Deborah and Barak
said to Barak, “Up! For this is the day on which the LORD has given Sisera into
your hand. The LORD is indeed going out before you.” So Barak went down from
Mount Tabor with ten thousand warriors following him.”
During the Middle Ages, for a time, it seemed certain that England would conquer France. The English had the best soldiers, and the best armaments, and they had the high morale that came from beating up on the French for almost a hundred years The French, on the other hand, were totally demoralized. One peasant girl changed all that. With a simple faith in God, Joan of Arc reinvigorated the French armies and led them to victory at the siege of Orleans in 1429. She was seventeen years old.
Some interesting parallels exist between Saint Joan and Deborah. In Judges 4, Israel was totally demoralized. In an earlier time, under their great general Joshua, the Israelites had conquered the land of Canaan, but they had not driven out the Canaanites, and after Joshua's death Israel lost its unity. Each tribe went its own way. Each person went their own way. The Canaanites took advantage of this disorganization to regain lost ground.
First major point then. Disunity and disorganization are an invitation to disaster. As a nation, we would do well to remember our old national motto. Reach in your pocket or coin purse and take out some coins. Turn them over and look for the Latin phrase, “E Pluribus Unum.” It means “out of many, one,” and it is a symbol of the American belief that, wherever we come from and however different we are as individuals, we can work together to create one strong unity that can overcome every difficulty. The Israelites forgot that, and so they could not overcome any difficulty. They certainly could not deal with Sisera, the general of Jabin the Canaanite king of Hazor. Sisera had a new weapon. He had chariots made of iron. Iron was just being introduced into Palestine, and the Israelites had none. They were armed with bronze weapons, and bronze does not do well against iron. Judges 4:3 tells us that Sisera had nine hundred chariots of iron, and for "twenty years he mightily oppressed the children of Israel." He harried the land. He destroyed trade, communications, everything. Judges 5:6,7 says, "The highways were unoccupied, and the travelers walked through byways. The inhabitants of the villages ceased."
The book of Judges leaves us in no doubt as to why Israel has fallen upon hard times. The fourth chapter opens with this statement. "The children of Israel again did evil in the sight of the Lord, when Ehud was dead." Ehud had been a judge. He had been filled with the Holy Spirit and appointed by God, and the people of Israel served God as long as he lived, but afterward they turned away into idolatry.
They put something between themselves and God, and thus God disappeared from their lives. So, they had problems in Israel, but their basic problem was unbelief. After the better part of a generation--they were slow learners--they realized what their problem was. Thus, we read in Judges 4:3, "The children of Israel cried unto the Lord." They prayed, which is always a good thing to do. Often when people talk to me about problems, I say to them you ought to pray about that. And they look at me, like they are thinking, “I will do it, but that is not really going to help much.” Not so. Prayer helps a lot. Prayer solves problems.
In Judges 4, God heard the prayer of Israel and raised up a spirit-filled leader. He raised up Deborah. In the male-dominated society of the ancient Middle East, that was an unprecedented, unexpected thing to do.
Of course, during the Middle Ages, it was unprecedented to put a teen-aged girl in charge of an army. As I said, there are parallels between St. Joan and Deborah. They both listened to an inner voice, the voice of God. They were both mystics who lived more with the things of God than with the things of this world.
We do not know how old Deborah was. She was married, but then women married early in that time. We do know that she was a remarkable woman. She was intelligent, brave. She was God's prophet and God's judge. Thus, we read, "She dwelt under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in mount Ephraim: and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment."
Second important lesson, from the story of Deborah: If God calls a person to do a job, then God gives the power and ability to do that job. I know that some people today have problems with women deacons or women elders. I can assure you that in the 12th century B.C.E., people had a problem with women prophets. But God called Deborah to be a prophet. Maybe that is why he called her--to demonstrate that her calling did not derive from what she was but from what God was. If God calls a woman or a man to do a job, then God gives them the power and ability to do that job. The power of a calling does not derive from the person called but from the one who does the calling.
Deborah needed all of God's empowering love. Her heart ached when she saw the ever-increasing misery of her people under Canaanite oppression. She prayed to God about this intolerable situation, and God answered her prayers. Deborah sent for Barak, and said to him, "The LORD, the 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'" (Judges 4:6,7).
