when they were old women, I bet they wore purple: Deborah and Yael

Judges 4-5

Our story this morning is set in the days of the judges
and conforms to the pattern of the stories of the judges
set out in Judges 2:11-19:
Israel does evil in the sight of the Lord.
God gives them over to some enemy.
Israel repents.
God sends a judge to save them.
And the judge Othniel defeated the Aramites (Judges 3:7-11),
the judge Ehud defeated the Moabites (Judges 3:12-30),
and the judge Shamgar defeated the Philistines (Judges 3:31).

And each story repeats the strains of the Exodus story—
another story of deliverance from oppression—
another story leading into hope and possibility,
but with the Israelites, again and again,
doing what was evil in the sight of the Lord
who sold them, this time, into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan
who reigned in Hazor, roughly ten miles north of the Sea of Galilee.
King Jabin relied on the military prowess of his general,
Sisera, based in Harasheth-ha-goiim—no one really knows where that was,
though most guess it was near the Kishon River, near Megiddo.
Sisera was in command of 900 chariots of iron
representing cutting edge technology and military might,
and 20 years of oppression with the Israelites crying out for help.

Of course, if you wish, you could picture Darth Sidious
ensconced on the planet Hazor relying on the fear Darth Vader generates
from his base on the second moon of Haraseth-ha-goiim—
not far from Endor, actually!

We’re introduced in our story to Deborah as a prophet,
and the Hebrew’s ambiguous—
(as so much is going to be!)
it could read Deborah, wife of Lappidoth,
or Deborah woman of the torches—
she of the fiery disposition.
And she’s described as judging Israel under the palm of Deborah
between Ramah and Bethel just north of Jerusalem in the hills of Ephraim.

Deborah’s name, by the way, means “bee,”
but has the same consonants as the root word for the words “speak” and “word”
(J. Clinton McCann, Judges in Interpretation:
A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching
[Louisville: John Knox, 2002] 51).
So in the beginning of our story was the word,
buzzing around under the palm tree,
and the force was strong with this one.

We’re actually told this same story twice—
once in prose (Judges, chapter four),
once in poetry or song (Judges, chapter five).
And the song of Deborah echoes the song of Miriam (Exodus 15:21)
in praise of the God who delivers—
both songs sharing status as among the oldest parts of Scripture.

Brilliantly told, the story’s impossible to buttonhole—
so carefully ambiguous—
so carefully, intentionally multi-faceted—

Up to this point in the book of Judges,
the judges have been identified as those
who deliver their people from the hands of their enemies.
They’ve been military leaders/warriors/killers/men.
Read the previous chapter—Judges, chapter three.
Othniel went to war (Judges 3:10).
Ehud, ah Ehud. Ehud tricked King Eglon—
pretended to bring tribute and asked for a private meeting
to convey a secret message.
Then, saying, “I have a message from God for you,”
with his left hand, slid a sword into King Eglon’s belly (Judges 3:17-22),
subsequently leading Israel in the slaughter of 10,000 Moabites (Judges 3:29).
And Shamgar, well, Shamgar killed 600 Philistines with an oxgoad (Judges 3:31).
Military leaders, warriors, killers, men.

But Deborah’s judging consists of arbitrating disputes between the people—
an older tradition hearkening back to some of what Moses did
who when he sat as judge for the people—
the people coming to him to inquire of God, said,
“When they have a dispute, they come to me
and I decide between one person and another,
and I make known to them the statutes and instructions of God”
(Exodus 18:13-16).

So in the midst of settling disputes,
working for peace and justice among the people,
Deborah sent word from the south to Barak up in the north—
in Kedesh of Naphtali, roughly five miles or so north west of Hazor.
Barak—the military leader, the warrior, the killer,
whose name means “lightning” (McCann, 52),
the one we expected from the get-go—the man.
“Come see the queen bee down in the Judean hills!” she says.
And obediently, he made his way down to the shade of the palm of Deborah.

“God commands you,” she said, “to gather 10,000
from the tribes of Napthali and Zebulon,
and to go to Mount Tabor. God will bring Sisera to you
by the Kishon River, flowing through the Jezreel Valley
southwest of the Sea of Galilee.
Okay, so from Kedesh to Capernaum, at the north end of the Sea of Galilee,
roughly 20 miles.
From Capernaum to Mount Tabor let’s say another 20 miles.
Down Mount Tabor to the Kishon River roughly 15 miles.

But unexpectedly, back under that palm tree,
Barak doesn’t immediately head out to obey the word of God.
“Unless you’re going, I’m not going,” he says to Deborah.
Now was he questioning God?
Was the condition he set indicative of a lack of trust in God on his part?
Requiring some kind of assurance—some kind of a sign?
Or was he questioning Deborah?
“I want to see you put your own self
where your mouth is looking to put me.”
I’ll believe what you say when I see you risk it.”
Or did he like Deborah?
No, no—not like that! Or maybe like that!
Was he willing—did he want to share the glory with her?
Did he want company?
That’s a long trip back up to Kedesh.

