Thinking. Deborah the Judge
I gave a talk on Deborah from the book of Judges this morning. Here is the transcript.
For years I thought God was very inefficient. I had heard all my life that the Bible was a guidebook for life. It seemed to me that God could have saved a lot on paper and printing and reading time if he’d just sifted out the important bits like “God is good. He’s powerful.” and put them down in a couple of chapters of bullet points. The speed reader’s guide to God.
It’s ironic that I thought that because the dream of my life has always been to be a writer and to tell stories. Stories are what breathe life into theories and bullet points. Bullet points are fine, but stories are the way God really shows us how he works.
We learn very early on how to tell stories. We start by introducing the setting and the characters. Then we add a complication and we follow the development of the characters through to the resolution. And then of course, everyone lives happily ever after. Actually – that’s my son James’ favourite bit of any story.
If you had read the Bible from the beginning to the book of Judges, you would think you were about to hit the ‘happily ever after’ bit.
The original characters are God and his people.
The setting? Well, the people go against God, so he makes promises to them and says he’ll bring them back to himself. He gets on well with Abraham and makes some promises to him. Abraham’s family grows and the people of Israel come into being.
Now here’s the complication: the people of Israel become slaves in Egypt. But don’t worry – there’s a resolution. God rescues them from Egypt, they wander in the desert, and then God gives them the land that he had promised to give them long ago.
So at this point, you would think, it should be the happily ever after bit. The people are back with God, and he’s fulfilled his promises to them.
Except that it didn’t happen that way. The people, even after being rescued from Egypt, still don’t want to follow God all the time. They want to do ‘what’s right in their own eyes’. And they keep getting into trouble.
It’s kind of like the storybook character Cinderella. We all know she marries her prince, but we don’t realise that actually she has a compulsive gambling problem. Her life isn’t happily ever after. There’s a lot more that’s going on in her life and her marriage.
Judges tells a repetitive story that’s anything but happily ever after.
What happens (in bullet points) is that
- · a generation goes by
- · and the Israelites forget about God,
- · and they start following the gods of the people around them.
- · So, God gets angry,
- · he allows the people around them to oppress them.
- · Life is very very hard for a period of time,
- · and then the people start to cry out to God again.
- · So he raises up a judge or a deliverer, or a warlord as one book puts it,
- · and they defeat their enemies
- · and have peace in the land,
- · and then it all starts all over again. 12 times in total in the book of Judges.
So the story of Deborah is really a mini-story in the megastory of the Bible.
We are reintroduced to the characters – the people of Israel, and God at the beginning. In a very familiar way.
v1 Again, the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord...now that Ehud (the judge) was dead.
What are the characters like? They are imperfect people. The people of Israel are not the heroes of the story by any means. In fact they are almost the anti-heroes– forgetful of God, weak in their faith, easily swayed by things around them, and as we go on in the story, very, very fearful.
Here’s the new character. The people feared the evil villain of the piece – Sisera, the commander of the army of Canaan. He had more firepower and more weapons and more strength than they did. Three or four times throughout this story we are told about the 900 chariots WITH IRON that he was commander of. It’s supposed to be scary.
The words that describe what Sisera did to the people are ‘cruelly oppressed’.
It’s not fun. The people look around them for help and it occurs to them that the God they used to follow just might have something to say about what is happening to them. And they cry out to him.
And, just as God has done before, he hears them. And he raises up a deliverer in a very unlikely person.
What do we know about Deborah?
Most obviously, she’s a woman. Living in a man’s world. As in most tribal societies, women generally have a very subservient and unpublic role.
So the fact that Deborah is introduced as ‘a prophet’ first, before her husband’s name is given, shows just how unusual she is. Hubby disappears into the background of this story very quickly. She has a public role, albeit unofficial, settling disputes for Israelites and giving general guidance to the tribes. People sought her out for help.
She must have been considered wise, authoritative, special, charismatic. She must have been confident to take on such a role, normally very taboo for a woman.
Most of all, though, I think she must have had great confidence and faith in God.
A prophet in the OT is someone who speaks the words of God to the people. We don’t know anything about how this began for her – in Isaiah and Jeremiah we are told a bit about their beginnings – but we meet Deborah as an established prophet who is looked up to by the people. So she must have had a great knowledge of God and an experience of hearing him that left her completely certain about whom she was serving and how she was to serve.
