We are nearly at the end of our journey through Ordinary Time. Next Sunday is the celebration of Christ the King and then the liturgical year begins again with Advent. This first Lectionary reading for today is at once discouraging and encouraging, depending on where we focus our attention.
Similarly, Israel has come to the end of their journey. We have followed them from the olden days of the patriarchs when God called Abraham from Haran with the promise of a new land where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lived as resident aliens. We spent a lot of time with Jacob’s children in Egypt and in the wilderness. Recently, we have watched them enter the Promised Land and conquer it with God’s help. God has kept all his promises to them and they are home at last.
But they are not at peace. Last week, we witnessed that great covenant renewal ceremony at the end of the book of Joshua. Israel promised three times that they would serve Yahweh and Yahweh alone. In dramatic fashion they backed up their words with the deed of throwing away their foreign gods. Their loyalty lasted as long as Joshua was alive, but then began the cycle we see in our reading from Judges 4.
Israel was home, but not at peace. They were still surrounded by enemies outside their borders and within their borders. They were constantly being raided by outside nations seeking plunder and they were attacked again and again by close neighbors seeking to drive the Israelite invaders from their ancestral lands. They were not at peace with their enemies because they were not at peace with their own God. Incredibly, the gods of their enemies were a constant source of temptation to Israel, so God stopped fighting for Israel (Judges 2:2-3, 21-23).
Our story of Deborah is the fourth account of what happened when Israel went after other gods and their God let them go. Israel sinned (“did what was evil in the eyes of Yahweh”). “So Yahweh sold them into the hands of Jabin, a king of Canaan….” He “had nine hundred iron chariots and… cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years….” After all those years of suffering under the hand of Jabin’s general, Sisera, Israel “cried to Yahweh for help.” Finally, as he had done before in similar situations, Yahweh raised up a judge to deliver his foolish, sinful, suffering people.
What a judge she was, a hero for every woman who has ever chafed under the nearly monolithic patriarchalism of the Old Testament! Deborah was a prophetess who spoke directly for God. She was a judge who “held court” under a palm tree named for her, settling disputes for the Israelites. She became a warrior when general Barak, God’s choice to lead an army against the Canaanites, begged her to go with him into battle (verse 8). And, for good measure, she was a mother (Judges 5:7).
For reasons impenetrable to me, the Lectionary stops our reading even before Barak begs Deborah to accompany him into battle, so we have no idea how it all turns out. But if we finish this pericope, we learn not only that Sisera’s army of chariots has been routed, but also that Sisera himself has been assassinated in gruesome fashion by (are you ready?) a woman named Jael.
As I said at the beginning of this piece, this story is both discouraging and encouraging. It is tremendously discouraging because of Israel’s repeated defection to foreign gods. In spite of their ancestors’ solemn and sincere avowal of loyalty to Yahweh alone, these children and grandchildren and great grandchildren did not keep that vow. No matter how many times God allowed them to suffer for their disloyalty and no matter how often Yahweh rescued them from their persecutors, they kept going back to the gods of the very people they had just defeated. You can’t make up this kind of folly.
Judges tells the story of 3 generations of God’s people who were caught in a long slow downward spiral into violence and corruption and suffering that would end in the Exile. God had said this would happen if they forsook him, and God kept his word. Or rather, God’s word proved to be absolutely accurate. This is exactly what happens when God’s people leave the God they loved.
This ought to be discouraging to us, because there is a real sense in which Israel is us. Though we don’t recognize it when it’s happening, how many times have we suffered because we went running after other gods? Throughout the history of the church, God’s people have been attracted by the objects and people and ideas and movements that seem to make our neighbors happy and successful. We blame our suffering on our enemies, both internal and external, but could it be that the Lord has “sold us into the hands of…?”
I know, that’s not the kind of talk people want to hear today. Neither did the Israelites. But as they sat there by the willows of Babylon, wondering what in the world had happened to them, they needed to hear the bad news of Judges (and the other historical books of the Old Testament). Hopefully, God’s people today won’t wait for 20 years before they cry out to the Lord in their distress.
But there is also great encouragement in this representative story. The Good News is that our faithful covenant God hears the cries of his people, even when they are merely cries of pain, not repentance. What mercy! After giving them over to the results of their own sin, God listens even when they don’t cry, “God be merciful to me, a sinner,” but simply, “Help, help, help!”
Again and again, throughout Israel’s history and the church’s history, God has responded by raising up prophetesses, judges, warriors, mothers and fathers, women and men to bring salvation to sinners. Of course, the real hero in this story is Yahweh, who gave Sisera into the hands of Deborah, Barak, and Jael. With our justifiable contemporary interest in correcting centuries of gender discrimination, we might focus too much on that feature of this story. It is, after all, a stunning chapter in redemptive history, and two women loom large in it.
But fundamentally, this is simply another example of how God delivers through a complex nexus of humans, and we will never be able to figure out whom it will be. That is encouraging for contemporary believers. We can’t imagine how God can lead us to victory in today’s world. But this story shows us that God can raise up any person, any combination of persons to deliver his people from their sins.
One of the thematic lines that runs through this book of Judges is, “in those days there was no king in the land.” Clearly, that was written in the days of the monarchy when there was a king in the land or in the days of the Exile when once again there was no king in the land. The absence of a king meant that people could do whatever they wanted. The last verse of Judges sums it up. “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.” And, thus, ruin came as depicted so graphically in Judges 17-21.
Of course, there was a King in the Land, but the Israelites couldn’t see him the way they could see the gods of their neighbors. So, they kept pledging allegiance to their invisible King, but serving those visible little gods. After a time, Yahweh yielded to their frantic pleas for a visible king, but that didn’t work either. Those human kings were as flawed as those gods. And things went from bad to worse, to the ruin of Exile.
Then, in the fulness of time, God raised up a little child who would be judge, warrior, prophet, priest, and king. History had demonstrated that no mere human, however gifted, charismatic, powerful, and righteous, could save God’s people from their sins. Only God himself could do that. In the complex nexus of divine and human that was Jesus Christ, God did it.
It is fascinating and disheartening that contemporary culture so closely parallels this ancient story. We suffer under a pandemic, and racial discord, and economic inequality, and near civil war, and inept leadership, but do we cry out to God, “Be merciful to us, sinners?” No, instead month after month, we flail about uttering what Annie Lamott says is one of the two constant prayers of humanity. “Help me, help me, help me!” And we hear nothing of the second universal prayer, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 15, 2020
Judges 4:1-7 Commentary