The story of Deborah is found both in Judges 4 and Judges 5. The story is virtually the same but the second, Judges 5, is thought to be one of the oldest poems in the entire bible. They are well worth reading but are too long to quote on the front end of this blog.
Judges is part of the bible known as Deuteronomic History and was written during the Babylonian exile (approximately 550 BCE). It describes a period in Israelite history following the death of Joshua and the rise of Samuel and Saul—a period of approximately 350 years. During this time the tribes were loosely affiliated in a confederacy with no central leadership.. Leadership arose to meet specific problems. These people were called Judges and served to adjudicate conflicts and in some cases lead the people into battle. Such was the case with Deborah.
The book itself has a repeating pattern of “The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord after which, the Lord would allow one of the foreigh kings to conquer the Israelites. They in turn would beg God for relief. God would relent and a leader would rise up to lead the people to freedom. The people would have peace for a finite period of time before they lapsed once again and repeated the pattern. This is the story of the Exodus in miniature and reflected at least two fundamental beliefs about God that were prominent in the day. First, when bad things happen, someone did something bad. Human concepts of discipline and parenting were planted firmly in God’s perceived behavior. Pain and hardship could always be explained— someone (everyone) sinned and was now being punished. The world was explainable. Pain was avoidable— if we are faithful enough. It is a familiar way of thinking that persists to this day. It is how most of us were raised. Bad children are scolded. Good children are rewarded. It is nearly impossible to imagine God outside of our own experiences. It took over a thousand years to begin to see another way of understanding God—a God who is present in the midst of hardship rather than a God who is responsible for it.
Second, the entire Old Testament holds firmly to the belief that God was present in every part of life. They believed God was absolutely reliable and steadfast. When they were slaves, when they were free, when they were political pawns and when they had agency as a nation, the Israelites trusted God was always there. Even when they lamented and felt abandoned, their very prayers of complaint, anger and despair, revealed the deeper belief that God was still somehow present. The foundations for ‘His steadfast love endures forever” are visible on every page and ultimately gives rise the words: “Nothing can separate us from God…” That is hard faith to hold when you are a slave in Eygpt—for four hundred years! That is hard to imagine when freedom turns out to be life in a wilderness and the long awaited promised land turns out to be inhabited by giants who resisted these nomadic Jews who sought to conquer their land. At every single point, there was conflict, uncertainty and suffering.
We need this context to understand Deborah. She is a unique leader because she is mentioned at all. After all she is a woman in a man’s job. She is a prophetess, a leader and is even called ‘a mother to Israel’. (“The peasantry prospered in Israel; they grew fat on plunder, because[ you arose, Deborah,arose as a mother in Israel.” (Judges 5:7) At least during the time of the Judges, it was more likely that talent took precedence over gender or position. One advantage of uncertainty is that we are usually more open to the unanticipated. Without such openness, there is no room for God. God once again uses the unexpected—an ordinary woman to do extraordinary things. God saves and God acts outside of human convention. When we forget that, we both lose humility, we also seek to erase God’s sovereignty. We need Deborahs to both lead us and to challenge our assumptions about ‘how it ought to be.’
Deborah’s story has many gaps as it has details—because, as with almost every character in the bible, the story is more about God than that individual. In the NRSV, Deborah is called the ‘wife of Lappidoth. But there are three other possibilities in Hebrew. The word translated ‘wife’ is also translated more generically as woman and the word ‘Lappidoth’ could be understood as person, a place or to a temperament (fiery). So we don’t actually know if she was married, where she was from nor if she is being described as a spitfire of a woman. What we do know is the people are being oppressed and they cry out for relief.
She goes to Barak, a general, and tells him to mobilize the troops to confront their oppressor, Siserea. Barak responds with “If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” Some commentators argue that Barak was expressing his reliance upon Deborah but I have my doubts. I think his response is more along the lines of “I’m not about to risk my life if you aren’t willing to risk yours.” Deborah agrees to go but warns Barak his victory will be lessened— “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.” (Judges 4:9) The taunt is still found in school yards today. “How good can you be if you let a girl beat you?”
The battle goes well for Barak, Sisera’s troops are defeated and Siserea seeks to escape on foot. He comes upon the tent of a ‘neutral’ in the battle ( (Jael,the wife of Heber the Kenite) and is offered refuge. Jael offers gracious hospitality. She tells Sisera not to be afraid, gives him milk when he only asks for water, covers him with a rug and stands watch at the door. Then she takes a hammer and drives a tent peg through Sisera’s head. Thus the prophecy is fulfilled. Sisera is indeed defeated by a woman. Barak’s victory diminished.
Don’t question God’s will. If you turn against God, you will be punished. If you fail to follow directions, you will end up being the driver of the hearse instead of the conquering hero, prisoner in tow. Don’t think you can know how or why. Trust instead that God will hear and God will be present. That was a big ask when the people were living in exile. And it is a big ask today when the forces of disregard, greed and evil are so prominent in our lives.
It seems that there is a killing involving multiple people every week. Our church is having to consider an ‘active shooter’ plan. Our classrooms are being assaulted while good guys with guns stand by. Waiting for the Lord is painful and frightening. Millions of people are being displaced by war and more by famine. Our way of life is increasingly unsustainable. We are threatened by the inability to see a future in which love wins. These are depressing times. But it was far worse for the Israelites exiled to Babylon. Simple singing was an object of ridicule—”How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? The God who had promised they would be a beacon to the world seemed impossibly absent. These were the days of despair that birthed Deuteronomic History. The people needed context. The people needed stories to remember that redemption—outside of their imagination was possible. That is the reason the Judges and the story of Deborah in particular were written.
We need reminders that God chooses the unexpected, the Deborahs of this world. We too need the reminders that God operates outside of our human ability to predict. Our job is to do what we can today. And leave the rest to God. Trust and Wait. And in between, in real life, rail and despair. But as much as you are able, love the person in front of you.
This week RG Evans had his knee replaced. Lynn shared a note sent to him by her sister: “It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” (Deut 31:8) This is why we have the Word. We are not alone. We are not unique. We need to be reminded that ways have been found where no way seemed possible.
Trust and Wait. “It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.”
Let it be so.