Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 19, 2023
Judges 4:1-7 Commentary
While the Lectionary can’t include the full chapter because it would be a lengthy reading, it’s a shame to miss the high drama and irony of this narrative. What we have in Judges 4 is an underdog story, layered into underdog story and folded into yet another underdog story.
Underdog #1: Israel
In the opening verses of this chapter, we see what will become a predictable predicament for God’s people: the people have ignored and defied God’s commands and find themselves under the control of an oppressive government. In this case, the Canaanites had been cruelly threatening and oppressing God’s people for 20 years. The mention of iron chariots signifies that “The Canaanites were the more established, powerful and richer culture in comparison to the Israelites. Thus the Canaanites had access to the most recent military technology, which they used to maintain their power and ‘cruelly’ oppress the Israelites.” By their own doing, God’s people have landed on the underside of power. From this place, they cry out to God for deliverance, which God brings to them from two, unlikely sources.
Underdog #2: Deborah
While the book of Judges is often cited for its “texts of terror” (i.e. stories of women who serve as little more than the collateral damage of men’s sins), we also acknowledge one of the most unambiguously heroic characters in all of Scripture: a judge, gifted in wisdom, trustworthy, a leader among the people and a servant of God. She gives a prophecy to the commander of Israel’s army: take 10,000 men and I will deliver the commander of the opposing army into your hands.
One wishes at times for audio or video recording of these ancient stories and this is just such a place. Barak seems to demure, asking Deborah to come with him. Perhaps it is because she speaks for God and someone who speaks for God is always good to have on hand in seasons of conflict and uncertainty. Perhaps it is because he was afraid. The Hebrew text lets this ambiguity live in the text whereas, often, our translations try to pick a side, smooth out the uncertainty. Similarly, we don’t know if Deborah’s affirmative response was: “Yes! I am eager to go with you and honored that you asked” OR more along the lines of grabbing Barak by the hand and dragging him to where he is supposed to be.
The consequence of this exchange — that God will be glorified through a woman and not through Barak seems to put a thumb on the scale of the second version of Deborah’s response. In this text, “the weaker sex” is anything but. In fact, requiring everyone in this story to act according to a gender role would necessitate some uncomfortable squirming away from textual realities, ultimately, using the text against its own intention. In a world where men use women in the pursuit of their own gratification, God uses women to shine forth God’s glory.
Underdog #3: Jael
Deborah was a leader, a judge of proven wisdom, respected among her people and, even so, her gender makes her a seemingly unexpected choice for God’s work. Given that, how much more do we need to grapple with the underdog status of one last character. The whole set-up for her part of the story feels like it has been stolen from a Hollywood script. Her husband has some kind of understanding with the Canaanites that, although they were also outsiders, they might live nomadically on the land. Jael sees the Canaanite commander coming and welcomes him graciously into her home. She gives him a blanket and serves him milk. Clearly he suspects nothing because he asks her to stand guard. According to one commentary, “On the surface, Sisera seems safe and secure in the womb-like tent of mother Jael, falling asleep from the weariness of battle and the heaviness of milk.” (781) Jael’s acts of homeyness and hospitality — here’s a glass of milk, let me tuck you in for a nap — are all a pretense for her violent domination.
What we don’t know is why and how God chooses to use this act — not explicitly sanctioned by divine command, contravening a peace treaty, and may have only been a pragmatic move to align with the victors in battle or to preserve her own life and honor — to show forth God’s glory. “Her motives remain a mystery. All we know is that God used Jael for the purpose of defeating Israel’s enemy, no matter what her motives were.” (782)
In all three of these underdog stories—in increasing measure as the story develops—-we are meant to cheer and celebrate God’s answer to the Israelites’ prayer for deliverance. Even when it upsets power differentials based on weapons of war. Even when it upsets assumptions about who does what, the roles and responsibilities of God’s people. Even when it involves outsiders seemingly for their own inscrutable reasons. God is at work in strange ways, strange times and strange places. “As the people of God, we can be confident that God is at work in and through our lives and communities to accomplish God’s will, even when we may be unaware. Indeed, God may work through outsiders or those on the margin of our community in ways we would never expect.” (783)
*all quotations come from the New Interpreter’s Bible, unless otherwise specified.
In recent years, the Disney company has started telling the story of unlikely heroes — not knights in shining armor but Rapunzel rescuing herself from that tower, Moana stepping up to lead her people, Mulan the valiant warrior. A Disney princess is no longer a damsel in distress waiting to be rescued or kissed or loved by Prince Charming. She is a leader like Deborah, forging her own path and, often, finding companionship and/or romantic love along the way. While each of these stories is unique, they find some resonance with Jael’s subversive “feminine wiles” and Deborah’s courageous leadership in a story far older than Disney, the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson.
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