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Deborah's War and Your Calling
The daily lectionary of the Episcopal Church offers the large lesson from the book of Judges that was read earlier for this day. Having written - if not the book on Deborah - then a major contribution to her study, I looked no further. I love this woman-prophet-military-commander-strategist-and-head-of state. I love proclaiming the gospel attributed to her.
But this preaching moment calls for something different. You are different. You are new to this place and new to me (as students, as a class) - even if I’ve met some of you individually before. And while it is true that a text without a context is a pretext, this is also true for the context of hearers of and believers in a sacred text. Context matters. Our shared theological educational context matters. I can no longer preach this text the way I had before.
Ten years ago, two and a half feet of hair ago and at least one body piercing ago I preached this text more than once as an Army Chaplain. The hermeneutical transfer - or life application - was easy.
I was a preaching-woman-soldier preaching about a preaching-woman-soldier. I was preaching sermons about a war to soldiers preparing for war. The text has much that my soldiers could expect to see: from a potential breakdown in the chain of command to troops who respond to orders to muster at different speeds, from infantry to to armored cavalry, from classical military formations to covert operations.
My soldiers could expect to kill or be killed, some might have to try and evade capture; some might wind up pursuing fleeing combatants; my female soldiers (and possibly some of the men) might have to contend with a rapist in their quarters - the executed general, Sisera, was so notorious for his raped that at the end of Judges 5 his mother wonders aloud that he is taking so long to come home and concludes that he is still occupied with dividing up woman-flesh with his men. (She uses a word in Hebrew, רחמתים that means a female reproductive organ, not even a whole human woman.)
And while some of you are undoubtedly veterans and others of you may serve as military chaplains, the context of this text is not your current - our current - shared reality. You may be called to be a prophetic leader like Deborah but perhaps not as a warrior-poet. Or you may be called to accompany or follow a prophetic leader as Barak was called first to accompany then to follow Deborah, but perhaps not as a military commander. You may have to confront a rapist like Jael, but perhaps not have to kill him - or even her.
There are preachers who romanticize and allegorize the specific context of the text so that everything becomes a battle and the violence of war becomes a disneyesque grotesque parody. But the truth is that even in your most difficult moments here in this community, in your congregations and within your hierarchies you will not be sent to resolve disputes by slicing and hacking into human flesh or by bludgeoning those who oppose you into bloody heaps. This Iron Age war-fighting text about a simply does not fit our context. We must be honest in our proclamation of its gospel.
Yet this text, like so many others, is scripture for us, in this moment, in this place which is at so great a distance from the context of the text. Yet the context of the text is not irrelevant to our context. It speaks to us. In order to hear its gospel we must hear its own story. So what is this story about in its own context? Judges is the counterpoint to the war stories Joshua tells. I’ve met a lot of veterans like Joshua. Perhaps you have as well.
Joshua (23:9) says, “For the Lord has driven out before you great and strong nations; and as for you, no one has been able to withstand you to this day.”
Judges (1:27ff) says, “Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shean and its villages, or Taanach and its villages, or the inhabitants of Dor and its villages, or the inhabitants of Ibleam and its villages, or the inhabitants of Megiddo and its villages; but the Canaanites continued to live in that land...
And Ephraim did not drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer; but the Canaanites lived among them in Gezer.
Zebulun did not drive out the inhabitants of Kitron, or the inhabitants of Nahalol; but the Canaanites lived among them...
Asher did not drive out the inhabitants of Acco, or the inhabitants of Sidon, or of Ahlab, or of Achzib, or of Helbah, or of Aphik, or of Rehob; but the Asherites lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land; for they did not drive them out.
Naphtali did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shemesh, or the inhabitants of Beth-anath, but lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land...”
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.”
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.”
Judges balances out the enthusiams of Joshua with a balanced look at the good, the bad and the ugly among the ten tribes of Israel. Judges 5 which is one one the oldest passages in the bible - older even than Judges 4 - and likely dates from the time of Deborah herself (some think she composed it) and only mentions ten tribes including Machir and Gilead; the twelve tribes including Simeon, Levi, Judah and Gad are not mentioned until Genesis is put together sometime later. The bible is not chronological in either contents or assembly.
This story in Judges is part of a larger pattern describing the limited fidelity of God’s people: when they had good leadership they they were faithful, for a while. When they had great leadership, they were faithful for a while longer. And God matched, really exceeded, their fidelity. But in between good and great leaders, they fell apart, and God let them go, to a point, for a while.
Deborah was one of those great leaders. She was like Moses and Samuel - and only the three of them were prophet and judge and governed the emerging nation from a seat, chair or throne before the days of the kings and queens. Deborah’s leadership on and off the field of battle secured a peace and prosperity that lasted for forty years.
All Barak had to do was follow her lead, first by following the commands she relayed from God, then by following her into battle. He did and 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, Deborah. And he did not care that the senior warrior gets the glory. Barak wanted victory, not glory. Deborah led and accompanied Barak, fulfilling her own calling and enabling him to fulfill his.
Deborah, Barak and their soldiers started the battle and God finished it. And one of Moses’ kin by marriage cleaned up the most significant straggler, Sisera, the commanding general of the enemy forces. Jael is lionized in Deborah’s psalm preserved in chapter 5. She is the first woman called “most blessed among women.” Her blessing was conferred on the widdow-turned-warrior and poet-psalmist Judith. And the priestly prophet Elisheva eshet Zekaryah, Elizabeth the wife of Zechariah, conferred that blessing on her peculiarly pregnant young cousin, Miryam l’Natzeret, Miriam, or Mary, of Nazareth.
Acknowledging with great respect the differences in time and circumstance between our reality and that of the text, what living word can we hear speaking to us today, from the ancient context into our contemporary theological educational context, here, now?
One message in this text that echoes across time is that when you follow the call of God you won’t go alone. Deborah knew that God would go with her and with Barak. Barak knew that God would go with Deborah and he made up his mind to go where he knew God would be. In the Greek version of the story that was scripture for the early church, Barak says, “If you will go with me, I will go, and if you will not go with me, I will not go, for I do not know the day in which the Lord will send God’s angel on a good journey with me.” We may not have legions of warriors at our disposal, experienced military commanders, assassins or even anti-rape activists at our beck and call, but if we go where God calls and sends us, God will go with us and before us and meet us there. We will not go alone. Perhaps we will be able to follow a seasoned prophet. Perhaps we will be accompanied by angels. We will not go alone. God will give us what we need so that we will be able to trust in the presence of the invisible God who controls water and wind, fire and hail, thunder and lightening.
There is an afterward 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 Jael. You can do what God called you to do and people may forget that it was you God chose to use. Someone may rewite your story in their own image, but God will not forget. God will be with you when others forget you.
Whatever your calling in or beyond this place, God will go with you, before you and meet you in your place of greatest need. You will never be alone. And when you honestly can’t see where God will be in a situation, God will send you someone, angel or prophet to lead and guide you. And if God has called you to lead, know that you fulfill your calling while helping someone else fulfill their calling. And know that you will never go alone.