Bee and the Lightning Warrior”, or “The Military Prophetess and the Inhospitable Hostess”. The difference between Deborah’s story and modern films is the primary character. In Deborah’s story, Yahweh, mighty warrior, divine providence, takes center stage.
What is clear is that during the time of the Judges is that the warring tribes needed strong centralized leadership. The tribes of Israel were moving beyond tribalism and toward nationalism. They were having intermittent conflicts with the Canaanites of Palestine, who already lived there when the Hebrews arrived. And there were religious conflicts between the fertility cults of the Canaanites and the monotheistic, moralistic religion of the Hebrews. What they desired was a charismatic, powerful warrior who would defeat their enemies and protect their interests. But what the Hebrews truly needed was someone to unite them, give them direction, resolve their disputes, and keep them faithful to God.
A God-fearing leader would hold them accountable to the Law, the Torah, and remind them of God’s good intentions for them and for their neighbors. The narrators are quick to point out that evil deeds would be the cause of much suffering. If they took the course of idolatry and immorality, the people would become vulnerable to their enemies. Unfaithfulness and immorality, especially from their leaders, would mean great trouble and distress. But if they sought to be faithful to God, they would find relative peace and security.
Perhaps times have not changed that much after all. Hear the Word of God from Judges 4-5 (selected verses)
The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died. So the Lord sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help; for Sisera had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly for twenty years.
At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment.
She sent and summoned Barak (which means ‘lightning’) son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, ‘The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, “Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun.
I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.” ’
Barak said to Deborah, ‘If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.’ 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.’
Then Deborah got up and went with Barak to Kedesh. Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh; and ten thousand warriors went up behind him; and Deborah went up with him.
Now Heber the Kenite had separated from the other Kenites, that is, the descendants of Hobab the father-in-law of Moses, and had encamped…near Kedesh.
When Sisera was told that Barak son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor, Sisera called out all his chariots, nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the troops who were with him… Then Deborah said to Barak, ‘Up! For this is the day on which the Lord has given Sisera into your hand.
The Lord is indeed going out before you.’ So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with ten thousand warriors following him. And the Lord threw Sisera and all his chariots and all his army into a panic before Barak; Sisera got down from his chariot and fled away on foot, while Barak pursued the chariots and the army to Harosheth-ha-goiim. All the army of Sisera fell by the sword; no one was left.
Now Sisera had fled away on foot to the tent of Jael wife of Heber the Kenite; for there was peace between King Jabin of Hazor and the clan of Heber the Kenite. Jael came out to meet Sisera, and said to him, ‘Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; have no fear.’
So he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. Then he said to her, ‘Please give me a little water to drink; for I am thirsty.’ So she opened a skin of milk and gave him a drink and covered him. He said to her, ‘Stand at the entrance of the tent, and if anybody comes and asks you, “Is anyone here?” say, “No.” ’
But, Jael wife of Heber took a tent-peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to (Sisera) and drove the peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground— he was lying fast asleep from weariness—and he died. Then, as Barak came in pursuit of Sisera, Jael went out to meet him, and said to him, ‘Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.’
So Barak went into her tent; and there was Sisera lying dead, with the tent-peg in his temple. So on that day God subdued King Jabin of Canaan before the Israelites. Then the hand of the Israelites bore harder and harder on King Jabin of Canaan, until they destroyed King Jabin of Canaan.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
One of my pastor friends, Chuck, tells the story of visiting a Bedouin camp on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem. That old road between Jericho and Jerusalem, famous for the Good Samaritan story, still holds many a tale of unexpecting travelers being robbed and beaten and left half-dead. Nevertheless, Chuck and two friends pulled their rental car off the road when they saw a Bedouin camp not far away.
In Deborah’s story, Jael, the Kenite woman with the tent peg, was much like the Bedouins who still roam the plains of Palestine today.
Though some of the Bedouins now have vehicles, many still pack their tents and other wares on camels when they break camp and move. They still use tent pegs and mallets to pitch their tents in the dusty soil, and yes, Bedouins are still known for their hospitality.
To make a long story short, my pastor friend and two others walked hesitantly up to the camp. Once the gringos approached the camp, the Bedouin family was honor bound to offer hospitality, and so the men were invited into a tent for a cup of tea. At some point during the conversation, talk came to that of trade. A Bedouin man had noticed the nice daypack that one of the pastors had set down when he entered the tent; and one of the pastors had noticed the impressive dagger that hung from the Bedouin’s belt.
After a cup or two or tea was shared, and as much conversation as was possible was attempted, given the language differences, a somewhat fair trade was offered – a backpack for the Bedouin dagger.
And so, Chuck’s office at his church is still adorned today with an unusual memento. And fortunately for Chuck and his courageous – or foolish – American friends, there were no tent pegs or mallets were involved in the encounter.
In times of old, the people went to Deborah for wise judgment and advice. She would sit under what became known as “the palm of Deborah”. Even long after Deborah was gone, the palm tree named in her honor would remain. People had journeyed for years up into the hill country of Ephraim to sit with her, so that she might settle their disputes and offer them wisdom.