“Sure enough,” says she,
“but then this isn’t going to be just about you anymore.
And a woman will triumph over the General, Sisera.
She will receive the honor and the glory of victory.”
Now was that a very matter of fact statement of fact?
“We both know it doesn’t really matter who gets the honor if we win,
but just so you know ….”
Or was it to Barak’s detriment? Antagonistic?
“If you had gone when I told you to, you would have had the honor,
but since you insisted I come along, well, sorry, Barak!”
And so we’re still wondering, as Deborah and Barak head north—
as they sound the call—as the 10,000 gather,
who’s going to be the real hero here—
who’s going to be the real judge?

As we’re waiting—before the battle commences—
before the battle positions are assumed,
we’re told that Heber, a Kenite whose name means “ally”
(McCann, 53),
left the other Kenites and settled near Kedesh
up where the forces of Barak gathered.

Now Moses’ father-in-law, Hobab, was a Kenite,
so there’s a family connection to the people of Israel,
course in most of these stories, when isn’t there?!
But the Kenites were also traditionally associated
with ironwork (Dennis T. Olson, The Book of Judges:
Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections
in The New Interpreter’s Bible:
A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume II

[Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998] 780-781) …
and who had 900 chariots of iron?
Yet this guy’s separated himself from his clan
and positioned himself smack dab in the middle
of Barak’s 10,000 gathering force.
So who is this Heber? And what’s he up to?

When Sisera got word of the massed forces of Barak on Mount Tabor,
he swept out of Harasheth-ha-goiim at the head of his chariots
and roared down the Kishon River.
And Barak and his 10,000 came down the mountain.
And in chapter four, we read that God threw the Canaanites into a panic;
in chapter five, the torrents of the Kishon River swept the chariots away—
both images reminiscent of the Egyptians at the Red or Reed Sea.
And while Barak pursued the chariots all the way back to Harasheth-ha-goiim—
all Sisera’s army falling to the sword, not one left alive,
Sisera got down from his chariot and ran away on foot.

Lightning came down from on high
to strike iron.
What’d you think was going to happen?

But Sisera made his way to the tent of Heber, we read.
Alright. Now that’s the opposite direction
of where we assume Harasheth-ha-goiim was—his base—his home.
That’s southwest; he’s going north east—
past Hazor where King Jabin reigns—his boss.
That’s some 50 miles from the Kishon River.

And it’s at this point, in the flow of the story, we’re told that
Heber and Jabin are allied—
which is presumably why Heber is up near Hazor.
Sisera feels safe—relatively safe—
if he’s feeling much of anything other than the blisters on his feet.

And then the story takes a strange turn.
Because he doesn’t meet Heber, but Yael, Heber’s wife—
whose name means strength of God.
And some suggest that Sisera ignores the hospitality codes
(McCann, 53-4)—
approaching Yael instead of Heber—
going into her tent—
making requests of her—
asking her to lie for him,
to the point that Yael is appropriately in a self-defense mode.

Okay. This story’s ambiguous enough throughout that that may be.
But it also might not be.
And it sure seems like Yael takes the initiative inviting Sisera in—
when he asks for water giving him milk—
warm milk—
warm, sleep inducing goat’s milk—
covering him up—soothing him—reassuring him—
rocking him to sleep, as it were.
And in one sense, he doesn’t ask her to lie, does he?
He says, if anyone asks—oh, well, our translation doesn’t help us again.
He literally says, “If anyone asks if there’s a man here, say no.”
And that wouldn’t be a lie, would it?
He’s been unmanned—first by Barak and then by Yael—
he ran from the battlefield,
and has regressed to some child-like state of being cared for.

And as he lies there sleeping,
Yael picks up a tent peg and a mallet
and drives the peg through Sisera’s temple into the ground.
And it sure seems like Yael violated the hospitality code—
disregarded the alliance between her husband and the king.
It sure seems like she’s the ruthless opportunist
realizing that if Sisera has shown up in this state, alone,
that the bread’s now buttered on the other side than it was.
And when Barak arrived, she met him,
“Come in and I’ll show you the one you were looking for.”
And in the poetic telling of the story,
she’s named most blessed of women (Judges 5:24).

And on that day, we read in conclusion,
God subdued King Jabin
who was subsequently destroyed by the Israelites.
So this was all a God thing?

What have we got here?
What are we supposed to do with what we’ve got here?
Is it that there’s not one hero, but three—
a trinitarian affirmation?!
No, no—but is it the affirmation of God at work
through a number of unexpected people and a number of unexpected activities—
to save the people who were disobedient
and will be again …
some activities harder to name God’s work than others?

An Old Testament Judges 1 Corinthians kind of thing:
the strategy though one, was multi-pronged
and called for many participants, yet was one.
And the one working for peace can’t say to the one who wages war,
“I have no need of you.”
Nor can the warrior disregard the killer.

And is that truly the best we can hope for:
the violence of us against the violence of them
with intermittent times of peace between oppression?
Intermittent times of grace between punishments?

