Friday 4 November 2011

Wonder women (Judges 4)

The best stories are the ones that catch us by surprise. We love a good twist in the tale. When Neo takes the red pill and wakes up from the Matrix. When Melody Song reveals her shocking secret identity on Doctor Who. When Anakin Skywalker embraces the dark side and becomes Darth... (oh wait, maybe that last one wasn’t such a big surprise after all!)

Judges Chapter 4 is about God saving Israel in a surprising and unexpected way. In this passage, he uses two women - one, a prophetess and the other, a housewife - to bring salvation to the nation of Israel. Yet, it is important to see that God does this for his own glory. He uses extraordinary circumstances, even foolish situations, so that we will not boast in our own ability and strength, but in the God’s power to save.

The problem

After Ehud died, the Israelites once again did evil in the eyes of the LORD. So the LORD sold them into the hands of Jabin, a king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. The commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth Haggoyim. Because he had nine hundred iron chariots and had cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years, they cried to the LORD for help.
Judges 1:1-3

Every good story needs a bad guy. Lex Luthor. Voldemort. Megatron. Someone formidable. Someone menacing. The Israelites were oppressed for twenty years, verse 3 tells us, under the rule of Jabin, King of Canaan. But the real villian of Judges 4 is a five-star military general by the name of Sisera. Verse 3 tells us that Sisera commanded a vast army of nine hundred chariots - the ancient equivalent of German Panzer tanks. The Israelites were helpless in the face of the Canaanites’ advanced weaponry and military prowess.

Having said that, Israel had a much bigger problem: themselves.

Verse 1 begins by describing how the people of Israel “did evil in the eyes of the LORD”. As a result, God “sold them into the hands of Jabin”. The root of the problem had nothing to do with the Canaanites’ nine hundred chariots but with the Israelites’ own constant, repeated, foolish rebellion against God. Last week, we read of Ehud, the left-handed judge raised up by God to save the nation from yet another foreign superpower. When Ehud died however, the people sank back into their old ways - rebelling against God and practicing evil in his sight.

Again, they call out to God for help. Again, God responds with mercy and faithfulness.


Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites came to her to have their disputes decided. She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead the way to Mount Tabor. I will lure Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.’”
Judges 4:4-7

There are twelve judges featured in the book of Judges. Deborah is the only female judge. Unlike most of the other male judges - or indeed, the other men, in general found in this book - it is striking that nothing negative is said whatsoever about Deborah’s character or her leadership capabilities. Her authority is recognised by the Israelites who “came to her to have their disputes decided”. When she summons Barak, the chief military commander in Israel, he complies. Verse 1 reads: she was “leading Israel”, a phrase the footnotes in my NIV bible states can be also translated as “judging Israel”. Meaning: she was a judge, chosen by God and used by God to lead the nation back to God.

Yet we must not forget that Deborah was first introduced to us as a prophetess and a wife.

As a prophetess, her job was to speak God’s word. When she calls Barak to meet her, it wasn’t to pull rank. She was delivering a message from God himself. “The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you,” she says. Not “I command you”. Furthermore, we should not misunderstand verse 7. When it says there, “I will lure Sisera... to the Kishon River,” these are not Deborah’s words but God’s. Deborah was nowhere near the Kishon River (as evident in verse 10, where Deborah is found alongside Barak).

Also, Deborah was married. We’re not sure if she had kids, but if so (and this was very possible) she may even have been a mom! What we do know for sure was that she had a husband, a man called Lappidoth (whom I can only assume she lovingly addressed as “Lappy” at home). She had a home, a husband, a family - and here, the bible thinks it important enough for us to know all of that about this woman.

So Debbie the judge, the mum and the prophetess, summons Barak and tells him that God will give Sisera into his hands. Barak, whose name means “lightning” in Hebrew, is to call on the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun for help, gathering ten thousand men for the fight. So the picture we have here is that of a seasoned army general, gathering a massive number of troops, assured by God that he will win the victory against a powerful foreign nation armed with the latest in technological weaponry.

Yet in front of this woman, Barak wimps out.

No glory

Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.” “Very well,” Deborah said, “I will go with you. But because of the way you are going about this, the honour will not be yours, for the LORD will hand Sisera over to a woman.” So Deborah went with Barak to Kedesh, where he summoned Zebulun and Naphtali. Ten thousand men followed him, and Deborah also went with him.
Judges 4:8-10

Barak insists that Deborah tags along. “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.” In part, this may be a recognition of God’s presence with Deborah, a presence that Barak thinks he needs to have with him in order to win the battle. After all, Moses said something very similar to God in Exodus 33 - a sign of Moses’ humility and utter dependence on God. Deborah agrees to the request but she adds, “Because of the way you are going about this, the honour (The ESV uses the word “glory”) will not be yours.” God had given Barak the promise of his word, but Barak wanted instead the presence of a woman. Because of this, Barak would win the victory, but the glory of the battle would go to another. “The LORD will hand Sisera over to a woman,” Deborah foretells.

