Sermon: Deborah the Judge

This sermon was written and preached by the Rev. Miranda Hassett in November of 2014. 

The Parable of the Talents is an important and, I believe, often mis-read parable of Jesus, which has a lot to say to the church in this age and in every age. And… I’m not going to talk about it today. I may talk about it next week; I make no promises. But I am confident that if you keep hanging around churches, you will hear a sermon on the Parable of the Talents. Maybe even a good one.

In the meantime… I’m going to tell you a story.  A story that, unlike this parable, doesn’t get told in church very often.

The narrative comes from the fourth chapter of the Book of Judges; the poetry, which is very old indeed, perhaps among the oldest texts preserved in the Bible, comes from the fifth chapter.


God’s people had come into the land of Canaan, the land promised to them by God. Their great general Joshua had warned them: God will not tolerate divided loyalties.  Serve and worship God only, and observe the Law and the Covenant – or worship the false gods of your ancestors, and the idols of the neighboring peoples; but if you do both, you’ll be sorry.  And the people cried out, The Lord our God we will serve and obey!

But then the Israelites entered the promised land. They lived side by side with the Canaanite tribes. They took Canaanite girls as wives for their sons, and Canaanite boys as husbands for their daughters. And they began to worship Canaanite gods, Baal and Asherah and many others, forgetting the Lord their God who had freed them from bondage in Egypt and made them a holy people.

So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel; and God gave them over into the hands of their enemies. They were conquered by the king of Aram, and when they had gained their freedom, they were conquered by the king of Moab, and when they had gained their freedom, they were conquered by the king of Canaan, King Jabin, whose general was named Sisera. Sisera had nine hundred iron chariots, and he oppressed the Israelites cruelly for twenty years.

In these days Israel had no king. Instead the Lord raised up Judges,  who ruled the people in God’s name, dealt with their disputes, and led them in battle. The Judges called by God delivered the people Israel from the power of those who plundered them. Yet they did not listen even to their judges; for they bowed down to other gods, and turned aside from faithfulness to the commandments of God. Whenever God raised up judges for them, the judge would lead the people to freedom; for God would be moved to pity by their groaning because of those who persecuted and oppressed them. But whenever the judge died, the people would relapse and behave worse than their ancestors, following other gods, and returning to their stubborn ways. It was Othniel the Judge who led Israel to freedom from Aram. It was Ehud the Judge who led Israel to freedom from Moab. And then came Deborah.

In those days Deborah the Prophet was judging Israel. Ignore the fictional husband Lappidoth named in our Bible translation; the Hebrew words there mean, literally, a woman of flame. This fiery prophetess used to sit under a particular palm tree  that bore her name for generations to come, between the towns of Ramah and Bethel; and the Israelites would come up to her for judgment. She is the only female judge recorded in the Bible; the people Israel were strongly patriarchal.  But it is precisely in times like these, times of chaos, conquest, disorder and struggle, when unusual leaders sometimes rise and shine.

Deborah the prophet, Deborah the woman of flame, Deborah the Mother of Israel, sent and summoned Barak, whose name means Lightning, from his home in Kedesh. And she said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, Gather ten thousand fighters. God will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Kishon channel. And God will give him over into your hand.”

And Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” And she said, “I will surely go with you; but this road will not lead to your glory – for it is the will of God to give Sisera into the hands of a woman.”

Then Deborah rose up and went with Barak; they gathered their army, and marched to the channel of Kishon.

Awake, awake, Deborah! Awake, awake, utter a song!
Arise, Barak, lead away your captives. Then down marched the remnant of a great people;  the people of the Lord marched down for him against their mighty foes. 

When Sisera, the Canaanite general, heard that Barak had gathered an army against him, he called out all his chariots, nine hundred chariots of iron,  and all the troops that served King Jabin. And they, too, marched to the channel at Kishon. Then Deborah said to Barak, ‘Up! For this is the day on which the Lord has given Sisera into your hand. The Lord is indeed going out before you.’ So Barak arose against Sisera, with ten thousand warriors following him. And the Lord threw Sisera and all his chariots and all his army into a panic before Barak; Sisera got down from his chariot and fled away on foot, while Barak pursued the chariots and the army to the city of Harosheth. All the army of Sisera fell by the sword; not one was left.

Even the stars fought from heaven, from their places in the sky they fought against Sisera.  The torrent Kishon swept away the enemy,  the onrushing torrent, the torrent Kishon.  March on, my soul, with might! 

Now in this region was the homestead of a man named Heber, who belonged to the Kenite clan,  neither of Israel nor of Canaan. Heber was not at home; his wife Jael was there, alone. And the general of Canaan, Sisera, running away from Barak’s army, came to the tent of Heber,  the tent of Jael. There was peace between King Jabin and the Kenites, so Sisera hoped for safety here.  Jael came out to meet him; she said, “Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me! Have no fear.”

