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

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!

11/7/2011 5:00:00 AM
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    About Alonzo L. Gaskill
    Alonzo L. Gaskill is an author, editor, theologian, lecturer, and professor of World Religions. He holds degrees in philosophy, theology, and biblical studies. He has authored more than two-dozen books and numerous articles on various aspects of religion; with topics ranging from world religions and interfaith dialogue, to scriptural commentaries, texts on symbolism, sacred space, and ritual, and even devotional literature.