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First reading JD4:1-10
Second Reading JD 4:11-16
by Tony Grant
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 fifty years The French were so demoralized and down on themselves that they seemed more likely to flee at the first trumpet than to put up any kind of resistance to the invading English. 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 at the time.
Some interesting parallels exist between Saint Joan and Deborah. In Judges 4, Israel had fallen on hard times. Under their great general Joshua, the Israelites had conquered the hill country of Canaan, but they had never conquered the Canaanites on the coastal plain, and after Joshua's death Israel lost its unity. Each tribe began to go its own way. Each person began to go 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. Before September 11, there was talk about dismantling the federal government. Washington was the enemy. Big government was the enemy. Before September 11, we were primarily concerned about our personal freedom to do whatever we wanted, and we regarded our very minimal airport security as a hassle. Today, a month later, all that seems like talk from another planet--and rightly so. We are all much aware now that without unity and security, we have no personal freedom.
Judges 4 tells us about a Canaanite named Sisera, the general of Jabin 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 as yet. They were armed with bronze weapons, and bronze is much inferior to iron for use as a weapon. JD4:3 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. JD 5:6,7 says, "The highways were unoccupied, and the travelers walked through byways. The inhabitants of the villages ceased." The Canaanites won all the victories, and the Israelites came to believe that they were incapable of resisting Sisera's chariots of iron.
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 to lead the people, and the people of Israel had served God as long as he lived, but afterward, without his example, the people began to forget the Lord. They turned away to 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 JD4:3, "The children of Israel cried unto the Lord." They prayed, which is always a good thing to do. Since September 11, many people in the United States have found new hope in prayer. We have found new unity in prayer.
In Judges 4, God heard the prayer of Israel and raised up a spirit-filled leader. He raised up Debroah, the wife of Lapidoth. 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 the armies of France. As I said, there are parallels between St. Joan and Deborah. They both heard voices, or rather a 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. She was 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., there were people who 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 a person but from the one who does the calling. God makes the prophet or deacon or elder. Man or woman, rich or poor, black or white--none of that matters.
And Deborah needed all of God's empowering love. Her heart ached when she saw the ever-increasing misery of her people under Canaanite opppression. She prayed to God about this intolerable situation, and God answered her prayers. God gave her the guidance and power she needed. Deborah sent for Barak, and said to him, This is the word of God to you, "Go and draw toward mount Tabor and take with thee ten thousand men of the children of Naphtali and of the children of Zebulun. And I will draw unto thee to the river Kishon Sisera, the captain of Jabin's army, with his chariots and his multitude; and I will deliver him into thine hand" (JD 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--witness Saddam Hussein. I know that today we use smart bombs, but they are not that smart and not that accurate, so people get killed that ought not to be killed, and we recognize that, we recognize that 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.
We have been at war with terrorism a long time. Our embassies in Africa were blown up. The USS Cole was attacked. A military barracks in Saudi Arabia was blown up. The World Trade Center was attacked back in 93. The list goes on and on. What has happened now is that the last attack on the World Trade Center has awakened us to the reality of our position. There are people who do not like Americans and who want to destroy civilization. It is not a case of declaring war on terrorism. Our reality is war. Good or bad, just or unjust, has nothing to do with it.
When Deborah told Barak to raise and army for battle, he knew that militarily all the advantages were on the side of the Canaanites. He knew that his chances of victory were slim unless God was on his side. 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 was the prophetess of God. Barak recognized her spiritual authority, and felt that her presence would be a sure sign that God was with him.
Perhaps there is something else here. Deborah said to Barak, attack the Canaanites, and God will be with you. We imagine Barak thinking, "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." Deborah challenged Barak to put his faith on the line and fight Canaanites. Barak challenged Deborah to do the same thing. It is easy enough 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." But then she added a a rebuke for Barak's doubts, saying, "Notwithstanding the journey that thou takest shall not be for thine honor; for the Lord shall sell Sisera into the hand of a woman." This was a prophecy. As we shall see, Sisera was killed by a woman. But this was not the kind of thing that was supposed to happen in ancient times. War was something men did. Women stayed home and did what they were told. But the whole point of this is that God is not bound by human ideas. God can do the unexpected through the unappreciated.
But let us not condemn Barak. In spite of some hesitation, he did believe in God, and he believed Deborah was a prophetess, and he did lead the people into battle. He had some doubts, but he had a faith that could be put into action.
Deborah had a more complete faith. She had no doubts. She 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, and she was God's woman. We constantly hear people asking: 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 too disturbed. He had nothing but contempt for the Israelites. He may have even been rather 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 skirmishes 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 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 disaster struck the Israelites. A man named Heber, a Kenite--supposedly loyal to Israel and supposedly a worshipper of God--saw a way to make money. Greed came in and religion and patriotism went out. Heber represents all those people who are more concerned about selfish gain than God and civilization. He betrayed the location of the Israelite 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.
But the story of Judges 4 is not yet complete. We must tell the sorry end of Sisera. Separated from his men, his chariot bogged down, Sisera fled the battle on foot. Somehow he made his way to the tent of Heber the traitor. Yet though Heber was a traitor, his wife Jael was not. When she saw Sisera approaching, she said, in V18, "Turn in, my Lord, turn in to me; fear not." Sisera thought that he had found a safe refuge. He went into the tent. She gave him a drink of goat's milk and hid him beneath a rug. Soon the exhausted Canaanite general was asleep. Then Jael took a tent stake, and a hammer, and with one blow she drove the stake through Sisera's skull into the ground. Obviously, she was not a frail young thing. She was a nomad's wife, accustomed to putting up and taking down tents, and hammering tent stakes.
She committed brutal murder, but war is always brutal murder. We believe in total war today--which means the object of war is not just to win a battle, but to destroy the enemy's capacity to battle, to blow up his whole society or network. They believed in total war in the twelfth century b.c. When they won a battle, they took no prisoners. When they took a city, they killed everyone in the city. We say that we are more humane, but war is never a humane activity. Jael was a patriot, striking a blow for her country, and by the standards of war then and now, we must say that her blow was well struck. And it fulfilled Deborah's prophecy. Sisera was killed by the hand of a woman.
So now the oppressor of Israel was dead, the victory of Deborah and Barak was complete. The relief, the joy of deliverance was so great that all of Judges chapter five is the victory song of Deborah and Barak. The power of the Canaanites was broken. Once again, the people could walk free in the land.
The final lesson of Deborah is the same lesson that we learn from Saint Joan. 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 to effect the situation 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. Let us put our faith into action, and believe that God will act in our lives, and that therefore, we must act for God. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 11/05/01