And who was she serving?
Well, the God of her tribes and nation.
The God who made promises to her ancestors, and the God who delivered her people from slavery, the God who led them to this land and promised to give it to them.
The God who had given his people crazy victories over the peoples around them – like Jericho. The God who had spoken clearly to his people and had his words recorded for posterity.
The God who had said what would happen if his people followed other Gods, and whose words were coming true. And the God who had raised her up and who spoke to her.
She knew that he was a God of history, of promises, of power. She knew that what he says, he does. She knew that he wanted to save his people.
How does the story unfold?
Deborah sends for Barak – that’s how much authority she has. She tells him that God has a plan. He’s going to rescue his people from cruel Sisera and his 900 iron chariots. In fact, he’s going to ‘give’ them to Barak. All Barak has to do is take 10,000 men up the mountain.
It might sound straightforward to Deborah, but Barak has a fumble. He says, “If you go with me, I’ll go. But if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.”
Some people call this him being weak and faithless. Other people call it him recognising the voice of God in Deborah and wanting that voice to be beside him.
You can call it what you will, but in the end, the condition he puts on his obedience means that he loses the glory of being the ‘sole’ leader of the battle.
I guess it’s kind of like the guy who beat the 100m world record recently. He’s a massive hero and is feted around the world for his victory. But if he’d said to his coach, “I can’t do it without you. You’ve got to be waiting at the finish line for me so I can see you there,” his victory wouldn’t just be him alone. Both of them would be doing the lap of honour.
In the end, Barak had faith. He did what he was given to do, and he beat Sisera, but he didn’t get that lap of honour all to himself. Ironically, another woman in the story got the kudos for ahem, banging a tent peg into Sisera’s head. But that’s a whole other part of the story, and you can talk about that later.
So the battle happens. The 10,000 men go up with Barak and Deborah to the mountain and when Sisera hears about it, he rallies his 900 iron chariots (said for the third time, just to make the point) and headed out to the plains next to the river.
In verse 14, Deborah gives the order to “Go! God is going to save us today!” and Barak leads the army down the hill straight into the waiting horde of chariots.
Now it’s not clear in this part of the narrative just HOW God routed Sisera and all his chariots, but chapter five sheds a little light on it.
Verses 4 says ‘the earth shook, the heavens poured, the clouds poured down water’ and verse 21 says ‘The river Kishon swept them away!’
It seems there was a massive thunderstorm. The rain made the ground so soggy that the iron (heavy) chariots couldn’t go anywhere, and the river rose and swept everything away.
All the Israelites had to do was to go and get the panicking Canaanites. They didn’t have to fight the chariots. They didn’t have to worry about the numbers. They just had to be there and do what God told them to do. He did all the rest.
The story goes on. Sisera is killed. The victory goes to Barak and Deborah and of course, the tentpeg wielding housewife. And the Israelites have peace for 40 years.
And that’s not the end of the story. That’s what happens in chapter 4. What happens in chapter 5 is that Deborah sings a song (a long one, it must be said), detailing everything that happened. Then it’s the end of the story.
What becomes clear about God through this story?
Firstly, he didn’t forget his people. Amazing really if you consider all the other times they had mucked him about so far in the bigger story.
Yes, they suffered because they disobeyed and he was angry, but when they cried out to him he raised up Deborah and then Barak and delivered them. He did what he said he would do.
Second, he was the main player. He didn’t save his people by setting them up with weapons that could outdo the 900 iron chariots of the Canaanites. He didn’t set up training camps and rally massive numbers of soldiers.
He delivered them by using a woman, a prevaricating general, another woman who wasn’t even an Israelite, and a thunderstorm. He thumbed his nose at their upto date technology and their superior strength and numbers and their fearsome reputation and their ego, dumped some rain on them and swept them away.
There’s no way Barak or Deborah could have achieved that victory. It was effortless. It was ridiculous. It was unmistakably him. God is main player in this whole story. He is the do-er. The actor. The hero.
What becomes clear about Deborah?
Deborah is a great deliverer.
- · She doesn’t waver from her conviction about what she knows is right, and what she knows her task to be.
- · She’s clear about her message.
- · She encourages Barak and strengthens him with the words of God.
- · She doesn’t let the fact that she’s a nobody because she’s a woman hold her back from God’s job.
