The book of Judges covers a time period after Joshua’s death and before the anointing of Saul as king. The book is named after the central characters, the judges. The term “judges” is broader than the meaning we associate with it today. Judges are portrayed as tribal leaders who became regional leaders and delivered their people from oppression. Some are portrayed as military leaders, others lone warriors, some are shown as prophets while others are priests, others are more like what we mean by the term judge, that is, one who sits in judgement. The acts of some are not identified.
The book of Judges can be characterized by a repeated cycle;
- the Israelite people sin – they do evil and abandon God,
- God punishes them by raising up foreign leaders – oppressors,
- The Israelites cry out to God to deliver them from the oppressors,
- God hears their cries, takes pity on them and raises up a judge to deliver them,
- When the judge dies the Israelites return to their old ways and so they cycle repeats.
People who have been in abusive relationships or have understanding of how abusive relationships work may recognise this pattern – blame – punish – forgive. One may question if forgiveness after punishment, is really forgiveness at all? Is it just vengeance? It is not the forgiveness or grace that I see in the teaching and life of Jesus.
Like the book of Joshua, which we looked at last week, Judges was written during the time of the exile in Babylon. While it was based on the oral traditions it was written through a lens of the context of the time. That context was an acceptance that they had failed God and were being punished and while we might question some of that today, the questions they were asking were:
“has God forsaken and forgotten us?”
“will God forgive us?”
If we view the cycle in this context, the repetition of God delivering the people from oppression is a story of hope. A reminder that God has not forsaken them. These stories tell the exiles to pray, and their loving God will hear their prayers and send another deliverer. God has done it and God will do it again!
The Judges 4 narrative begins with the death of Israel’s previous judge (Ehud) which then leads to the first stage of the judges cycle: “the Israelites again did what was evil” (Judges 4:1). As a consequence, God allowed the Canaanites led by a Canaanite general named Sisera to oppress the Israelites. Against this powerful enemy, Israel cried out to God for help. Following the pattern God would raise up a judge to deliver them but there is an interesting twist in the plot as the drama revolves around trying to decide which of the characters is the real “judge” that God has sent to deliver the Israelites.
The four main characters are:
- an Israelite woman; named Deborah, the first major character in the story,
- an Israelite military general named Barak,
- a non-Israelite woman named Jael and
- a Canaanite military general named Sisera
Deborah is the first one introduced to us. We are told three things about Deborah in Judges 4:4: first, she is a prophet, second, she is married, and third, she is a judge. Of these three we can be sure of two; in the famous words of Meatloaf, two out of three ain’t bad. The one in question is whether or not she was married. In Hebrew there is no word for “wife”. What we translate as “wife” in our English versions comes from the Hebrew word “woman”. So “wife of Lappidoth” could also be “woman of Lappidoth,” and “Lappidoth” could refer to a place rather than a man. Another option is that it is describing Deborah’s character as the word “lappidoth” means “torch,” or “lightning,” so Deborah could be a “fiery woman.”
Deborah is an adjudicator but also the Bible’s first woman prophet. Again, the word prophet has a different meaning in the Hebrew and biblical sense than its commonly understood meaning of today. Many people today think a prophet is someone with mystical or God given powers that allow them to see the future. The biblical understanding however is an inspired teacher or proclaimer of the will of God, someone who speaks the word of God. Deborah summons a military leader named Barak from the tribe of Naphtali. As a prophet, she conveyed to general Barak a divine command to gather troops against Sisera and his Canaanite army; “The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you, ‘Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun.” (Judges 4:6). She also communicates a divine promise: “I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.” (Judges 4:7).
At this point, the reader might think that it is not Deborah who is the “judge” after all but perhaps Barak better fits that title. He is after all a male military leader like the previous judges in chapter 3. But in just the next verse Barak insists that Deborah go with him to lead in the battle: “if you will not go with me, I will not go” (Judges 4:8). Deborah agrees to go but warns Barak that the battle will not lead to his glory for “the LORD will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” A woman? Aha! Perhaps Deborah is the “judge” after all?
But as we continue to read, a new and unlikely contender for hero and judge emerges. Her name is Jael, a non-Israelite, wife of Heber the “Kenite”. “Kenite” is an ethnic identification as well as a word meaning “smith” or worker of iron. Jael is related to Hobab, the father-in-law of Moses (Judges 1:16). So, the reader might initially assume Jael is Israel’s ally. As an iron smith, however, Jael’s husband apparently helped craft the hundreds of iron chariots for Sisera’s army. That connection may explain why Sisera went into Jael’s tent with such confidence seeking security as he fled from his defeated army (Judges 4:17). So whose side is Jael on — Israel or Canaan? The answer comes through a sharp tent peg and a pinging hammer blow to the head of Sisera!
Human culture often worships singular human heroes. Think of all the superheros of comic strips; eg Batman, Superman, and Spiderman. Some have side-kicks, but often they are lone rangers. Judges 4 offers another way — interdependence and shared responsibility in reaching a common goal. God works by creating a network of different and often unlikely human agents in order to accomplish the purposes of God. Deborah, Barak, and Jael are brought together by God. Just as the reader of Judges 4 may in the end not be sure who the true “judge” is in the story, so we may not always be aware of the multiple and sometimes unknown ways in which God is guiding individuals or communities to God’s larger goals.
- What unlikely people have you seen God use to work God’s will?
- Have any of these people not been Christian?
- What does this mean as we continue to seek to do God’s will ourselves?
The following chapter tells the same story this time in the form of a song. The “Song of Deborah” has long been recognized as one of the oldest poems in the entire Bible. Within the lyrics of this song is a picture that would resonate with many a mother whose son was off in battle somewhere. The mother of Commander Sisera worries, “Why is he so late in coming home?” This struck a chord with me this week as we also commemorated Remembrance Day on Wednesday and thought of all of those who were lost in battle, the grieving mothers and wives, the lost brothers, sons and husbands and all brothers and sisters lost through war.
Rev Tammy Hollands