God’s people in Crafton Heights are continuing to study the Book of Judges as a way of listening to how God comes to us in the midst of our brokenness. On World Communion Sunday, we considered one of the most terrifying, and least-likely to be included in Children’s BIbles, texts – the story of Deborah, Barak, Sisera, and Jael (excerpted below). Our Gospel reading was John 12:23-26.
If you have not been following along, you need to know that we are working our way through a study of the Book of Judges. This morning’s reading, like most of that volume, is a bleak and difficult story, especially if we take it at face value. As we begin, let me remind you about a couple of things. First, the overall purpose of Judges, as we’ve described it, is to help us see what happens when there is no sense of order and purpose in society. Several times the text says, “In those days, there was no king in Israel”, and I am taking that to mean that Judges paints a picture of a people who have forgotten the Lord and His purposes. And secondly, I’d like you to remember that the theological theme of Judges is that God calls his people to replace systems of repression and slavery with structures of release and liberation.
In reality, reading through Judges is like following a circular stairwell into a deep, dark basement. We seem to be going around and around, and instead of getting easier and brighter, it’s getting harder and darker and colder. And if you think what we’ll read today is bad, well, just wait until March. This week, I had the sense that a lot of these stories full of violence and bluster are the campfire stories of a culture that needs to hear something of God’s purposes and deliverance, even if they sound unbelievable. It’s a lot like whistling while you walk past the graveyard in the dark, I suppose.
Let’s begin this fourth chapter, the story of Deborah and Barak, Sisera and Jael.
1 And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died. 2 And the Lord sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who dwelt in Harosheth-ha-goiim. 3 Then the people of Israel cried to the Lord for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and oppressed the people of Israel cruelly for twenty years.
You see the cycle, right? The last Judge, Ehud, dies, and there is peace. And then we forget, and we do what is evil. And then God allows us to experience the consequences of our actions, and then we cry out to God…
But wait a second. It says we’re oppressed by a king…and what is the distinctive feature of this particular king? He’s got chariots. I seem to remember another king with chariots who tried to stand in the way of God’s purposes. Do you remember Pharaoh? Can you see how this is being set up as a story of God’s delivering God’s people?
The story continues:
4 Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. 5 She used to sit under the palm of Deb′orah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment. 6 She sent and summoned Barak the son of Abino-am from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, ‘Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking ten thousand from the tribe of Naph′tali and the tribe of Zebulun. 7 And I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the river Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.’”
Last week we looked at the meaning of the names in the story. This week, we’ll see some more of that. We’re told that Deborah is the “wife of Lappidoth”, and that may be. But “Lappidoth” is also the word for “torches”. So she may be “Mrs. Lappidoth”, but she may also be “the torch lady”. She lives into that name, because she sure lights a fire under Barak!
And “Barak” is the word for “lightning”. When you hear the rest of this story, I hope you’ll see that perhaps this is a bit of a joke, like when you call a bald man “Curly” or a 350 pounder “Tiny”. This guy is surely not quick, powerful, or brilliant.
But Deborah, the “torch lady”, is a prophetess. That is, she is called by God to tell the people the truth. And the truth she reveals is that God will save us from Sisera:
8 Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.”
Barak is doubtful and even cowardly. He chooses to see the size of the problem, rather than the power and the purpose of the savior. “I can’t do it…you’ll have to come. You be my ‘good luck charm’.” Earlier in this passage, I suggested that the chariots were to remind us of Pharaoh. Can you think of another man who was told by God to lead his people to freedom, and who tried to get out of it? Doesn’t Barak sound just like Moses here? Moses said that he wasn’t a good enough speaker, that he wasn’t powerful enough. Barak said he couldn’t do it alone, either.
Deborah gives him his answer:
9 And she said, “I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” Then Deborah arose, and went with Barak to Kedesh. 10 And Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh; and ten thousand men went up at his heels; and Deborah went up with him.
Here’s the truth: God does not punish people for an inability to believe, but I am sure that people who cannot trust or believe are unable to see all of God’s best. That’s the situation for Barak, at any rate. God will do what God will do, but you’ll miss out on some of it, Barak.
11 Now Heber the Kenite had separated from the Kenites, the descendants of Hobab the father-in-law of Moses, and had pitched his tent as far away as the oak in Za-anannim, which is near Kedesh.
OK, that’s a little bit random. Why do we need to know about Heber and the Kenites? Isn’t this a story about Deborah and Barak? Yes, it is. But here we are reminded that the Kenites, even though they are from Canaan, usually play for our side. Going all the way back to Moses, we’ve had pretty good relations with them. Moreover, this verse explains why this particular group of Kenites found themselves in Kedesh. They are usually much further south…but for some reason, there are a few of them around here. I wonder what they are doing?
12 When Sisera was told that Barak the son of Abin′o-am had gone up to Mount Tabor,
Wait! Sisera found out about Barak’s army? How did he do that? Who told him? Heber! Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me. I thought we were friends! But now you’ve ratted our guy out to the enemy.
13 Sisera called out all his chariots, nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the men who were with him, from Harosheth-ha-goiim to the river Kishon. 14 And Deborah said to Barak, “Up! For this is the day in which the Lord has given Sisera into your hand. Does not the Lord go out before you?” So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with ten thousand men following him. 15 And the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and all his army before Barak at the edge of the sword; and Sisera alighted from his chariot and fled away on foot. 16 And Barak pursued the chariots and the army to Harosheth-ha-goiim, and all the army of Sisera fell by the edge of the sword; not a man was left.
