In seventh grade at a weekend retreat for FCA, a young leader with probably 16 years of life experience said something to me like, “You know, there is a Deborah in the Bible.” Before I could even get the profound words, “Oh cool” passed my lips, he concluded,”Yea, she killed a guy with a stake and a hammer.” Oh...NOT Cool. So that pretty much killed my interest in this Deborah of the Bible. Some years later, when I was exploring seminary, my pastor gave me a book with images of women leaders in the Bible and one image depicted Deborah weaving baskets. Which seems nice, right? But not true. None of it. She is not a basket weaver and she never killed a guy with a tent stake...someone else in her story did that.
What we do know about Deborah is that she was a prophet. She may not be one of the Major Prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah or even a minor prophet with her own book title, but she was a prophet like Moses, Miriam, and Aaron before her. This meant she had the work of listening to God on behalf of and through the whole of her community. This work meant nudging and urging, challenging and reminding God’s people of their covenant or partnership with God. So she was a prophet and even a poet, chanting hymns like Moses and Miriam. She was also a judge; one of 12 Judges with the work of guiding her people, settling disputes, helping people move on from wrongs and hurts so those wounds would not fester and break the community apart. We know she had a palm tree office located between two communities...and while we don’t know this, I like to imagine it as a bit of an oasis, with shade above and a view out in front of her and relationships restored...a pretty great courtroom, if you will. We also know she was a wife. At first glance, you might have the same response I did. When Amos was announced as prophet, he wasn’t noted as Amos, husband of Gomar. And while we might be familiar with a history of this kind of treatment of women, scholars point to something more. Wife of Lappidoth, could mean a particular household, but many suggest it means something more about her relationship to the whole people of Israel. It could be translated woman of fire, woman of spirit, woman with torches or spirited woman. And so, when we gather all those images together for our modern English-speaking brains, Deborah looks like one bad ass woman. Spirited and powerful and not someone to mess with a pillar of fire, one even suggests. A women who earned every inch of her authority to lead, giving valued judgements, holding the heart of her peoples’ hopes in her role as a prophet.
Historians point to moments when the culture is unsure as a prime time for non-traditional leaders. The structures that dictate what a leader should look like or from whom they ought to decent give way to effectiveness. It was an uncertain time in Israel, between Moses and Joshua bringing the people to a promised land, and before kings like David and Saul and Solomon. And there was a period of conflict with the Canaanites, a back and forth power struggle that put the losers lives in a space of vulnerability. Deborah led at such a time. We know it because there is this litany...”The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord,” beginning in chapter four.
The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died. So the Lord sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly for twenty years. (4:1-3)
This is where Deborah took authority - and as she was working from her Palm Tree office, she sensed it is time to make a change. And she did something different from most of the male leaders in the biblical narrative; she sought help. She called a man named Barak (his name meant lightning), and she told him it was time to destroy their oppressors, the Canaanite king with his general and his 900 iron chariots. Barak, despite his name being powerful, was probably a thinking man; and this task seemed like a pretty big gamble. Further provoking the hand of their oppressor could prove even more deadly to the whole people of Israel. And so he responds:
Barak said to her, ‘If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.’ 9And she said, ‘I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.’ Then Deborah got up and went with Barak to Kedesh.
He risked the glory that would have been his had he gone it alone. The scripture shares a story of confusion among Sisera’s forces and perhaps those 900 iron chariots are not so great when they are swept away, just like the chariots of Egypt before them.
‘The kings came, they fought; then fought the kings of Canaan, at Taanach, by the waters of Megiddo; they got no spoils of silver. 20 The stars fought from heaven, from their courses they fought against Sisera. 21 The torrent Kishon swept them away, the onrushing torrent, the torrent Kishon. March on, my soul, with might! (5: 19-21)
Perhaps all the iron on those chariots didn’t work out this time and the whole army was reported dead. But the story continues with Sisera on foot, the general away from his ride seeks out the help of a woman.