Or are we supposed to begin to wonder.
In this fourth verse of the same story in Judges—
remember the pattern of the stories of the judges?
Israel does evil in the sight of the Lord.
God gives them over to some enemy.
Israel repents.
God sends a judge to save them.
Israel does evil in the sight of the Lord.
And there were Othniel, Ehud and Shamgar.
Now there are Deborah, Barak and Yael.
And as many things are different, aren’t they also the same?
And you’ve heard that definition of insanity, attributed to Albert Einstein,
as doing the same thing over and over again
expecting different results?

Is God insane? (I wonder if that’s ever been preached?!)
Or is there embedded in this story—
this story of Scripture—this story of God—
the sneaking suspicion—the inspired possibility—
that there’s another way?
That there should be another way?
That this isn’t how it’s supposed to be?

With as much as is ambiguous,
I invite you to consider a couple of trajectories.
First, in the case of the first judge, Othniel,
the enemy, the Aramites, came from the far north and east
in Mesopotamia.
In the case of the second judge, Ehud,
the enemy was closer to the east, the Moabites.
In the case of the third judge, Shamgar,
the Philistines represented Israel’s closest neighbor to the west
(Olson, 779).
And in our story, the Canaanites constitute an internal threat.

So with the enemy coming ever closer,
does Yael represent a threat too?
The enemy we’ve become to ourselves?
The violence in our midst all too common
so as to have become unremarkable?

Is Yael a remarkable woman not because she stands up for women—
not because she’s one of the oppressed resisting oppression,
but because she kills?
And is named most blessed of women
because of her willingness to be as ruthless and as violent as any of the men?

Because notice too, in the movement from Deborah to Barak to Yael,
we move from arbitrating disputes—working for peace and justice,
to the military leader,
to a stone cold killer
who unmans Sisera and outmans Barak.

Because if killing’s the way to get it done,
then, bottom line, who cares how it’s done?
If it’s effective, isn’t it hypocritical to question hospitality codes?
That’s just collateral damage.
If war is the way to go, then why not win by any means necessary?
And strip away any veneer of justification
with the harsh abrasive of ends that justify means.
Because in the end right makes might right?
That’s God at work?
Or work in the name of God by God’s people?

Boy, John, you just cannot leave a story be, can you?
Not if I expect it to be good enough—
expect it to be good enough to take everything I can throw at it
and still surprise me and you and us.

Nothing about this story is clear cut.
Nothing’s meant to be.

Is it okay to kill in the name of good and God?
You can read it that way.
You can see Yael as the hero.
And that acknowledges the violent reality of our world.
But it’s not clear. It’s ambiguous.
And there is an inescapably deep irony
to killing and claiming to do the work of God.

I’m not a pacifist
though I lean that way more than toward thinking
violence and killing solves problems.
And I’m always deeply suspicious of killing in the name of God.
Is it naive to eschew violence in a violent world?
Not according to Jesus though.
And to say we do what we need to do—
that we do the best we can in the reality of our circumstances,
and to justify what we do by what others do or have done—
all as justification for acting in ways thoroughly un-Jesus-like
doesn’t sit well with me.
Does it with you?

So consider Sisera.
A thoroughly unimpressive man—
part of 20 years of cruel oppression.
A coward.
And what did even his mama think he’d be doing
when he didn’t get back when expected?
“Are they not finding and dividing the spoil?” she thought to herself—
A girl or two for every man; spoil of dyed stuffs for Sisera,
two pieces of dyed work embroidered for my neck as spoil?’ (Judges 5:30)
He was a violent man in a violent world.
He was the enemy—the evil other.
But he was also the last of the enemy. He was weary.
And he was so afraid.
He had done terrible things, and deserved—deserved no pity,
but he was asleep— trusting Yael.
His eyes were twitching, and every now and then his shoulder jerked—
like he was having nightmares.
There was a little drool on his pillow
and blood on the sheet covering his feet.
So he’s evil and he’s pathetic,
and if we’re not sympathetic
we at the very least have some sense
that he’s got a mama who loves him
(even if she’s a ruthless vile violent mother herself),
and maybe he loves her.
And he’s defenseless,
and he’s scared and in pain—physical and emotional.
He’s all of the above,
and who among us isn’t?
“Oh my God,” you think, “Darth Vader can’t be saved!”
But, of course, he was, wasn’t he?
Oh, my God. Oh, my God.

Maybe all with which we’re supposed to leave this story
is the sense that not much of this makes any kind of sense—
that it’s okay to name insanity as such
even when it’s told as the story of God—
maybe especially when it’s told as the story of God.

But beyond the insanity,
ultimately, don’t we believe,
that we’re not, in fact, looking for one more story
repeating the strains of the past—
same song umpteenth verse,
but a story that strains past the strains of the way it’s been and the way it is—
denying nothing—
and yet transforming, redeeming, recreating.
We finish this story—we come to the end
suspecting we’re in the middle
of a much bigger story—
God working in even more unexpected ways—
toward the surprise of joy.

Oh, that’s the story I’m looking for—holding out for.
That’s the story I want to tell.
My story too—
part of the telling of a much bigger one.
We’re not the end of the story.
We’re not supposed to be.
But we’re to play our part—
in the story of God.

What’s your part?


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