She told Barak to raise an army for war. Christians are never happy with war. There is no such thing as a just war. Innocent people are always killed in war. We may go to war against a tyrant, but we wind up killing draftees in the tyrant's army, and as often as not the tyrant escapes. War is never good. But sometimes war is our reality. In Judges 4, the Israelites had been at war for twenty years. They had been losing for twenty years. All that Deborah did was to recognize the reality of her situation.
Now, I imagine Barak as a grizzled old soldier who knew all too well the reality of war. When Deborah told Barak to raise an army for battle, he knew that militarily the Canaanites had all of the advantages. He knew what iron chariots could do to human bodies. So he said to Deborah in V8, "If thou wilt go with me, then I will go: but if thou wilt not go with me, then I will not go."
Deborah said to Barak, attack the Canaanites, and God will be with you. Barak says, "That is easy said, lady. You are not the one who is going to be doing the bleeding and the dying. If you are so certain God is with us, you come." This reminds us of the old saying, “Put your money where your mouth is.” Barak says, “Put your doing where your talk is.” It is easy to talk about what God will do. It is something else to act on our talk. It is a mark of true faith, that we can put that faith to the test, that we can put it into action. Deborah rose to Barak's challenge. She said in V9, "I will surely go with thee." She said, If you want proof of my words look around the battlefield, I will be right there with you.
Deborah knew God was with her. How did she know? Because she had lived so close to God over the years. She had sought God constantly in her prayers. She had surrendered her life to God: she was God's woman. People ask, How can I strengthen my faith? Deborah gives us the answer. Live close to God.
But let us go on with the story. Barak summoned the tribes for war, and, because of Deborah, many came. Ten thousand men assembled on mount Tabor.
Sisera heard about this new Israelite army, but he was not worried. He may have been happy that an army was gathering against him. It gave him the opportunity to kill a lot of Israelites at one time in one place.
Always before in Sisera's battles with Israelites, he had defeated them, but then they had withdrawn into the mountains where his iron chariots could not follow. Now he hoped to lure Barak out on to the plains where he could run over him--literally run over him--with chariots. But Barak was too smart for that, and for awhile there was sort of a stalemate. Barak was somewhere in the mountains. Sisera was down on the plains.
Then a man named Heber, a Kenite--supposedly loyal to Israel and supposedly a worshipper of God--saw a way to make a pile of money. Greed came in: religion and patriotism went out. Heber represents all those people who are more concerned about selfish gain than God. He betrayed the location of Barak’s army. Sisera moved like lightning into the mountains and surrounded Barak. Now Barak had only the hard choice of starving on the mountain or fighting his way out through the ring of Canaanite iron.
Deborah exhorted him to fight. She said, "Up; for this is the day in which the Lord hath delivered Sisera into thine hand"(14). Her confidence and her faith inspired Barak. He led Israel into battle.
At first, the battle favored the Canaanites, and it seemed that the iron chariots would once again be too much for Israel. But then a violent rainstorm came up, and the dry flat plain was changed into a sea of mud. The chariots bogged down. For Israel, this was a sign that God was with them. They fell upon the immobilized Canaanites and destroyed them.
There is a lesson here about how God works in this world. God gave Israel the opportunity for victory--with a rainstorm at the right time. But the Israelites had to win the victory. They had to wade through the mud and swing the swords and throw the spears. I said earlier that God calls the prophet, deacon, or elder. That is true. God calls, God empowers, but that person who is called must carry out God's will. God helps us, but we must help ourselves.
There is a balance here, and it is easy to fall off on either side. One extreme says: God is with me, therefore God is going to do it all, and I do not have to do anything. I will just sort of sit and watch God do it. God does not work that way. The other extreme says that God is not going to do anything, so I had better do something. That is, in effect, atheism. It fails to recognize that God is a real power in the world, and we can participate in this power.
The lesson of Deborah and Barak is: Avoid both extremes. We act and live in this world with God. The Lord will fight on our side, but we must fight.
And when we fight on the Lord’s side, we can win astonishing victories. By human reckoning, the French should not have defeated the English. The English had the military experience and the armaments to win. By human reckoning, Deborah and Barak should not have defeated the Canaanites. The Canaanites had chariots of iron and the confidence of victory. But in each case, a simple faith in God's power overturned all human reckoning and changed history. A belief in God that led to a belief in themselves was more powerful than chariots of iron.
Let us apply the lesson then. Put your faith into action, believe that God will act in your live, and that therefore, you must act for God. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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