18Jael came out to meet Sisera, and said to him, ‘Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; have no fear.’ So he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. 19Then he said to her, ‘Please give me a little water to drink; for I am thirsty.’ So she opened a skin of milk and gave him a drink and covered him. 20He said to her, ‘Stand at the entrance of the tent, and if anybody comes and asks you, “Is anyone here?” say, “No.” ’ 21But Jael wife of Heber took a tent-peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground—he was lying fast asleep from weariness—and he died. (4:18-21)
Wouldn’t it have been easier if we had stopped after that part about the palm tree....and just skipped this ugly death stuff? Israel was free...or at least freer. Deborah, Barak and Jael were heroes. A song of victory was sung and yet looking back today, we are left wondering if they could have achieved their freedom through peace rather than old school military conflict. It’s not exactly pretty or the happy outcome we would like, and since our lives are not hanging in the balance, it is easy to have an opinion about Deborah.
Traditionally we approach Deborah with total affirmation or total disappointment. Women have looked to Deborah, despite this violence, as an example of leadership. Given so few examples in our tradition, it can be easy to see why we might. Early Queens of England and Scotland (frequently named Mary) lifted Deborah as a woman in whose footsteps they might follow. Others disagreed. John Knox, Presbyterian cleric, praised Deborah, even while suggesting women in his own time were unfit to lead. My favorite part of his objection to their leadership is the bold title of his essay “The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.” In 1558 he wrote, “Exempted by God from the common malediction given to women and against nature HE made her prudent in council, strong in courage, happy in regiment and a blessed mother and deliverer to HIS people.” This statement makes me want to celebrate Deborah and raises my gratitude that Queen Elizabeth took such offense to it that she would later limit Knox’s involvement in re-establishing the Church of England. Knox was not the first man to struggle with Deborah; her leadership was omitted in Hebrews when Barak comes up in Chapter 11. The same happened in 1 Samuel Chapter 12.
She however, survived the generations of edits and translations and invites us to look on her leadership. While some women have cheered at the thought of her, others have been disappointed, hoping for more. Her leadership used the same old tools of violence as every other leader. She might have fought for the right reason but, we might argue, she used the wrong means to her end. Elizabeth Cady Stanton commented on this piece of the Bible as disgusting, and noted particularly how Jael misuses the sacred work of hospitality.
So are those the only choices - total affirmation or total disregard? What if we could name our really high expectations of one female leader in the face of Patriarchy? It is easy to hope that one leader makes all the difference, but we have seen how one black president didn’t end racism in our historically racist country. And we know one woman leader won’t end patriarchy in our historically sexist world...not alone anyway. We know the names of King and Mandela and Gandhi and we know that they were part of mass movements, fueled by hundreds and thousands of others putting their hearts and lives on the line to make the world different, seeking peace through peace.
The thing about learning from Deborah is we can celebrate how she partnered, how she stood with her people, mended broken relationships as a judge, offered wise counsel and was deemed a woman of fire and spirit. And we can name how we wish she had done things differently. But doing that is only fair if we are brave enough to turn our gaze inward, and root out what we must change about ourselves. How we must be different to participate in the waves of change and transformation we seek.
This past weekend, many of us saw images we never thought we would see in America in 2017. White people, marching in mass, unmasked, carrying the odd combination of Nazi flags and tiki torches. Of course, being shocked should tune us into our privilege. Seeing an emboldened current of radical terrorists, that once seemed to simmer only in hushed spaces, reminds us that the progress of the past few years remains stunted until those bearing the banners of hate and terror can be brought forward into the circle of the whole human family. This is the real and challenging work of our faith. Our covenant at baptism asks if one professes faith in God and commits to the dangerous road of salvation traveled by Jesus. The next questions call us to a special reflection today: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sins? Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
Do you? Do you want to work on that together? That is the heart of our faith.
1. What can we learn from Deborah? What about her stood out to you?
2. Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sins?
3. Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?