The last political election was especially significant for women because Hillary Clinton almost became the Democratic nominee for President and Sarah Palin was the Republican Vice-Presidential nominee. It was a big year for women in politics.
Several years ago, former First Lady Barbara Bush delivered a commencement address at Wellesley College. “Someday someone will follow in my footsteps, and preside over the White House as the president’s spouse,” she declared. “I wish him well!” We’ve almost seen the fulfillment of that prophecy.
Presbyterian professor Donna Strom lamented that historically women have done little to join men in ruling the earth. She writes of the Biblical story of Deborah, “What Deborah’s example obviously teaches is that women should not be excluded from any levels of decision-making, religious or political.” But she asks, “Where are the Deborah’s?” I am sure we could now respond that Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin are modern day Deborah’s, and there are many more.
One of the remarkable things about the Bible is that in spite of its highly patriarchal character, we can find many, many examples of strong women. They are not passive, demure, timid and submissive, but active, bold, fearless and assertive. We have already seen this in Eve, Sarah, Hagar, Rebekkah, Leah, and Rachel. All of them were strong women who played very significant roles in moving forward the story of the chosen people. Frequently, we have seen that the women who did not have the positions of power were still able to have the most powerful influence in the direction of the stories.
When we come to the story of Deborah, we find one of the most dramatic examples of powerful women because for the first time we find a woman has the official position of power. Any list of the powerful leaders of ancient Israel would have to include the kings and judges, and we cannot overlook the fact that Deborah stood in the line of judges of Israel.
Our passage begins with a recounting of the theme of the book of Judges. “The children of Israel again did that which was evil in the sight of Yahweh….” There is a pattern repeated over and over in Judges: 1) The Israelites turn away from following the way of the Lord. They do evil. They worship other gods. 2) The Lord hands the Israelites over to oppressing nations. 3) The Israelites cry out to the Lord. 4) The Lord rescues them through a judge who delivers them for a period of time. Then after the death of that judge, the pattern repeats itself. It looks like they would learn from their mistakes, but they repeat this pattern over and over until they finally get a king.
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In this case, the Canaanites had oppressed Israel for 20 years under King Jabin. The commander of his army was Sisera who had 900 chariots of iron. A modern day equivalent would be 900 tanks. The Canaanites were the more established, powerful, and richer culture in comparison to the Israelites. Thus the Canaanites had access to the most recent military technology, which they used to maintain their power and cruelly oppress the Israelites. How could the Israelites prevail against such odds?
When the people cried out, God sent the female judge, Deborah. Verse 4 says, “Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, she judged Israel at that time.” The text describes her as sitting under a palm tree, where the people would bring their problems to her for judgment.
Since there are few palm trees in the area, the location of “Deborah’s Palm” would have been easy to find. In addition, there were huge numbers of people surrounding it waiting to speak to her. Men and women came to her for advice and to have their disputes settled. I love this image of her sitting in the shade patiently hearing each case, sort of the Judge Judy of her time. She had authority and a voice in serious matters when most women did not.
Next, we learn that Deborah heard a message from God, and as commander-in-chief, she summoned her officer Barak, and instructed him to take 10,000 soldiers to Mount Tabor where God would give the enemy into his hand. An earlier verse had already told us that she was a prophetess, so it is not surprising that she would be the one to hear this message from God.
Then, in verse 8, we read that Barak said to her, “”If you will go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” Barak’s response has puzzled interpreters. Some say it showed him as cowardly, afraid, and distrusting of God. But I believe it shows a recognition that Deborah was God’s representative.
I have often pictured Deborah as one of the warriors, leading the soldiers into battle. But a closer look at the text reveals that unlikely. Barak wanted her to accompany the troops so that she could bless them and offer encouragement and strategy. I picture her as the civilian commander-in-chief overseeing the great victory over Sisera.
Some have suggested that the Canaanites nine hundred chariots of iron might have had something to do with Barak’s reluctance. The Israelites were serious underdogs in this fight. Deborah knew that if the battle was lost she would most likely lose her life, but she had no doubts in God and quickly agreed to go with him. Her bravery is inspiring
Others have suggested that Barak doubted Deborah. He was not so sure that Deborah had really heard a message from God. Barak wanted to make sure God would really show up and give Israel the victory. So since it was Deborah who had heard God, Barak wanted Deborah with him. If she was willing to go along, then he would have more confidence that the message was really from God.
Deborah responds in verse 9, saying, “I will surely go with you: nevertheless, the journey that you take shall not be for your honor; for Yahweh will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.”
Deborah had no doubts about God’s message, and she had complete confidence that God would provide the promised victory. We are led to believe that Sisera will fall at the hand of Deborah, but the story has a surprise ending waiting for us.
In verse 14, Deborah said to Barak, “Go; for this is the day in which Yahweh has delivered Sisera into your hand. Hasn’t Yahweh gone out before you?” So Barak went down from Mount Tabor, and ten thousand men after him. Yahweh confused Sisera, and all his chariots, and all his army, with the edge of the sword before Barak; and Sisera alighted from his chariot, and fled away on his feet. But Barak pursued after the chariots, and after the army, to Harosheth of the Gentiles: and all the army of Sisera fell by the edge of the sword; there was not a man left.”
