Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 19, 2017
Judges 4:1-7 Commentary
You’d probably have to thumb through a lot of children’s Bible story books before you’d find a retelling of Judges 4. It’s, after all, very resistant to the kind of moralizing such books sometimes like to do. In fact, even adult readers may have to dig pretty deeply to find anything edifying in this text.
Chapter 4 continues Judges’ display of God’s gracious response to and work through people. Those servants’ identities, however, are sometimes startling. God, after all, never changes. God, however, is remarkably flexible about whom God uses to accomplish God’s good work and purposes.
Judges 1-6 introduces us to God’s “unlikely” servants such as Othniel (a younger brother), Ehud (a left-hander) and Shamgar (perhaps a gentile). This week chapter 7 introduces us to Deborah (a woman), Barak (an Israelite coward) and Jael (a woman and perhaps a gentile).
Yet Judges doesn’t just trot out a long roster of God’s apparently unlikely servants. Chapters such as 4 also introduce two prominent, and perhaps surprising, themes. First, God’s chosen servant/deliverer longs for some sort of sign or reassurance. In this case, Barak refuses to fight the Canaanites unless Deborah accompanies him.
Secondly, Judges 4 also introduces us to the breakdown of the fragile Israelite military coalition. After all, according to verse 10, only the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali join in the attack on Sisera. What’s more, Deborah’s song later scolds Gilead, Dan and Asher’s tribes for refusing to join the battle.
Yet while some of Judges 4’s characters and themes are new, some common old themes also re-emerge in it. Judges 4, in fact, begins in a grimly familiar way. After her judge Ehud dies, Israel again does what’s evil in God’s sight. God once more responds by handing her over to an oppressor for a full generation. And, again, Israel cries out to God for help.
At that point, however, Judges’ author breaks that pattern. After all, God generally responds to Israel’s plea for help by raising up a “deliverer”/judge. So, for example, Judges 3:9 reports that God “raised up” for Israel “a deliverer, Othniel son of Kenaz.”
But Judges 4 offers no such report. Perhaps that’s because Judges wants spiritually amnesiac Israel to remember that it’s God, not any of God’s creatures that saves God’s people. But maybe Judges doesn’t immediately introduce us to Israel’s newest liberator also because God uses not one but three deliverers.
One of them, Deborah, is a prophetess who speaks God’s Word, as in verse 6 where she tells Barak, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you …” She also fulfills the traditional role of a judge who settles Israelites’ disputes. So God doesn’t have to “raise up” Israel’s newest deliverer. Deborah’s already in place. That first unlikely servant of God introduces us to a second unlikely one. After all, according to verses 6 and 7, Deborah calls on Barak to lead an army in an assault on Sisera.
However, oddly enough the Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday comes to a screeching halt right there. It doesn’t tell us what happens to Deborah’s command, Barak’s response or Israel. The text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday effectively leaves Israel “hanging.”
Most scholars urge those who proclaim Judges 4 to press on past the Lectionary’s boundaries. As we do, however, we learn that Barak, whose name means “lightning,” is neither very quick nor bright. He, after all, refuses to confront the Canaanite commander and his formidable army unless Deborah accompanies him.
So why does Barak show little more enthusiasm for embracing God’s call than Moses, Gideon and Jeremiah do? Does he perhaps not trust Deborah to speak for God? Is Barak scared? Or is does he hesitate because he links the judge so closely to God that he assumes God makes himself somehow uniquely present through her?
In any case, Deborah warns Barak that his reluctance to do God’s work will cost him dearly. It will cost him the honor of defeating Sisera. A “woman” will get that honor instead. Yet, in a chapter jammed-packed with surprises, even that female victor’s identity startles us.
When the Israelite commander obeys Israel’s judge’s command to “go up” (14), God uses him, against all military odds, to rout the Canaanites who have left their military citadel to confront them. Even the 900 iron chariots Sisera had used to oppress God’s Israelite people prove to be no match for God’s good plans and purposes.
As a result, in a desperate attempt to save his own skin, Sisera abandons those chariots to flee the onrushing Israelites on foot. That, however, sends Canaan’s commander sprinting right into the “arms” of Heber the Kenite’s family. Heber’s part of a tribe that once had a close relationship with Israel. Moses’ father-in-law Jethro was, in fact, a Kenite. Heber, however, had moved to Canaan “because there were friendly relations between Jabin king of Hazor and the clan of Heber the Kenite” (17). So he, in a sense, abandoned the Israelites in order to ally with the Canaanites.
