This is the next sermon in the series called “Her-Story: Women of the Hebrew Scriptures.” Today we learn about the leader of Deborah.
In addition, we’ve commissioned Rev. Rachel Frey to write a hymn for this sermon series, and she’s done a wonderful job! You can find the hymn here:
SCRIPTURE – Judges 4:1-10
Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, now that Ehud was dead. So the Lord sold them into the hands of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. Sisera, the commander of his army, was based in Harosheth Haggoyim. Because he had nine hundred chariots fitted with iron and had cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years, they cried to the Lord for help.
Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided. She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor. I will lead Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.’”
Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.” “Certainly I will go with you,” said Deborah. “But because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” So Deborah went with Barak to Kedesh. There Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali, and ten thousand men went up under his command. Deborah also went up with him.
June 30, 2013
When someone visits Crestwood for the first time, we send them a letter thanking them for worshipping with us. The letter always includes a response card, which asks them what they liked and didn’t like about their experience. People who return the cards are usually very complimentary, saying things like, “The congregation was very friendly,” “the choir did a great job with the anthem,” or “I appreciate catching up on my sleep during the sermon.” In fact, since we’ve been sending out these cards, we’ve only had one person tell us something they didn’t like.
That card arrived last week. In the section that asks, “What did you least enjoy about your visit to Crestwood,” he wrote (and I’m pretty sure it was a he), “Your blatant disregard for the biblical teaching about women and authority.” Now Robyn and Emily, why do you think he would say something like that? He even quoted a scripture, I Timothy 2:11-12, which says, “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” Well, there you go! The Bible says it, so it must apply universally to all times and places, including Crestwood in 2013. I appreciate this gentleman’s helpful guidance and I hope he worships with us the next time Robyn or Emily preaches.
I don’t mean to belittle our guest’s theological view. In reality, there are a lot of churches that claim a biblical understanding the role of women in the church, and they often cite this passage from 1 Timothy for justification. And if you take a certain kind of approach to this passage, you can arrive at the conclusion that women really aren’t equipped or called to be leaders. But I’m curious what those churches do with passages like the one from Judges, where the main character is not only a woman, but a woman who is a judge, a prophet, and a military leader. Let’s see someone tell HER to be quiet! This passage, and I hope this series in general, is a reminder that we can’t rely on one or two specific passages to give us a full understanding of what the Bible says about a lot of things, including the role of women.
To get to our story today, let’s recap where we’ve been. With Judges, we are seven books into the Bible, and a lot has happened in God’s relationship with humanity. In Genesis, God creates the world and then gives a specific promise to Abraham, a promise of land and blessing that is passed down through Isaac and Jacob and Joseph, who leads the Israelites into Egypt to survive a famine. The Egyptians enslave the Israelites, so in the second book, Exodus, Moses leads them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and into the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. Exodus also includes the commencement of the imparting of God’s law to the people, which is continued in the books of Leviticus and Numbers. While it makes for snooze-worthy reading, the law is important for understanding how God and humanity related to each other. In the book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book in the Bible, Moses preaches his last sermon, reminding the Israelites of all God has done for them as they prepare to finally move into the land God promised them.
The next book, Joshua, tells about the Israelites’ transition into this territory, led by Moses’ successor, Joshua. The Israelites have several run-ins with the natives of the region, but God leads them to victory, and the Israelites, divided into 12 tribes, begin to settle the area. And then the trouble starts. Actually, the trouble continues, because the Israelites have been fighting against God ever since Adam and Eve decided on a forbidden snack way back in Genesis.
What happens in the book of Joshua and the beginning of Judges is that the Israelites settle into the land and start to get comfortable, which means they also start to get complacent in their faith. You see, up until this point, they’ve either been wandering nomads or in conflict with others, and both situations forced them to rely on God’s presence and provision. But now they’re settled. Ahh. They stop coming to worship, they begin flirting with the foreign gods of the surrounding nations, and they generally ignore the law God has given them. So a pattern develops that gets played out over and over again in Judges. First, the Israelites ignore God, so God sends a foreign nation to attack them. The people panic and cry out to God for help, so God sends them a judge to deliver them from their enemy and restore order. Things settle down, the people get complacent, and the whole thing starts over again.
