Opening The Old Testament
Deborah and the God of Surprise: Reflections on Judges 4:1-7
Proper 28, 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
November 14, 2011
This narrative account of the struggle between Israel's army, mustered by Deborah, and lead by Barak, and the army of King Jabin of the Canaanites, lead by Sisera, has been overshadowed by the poetic account of the same struggle found in Judges 5. The poem has long been considered to be the oldest lengthy piece of literature in the Hebrew Bible, some claiming that it was composed not long after the supposed 11th century B.C.E. battle it describes. We cannot, of course, prove either claim, the battle or the antiquity of the poem, as historically accurate. In any case, the poem is a superb example of ancient literary skill of the highest order.
But the narrative of chapter 4 possesses its own extraordinary gifts for storytelling and can yield a surprising harvest for the preacher as well. A closer look at the piece offers a rich bounty to the careful reader.
The story begins in the usual stylized manner of the editor of these old tales. "The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of YHWH, after Ehud died (see Judg. 3), so YHWH sold them into the hand of king Jabin of Canaan, who ruled in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim" (Judg. 4:1-2). The pattern of Israelite salvation from a "judge" (i.e., a military genius called by YHWH), followed by the savior's death, followed by Israelite evil, followed by YHWH's "handing them over" (or "sold") to another oppressor, followed by their crying out for help, followed by the rise of still another miraculous savior, is in evidence here. Such stylization may lull the reader into imagining there can be no fruit here beyond the typical game of the Judges editor. But in this case the reader would be wrong.
Sisera's army does contain the fearsome phalanx of 900 iron chariots, a monstrous force that no pathetic Israelite army, made up primarily of soldiers poorly armed and on foot, could hope to survive. Only their living places in the rocky hill country of central Palestine might save them from these chariots that are designed more for open plain warfare. Still, the Canaanites managed to "oppress cruelly the Israelites for twenty years" (4:3).
But now the surprises begin. First, we are introduced to Deborah, meaning either "bee," or perhaps possibly a name built on the feminine form of the word usually translated "word." Quite literally, this woman is a living feminine word. In addition, she is described as "female prophet" ("prophetess" in NRSV), and wife of Lappidoth, a man whose name is grammatically a feminine plural noun ("flashings"?)! In every way possible the writer emphasizes that this time the savior of Israel is a woman, and we are prepared to read a story that may not follow traditional patterns either of the editor of Judges or the storytelling patterns of ancient male heroes.
She seems an unlikely savior. She is said to be "judging Israel," "sitting under the palm of Deborah in the hill country," while the "Israelites came up to her for judgment" (4:4-5). While Deborah "sits" for judgment, Sisera "sits" (NRSV "lives) in his city, surrounded by his army of chariots. Just how can the sitting judge confront the sitting general? The contest seems decidedly one-sided!
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.