Deborah and the God of Surprise: Reflections on Judges 4:1-7

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Lectionary Reflections
Proper 28, 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
November 14, 2011
Judges 4:1-7

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!

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.