A Sermon for Covenant
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
November 13, 2011
This is the only text from the book of Judges to make an appearance in the entire lectionary. Perhaps the lectionary was trying to do us preachers a favor, seeing as the book of Judges contains the most graphic, violent, bloody, and disturbing stories in the whole Bible. (If you don’t believe me, read Judges chapter 19 when you get home.) The seven short verses the lectionary assigns for today are some of the tamest you’ll find in the whole book.
Which I take to be a challenge. How can we, on this one day out of the three year cycle, tackle the nastiest stuff in all of Scripture? In one sermon, how can I cram in all the lectionary leaves out?
Of course, it seems worth asking—even if we could cover it all, should we? The Bible expresses no qualms about telling these stories of violence, rape, and human sacrifice, but are these really stories for the church? The lectionary doesn’t seem to think so, and other preachers and scholars seem to agree. A seminary professor explicitly told his students they shouldn’t bother trying to preach Judges chapter 11, for example. It’s too messy, too complex, too disorienting and strange to belong in the hour of worship, I suppose.
For starters, what do we do with all the violence? There is a recurring pattern in the book of Judges—the people rebel, God “sells” them into oppression because of their rebellion, the people eventually cry out to God for deliverance, God leads them in war and the Israelites slay their enemies. Trading violence for violence in an unending cycle. The only interruption of the cycle is at the end of the book where things—believe it or not—actually get worse, and the violence spreads internally. Israelite fighting Israelite; neighbors defile their neighbors.
Thrown into the tumultuous mix, there are all kinds of women in Judges—more female characters in this book than any other book of the Bible—and the presence of women has often confused the church. Do we sit them in the corner as silent spectators with bonnets to cover their hair; or, do we set them loose to be full-fledged worshippers and proclaimers alongside us, not knowing what might happen if we do?
The place of women in the book of Judges is fascinating, and as diverse as you can imagine. From Deborah to Delilah to the unnamed concubine, from prophets and warriors on the one end to rape victims and human sacrifices on the other—women play a plethora of roles. Some good, some bad, some tragic. The church doesn’t always know what to do with women, and this book suggests that we inherited our confusion from the nation from the Israel.
At the beginning of Judges, women are powerful, influential, honored, praised. In the opening scene there is Aksah: negotiator, initiator, land owner. In chapters 4 and 5, we have Deborah: judge, leader, prophet, liturgist, artist, and commander. Then there is Jael in chapter 5, who crushes the enemy general, Sisera, at her feet, and the glory of the victory belongs to a woman. In chapter 9, a woman drops a milestone on top of the evil Abimelek’s head and once again, the victory of a battle belongs to a woman. We are not told her name though, and here in the middle of the book of Judges we see an indicator that the role of women is starting to make a shift . . .
The next female character is Jephthah’s daughter, Judges chapter 11. We don’t know her name either. She is sacrificed on an altar by her father due to a misguided oath. Another unnamed woman appears in Judges 14 &15—Samson’s first wife, who is burned alive after being traded among men. Like Jephthah’s daughter, she seems to have no say in her fate.
We are told Delilah’s name, yet her character is ambiguous. She uses deceit to gain power. We wonder if she had any other choice? Is she strong, or desperate, evil or merely clever? It’s not really clear . . .
But by the end of the book of Judges, none of the female characters have names, and there is no ambiguity about their role. They are nameless, which is fitting because they are treated as objects, not humans. The details are graphic and disturbing; so genuinely horrific, let’s not speak of it in the presence of children. At the beginning of the book, women are warriors and leaders; by the end they are the spoils of war, traded among men for pleasure, disposed of at will, torn to pieces, and no one can remember their names.
There is a rapid spiral in the book of Judges—the people grow further and further and further from God . . . and their women move further and further and further from places of honor until they are objects to be used, abused, and discarded. It is a fascinating social commentary on the role of women. It is a telling portrayal of what happens in a community when the people quit serving God as king. The key phrase at the end of the book—it appears twice in the same manner—states, “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.”
The Israelites entered the Promised Land as the people of God, but by the end of the book of Judges, they’ve created a kingdom in their own image, and in trying to be their own kings they’ve become savages who kill one other and reduce women from human beings to possessions.
I don’t even want to know what was happening to the children.
But that is not how things started. In today’s story, the people have rebelled against God and thus are living under the tyrannical rule of king Jabin of the Canaanites. It was said he had nine hundred chariots with a reputation for cruel oppression, which reminds us, and probably reminded the Israelites, of their slavery in Egypt. But the people have not yet forgotten God entirely; they need only to remember the Exodus in order to know what to do, and they do it. They cry out to God, and as always, he hears them.
