This mini sermon series was inspired by the excellent commentary in this challenging book: “God of Justice and Mercy: A Theological Commentary on Judges” by Isabelle Hamley.
Judges 4 (NLT)
4 After Ehud’s death, the Israelites again did evil in the Lord’s sight. 2 So the Lord turned them over to King Jabin of Hazor, a Canaanite king. The commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-haggoyim. 3 Sisera, who had 900 iron chariots, ruthlessly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years. Then the people of Israel cried out to the Lord for help.
4 Deborah, the wife of Lappidoth, was a prophet who was judging Israel at that time. 5 She would sit under the Palm of Deborah, between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites would go to her for judgment. 6 One day she sent for Barak son of Abinoam, who lived in Kedesh in the land of Naphtali. She said to him, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: Call out 10,000 warriors from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun at Mount Tabor. 7 And I will call out Sisera, commander of Jabin’s army, along with his chariots and warriors, to the Kishon River. There I will give you victory over him.”
8 Barak told her, “I will go, but only if you go with me.”
9 “Very well,” she replied, “I will go with you. But you will receive no honor in this venture, for the Lord’s victory over Sisera will be at the hands of a woman.” So Deborah went with Barak to Kedesh. 10 At Kedesh, Barak called together the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, and 10,000 warriors went up with him. Deborah also went with him.
11 Now Heber the Kenite, a descendant of Moses’ brother-in-law[a] Hobab, had moved away from the other members of his tribe and pitched his tent by the oak of Zaanannim near Kedesh.
12 When Sisera was told that Barak son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor, 13 he called for all 900 of his iron chariots and all of his warriors, and they marched from Harosheth-haggoyim to the Kishon River.
14 Then Deborah said to Barak, “Get ready! This is the day the Lord will give you victory over Sisera, for the Lord is marching ahead of you.” So Barak led his 10,000 warriors down the slopes of Mount Tabor into battle. 15 When Barak attacked, the Lord threw Sisera and all his chariots and warriors into a panic. Sisera leaped down from his chariot and escaped on foot. 16 Then Barak chased the chariots and the enemy army all the way to Harosheth-haggoyim, killing all of Sisera’s warriors. Not a single one was left alive.
17 Meanwhile, Sisera ran to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, because Heber’s family was on friendly terms with King Jabin of Hazor. 18 Jael went out to meet Sisera and said to him, “Come into my tent, sir. Come in. Don’t be afraid.” So he went into her tent, and she covered him with a blanket.
19 “Please give me some water,” he said. “I’m thirsty.” So she gave him some milk from a leather bag and covered him again.
20 “Stand at the door of the tent,” he told her. “If anybody comes and asks you if there is anyone here, say no.”
21 But when Sisera fell asleep from exhaustion, Jael quietly crept up to him with a hammer and tent peg in her hand. Then she drove the tent peg through his temple and into the ground, and so he died.
22 When Barak came looking for Sisera, Jael went out to meet him. She said, “Come, and I will show you the man you are looking for.” So he followed her into the tent and found Sisera lying there dead, with the tent peg through his temple.
23 So on that day Israel saw God defeat Jabin, the Canaanite king. 24 And from that time on Israel became stronger and stronger against King Jabin until they finally destroyed him.
The book of Judges is one of the most challenging in the Bible. If it was a film, it would definitely get an 18 certificate due to the unsettling amounts of violence. As it is, I have chosen the excerpts we will be using over the next three weeks carefully, avoiding some of the most disturbing passages. It is impossible to avoid violence altogether. As I introduce it, you might wonder why I am even attempting to preach on it? Why, you might ask, is it in the Bible at all? And how can this book about warring tribes in the Bronze Age have anything to say to us now?
Well, 3000 years have passed and much has changed in the world, but sadly human nature hasn’t, and so this book which charts the slow unravelling of the early Israelite community is a cautionary tale to us all. It is also a book which tells us something about God – although not always what the characters in the book expect. So let’s pray that as we explore the overarching story of Judges that God speaks to us afresh through the gift of this ancient tale.
The book of Judges is set in the generations following Joshua. Through Joshua, the Israelites claim the land that God had promised to them; the land that was essential for their survival. But they did not complete the task God had given them in driving out the other tribes from their new homeland. Now, we might not see a problem with this – peaceful coexistence with those who are different to ourselves is something we value. However, this was a different stage in God’s revelation to the world. God had chosen them to be people in covenant with God, not simply for their own benefit but so that the whole world might know God. People were to look at Israel and see what human living could be under the care and guiding of God. They were to be distinctive, a living example. In mixing with other tribes, adopting some of their practices and customs, the Israelites were failing in their God-given purpose. The God of Heaven and Earth ran the risk of being regarded as one god among the many tribal gods of that society. In those days, you had gods you offered to for the harvest and gods you offered to when you needed victory in battle. It was slot-machine spirituality – you put your offering in, you get divine favour out. But God is not a slot-machine deity – God is the Lord Almighty – and God desired so much more than that for humanity. God was inviting Israel into a covenant relationship of trust and honour with a God beyond their wildest imaginings, and through them to bless the entire world.
