4.23 Judges -- Deborah

Judges were not selected by any normal human process: such as the wisest, the oldest, the strongest. There is a divine "randomness" in the choice of these heroes.  We see this especially in the choice of the next judge, Deborah (Judg 4-5).  Deborah is a refutation of the modern "patriarchal" stereotype of Old Testament authority, the notion that spiritual headship must always be masculine.  Sometimes this claim is put forth by conservative Christians (who oppose the ordination of women to the pastorate), sometimes by feminist critics of Christianity (who see the Old Testament as advocating the subjection of women to men).  

         

Both viewpoints miss God's intent.  He is not concerned with the prerogatives of male over female, but with the promotion of His own purpose and glory.  He chose unlikely people (Gideon, Samson, David) not to exalt them or their social class, but to draw attention to Himself working through unworthy vessels.  It is as foolish to deny a woman the mantle of authority because of her sex as it is to confer it upon her for the same reason.  Men and women are equally unworthy of the election of God.

         

Deborah stands in a long line of strong Bible women, who influenced the history of the Covenant decisively, though not always consciously: Sarah, Rebekah, Pharaoh's daughter, Rahab.  Deborah seemed to have a similar calling as "Miriam the prophetess" (Ex 15:20),  Moses' sister.  Like Miriam, she composed a song of victory after the defeat of an enemy.  But Deborah's authority extended beyond her anointing as a prophetess, and it preceded the battle against the Canaanite king Jabin.  She judged disputes between the Israelites according to the wisdom of God (Judg 4:5).  This is surprising not because she was a woman, in fact a married woman, but because adjudication of disputes was the prerogative of the Levites.  In doing so, she was harking back to the role of Moses, who let the elders handle routine matters, while he took the more complicated cases personally (Ex 18:22). This shows that her status in Israel was very high.

 

However, there was a functional line she did not cross -- she would not be a military leader, a Joan of Arc.  For that role, God appointed a man, Barak, but Deborah was the one who commissioned him.  Poor Barak had no prophetic gift and no personal sense of God's call at all.  He had to stake his life on her prophetic accuracy.  This he was reluctant to do, and he demanded that she go with him to the battle. There was a rather intricate duet going on. Would Barak have doubted the word of a male prophet, or a recognized leader like Joshua?  On the other hand, he did not dare disobey a genuine word of God.  Deborah agreed to accompany him, but said that for his lack of trust in God's prophetic voice, he would not get the glory of the victory.  The penalty he faced was according to the sin he committed: he despised the word of God coming through a woman, so God would give the honor he would have gotten to a woman.  Thus this chapter may be considered the most "feminist" of chapters in the Bible's historical books.  Executive, judicial and military powers were wielded by women, and men were subordinate.  

 

Barak's 10,000 men routed the 900 chariots of Sisera, who was King Jabin's commander, on Mt Tabor, but Sisera fled to the tents of an ally,  Heber the Kenite.  This is another curious aspect of this episode.  The Kenites were descendants of Hobab, who was the son of Jethro, Moses' father-in-law.  In other words, Hobab was Zipporah's sister. The Kenites joined Israel (Judg 1:16).  They were considered as friendly aliens under the Law.  Over time, however, some of the Kenites moved apart from one another, and Heber even allied himself with Sisera  (Judg 4:11Judg 4:17).  This is why Sisera thought he was on safe ground when he took refuge in the tent of Jael, Heber's wife.  In fact, she reassured him that he was safe, gave him a drink and covered him up with skins.  As soon as he was asleep, she drove a tent peg through his skull.  Another favorite story of the young men's Sunday School.  So Barak lost the honor of the kill not just to a woman, but to a foreign woman.  Hers was the name that was celebrated in Deborah's song:

           "Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, most blessed of tent-dwelling women....She struck Sisera, she crushed his head, she shattered and pierced his temple" (Judg 5:24-26).

           

It was not enough to celebrate the victory of Israel in song, to extol Deborah, Barak and Jael, to taunt the tribes who stayed home and praise those who joined the battle.  In a passage of supreme sarcasm whose savage tone survives the millenia, the poet portrayed the mother of Sisera awaiting his return.  She gazed out the window and wondered, "Why is he taking so long in coming home?"  Surely, said her maids, it takes a long time to divide the spoils they have won from Israel.  And then the coda:

          So may all your enemies perish, O Lord! But may they who love you be like the sun when it rises in its strength  (Judg 5:31).

 

In this verse are the echoes of God's triumph over Egypt:

         The enemy boasted, "I will pursue, I will overtake them. I will divide the spoils; I will gorge myself on them. I will draw my sword and my hand will destroy them."  But you blew with your breath, and the sea covered them. They sank like lead in the mighty waters (Ex 15:9-10).

         This was the point of Deborah and Jael, of the Judges, of Exodus -- not the glorification of man or woman, not the attainment of peace, but the despoiling and humiliation of the enemies of Yahweh.