So Sisera came into her tent, and lay down, for he was weary; and she covered him with a rug. Then he said to her, ‘Please give me a little water to drink;  for I am thirsty.’  So she opened a flask of milk and gave him a drink and tucked him in.  He said to her, ‘Stand at the entrance of the tent, and if anybody comes and asks you, “Is there a man in here?” you say, “No.” ’

And so Sisera rested, believing he had found safety.

And then Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite, took a tent-peg in one hand, and a mallet in the other hand.  She went softly to Sisera, the general, who lay fast asleep from weariness.  And she drove the tent peg into his head, until it went down into the ground.

Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, of tent-dwelling women most blessed! He asked for water and she gave him milk, she brought him curds in a lordly bowl.  She put her hand to the tent-peg and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet; she struck Sisera a blow, she crushed his head,  she shattered his temple. At her feet he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell dead. 

Then Barak came, seeking Sisera, and Jael went out to him, and said, “Come, and I will show you the man whom you seek.” So he went into her tent; and there was Sisera, lying dead.

The Song of Deborah, that ancient, ancient text, imagines the false confidence  of the fallen general’s mother, awaiting his return:

Out of the window peers Sisera’s mother,
  she gazes out through the lattice:
“Why is his chariot so long in coming?
   Why do I not hear the hoofbeats of his chariots?”

Her wisest ladies make answer,
   indeed, she answers the question herself:
“Oh, they are finding and dividing the spoil—
   A girl or two for every man;
plunder of dyed fabrics for Sisera to bring home to me,
     a scarf of dyed and embroidered fabric for my neck as the spoils of war.” So on that day God subdued King Jabin of Canaan. So perish all your enemies, O Lord!   But may your friends be like the sun as it rises in its might. 

And the land had rest for forty years,

Have you heard this story before?

I know neither of our Sunday school programs include it in their selected texts. And our lectionary gives us just enough to give us the warm feeling of seeing a woman in leadership, without the discomfort of seeing a woman on the front lines in battle, or another woman offering hospitality to a fugitive, then killing him in cold blood.

It’s a pity, really, that this isn’t the week for a children’s sermon; I could have brought in a tent peg, a mallet, and a melon.

Why don’t we know this story? It’s exciting! It has God delivering God’s people from oppression! It has not one but two strong women in it!  Why does it stay hidden away in the shadows? What makes it hard for us to read this as a story for us, for our times?

For one thing, I think we feel distant from the mindset of the story. This is a time in Israel’s history when they understood their relationship with God in entirely political terms. When they are conquered by their enemies, that means God is angry at them; when they are free, God has forgiven them and accepted them back into God’s favor. It seems barbaric to us on the face of it; but are we really so different? Are we not tempted to feel abandoned by God when our political party loses or our cause fails, and justified by God when our party wins or our cause advances?

If Deborah lived today,  a courageous and plain-spoken woman, calling reluctant male leaders to step up and do what needs to be done for the welfare of God’s people – if Deborah lived today, my Facebook feed would be full of artsy photos of her face, alongside pithy quotations from her speeches. We can love Deborah easily enough, even if, as good progressive 21st-century Christians, we’re a little uncomfortable with the rush to a military solution.

But… Jael. What do we do with Jael? The woman with the blanket, the milk, and the bloody tent peg?

If you were filming this story, would you cast her as young and lovely, seductive? Or middle-aged and motherly, the archetype of security and comfort?  And when the actress asks, What’s my motivation?what would you say?  You have secret loyalties to Israel and Israel’s God?  You fear that this general may abuse you, when he wakes from sleep, and you’re acting in preemptive self-defense? Or – maybe most credibly – you guess, seeing the Canaanite general running for his life,  that Israel has won the battle, and you’d like the new sheriff in town to think of you as a friend and ally.

The Song of Deborah, in Judges 5, calls Jael, “Most blessed among women.” That phrase is used three times in the Bible. First for Jael, who murders Sisera. Second for Judith, a woman of Israel who becomes a hero for beheading an enemy commander and freeing her city. And third… for Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Most blessed among women: Jael, Judith, and Mary.  Which of these things is not like the others?…

In a few weeks the stories of Mary will come to us in the lectionary; in a few weeks we’ll be surrounded by images of Mary, sweet-faced, mild, and gentle, on Christmas cards and nativity scenes.  We will say & sing together her holy song, the Magnificat:  God has shown the strength of God’s mighty arm, God has scattered the proud, brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly!

Maybe as we say those words,  this year, every year, we should remember the company Mary keeps, the other women blessed by Scripture: Jael and Judith, liberators and murderers. As followers of Christ  who calls us to love our enemies, we can hardly endorse their violent actions; but as followers of Christ we are also sometimes too prone to forget that nice is different than good.

Maybe we should see in Mary’s serene face, not just sweetness and innocence,  but the bone-deep determination of a young woman saying Yes to a new world, whatever it may demand from her and those she loves.  Maybe we should hear in her song the fierce hope that calls on the power of God and the faltering courage of humans to rise, to act,  to seize the moment and strike the blow, for the cause of freedom and the wellbeing of all God’s children.

Maybe we should hear in Mary’s words the echoes of a much, much older song,   the song of Barak, Deborah, and Jael:

March on, my soul, with might!