Sadly, the Israelites struggled to grasp this, and so the book of Judges consist of a series of cycles – or rather cycles on a downward spiral, which look something like this: The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, frequently worshipping other local gods. God allows the tribes around them to oppress them. The people cry out to God in distress. God raises up a Judge from the people to be God’s agent and deliver Israel. There is a victory and the land has rest.
This story of Deborah and Barak has many of those features. We are told that after Ehud, the previous Judge, had died, the people did evil in the sight of the Lord. So God allowed King Jabin from a neighbouring Canaanite tribe to oppress them cruelly. The detail about 900 iron chariots shows that the enemy army have the technological advantage over the Israelites. Finally the Israelites cried out to their God. And according to the formula for these tales, God hears them and raises up a judge or deliverer – Deborah.
Consistently throughout the book of Judges, those raised up by God to lead tend to be unexpected characters, and Deborah is no different. It was a male dominated society, and she was a women, yet Deborah was a prophet and leader who had the confidence and trust of her people. God called her to lead them in this time of crisis. She in turn calls Barak to help her in this task, and he invites her to accompany him to battle. Over many years, I have heard sermons about how this made Barak weak, faithless or not a proper man. However, the text does not say this. Deborah’s warning that he will not be given the credit possibly says more about society than the man. The reality is that Deborah and Barak together make a strong team and through them, God delivers Israel. They gather men from three of the tribes of Israel and together they face the might of Sisera’s army. The narrator by emphasising that they faced all Sisera’s chariots and all his warriors makes it clear that they are still outgunned and outmanned. But God has promised victory, and trusting God and Deborah, the troops advance and defeat the enemy army resoundingly.
And so to Sisera’s disastrous escape. He flees to the tent of a Kenite woman. Kenites were outsiders in this fight – distant relations of the Israelites through Moses’ father-in-law but in recent times had been allies of King Jabin. Sisera assumes that the loyalty of the head of the household will bind the rest of his household and expects sanctuary. He has no thought for how his arrival might affect Jael. If she doesn’t welcome him, he could be violent towards her. If the men he is fleeing find him in her tent, they might be violent to her. He has no concept of her as an equal, an agent in this story. He has no insight that her loyalties might be more complex than he expects. He sees her as an object without power, someone he can use and command to his ends. His arrogance was fatal.
Jael was not a warrior, but in nomadic communities the womenfolk put up the tents. She would be handy with a tent peg and mallet. She uses the skills she has to protect herself and her tribe. When Sisera’s pursuers do find him, she has ensured her family’s safety.
The loss of Sisera and this defeat in battle also marks a turning point for Israelite freedom. After a song of triumph sung by Deborah and Barak in the following chapter, the story concludes with the final part of the cycle: the land had rest for forty years.
So what might this story have for us three thousand years on? Well, this story comes from the beginning of Judges. The Israelites have not entirely forgotten the days of Moses and Joshua and they remember the covenant – even if most often only when they are in a mess. And there are hopeful signs for this society in spite of their mistakes. They recognise God at work in Deborah, despite her womanhood, respect her and seek her counsel. They trust her ministry enough to face a terrifyingly advanced – for their day – army. Multiple Israelite tribes forget any rivalry to work together for their freedom. Women and men work together to deliver Israel. Even the vulnerable outsider, Jael, has a vital part to play.
I suppose if there is a word that captures the best of that society it is relationship. However imperfectly, the Israelites are in relationship with their God. More importantly, their God – the God of Heaven and Earth – does not forget his relationship with them. Women and men exhibit respectful relationships and work well together. (The one man who doesn’t, Sisera, meets a sticky end.) The tribes of Israel are in relationship and can call on one another for help in times of crisis. And lastly, those who live on the margins, who are other, are included in God’s work of deliverance.
3000 years on what makes for healthy society is exactly the same: relationship. Relationship with God, who is always seeking relationship with us. Respectful relationships between women and men, but also between different ages, races and sexual identities, between those who are rich and those who are poor, between those who are disabled and their able-bodied neighbours. Supportive relationships with others who are working to the same ends – in Bronze Age Canaan, these were the fellow Israelite tribes, but what might they be today? The community groups who also seek the wellbeing of our community; the schools which work to bless our young people; the sister and brother churches that try to share the Gospel, our friends of other faiths who seek peace and wellbeing for all. And always relationship and respect for the outsider, the marginalised, the ones it is too easy to overlook or use for our own ends – for God is often found at work there.
In an increasingly divided world, valuing our relationships with others can be a way in which we become that distinctive living example those early Israelites were called to be. The quality of our relationships can be a way in which we bless the world. But it all flows from our relationship with God, who is both one and a community of three persons in loving, mutual, respectful relationship. The God who at God’s very core is relationship invites us to join in that aspect of God’s nature and so share something of God with the world.
So some questions for you this week:
How is your relationship with God?
How are your relationships with your friends and families?
What might you want to consider doing differently?
Next week, we will be looking at the story of Abimelech and what happens when all those relationships begin to unravel…