The judge that God would send could play a number of different roles. First and foremost, they were usually military leaders who commanded the Israelite troops in their rebellion against the attacking nation. Judges would also serve in the more traditional role of arbiters and mediators for the people. Judges could also be prophets, spiritual leaders, and governing officials. They were the de facto leaders of the Israelites until the folks will later grow restless and grumble for a king.
Deborah is one of the 12 judges God sends to the people, and she is the only woman. But notice, as we begin this section, the Bible doesn’t say, “Look everybody! Here’s a woman judge! Isn’t that progressive and cool and dripping with equality?” It simply says, in verse 4, “Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at the time.” No disclaimers or qualifications, just a simple statement of fact that could lead us to conclude that women in leadership wasn’t nearly as controversial or universally forbidden as our guest in worship might lead us to believe.
I also think the Bible doesn’t make a big deal about Deborah because this isn’t a story about what a woman can do. It’s a story about what God can do. Verse 1 tell us “Again the Israelites did evil in the sight of the Lord,” so God sells them into the hands of King Jabin of Canaan and his army commander Sisera. After 20 years of oppression, the Israelites learn their lesson and cry out to God for help, who sends them Deborah to deliver them.
But Deborah is not a military commander like other judges. Instead she calls on a man named Barak to gather 10,000 men and lead them into battle against Sisera, promising that God will deliver the foreign army into Barak’s hands. It sounds like the story is sliding back into stereotypes, doesn’t it? Man goes off to fight the battle while woman cheers from the sidelines. In fact, in later parts of the Bible, when lists of deliverers of Israel are named, it will be Barak, no Deborah, who will make those lists.
But you can already see the masculine revisionist history at work, because when you read the actual story, it doesn’t tell about Barak the Deliverer. It tells of Barak the Scaredy-Cat. He says to Deborah, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you won’t go with me, I won’t go.” Sounds like a kid about to get on a roller coaster or go into a haunted house. So Deborah responds to this army commander, “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.” That woman will not be Deborah, but Jael, a foreign woman who will trick and then kill the enemy general Sisera.
So what do we make of this female-dominated story in the midst of a very patriarchal book? It’s interesting to note that Deborah’s style of leadership differs significantly from some of the other male judges. Rather than bludgeon her way through her duties, she relies on wisdom, collaboration, and compromise. I would say that many of our churches with female leadership benefit from the same gifts, and those who shun female leadership are worse off because of it.
It’s easy to ignore Deborah’s story. It’s tucked way back in Judges, a seldom-read book in the seldom-read Old Testament. If we had to come up with the names of the judges, we could probably get Judge Judy and Judge Wapner, but that’s about it. Deborah doesn’t have a flashy story like Gideon or Samson. She doesn’t really do anything of note, other than what God called her to do. Except…that’s exactly why we should take notice of her. While the Bible has a number of memorable characters and stories, it has hundreds of other characters like Deborah and Barak and Jael, people we would never know if we didn’t take the time to know them. And yet, it’s often in the stories like these where God is most present for us. Here we have God calling on people who the world would consider less than ideal – a female judge, a skittish army general, a foreign woman. Sometimes God calls on elderly people, like Abraham and Sarah. Sometimes God calls on morally compromised people, like Jacob and David. Sometimes God calls on a woman, like Mary and Deborah. Sometimes God calls on people who are only noteworthy for how ordinary they are – like you and me.
And when God calls on us, we are called to do what we can do. Deborah did what she was called to do, leading Barak in the defeat of Sisera. We do what we can do. As a prophet, we can prophesy. As a doctor, we can diagnose and heal. As a student, we can study hard. As a parent, we can raise our children. As believers, we can follow the teachings and example of Christ. We do what we can do, and trust God will do what God can do. When we listen to God, when we respond to God, we become God’s partners in this world.
When we do that, we are no longer defined by our gender or our bank account or our relationships. Deborah was not known as Mrs. Lappidoth; in truth, her husband was probably known as Mr. Deborah! When we strive to serve God, we are no longer just the wife of someone or the husband of someone or the son or daughter of someone. We are no longer defined by our past mistakes, our broken relationships, our wrong turns in life. We aren’t even defined by what others believe about us, like we’re not good enough or we’re not faithful enough or we’re not the right gender. What should we remember about Deborah? We should remember how she faithfully answered the call to serve. May we be remembered in the same way, not for who we are, not for what we do, but for what God does through us.