So in verse 10 we have a picture of a massive number of troops - ten thousand men assembled, ready for battle, led by the great General Barak. But also, one woman by his side. “Deborah also went with him”. She did prophesy that “a woman” would get the glory. Barak perhaps thought Deborah was referring to herself, and wanted to keep this woman close by.

All of a sudden, we are introduced to a seemingly random new character in the story - a man called Heber.

Now Heber the Kenite had left the other Kenites, the descendants of Hobab, Moses’ brother-in-law, and pitched his tent by the great tree in Zaanannim near Kedesh.
Judges 4:11

We last met the Kenites in Judges Chapter 1 where they had settled down south in Judah. They were Moses’ in-laws. For some reason, Heber the Kenite decided not to stay with his tribe, but moved up north instead, pitching his tent near Kedesh, which was Barak’s hometown. But just as quickly as we are introduced to Heber the Kenite, the camera swiftly zooms back to the action.

Has not the LORD gone ahead of you?

When they told Sisera that Barak son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor, Sisera gathered together his nine hundred iron chariots and all the men with him, from Harosheth Haggoyim to the Kishon River.

Then Deborah said to Barak, “Go! This is the day the LORD has given Sisera into your hands. Has not the LORD gone ahead of you?” So Barak went down Mount Tabor, followed by ten thousand men. At Barak’s advance, the LORD routed Sisera and all his chariots and army by the sword, and Sisera abandoned his chariot and fled on foot. But Barak pursued the chariots and army as far as Harosheth Haggoyim. All the troops of Sisera fell by the sword; not a man was left.
Judges 4:12-16

Sisera hears of Barak’s troop movements and assembles the entire Panzer division, all nine hundred of his iron armored chariots, leading them into battle up Mount Tabor. Except in order to ascend this mountain, he passes through the Kishon River.

Something happens at the Kishon River. Something peculiarly which causes Deborah turn to Barak and say, “Go! This is the day the LORD has given Sisera into your hands.” adding these curious words, “Has not the LORD gone ahead of you?” What did she mean? What did she see?

We find the answer in Judges 5, a song which Deborah sang to commemorate the battle and the eventual victory Israel saw later that day.

From the heavens the stars fought,
from their courses they fought against Sisera.
The river Kishon swept them away,
the age-old river, the river Kishon.
March on, my soul; be strong!
Judges 5:20-21

The chariots were “swept away” by the river Kishon. It may simply have been that their wheels got stuck crossing the river bed, making them sitting ducks (Notice in Judges 4:15, Sisera “abandoning” his chariot). Or that a waters overcame the horses and a sudden rise in the levels drowned the Canaanite army as they crossed the river, not unlike what happened at the Red Sea with the Egyptians forces in Exodus 14. What Deborah does tell us clearly is that this was God’s doing. “From the heavens the stars fought... they fought against Sisera.” Or as she says to Barak here in Judges 4:14, “Has not the LORD gone ahead of you?”

Barak advanced against Sisera, followed by the his ten thousand troops, down Mount Tabor. Yet Judges adds, “At Barak’s advance, the LORD routed Sisera and all his chariots.” The battle was decisively won. “All the troops of Sisera fell by the sword; not a man was left.”

But the story hasn’t ended. Sisera gets away. And Barak is hot in pursuit of his prize.

Desperate housewife

Sisera, however, fled on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, because there were friendly relations between Jabin king of Hazor and the clan of Heber the Kenite. Jael went out to meet Sisera and said to him, “Come, my lord, come right in. Don’t be afraid.” So he entered her tent, and she put a covering over him. “I’m thirsty,” he said. “Please give me some water.” She opened a skin of milk, gave him a drink, and covered him up. “Stand in the doorway of the tent,” he told her. “If someone comes by and asks you, ‘Is anyone here?’ say ‘No.’” But Jael, Heber’s wife, picked up a tent peg and a hammer and went quietly to him while he lay fast asleep, exhausted. She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died.
Judges 4:17-21

Sisera flees the battle and seeks refuge in Heber’s home. It turns out that Heber is an ally, “there were friendly relations” between the Canaanite King Jabin and his family. Still, instead of hiding out in Heber’s garage, Sisera goes to the tent of Jael, Heber’s wife. We are not told why. Maybe he thought no one would look in a woman’s tent. Clearly he didn’t think Jael was a threat. She was so warm and welcoming, “Come, my lord, come right in,” she said. “Don’t be afraid,” probably implying that this five-star general was rather freaked out by the sudden defeat of his entire army.