Just as God found Moses in the wilderness near a burning bush, and asked him to lead his people out of Egpyt, God finds his prophet Deborah—she’s under a palm tree—and once again, God has deliverance on his mind. You wouldn’t expect God to find a woman, but Deborah defies expectations at every turn, and I have to admit, I kind of love that about her.
Now either Deborah was more gutsy than Moses and jumped right on board without hesitation, or we simply don’t get to hear the part of the story where God had to convince her. All we know is that by the time she relays God’s commands to Barak, she is poised and confident, more than willing to accompany him straight into the heart of the battle. She even predicts, “The Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” Since this is where our passage today ended, we might think Deborah is making a prediction about herself—she will gain the honor.
But not so. Another character, more unlikely than the first, will emerge. She is a non-Israelite, a woman, a woman whose husband is an ally of the enemy. Sisera himself feels safe running to her tent to hide while his armies are being defeated by Barak and Deborah. He presumes upon Jael’s hospitality, asking for water and a place to hide. She goes above and beyond—she brings him a cup of milk, she covers him with a blanket like a mother would cover a child. That a general can rest at all while his men are dying a few fields away seems odd to me, but he sleeps like a baby. Jael creeps back in, this time not like a mother peeping over the crib, but like a deadly force of stealth and courage. In her left hand, a tent stake. In her right hand, a hammer. She must know of the alliance her husband has made with this man, but some deeper motivation overcomes her. She rests the sharpened tip of the stake at the corner of his temple, she raises the hammer, she strikes one blow, and then another. She keeps at it until he is dead. She stands up, wipes her hands on her skirt, and exits the tent where she calmly encounters Barak and shows him the enemy is defeated.
The whole thing is kind of eerie. You might see why they have left this part of the story out of the lectionary. We’re never even really sure why she did it, seeing as how she wasn’t even an Israelite. But Israel is forever indebted. They will sing about her later, rejoicing, “Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, most blessed of tent-dwelling women!”
It is said that another woman, Sisera’s mother, is back home peering through the window, wondering when her son will come home in victory. The text reads, “She keeps saying to herself, ‘Are they not finding and dividing the spoils: a woman or two for each man?’” Sisera’s mother does not suspect Sisera is dead, killed by a woman—a woman, who, perhaps, he had hoped to bring home as plunder.
The winners in this story are a unlikely trio—the female judge and prophet, Deborah (wait, can a woman really do that?), the male warrior, Barak, who unashamedly asks for help and directions from a woman (wait, can a man really do that?), and the non-Israelite woman, Jael, who plays one of the most decisive, cunning, and brave roles in the entire book.
I admit, the violent features of the story are a bit disconcerting. All I know for sure is that the women in this text refuse to become spoils of war. They choose to be warriors, and their community allows it. Not blood-thirsty warriors, but warriors for justice and liberation. And the community rejoices. They break out into song in chapter 5. They celebrate Deborah. They celebrate Jael. No one says, “Thank God we won the war, but what a pity we were lead by women.”
Ultimately though, this isn’t a story about women, or men. It is a story about God. God who delivers his people. Again. Judges 4:23 says, “On that day, God subdued Jabin king of Canaan before the Israelites.” The people sing, “May all who love the Lord be like the sun when it rises in its strength!”
Deborah functions like a Moses figure, leading the people out of their new Egypt, but then again, she is totally different from Moses in so many ways. Which says to me, God never tires of inventing ways to invade the world with his goodness and deliverance. Jael, with a cup of milk and a tent stake overtakes a celebrated army commander. You know what I think that cup of milk says to us? That the small things matter. That the small people are big people in God’s way of thinking. That there is no end to God’s creativity and that your own creativity has a place in God’s work. God uses the unexpected and the seemingly inferior. Sisera expected to take women home with him as the spoils of his war. Instead, he enters the home of a woman and meets his death. For this slice of history, the world is turned topsy-turvy, just like a world re-imagined and re-invaded by God out to be. We’re the ones that got things so messed up—God sets things right and it looks strange to our eyes. We’re used to seeing things one way—God does something wholly other and we are left with our mouths hanging open. We can either protest or rejoice, fight the inevitable or join the redemption. Barak and Deborah broke out in song, and I hope we have the inclination to join them.
Eventually, the morality of Israel in the book of Judges will spiral downward, and the least of these will be trampled on. But we know from this story, from the outset, that when God reigns, the least of these have a place in His Kingdom. Not a place of subservience, but a role worth remembering. So whether you are a child, or a woman, or merely a broken individual who doesn’t seem worthy at all, you have a name in God’s story.
In this community, may we work side by side. May we guard each one’s dignity. May we save each one’s pride. May we walk hand in hand, and they will know we are Christians by our love. May they know who our King is when they hear us, because we call each other by name. Amen.