This sermon was preached at St Lydia’s Dinner Church on Sunday Feb. 25 and Monday Feb. 26, 2018
JUDGES 4:1-9 After Ehud died, The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. 2 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. 3 Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help; for [Sisera] had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly [for] twenty years.
4 At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. 5 She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment. 6 She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, ‘Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. 7 I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.’”
8 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.” 9 And 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.
Before we get into the meat of the message, let me set the scene for this passage a little more clearly.
After the Israelites emerged triumphant from the land of Egypt (what is known as the Exodus) they were commanded to wander in the desert for a generation, to temper their rebellion and strengthen their faith in the Lord who had rescued them. Then when Moses died, Joshua led Israel into the conquest of Canaan – the land the Lord had promised to their children. But the conquest was messy and riddled with compromise and disobedience. In the end, Israelites were living with the people they were supposed to drive out, displacing their own daughters by marrying their sons to Canaanites, worshipping foreign gods, and even slipping back under the rule of pagan leaders. They were no longer set apart. They were no longer seen as the Lord’s people.
During this period, 6 Israelite leaders arose – called Judges – who made a name for themselves (both in good and bad ways) amongst both the people of Canaan and the people of the Lord. The first two, Othniel and Ehud, were like knights from a storybook. They defeated enemies, won the hand of clever maidens, and used their smarts to play crafty tricks resulting in Israelite liberation. But a few decades after each noble judge died, the people of Israel would return to a common refrain:
Again, they would do evil in the eyes of the Lord. Read the passage again, you’ll see.
Political, social, and religious “movements” are a little nerve-wracking to me. I never quite know where to put myself, or how loudly to assert myself, during “movements.” I have never changed the filter of my facebook profile picture to any symbol or any flag. I don’t copy and paste statuses. I’ve somehow never ended up at a march or a protest. This hesitancy isn’t because I lack strong convictions. Only that I find myself a little lost, sometimes, in knowing how Who I Am relates to What I Think and How I Express That to Others. Or perhaps it’s that I need more time to watch, wait, and wonder, before I can piece together how my experiences fit in with the larger human story going on around me.
I remember the sorrow, and disappointment, and quietness I felt the week that the women on my facebook and twitter feeds began changing their statuses to read “me, too.” Sometimes those posts came with stories, or exhortations. Often, it was just those two small words: “me, too.”
Isn’t it wild that two words can somehow carry so much weight? The weight of being pushed aside, of not being listened to, of not being treated with humanity. The weight of being hurt. Maybe most dangerously, the weight of losing confidence in our own voices, losing community, losing hope, and losing direction. Reading “me, too” meant knowing that someone I love had been caught inside the teeth of the destructive power systems which rule our world, and acknowledging that, of course, I have been too. When we face uphill battles like sexism, workplace harassment, and abuse, it’s easy to feel crushed. It’s easy to lose sight of our identity…to lose hope that things can ever be better.
Followers of Christ choose to emulate Christ – to lift up where others tear down. To value and honor where others debase. But it’s hard to do that. Choosing courage and joy is actually a rough road to walk. Sometimes it feels impossible for us to light the path for others, when our own paths feel so dark and difficult.
That’s why I’m grateful for Deborah. And tonight I want to share more about that gratitude with all of you. Because I think sometimes, in the midst of the darkness and quietness in a season like Lent, we have to take time for stories like hers.
For those of you who haven’t spent as much time with the Hebrew Bible, the book of Judges is largely a story about the suffering of women. It’s about the downward spiral of a nation that is lawless, that is forgetting its God, and neglecting the oppressed and powerless. Our beloved coordinator Hannah is tackling some of these “texts of terror” in a few weeks, so I won’t trod on her stories. Suffice it to say, for now, that Deborah is a shining beacon of light that pierces the darkness of this book.
This character, Deborah, lived in a very different-looking world. The only god she served was the warrior God YHWH, so holy and mighty that he could supercede the powers of every Egyptian god, part seas for his followers, and drop food from the heavens every morning to sustain his children in the desert. This was a land of burnt offerings and blood; a land where the command from a man could mean the instant death of his wife, daughter, or slave. A world where, in the stories told around the fires at night, many female characters went nameless, or were entirely defined by their fathers and brothers.
And then in Judges 4, sitting beneath her palm tree, we meet Deborah. She is the one holding court and settling disputes. She is the one Israel looks to as its leader. She is the one receiving words from YHWH and commanding soldiers. If this isn’t already music to your ears, the best is yet to come.
Her military general, Barak, won’t go into battle without her. Why? we are left to wonder. Is he testing her authority? Disbelieving her because she is a woman? Is he simply scared, one member in the parade of cowardly men scattered throughout the book of Judges? The text isn’t explicit. But Deborah makes it clear that because of his reluctance, the world will know that this battle – at least this one Israelite victory – is credited to a woman.
But it gets even better than that. The victory goes to two women. First, there was Deborah, who made the call and led the charge. Bringing up the rear was Jael, another woman whose story has become quite famous. After offering food and shelter to the oppressive general Sisera, enemy of Israel, Jael drives a tent peg through his face, securing a resounding defeat over the now-scattered Canaanite army.
