Opening The Old Testament
Deborah and the God of Surprise: Reflections on Judges 4:1-7
Then Deborah summons Barak, apparently the potential general of the forces of Israel, and gives him a very specific charge. "YHWH, 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" (4:6-8). With this the story seems to have returned to the expected pattern; the woman has issued the challenge to battle but the man, as usual, will lead the troops to the fight. Ho-hum; males fight in the field while the women cheer them on.
Surprise! (The lectionary reading stops at exactly the crucial verse!) Instead of accepting the challenge, instead of grabbing the dainty feminine hanky on the point of his sword and kissing the extended hand of Deborah, Barak whines, "If you go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go" (4:8). What?! Deborah's direct prophetic command from YHWH has been flatly rejected by Barak in what appears to be a pathetic cowardly unwillingness to confront the enemies of Israel.
Perhaps in both a reassuring and a remonstrating tone, Deborah bucks Barak up. "I will certainly go with you; nevertheless (meaning "but let me warn you"), the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for YHWH will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman" (4:9). Like a thunderclap this simple tale of male heroism has been turned on its head. The cowardly male, Barak, has to be reassured by the woman, Deborah. And more than that, the female prophet warns the male general that he can expect no glory from his upcoming fight, because YHWH has decided to use a woman this time to gain the victory. At this point in the story, the reader can only imagine that the woman will be Deborah, since she is the heroine to date and is in fact the only woman so far mentioned! But more surprises are in store.
Barak does go to Mount Tabor, and Sisera does sally forth to meet him. Verse 4:14 implies that Barak and his army are waiting for the enemy up high on the mountain, since at Deborah's command "Barak went down from Mount Tabor." But before the armies can begin the clash, YHWH has already won the victory. "And YHWH threw Sisera and all his army into a panic before Barak" (4:15). The verb used here is exactly the one used for the miraculous actions of YHWH at the Sea of Reeds as the Egyptians are "thrown into a panic," and in their confusion flee headlong into the advancing waters of the sea (Ex. 14:24). So, too, here in Judges. "Before" (the force of the adverb now may be a temporal one) Barak even arrives for the fight, the army of Sisera has been routed, and the enemy general, matching the cowardice of his Israelite counterpart, has leapt off his chariot and "fled away on foot." It then could be that Barak's pursuit of the chariots and the army "to Harosheth-ha-goiim" is nothing more than chasing after empty chariots toward a deserted city! Indeed, there will be no glory for Barak in this fight.
Meanwhile, the exhausted and terrified Sisera finds his way to a friendly camp, where he receives what appears to be typical Middle-Eastern hospitality from another woman, Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite (4:17-20). But one more gruesome surprise is in store for the general and for us. Instead of safety, Sisera finds a monstrous and brutal death at the hands of this Jael, who turns out to be the woman that Deborah warned would gain the glory of YHWH this time. The pathetic Barak finally finds his way to her tent (4:22), but, as always, he is too late. Sisera has been dispatched by the clever woman, Jael, and Barak can only view his mangled body.
Well, what is the preacher to make of all this? As the old Gilbert and Sullivan song has it (from "HMS Pinafore"), "Things are seldom what they seem." Every convention in this story has been subverted. The women are heroines, and the men are cowards. The great battles do not occur, but a devious feminine deed wins the day. We do not, of course, celebrate the monstrous cleverness of Jael. We celebrate the surprising way of our God, who does not always use the expected rules of society and culture but often goes another way to perform the divine work. That God is indeed the God of surprise!
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.