Deborah, a bright and wise woman, had earned quite a reputation and a following in the midst of a man’s world. The Spirit of the Lord rested upon her, and people took notice.
Even Barak, whose name means “lightning”, the military general, the leader of soldiers, when summoned by Deborah to go into battle, told her that yes, he would go to battle if she summoned him, but only if she would go with him. If she would not go, neither would he.
Her physical presence would be an inspiration to Barak and to his men; her presence would be a sign of God’s power and presence. This was a spiritual battle after all. The relatively weak Israelites would have little hope of victory without divine assistance. So many times before, the Hebrews had been delivered from enemies and from hardship, despite their own lack of resources.
As always, any spiritual battle would also have its human and geographic elements. The location chosen by Deborah for the determinative battle was particularly strategic. She chose the northeastern plain of Esdraelon, several miles north of Megiddo, otherwise known as Armageddon, where many a famous battle was fought.
To meet the Israelites near Mt Tabor and on the plain of Esdraelon, Sisera and his iron chariots would have to cross the plain and ford Wadi Kishon, or Kishon Creek as we would call it. In the summertime, Wadi Kishon would be dried up and easy to cross with iron chariots. In other times of the year, when the rains came, Wadi Kishon would become a raging torrent. The surrounding ground would become soft, which could cause a severe problem for those who relied upon heavy chariots.
The ancient poem in Judges 5 refers to the advent of a storm at the time of battle, which gave the Israelites the divine assistance needed at their time of crisis. The lightning storm and ensuing rains and the bogged down chariots elicited a sense of chaos among the Canaanites, so much so that they were routed by Barak’s men. Not a man was left standing, according to the narrator.
The Canaanite leader, Sisera, alone escaped the battle, on foot. He jumped down out of his bogged down chariot and fled to across the plain and into the hills where found what akin to a Bedouin encampment. A woman greeted him as he approached the gathering of tents. She told him not to be afraid, and bid him come into her tent. She covered him with a rug, ostensibly hiding him from his enemies.
When he asked her for water, she gave him some milk, further endearing him to her hospitality. Soon, he soon fell asleep from exhaustion, and she took one of her tent pegs and a mallet and proceeded to hammer the long nail through the general’s temple, all the way into the ground. Among the Bedouins, even today, it remains a woman’s task to pitch the tent. Jael would have been very familiar, even quite comfortable, with a tent peg and mallet in her hand.
What Sisera had perhaps not known is that the Kenites were distant cousins with the Hebrews. They were more closely related to the Hebrews than the Canaanites. Sisera, the mighty warrior, thought he had fled to neutral ground, but ended up in the tent of a woman who did not appreciate the cruel oppression that he had afflicted upon the Hebrews.
When the story was later told, the ancient author lifts up Deborah’s wisdom and Barak’s military leadership and the willingness of the Israeli soldiers to show up for battle, but God alone was given credit for the victory. The author makes clear that it was the providence of God that delivered the Canaanites into their hands.
Like so many times in Holy Scripture, God acted through ordinary and even relatively weak human forces to bring justice against an oppressor. And as we have seen, in Palestine and elsewhere, at times we have seen the oppressed end up becoming the oppressor. Times have not changed that much over the years. God still calls forth voices long silenced to speak the truth to power.
God still uses unexpected people in unexpected ways to bring down oppressive regimes. God still calls women and men to stand up and fight in the face of injustice.
Deborah reminds us that cruel oppression is bad and will ultimately be defeated. Faithfulness to God and God’s good purposes are good and will find their reward. And when the day is done, while the work of important individuals may be recognized, honor and glory are given to God alone.
From Judges 5:
Then Deborah and Barak…sang on that day, saying: ‘When locks are long in Israel, when the people offer themselves willingly- bless the Lord! ‘Hear, O kings; give ear, O princes; to the Lord I will sing, I will make melody to the Lord, the God of Israel. ‘Lord, when you went out from Seir, when you marched from the region of Edom, the earth trembled, and the heavens poured, the clouds indeed poured water. The mountains quaked before the Lord, the One of Sinai, before the Lord, the God of Israel….
Deborah, arose as a mother in Israel…Bless the Lord.
Tell of it, you who ride on white donkeys, you who sit on rich carpets, and you who walk by the way. To the sound of musicians at the watering-places, there they repeat the triumphs of the Lord, the triumphs of his peasantry in Israel…
‘Awake, awake, Deborah! Awake, awake, utter a song!
Arise, Barak, lead away your captives, O son of Abinoam…
‘The kings came, they fought; then fought the kings of Canaan…by the waters of Megiddo; they got no spoils of silver. The stars fought from heaven, from their courses they fought against Sisera. The torrent Kishon swept them away, the onrushing torrent, the torrent Kishon. March on, my soul, with might!…
‘So perish all your enemies, O Lord! But may your friends be like the sun as it rises in its might.’ And the land had rest for forty years.
Thanks be to God for Deborah, for her wisdom and for her courageous intention to seek God’s will. Would that our land – in our time – find rest for forty years; would that our land know peace…shalom…wholeness…unity… rest…for forty years.
Olsen, Dennis. Book of Judges in New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume II. Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1998.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
July 10, 2022