I’ll be the first to admit, war is an ugly way to talk about hope. But we have to step back into the world of the Ancient Near East and let go of our modern sensibilities for a just few minutes. For the Israelites, military losses and victories helped to define their early relationship to the power they knew as YHWH. They had no Bible; they had no creeds. They had experiences with this powerful, holy, Spirit. Losses forced them to examine their own faithlessness, disobedience, and cruelty. Victories reminded them that they were not alone in the universe. That their God was looking out for them. And usually, when YHWH was involved, the circumstances were so unusual that they had no choice but to step back and give ALL credit to the Lord.
When the battle was over, Deborah sang a joyful song.
“Hear, O ye kings;
give ear, O ye princes;
I, even I, will sing unto the Lord;
I will sing praise to the Lord God of Israel.”
She sang like Miriam sang, after Israel escaped Pharaoh through the red sea:
“I will sing to the Lord!
He has done great things.
He threw horse and rider
into the sea.”
Like Christ’s mother Mary sang, after God’s Angel honored her as the vessel of the coming Messiah:
“God brought down rulers from their thrones
and raised up the humble people.
He filled the hungry with good things,
but he sent the rich away with nothing.”
Even though some of my faith traditions seem as old as stone, and sometimes shrouded in much violence and, yes, patriarchy, I am so grateful to have the songs and victories of these women to light the way for me in times that seem so dark. The songs of Miriam and Deborah are thought by many scholars to be the oldest Hebrew poems – some of the first parts of what we now call The Bible to be written down. That’s cool, right?
If you look at your reading again, you’ll notice one detail I haven’t mention yet. Deborah is described as the “wife of Lappidoth.” And while that is probably a correct translation of the Hebrew, another valid reading of that phrase could be “woman of fire.” There is no distinction between the words “woman” and “wife” in Hebrew; “lappidoth” is a plural of the word for “flame” or “fire.” Names are incredibly meaningful in the Hebrew Bible, and Deborah here is no exception. Her given name means “honey bee” – evoking images of sweet nourishment, sustenance. Remember the Promised Land was called “the land of milk and honey”? But she is also a woman of fire – a torch that Israel was able to follow into the darkness, which eventually culminated in a celebration of victorious light.
The gospel is at work here. Not only in Mary’s song, and the life of her son, our Christ. The gospel is at work in Miriam’s song. The gospel is at work here with Deborah. The gospel is at work in Rosemarie Aquilina, a modern day judge who recently allowed more than 100 young female athletes to give testimony before sentencing their sexual abuser to prison. The gospel is at work in the 98% of black female voters who stood up, and showed up, to keep a child molester out of office in Alabama.
YHWH gave the Israelites a miraculous pillar of fire to light their way by night as they fled Pharaoh’s army. And these stories, old and new, are the torches that God is giving us to warm ourselves when the world freezes; to light our way in dark times. We must still walk the path ourselves, make no mistake. But we need light to see by! Light won’t make our feet move. Light won’t sustain us, or make us take that next step. But the light gives us bravery to know where we are going. To know who goes before us. To know that we are not alone.
Who am I in this world of movements and arguments and resistance? Who am I when I’m not sure if I can make a difference? When I’m tempted to just keep to the status quo or remain silent or back down from a challenge?
I am Deborah.
It’s not just something on my driver’s license or what I sign on the back of checks. This name has been a part of me for twenty-eight years, the most visible part of my identity. The strange power of names to shape and guide has led me to study and fall so deeply in love with the story of this first Deborah, which so many others miss or forget about even if they grow up in church.
I have been told many untruths. I have been told that women were never meant to occupy traditionally male spaces, like the courtroom, the battlefield, or the white house. I have been told that God only places women in leadership as a backup plan – when there are no men around to do anything. But I know that I don’t have to listen to those words. Because I have Deborah. Here, in the most patriarchal part of my holy book, is Deborah, woman of the flames, who lights the way into battle and claims victory in YHWH’s name – and her own name. My name.
What do you have to cling to when the world seems broken beyond repair, and when you have been discouraged for so many years, and it seems like justice and equality are so far off? You have Mary and Martha, as Kirstin reminded us last week. You have Miriam. You have Deborah. You have Mother Teresa and Annie Lee Cooper. Saint Joan of Arc and Sojourner Truth. Harriet Tubman and Corrie Ten Boom. We each fight our different battles, but in looking to our sisters in faith, all of us can learn to be confident in our own individual destiny, mission, identity, and worth. We can be reminded that we are beloved, capable, godly leaders. These torches help us grasp on again to who we are – they help us become better and stronger and braver. We are not without hope. We are not without light.
At St. Lydia’s this season we will take time after the sermon to reflect and confess. We’ll write our confessions and hang them from the branches above.
What do you feel moved to confess?
Who are some torches you can pay attention to, to help light your way in times of darkness? How can you go on to light the way for others? What stands in your way of finding hope and light in Christ?
Debbie Holloway makes her home in Brooklyn, New York. She loves film critique, creativity, advocating for kindness, Mexican food, yoga, GIFs, getting rush tickets for Broadway shows, and reading on the subway. You can find her songleading at cooking at St. Lydia’s, writing at Narrative Muse, and occasionally making pictures here.