The scene shifts now, to what the RSV calls “the river Kishon.” The word that’s used, though, is “Wadi” – “Wadi Kishon.” A “wadi” is a riverbed that is usually dry, packed and firm. However God defeats the army of Sisera in the Wadi Kishon. Chapter 5 (verse 4 and 21) describe a battle occurring in a thunderstorm – the dry wadi became a raging torrent, and Sisera’s army was thrown into a panic. In fact, the word for “panic” that is used here is the same word that describes what happened to Pharaoh’s chariots in Exodus 14:24. Can you see the echo of a liberation story here?
God does in fact use lightning to defeat Sisera – but it’s actual lightning, not Barak. Once again, we see that God’s hand is more powerful than the enemy’s chariots. That’s fantastic! Let’s see how this story ends:
17 But Sisera fled away on foot to the tent of Ja′el, the wife of Heber the Kenite; for there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite. 18 And Jael came out to meet Sisera, and said to him, “Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; have no fear.” So he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. 19 And he said to her, “Pray, give me a little water to drink; for I am thirsty.” So she opened a skin of milk and gave him a drink and covered him. 20 And he said to her, “Stand at the door of the tent, and if any man comes and asks you, ‘Is any one here?’ say, No.” 21 But Jael the wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, till it went down into the ground, as he was lying fast asleep from weariness. So he died. 22 And behold, as Barak pursued Sisera, Jael went out to meet him, and said to him, “Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.” So he went in to her tent; and there lay Sisera dead, with the tent peg in his temple.
23 So on that day God subdued Jabin the king of Canaan before the people of Israel. 24 And the hand of the people of Israel bore harder and harder on Jabin the king of Canaan, until they destroyed Jabin king of Canaan.
Seriously? A tent peg through the skull? Look, you can read through the Bible and find a lot of places where you think, “Somebody needs to be wearing a WWJD bracelet here”. This is not the best and finest part of our story, folks. What’s going on here?
Well, for starters, let’s consider a couple of things that “everyone knows” – that is, what would be really obvious to hearers of this story that might slip past us?
Sisera, the enemy general, went straight to the tent of a woman. In that culture, that’s a serious breach. He ought to be presenting himself to the master of the property, the man. In a time when the “taking” of “war brides” and forced sexual advances was common, a soldier walking into the tent of a woman is a real threat.
Furthermore, he asked for a drink. Everyone knows that a good guest doesn’t ask, he waits to be served. This is very forward and, again, threatening.
Finally, this guest commands his host to lie for him.
The chapter concludes with Jael finishing the story, all right. She deals with this threatening stranger and along the way, she undoes her husband’s treachery (remember that it was her husband, Heber, who alerted Sisera to Barak’s presence), and she declares God’s victory and liberation.
So what’s the good news here? What can we learn from this difficult story?
The Good news is that here in Judges, just like in Exodus, God acts to save his people who cry out. God’s power brings liberation and release.
Deborah and Jael see this, believe it, and act into it. These strong women take the steps that they can, using the tools they have at hand, to create a future consistent with God’s intentions for peace and freedom.
The men? Well, not so much. Both Barak and Sisera seem very intent on saving their own skins. Barak, at least, is mildly interested in what the Almighty has going on, but it is clearly secondary to self-preservation. He can’t believe what Deborah says and will not move forward into God’s promise without the “torch lady” lighting a fire under his bum. Sisera leaves his army, hides in a woman’s tent, and lies about that.
If we were to interpret this chapter in the light of our reading from John, we could say that each of the men sought to save their own necks by playing it safe. They withheld trust and faith, and it ended up costing each of them.
So the women are faithful and able to walk into God’s purposes, while the men shrink back. That leads me to another question: How do I respond to the call of God? How do I move forward into a future characterized by the intentions of a liberating, empowering, releasing God?
I know. I know. The story in Judges 4 is a nasty, brutish narrative. It’s written by a people who knew far less of God’s intentions and presence than you do. Nobody here had the Psalms or the Prophets, let alone the Gospels or the life of Jesus. Every one of you sitting in the pews this morning knows more about light and life and God’s purposes than anyone in this story ever did. You have more light than they did.
What are you doing with it?
Barak looked at Deborah, and then at the size of the enemy army, and said, “No way. I am not going in there. At least, not alone. I’m only going if you will come with me, Deborah.” And she becomes his token, his good-luck charm, his idol, his crutch.
What are you afraid of? What do you look at and say, “No way. I can’t do it. Not gonna happen…”? Is it taking charge of your financial affairs? Getting clean? Are you afraid of aging or dying? Do you lack boldness in a relationship?
What do you insist on taking with you into the presence of fear? Barak took Deborah. Do you take a drink instead of facing your fear directly? Do you medicate your problems with shopping, or seek to anesthetize them with gambling or television or hiding out in the bedroom? Do you find that you simply can’t move because you feel incapable and overwhelmed?
I’ve got good news. In a few moments, you’ll be invited to sit at the Lord’s table. You’ll have the opportunity to receive the sacrament that more than anything else is a tangible sign of God’s presence with you. A reminder that God’s intentions are for you.
As you come to the table, you can let go of your good luck charm, your idol, your fear, your crutch. You can walk toward the future, knowing that God is there, that God is in control. Barak thought he was helpless unless he had Deborah with him. Sisera thought he was safe hiding in a lie. Both of them were wrong. There is nothing else we need to bring, and no reason to hide. Come into the light. What have you got to lose? No, seriously, I’m pretty sure that most of us need to lose something. What have you got to lose? The good news is, you can lose it, and follow.
Thanks be to God. Amen.