Deborah Speaks: A Call to Arms, A Call to Service

Judges 4:3 And the women-and-men-of-Israel cried out to the Faithful One for help; for King Jabin had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the women-and-men-of-Israel cruelly twenty years. 4 Deborah, a woman, a female prophet, a fiery woman, she was judging Israel at that time. 

I want to thank the All Saints ohana for your wonderful gift of hospitality to me, especially Ben, Linda, Cooper, Chris, Warren and Wendy, Lacee and Jeff my hiking partners, the congregation at Christ Memorial and the hona [giant sea-turtle] who swam with me in Poipu. I knew when I saw the lessons for today that I wanted to preach on Deborah, having written - if not the book on Deborah - then a major contribution to her study. I love this woman-prophet-military-commander-strategist-and-head-of-state. Sometimes I think my Hebrew name should have been Deborah, but Rabbi Lynne Gottllieb named me Huldah; that works too. And I find as a veteran a message that honors the service of all veterans and everyone else who serves their community in her story: A Call to Arms, A Call to Serve. But I’m not going to preach it. I’m going to let her do that.

In the Name of the Author, the Word and the Translator. Amen.

Good morning, my name is D’vorah, you call me Deborah. Fr. Wil asked me to preach for her today because she is getting ready to go to San Francisco before returning to Philadelphia. As I said before, I am Deborah, the former Judge of Israel; my people call me “Mother,” even though I never married and never had any children of my own. They were all my children. What may seem to be two disparate roles, prophetic mother of the nation and professional martial strategist are in fact united by the single focus of answering the call of God in and through God’s people. You heard part of my story read to you earlier today. I am the sixth Judge in the line of succession: From Moses to Joshua, from Joshua to Othniel, from Othniel to Ehud, from Ehud to Shamgar and from Shamgar to me.

Judges did more than settle disputes; we ruled the tribes from actual thrones – mine was near the large palm tree beside the intersection of Beth-El Boulevard and Ramah Road. As judges we governed the people and led the army – well more of a militia. And I’m more than just a judge. I’m also a prophet and in one sense Moshe’s heir, (you know him as Moses). I know most folk think Joshua was Moses’ heir, but he was no prophet. But he could tell a good story. His book is full of war stories – he reminds me of some other veterans I know, to hear them tell the story every skirmish was a major battle, our side never lost a battle and he was in the center of all the action. Nobody else remembers the stories quite like he told them; but each veteran is entitled to their memories and their stories even when they don’t agree with the official history. They have earned the right to tell their stories however they want. How many of you like Fr. Wil served in the military? I salute you, veteran to veteran.

Joshua’s story comes before my story and our stories together are each part of a larger story. Some of my story is recorded in chapters 4-5 of the book of Judges. The first part in Judges 4 is something like liner notes for an album; it was written after my song in Judges 5 which was at the top of the charts in my day, to tell my story to the folk who only knew my songs. You see when God appointed me to lead the nation, 80 years of rest and prosperity had just come to a crashing end under the hooves, heels and wheels of Canaanite cavalry and infantry. For twenty long years they rode us into the ground. Judge Shamgar beat back the Philistines singlehandedly when they joined in, but it wasn’t enough. And Judge Ehud had died. The version of the story you have says that the people sinned after Ehud died. The old story actually says the people sinned and Ehud died. It might be that their wicked ways sent him to an early death. I had that on my mind when God called me to be the mother of the nation, but I still answered the call to serve.

For twenty years we suffered under Canaanite oppression; I suffered with my people before God called me as a prophet and judge, to walk in Moshe’s oversize footsteps – no wonder Joshua felt the need to tell so many outsized stories! No one tells the stories of how I came to be a prophet or judge. No one remembers that I answered the call to serve when no one knew my name like so many soldiers, sailors, marines and air force service members. I just did my duty. And I wasn’t in the military at first.

The truth is all of our communities need more than one type of service. I just did what I could with the gifts God had given me to help my family, my community. That’s how we made it through the difficult days, every day, every week, every month, every year for twenty years until I went to war, we worked together as a community. We each did our part to hold it together and support each other, with no one calling our names or remembering our service. Your sacred story doesn’t tell you what happened in the 20 years that Israel was oppressed during my time. In fact the big story moves from conflict to conflict, from oppression to oppression, scarcely taking account of the individual people and families struggling to survive day after day focusing on kings and prophets.

You see our people had immigrated to Canaan without checking with the Canaanites. And there were some fights – and to hear Joshua tell it, he killed everybody, but the truth is we figured out how to get along together, more or less.

Joshua (24:11) says, “When you went over the Jordan and came to Jericho, the citizens of Jericho fought against you, and also the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I handed them over to you.

Just before my story the sacred story says:

Judges (3:5-6) says, “So the Israelites lived among the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and they took their daughters as wives for themselves, and their own daughters they gave to their sons; and they worshiped their gods.

Now all that mixing was a problem for some, but in most cases we were just building community and making families with our hearts the way so many kama’ina [locals] do here in Hawaii. Sometimes what looked like the worship of other Gods was the development of new and different ways of worshipping the God of our ancestors whom we found was also worshipped by some of our neighbors. But there were folk who completely turned their back on the God who brought us so far, so faithfully. I’ll never understand that.

All of the Canaanites didn’t welcome us into their families and land. There were many bitter, vicious battles and terrible losses on all sides. Just when we had carved out a little space and paid for our peace in the blood of our fallen, within four generations we were overrun. Canaanite oppression was physically violent, often lethal. And it was accompanied by an economic depression. It didn’t matter how much or hard people worked, they couldn’t always feed their families or keep their homes. Their savings weren’t being gambled away on Wall Street; they were being burned in the field, and stolen as their livestock was driven off. We lived through hard times, a whole generation of privation. The loss, pain, anger, rage and fear were the same that people feel today and express through the Tea Party and Occupy  Movements. People were hurting. And we took our pain to God.

