Judges 4: 1 – 16 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. At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. 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 judgement. 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. 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.”’ 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.’ 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. Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh; and ten thousand warriors went up behind him; and Deborah went up with him. Now Heber the Kenite had separated from the other Kenites, that is, the descendants of Hobab the father-in-law of Moses, and had encamped as far away as Elon-bezaanannim, which is near Kedesh. When Sisera was told that Barak son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor, Sisera called out all his chariots, nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the troops who were with him, from Harosheth-ha-goiim to the Wadi Kishon. Then Deborah said to Barak, ‘Up! For this is the day on which the Lord has given Sisera into your hand. The Lord is indeed going out before you.’ So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with ten thousand warriors following him. And the Lord threw Sisera and all his chariots and all his army into a panic before Barak; Sisera got down from his chariot and fled away on foot, while Barak pursued the chariots and the army to Harosheth-ha-goiim. All the army of Sisera fell by the sword; no one was left.
Reflection The Book of Judges tells us little about Deborah save that she was Judge over Israel. Judges were leaders recognised as being anointed by God to lead the people in time of trouble. At this point the Jews were a disparate grouping of tribes united by a shared religion and history but not by the institutions of a nation – there was no Temple, no monarchy, no capital, no central institutions. Deborah was a prophet and a judge. We don’t know how or why she had been recognised as such but there are some clues in the text – not least she appeared rather successful. It’s not clear if the Hebrew is describing Deborah as the wife of Lappidoth, as the NRSV renders it, as a woman of Lappidoth or as a woman of fire. Given Deborah’s abilities I rather like the last possibility.
It is refreshing to see a fragment of a different social order in the Old Testament where part of the myth looks to a rather more radical way of understanding power. Judges weren’t appointed because their father had been a judge nor were they elected; instead they were recognised by the people as being raised up by God. The fact that a woman rose to this office is remarkable given the patriarchy of the age. The Bible often describes women by their relationship to husband or father – if the Hebew simply meant “woman of fire” we’d see Deborah defined in her own right not as in relationship to a man. Like Jael, who we’ll meet tomorrow, Deborah has authority, control, and agency not only over her own life but over the people entrusted to her leadership. Barak seems to question Deborah’s authority. In response, their enemy, Deborah said, would be undone by a woman; a rather stinging rebuke to her general.
So today we remember Deborah, raised by God, war commander and feisty woman who protected her people. We pray for women everywhere today who wield authority – that we might build an equal world.
Prayer God of Deborah, we remember women who lead, grant them wit, wisdom and strength, that they be judged on their actions not their sex. Amen.
The Rev’d Andy Braunston is the URC’s Minister for Digital Worship and member of the Peedie Kirk URC in Orkney.