Dr. Anne M. Cameron
August 08, 2011
First in a series, "Unlikely Heroes and Heroines in the Bible"
The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, after Ehud died. 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 he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly 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."
Whew! Did you get all that? I am so grateful for gifted reader interpreters! What an epic poem! The story of the victory over the Canaanites is one of the most ancient bits in the entire Bible. Something like 3,500 years old.
Wednesday evening after I had spent the better part of a day reading and researching this stuff, I said to myself, "what in the world was I thinking?! This is really tough! What could God be saying to us in this strange and violent story?" Perhaps there is a message about heroes here.
Heroes and heroines. We love them. We do. We love "heroics." Heroic measures, the last minute, instantly brilliant solution, the "Hail Mary pass", the seemingly impossible efforts come to fruition.
Heroes and heroines. Americans aren't alone in our endless fascination with them, but we may win the prize in the Hero Worship Olympics. Just recently I have begun to read, "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong." It is required summer reading for AP American History students at Lake Highlands High School. One of the author's big shticks seems to be this: History books paint historical figures as either all good or all bad. The foibles and mistakes of America's heroes are never mentioned in high school history texts. Presidents and barons of industry are painted as godlike: without flaw, far above the madding crowd.
Contrast this with Holy Scripture. The Bible is not a history book in the sense of a high school textbook, but rather a witness to God's actions in and through history, people, and circumstances. The Bible recounts the story of God's relationship to people through thick and thin. Heroes in the Bible are anything but godlike. Biblical heroes and heroines are never sanctified, sanitized, and shrink wrapped. We get the whole truth and nothing but the truth: the gory details, the conniving sins, even the cowardly resistance of ordinary people God uses to do extraordinary things.
Today we begin a series on Biblical heroes and heroines, with an accent on some unlikely folks. It won't be "Lies my teacher told me" but rather "Truths I missed in the Bible." All of the folks we are going to encounter: Deborah, Gideon, Jacob, Daniel, and Esther---are Old Testament figures. The stories we will consider are "off the beaten track."
The book of Judges portrays stories of some dozen of Israel's judges. From good to bad and everything in between. These stories have a similar format: Israel abandons God ("does evil"). God abandons Israel. People cry out to God for mercy. God raises up a leader. God saves.
Judges were charismatic. They were military, civil, and religious leaders all rolled into one.1 Deborah was one of the most remarkable people to emerge during the 350 year period charted in the book of Judges. Deborah was not only a judge, she was a prophet. She was the first prophet since Moses' day and one of only three women prophets we encounter in the Hebrew Bible.2
Cast your mind back some 3000 years to the land of ancient Israel. Here you will find Deborah, a simple woman of God. She had made wicks for the lamps of the tabernacle. It wasn't much of a job. Paid nearly nothing. It was dirty, replacing those oily wicks. It was a humble and decidedly background role, but Deborah did it faithfully and with a sense of God's purpose. It wouldn't do to have the sanctuary lights go out!
She almost couldn't remember how the pattern of her life changed. It wasn't anything huge or dramatic. It just happened. It unfolded in a way she had not expected. One day she's twisting fibers for wicks, the next she is calming ruffled feathers. One day she's waiting on the priests to pay her meager fees, the next she is basking in the shade of her own palm tree. People are coming from far and wide to consult with her, to listen to her quiet wisdom as cicadas trill out their evening symphony.
Why would God choose a woman? In those times, in the ancient near east, women were nothing. They had no political rights. No property rights. Think modern day Taliban. True, individual women may have been treated well. Women weren't necessarily treated as slaves by their families or husbands. But they could be. There was nothing to stop it, except for the good grace of one's family.
Perhaps Jabin the powerful, King Jabin from the north, Emperor Jabin of the 900 iron chariots, wouldn't take much notice of a woman judge. Deborah was but a mere bee, buzzing around, annoying but harmless. How much trouble could a mere woman cause?
And yet Deborah becomes God's mouthpiece, correcting abuses, redressing grievances. Deborah becomes an instrument through which God once again saves sinful Israel from oppression. The prophet judge Deborah and the general Barak3 become a team, a lightning rod for God's power. But there's more, there is another woman, meek and mild, whose meekness belied a fervor for retribution and an eye for justice. Jael would quietly and cunningly effect a vital role, too, in this unfolding story.
Who is the hero here?
A busy woman? A general? A cunning woman? A coalition of human actors, none of whom could take single-handed credit for the victory.
Yahweh does the saving. It is not Deborah in her quiet certainty, nor Barak astride his trusty steed, not Jael plotting behind folds of canvas. It is God who does this.
Someone called this coup d'etat a theological sting operation. God uses people to dismantle oppressive systems. God uses people to change things. God uses unlikely people, unqualified people, and unexpected people. Sometimes God uses even strange combinations of people!
Thank God, we say. Thank God we don't not live in a country under siege. Thank God we don't have to take to the battlefield, call up armies, or plot with concealed weapons to overthrow evil.
Hmmm. And yet.
The battles we face are no less evil, no less pernicious than the ones dealt with in the book of Judges. Think for just a moment of what you struggle with most. What worries you most? What seems most hopeless in your life and in the lives of those you love? These are the battles God calls us step up to. To seek God's will above all else, to ask God's guidance, to tap into God's power. To do something, to respond to our understanding of God's will, and to do something about it. Remember, God uses heroes and heroines, too, to keep the lights on in the sanctuary! When we serve God, no task is too humble or too small. .
We know God uses people who don't seem to have much power to pour out God's grace. Deborah and Barak and Jael didn't think they counted for much. Alone, and without God, they were right. But with God in their court, they were unstoppable.
Let us pray: God of all power, guide us to the places where we can be most effective. Show us how we might play a part in your plans. Give us opportunities to serve you, to show your love to people who have given up, to demonstrate your power to those who have no hope, to be your instrument, to become a hero or a heroine for you. Help us remember we are valuable: never too old, never too young, never too slow, never too fast, to seek and live into your will for us. Put us together with others who will magnify our efforts and so serve you even better. Amen.