“I’m thirsty,” Sisera says. He might as well as have added, “Mommy.” Like Sheldon from Big Bang Theory asking his neighbour Penny to sing Soft Kitty every time he falls sick.

“Soft Kitty, warm kitty, little ball of fur.
Happy kitty, sleepy kitty, purr purr purr.”

Jael offers him milk instead. How sweet. And notice how she keeps covering him up. Big strong menacing general Sisera comes into her tent, and Auntie Jael goes, “Come here sweety. Have a lie down. Did that big bully Barak smash all your shiny new tanks? Awww, you poor thing!” It’s ironic how Sisera tells Jael not to let anyone know he is hiding in her tent. Verse 20 literally reads, “If a man comes and asks, ‘Is there a man here?’ You say, ‘There is none.’” There is no man in this tent - a woman, yes, and a scared kid, maybe. But no man.

Sisera drinks his milk like a good little boy. Nice auntie Jill pulls the Star Wars sheets over him and kisses him good night. Then KeBAAAMMM!!!! He’s dead!

It’s like switching the channel in the middle of a CBBC kid’s programme to a late-night horror movie. In a split second, the sweet innocent house-wife turns into a serial killer! Jael takes a tent peg and hammer and “drove the peg through his temple into the ground”. As if to state the obvious, the author adds, “and he died.” Duh!

Meanwhile, Barak rides in with the cavalry, a little too late.

Barak came by in pursuit of Sisera, and Jael went out to meet him. “Come,” she said, “I will show you the man you’re looking for.” So he went in with her, and there lay Sisera with the tent peg through his temple—dead.
Judges 4:22

Deborah’s words were fulfilled. The victory may have been Barak’s, the battle won by the celebrated army general. But the glory went to a housewife.

But in actual fact, the glory went to God.

To God be the glory

On that day God subdued Jabin, the Canaanite king, before the Israelites. And the hand of the Israelites grew stronger and stronger against Jabin, the Canaanite king, until they destroyed him.
Judges 4:23-24

As if to say “Oh, and by the way, God took care of King Jabin.” It is mentioned almost in passing. The whole chapter was focussed on this one battle - on Deborah, Barak, Sisera, Jael and the nine hundred chariots, not to mention the ten thousand men. But God took care of the problem in an instant, “On that day”. Almost to drive home the point: God doesn’t need to use a general like Barak. God doesn’t see Sisera and his tanks as a threat. But he uses people like Barak and he confronts his people Israel with seemingly insurmountable forces like Sisera (remembering it was God who gave Israel into the hands of the Canaan) to show them - and to remind us of - his glory. He is God.

Come to think of it, the whole of Judges Chapter 4 is filled with twists and turns. Deborah the female judge. Barak the hesitant military commander. The nine-hundred tanks defeated by a bit of water. The five-star general assassinated by a housewife. The subjugation of an enemy king mentioned not on the front page, but in small print near the classifieds.

And the question is: Why does God do this? Why does God save like this?

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
1 Corinthians 1:18

The death of Jesus on the cross is foolish. It doesn’t make sense. It is weak, illogical, nonsensical even. How can a peasant dying on the cross two thousand years be relevant to my life today, much less, promise me eternal life, forgiveness of sin, release from the judgement of hell and bring me into a relationship with God?

It is foolishness - says the bible - to those who are perishing. But to us who are being saved it is power - the power of God! Why does God save through this strange and peculiar message of the cross - this message called the gospel? So that we will trust in him and not in our own abilities and strength.

Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.
1 Corinthians 1:26-30

You see, Judges 4 is not about impressive women. Nor is it about irresponsible men. That’s not the main message of the book or the bible. You don’t become a Christian by cleaning up your act, by becoming a successful career-mom or even by defeating the forces of evil, but only by trusting in the message of the cross - that Jesus Christ died for your sins on the cross as your substitute. When you come to Jesus, you cannot boast of your intellect, your A-level’s results or your XBOX achievement score. None of that impresses God.

The Christian’s only boast is Jesus. He is our wisdom: Our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Earlier on Deborah says to Barak, “This road you are on will lead not your glory - but to the glory of another.” The Christian hears this and says, “Hallelujah!” We thank God because this road leads us to Jesus.

Yet at the same time, all the glory that Jesus deserves as God’s Son, especially seen in his obedience on the cross, all that comes to us when we trust in him. He is our wisdom. Our righteousness. Our holiness. Our salvation.

Jesus is our glory.

In Christ alone will I glory
Though I could pride myself in battles won
For I’ve been blessed beyond measure
And by His strength alone I’ll overcome
Oh, I could stop and count successes like diamonds in my hands
But those trophies could not equal to the grace by which I stand

In Christ alone
I place my trust
And find my glory in the power of the cross
In every victory
Let it be said of me
My source of strength
My source of hope
Is Christ alone
(“In Christ Alone”, Brian Littrell)

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