At the end of the battle, we find another strong, independent and courageous woman – Jael. The passage tells us that Sisera escaped the battle and made his way to the tent of a woman whom Sisera assumed was a friend. She invited him into her tent to rest, offered him milk and a place to sleep. Quickly he fell asleep, thinking he was safe at last. Sisera had every reason to trust Jael, because Jael’s husband, Heber the Kenite, had a peace treaty with King Jabin.
In one of the more graphic scenes in the Bible, Jael betrays the sleeping Sisera. Verse 21 tells us, “Then Jael Heber’s wife took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him, and struck the pin into his temples, and it pierced through into the ground; for he was in a deep sleep; so he swooned and died.”
We don’t know why Jael would betray the trust of Sisera and kill him, but it is clear that she played a key role in the victory promised by God. Sisera did indeed fall at the hand of a woman, but it was Jael, not Deborah, and certainly not Barak, who killed the enemy general.
What can we make of this ancient story with three leading characters—Deborah, Barak, and Jael?
I suspect that the central meaning of the story is Deborah’s faith. Her faith never wavered. She was convinced of the message God had given her, the promise of victory of their enemies. She was able to recognize God’s voice in a time when most of the people had forgotten about God and were worshipping idols. Deborah listened to God. And she was willing to lay her life on the line regarding this message from God. She joined the battle at the risk of her own life. Because Deborah was willing to take the lead, God was able to use Barak and Jael to break the hold King Jabin had on the Israelites. Faith was her guide even against incredible odds.
The lesson is for us to have faith even against the incredible odds of our lives. Too often we are fearful about letting faith be our guide. Perhaps what we learn from Deborah is that having a strong faith means we have to follow where God is leading us knowing that if the valley gets dark God walks with us, even in the most difficult situations.
Second, the story lifts up the value and role of women in ancient Hebrew life, and our own. We have already seen strong women in the Bible, and their tale will continue with New Testament characters like Mary Magdalene, Martha, Phoebe, Priscilla and others. Perhaps they looked to Deborah as an example of how a strong woman should behave.
By the time of Joel it becomes clear that God treats people by their skills, abilities and faith and not by their gender. Joel says, “Your sons and your daughters will prophesy,” and that line is quoted in the book of Acts. When God calls people, it doesn’t matter if they are male or female. God calls young and old, God calls slave and free, no matter what place in life we are, God can call us, whoever we may be. There is no limitation because of our birth, because of who we are, what we look like, when it comes to God’s call.
This principle is best expressed in Galatians 3:28, where Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” I believe that verse tells us that in God’s eyes folks are folks, and biology doesn’t make a difference.
One of the great distinctives of our denomination is this commitment to equality in the genders. There are a few Disciples churches that still bar women from the Table or the pulpit, but they are clearly out of step with the mood of the denomination. Ours was the first major denomination in America to select a woman as the top official. Sharon Watkins is our General Minister and President. Today, more than half of the students in Protestant seminaries are women. Some of the greatest preachers of our time are women like Barbara Brown Taylor.
In Ephesians 2, Paul speaks about Christ overcoming the separation between Gentiles and Jews. In verse 14 he says, “For he is our peace, who made both one, and broke down the middle wall of partition, having abolished in the flesh the hostility.” I think this principle applies in the area of gender as well as the area of race. Jesus has broken down the dividing wall between us.
I think that is one of the high callings of the church – to break down the dividing walls that separate people from one another. Christ is in the business of making us all one. One in Christ Jesus is our watchword.
Paul goes on to say, “(That Christ) might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, having killed the hostility thereby. He came and preached peace to you who were far off and to those who were near. For through him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father.”
The final point I want us to learn from this story is that Deborah did not act alone to ensure the victory for the Israelites. Deborah and Barak worked together in planning to defeat the Canaanites on the battlefield. Then, after Sisera’s escape, the third member of this team is Jael, not an Israelite, but a woman from a neighboring tribe. It is her hand that kills Sisera and leads to Israel’s final freedom.
This is a story of teamwork. No one person can take all the credit. I think the same is true in many situations in our lives. Whether we are at home, at school or at work, we need to learn to work with others. We can accomplish more together than we can alone.
One of my mentors used to say that there are no Lone Ranger Christians. We are a part of a team. We are called into Life Together. It is as a people of God, as a family of faith, that we will experience God’s presence and achieve the victories that God has in mind for us.
When we look back over this remarkable story, we find many lessons for our lives. Deborah was an amazing woman who models the kind of faith that we need in our lives. She listened to God and laid her life on the line for her faith. The story reminds us that God will use anyone who listens and has faith, regardless of their gender. And it reminds us of the importance of our life together in Christ.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2008, Mickey Anders. Used by permission.