That makes Heber’s wife Jael a likelier ally of Sisera than of Barak. Since Sisera assumes he has every reason to trust Jael, he accepts her offer of hospitality. She, in turn, at least initially treats Canaan’s powerful and cruel leader like a tired, thirsty little child. Jael gives him something to drink, tucks him into bed and promises to protect him against any threats.
That apparent tenderness is part of the reason why Jael’s next actions shock us. After all, instead of protecting Sisera, she pounds a tent stake through his head. It’s only then that Israel’s commander Barak arrives on the scene – a day late and dollar short. The commander, who has, in a sense, “hid behind” Deborah, finds his enemy, who also “has hid” behind a woman Jael, already dead. As a result, Deborah gives Jael (Judges 5:24ff.) rather than Barak the credit for eliminating one of Israel’s cruelest oppressors.
Yet Judges’ narrator won’t let us forget the identity of the true hero of this story, who the master and who the servant is. The real credit for Israel’s liberation belongs to God: “On that day God (italics added) subdued Jabin, the Canaanite king, before the Israelites” (23). It’s God who prevails, albeit through a rather unlikely trinity of characters. In the face of Israelite unfaithfulness, God remains faithful.
Those who dare to proclaim Judges 4 do well to admit that it’s a story that’s little easier to interpret than it is to fully understand. However, perhaps we can help our hearers think about it in helpful ways. First, we note the context in which Jael acts so violently. Sisera, after all, uses his 900 chariots to cruelly “oppress” God’s Israelite sons and daughters.
So this story reminds us that God hates oppression. God, in fact, often uses people to dismiss unjust systems, sometimes through violence. God is, in fact, an equal opportunity hater of oppression. When, after all, Israel herself becomes an oppressor, God destroys much of her and exiles whoever’s left. If God is, then, partial, it seems that God is partial toward justice, righteousness and peace. God consistently opposes anyone who oppresses weak and vulnerable people.
Yet, of course, Judges 4 is a violent story that challenges anyone who dares to proclaim and hear it in a violent world. While the 21st century has arguably thus far witnessed fewer wars than its predecessors, its more localized violence is no less intense than the last century’s. Violence remains all too common in the streets, schools and homes of both those who proclaim and those who hear this Sunday’s text.
Some who read this Sermon Commentary may be, in fact, the victims of such violence and oppression. Others, however, are in some ways perpetrators of violence. And even if we don’t participate in social, economic and racial oppression, some of us at least indirectly benefit from it.
So Judges 4 invites us to ask on which side of its Canaanite-Israelite conflict we fall in our own context. It also challenges us to align (or perhaps re-align) ourselves with God, as well as God’s good plans and purposes.
As we’ve noted in previous sermon commentaries, few people seem to embody God’s ability to “draw a straight line with a crooked stick” than the American president, Lyndon Baines Johnson. Few modern biographers are more familiar with Johnson’s unique and often maddening combination of compassion and ambition than Robert Caro.
In his Newsweek review of Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, David Frum notes, “For three years under President John F. Kennedy, the cause of civil rights inched forward, if it moved at all. Then, suddenly, Kennedy was dead—and seven months later, so too was legal segregation.
To this day, the mystique of John F. Kennedy lingers. One third of Americans rate Kennedy a great president, and professional historians typically bestow generous accolades on him as well. And yet on the day he was murdered, President Kennedy had accomplished astonishingly little of his domestic program . . .
It was the graceful Kennedy’s ungainly successor who transformed Kennedy’s soaring rhetoric into legal reality. It was Johnson, not Kennedy, who pushed through Congress the laws that overthrew legal segregation in the South. It was Johnson, not Kennedy, who gained Southern blacks the right to vote. It was Johnson, not Kennedy, who created Medicaid and Medicare. It was Johnson, not Kennedy, who protected wild rivers . . .
Caro’s Johnson is a bully and braggart, a manipulator, a man of bad personal morals and worse business ethics. And it is this, frankly, monstrous character who realized more of Caro’s liberal ideals than any politician in modern times, Franklin Delano Roosevelt very much included — and the vastly more than the charming, but domestically ineffectual JFK . . .
How did Johnson do it? Here is Caro’s disconcerting message: Johnson didn’t do it by inspiring or exhorting. He did it by mobilizing political power, on a scale and with a ruthlessness that arguably surpassed all other presidents, before or since . . . As Caro tells it, Johnson instantly understood how to put to maximum political use the public grief over the Kennedy assassination. Johnson was not reckless enough to say aloud, ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste.’ But he certainly acted on that maxim.”
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