My people cried out to God. I cried out with them and for them. And God answered. But it wasn’t fast and it wasn’t easy. For twenty long years we struggled under the burdens laid on us by someone else. And while I believe that God heard every prayer and touched every tear, God didn’t wave a magic wand and fix it. That’s a hard lesson, because there are still desperate, hurting, frightened people, losing their security through no fault of their own. And while God hears their cries and touches their tears, in many cases God is moving at a pace that feels far to slow for those who are suffering today.

Yet God heard and God responded. God called me. I seem like a pretty unlikely candidate. No one remembers much about me or my family. They called me a fireball – I think that’s why Fr. Wil likes me so much – but some folk pretend that lappidoth, fireball, is a man’s name so that they could claim I was married. My culture didn’t know what to do with single women. I answered the call like so many men and women who volunteered or were drafted into military service. No one starts out as a hero or leader of a nation. We just answer a call to serve. No one even remembers the call I answered or how I served before I was appointed commander-in-chief. Like so many veterans, much of my service was anonymous. And like many veterans, I also have a couple of good war stories.

When God called me to serve God by serving God’s people, I issued my own call to service. I called for war. It wasn’t a popular call. Your people have been at war in Afghanistan and Iraq for ten years. And some of your people and families have borne the war-fighting burden, answering the call to serve while others remain scarcely touched. That’s how it was in our time. We were spread out and everybody didn’t show up when I called, everyone didn’t answer the call. Some couldn’t. Some could but didn’t. Some let others take the risks for them.

I took the troops I had and deployed them. My plan was to lead one flank and send my second-in-command, General Barak to lead the other. But he wouldn’t go without me. He wasn’t ashamed to say he needed the woman of God. The previous generation had Joshua, and the generation before had Moses and Miriam as their prophets, and Barak wasn’t going anywhere without his prophet. And he did not care that the senior warrior gets the glory. Barak wanted victory, not glory. I led and accompanied Barak, fulfilling my calling and enabling him to fulfill his. We led a force of 10,000 and defeated our enemies even though some of our own people, the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Asher along with the clans of Meroz failed to honor the call to serve.

We prevailed even though we were out-classed and out gunned. They had the Iron Age equivalent of mechanized infantry or an armored tank division, almost a thousand iron-plated armored chariots. We had some iron-tipped arrows and spears and a few iron swords for hand to hand, but we also had a lot of bronze. And our troops were not professional soldiers. But they answered the call. And God made the difference. God took our service and multiplied it and used it to protect our families, homes and community.

I also had a battle-buddy, a sister-in-arms, her name was Ya‘el Eshet Heber; she was a covert operations specialist, an assassin, she had a license to kill, or if you prefer, to terminate her objectives with extreme prejudice. She was an assassin, but not a sniper. She went in close for her kills. I wrote a song about her, I called her “most blessed among women” after she took down the Canaanite general, Sisera, a notorious rapist. In one of the saddest comments on the whole affair, his mother doesn’t even worry when he is late coming home from the war because she knows it is his custom to violate the women of his enemies.

More than six hundred years later the Israelites sang my song to another Mother-Savior, Judith after she assassinated the enemy general oppressing her people who wanted to rape her. That’s one thing that has not changed from my time to yours, the use of rape as a tool of war against women and men and boys and girls. Many veterans and active duty soldiers bear scars that can’t be seen because of sexual assault. Those assaults are not limited to enemy troops; some soldiers are raped by our own colleagues-in-arms. And there are some folk who take pleasure in using their power and physical strength against the most vulnerable among us off the field of battle in their personal campaigns of conquest.

Father Wil tells me that there are many folk who long for an Old Testament solution for child predators and rapists, and she counts herself among them in times like these when the news cycle is full of atrocities. Yet even in my day a person who was accused of horrific acts was brought before a judge. Hearing all of the evidence before passing sentence, particularly when that sentence is life-or-death is a sacred duty, and for some that is their call to service.

Some six hundred years after the elders of Israel sang my song to Judith, the pregnant prophet Elizabeth sang my song to her young cousin, the mysteriously pregnant Miriam, soon to be the mother of not just a nation, but the mother of God. Let me suggest that what each woman had in common was her willingness to offer her body in the service God. In spite of the lives of these women most of us do not expect God to use us to accomplish Divine purpose through assassination and unwed pregnancy.

These women teach us that there are some, not all, whose callings lead them to do incredible things in the Name of God, most of which we would not be comfortable doing. They teach us that leadership is not without cost and that God calls whomever God wills. All of us are not called to be assassins or prophets, maybe some of us are. But we all are called. The question that each of us must answer is whether or not we are living out our divine calling.

Lastly, Fr. Wil wants me to tell you that you may not have legions of warriors at your disposal, experienced military commanders, assassins or even anti-rape activists at your beck and call, but if you go where God calls and sends you, God will go with you and before you and will meet you there. You will not go alone. Perhaps you will be able to follow a seasoned prophet. Perhaps you will be accompanied by angels. You will not go alone.

There is an afterword to today’s story. Fame is fickle. Hebrews asks (11:32-34) “And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.

The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews has a gendered recollection of history without the herstory of Deborah and Ya‘el. You can do what God called you to do and people may forget that it was you God chose to use. Someone may rewrite your story in their own image, but God will not forget. God will be with you when others forget you.     

May God the Mother and Father of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,

Sarah, Hagar, Rebekkah, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah,

Who took the tangled threads of their lives

And wove a tapestry of Redemption

In the Blood of Jesus

Continue to weave the strands of your life

In the Divine design.

13 November 2011

All Saints Episcopal Church

Kapaa HI