What else becomes clear about her is something that distinguishes her from every other warlord or deliverer in the book of Judges.
- · She stops to give praise and thanks to God after its all over. She praises him in detail. She goes over the story. She recounts what happened. She brings it to life for everyone – even the ones who weren’t there – so that the whole people of Israel can share in the joy and excitement.
- · She also really loves her people and she’s happy to inspire others to do what God wants them to do. She’s really not in this leadership thing to make herself look good. She says in verse 9: “My heart is with Israel’s princes, with the willing volunteers amongst the people. Praise the Lord!”
This is what Deborah has been doing this for – God’s glory. God used her – a nobody- and she gives it all right back to God with praise and joy.
What becomes clear about the people?
They can’t save themselves. They can’t fight the big battles. They are helpless on their own. They are not the hero of the story.
Yes, they cried out to God in their pain and distress, but they only stood up to fight when God brought them a leader speaking the clear words of God. Once that happened, many of them did ‘willingly offer themselves’ as it says in ch5 v2.
But by the end, the people also have a story to tell.
They have a story about their unmistakeable, powerful God who singlehandedly beat the biggest power they had ever seen.
They had a God who had delivered them from the craven fear they held onto that meant they snuck around the backstreets and held back from really living in the land that God had given them.
They have a story about a God who lifted oppression from their backs and showed them how to live.
They have a story about a God who raised up faithful leaders who motivated the people to act.
And they have confidence for the future because they’ve seen what their God can do in the present and the past.
Is it over?
The story of Deborah appears to have resolution. God saves the people and there are 40 years of peace after the victory over Sisera. That’s nice.
Is that the happily ever after? Unfortunately not, as you can see there’s still a whole inch and a half of the Bible to read through.
So, if the book of Judges is not the ‘happily ever after’, then when is the happily ever after?
This rescue – the physical rescue of his people suffering under cruel oppression, using Deborah, a person who appears to be a nobody- is a picture of the grace that is described in the Bible.
The whole Bible goes on to make the point that physical rescue is not enough.
The rescue that we people – who are the same as the weak, pathetic, easily swayed Israelites - really need is not rescue from physical oppression, even though that is awful.
The rescue we really need is the rescue from our sin – from the neverending desire and energy to do things our own way – to do ‘what is right in our own eyes’. It’s sin that kept the Israelites going their own way and forgetting about God and getting into trouble. God could rescue them a thousand times from their physical enemies, but in the end, it only was a temporary save.
The permanent rescue that God went on to do, was a rescue of our hearts, and that is the rescue that Jesus effected when he died on the cross and rose again 2000 years ago, and that is what the whole Old Testament points to, and paints pictures of.
When we see God rescue his people here in Judges, in such a ridiculously crazy manner that it is unmistakeably him, we see a picture of what he has done for us through Jesus, which is also ridiculously crazy and unmistakeably him.
Jesus appeared to be a nobody. He died on the cross – a seemingly ridiculous act if you’re going to do a rescue – and rose again, so that people who believe in him could have our sins permanently forgiven.
Through what Jesus did, we can become new people from the inside out. God changes us. He does it. We can’t do it. There’s no way we can say that what has happened to us has been because we were good, or clever or well-educated, or positive-thinkers, or whatever else is the way people think we become better these days.
So telling a story is one thing. What can we take away from this story for ourselves, this week and in our lives? I’ve got four ‘We Can’s’ in bullet points which might help.
- · We can remember God. What he’s done in the past and in our lives. We can, as a Christian people – and as a church – recount our stories of God and tell them again and again. They gives us strength and encouragement
- · We can be more like Deborah and less like Barak – believe the words of God outright - without conditions.
- · We can willingly offer ourselves to God’s work – even when we think we are ‘nobody’ like Deborah - and praise the Lord.
- · We can be ready to fight. The people of Israel faced a monstrous power with 900 chariots. What is the power we face today? Well, the Bible in Ephesians says the power that we are really fighting against is not flesh and blood but the principalities and evil powers of the world.
The people of Israel had no idea what to do about the power they were facing. But we are in a much better position than them. Ephesians tells us that we are to put on the armour of God. We are to be present like the Israelites were on the mountain, dressed in the armor, willing and ready. We might not have to do much. Who knows what thunderstorms God can whisper up ahead of us. At the end, all we have to do, together, and like Deborah, is to hear, obey and stand for God.