Weekly Sermon Illustration: Deborah
In our blog post every Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick”¯Buechner”¯reading on the same topic.
Next Sunday, we will celebrate the Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost. Here is this week's reading from the book of Judges:
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 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 judgment. 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.'"
The following article was originally published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words:
Deborah was Israel's only woman judge. She looked like Golda Meir and did business under a palm tree. Her business consisted of more than just stepping in and settling things when people got in a wrangle. Like all the other judges of Israel, she was loaded with charisma, and whenever there was any fighting to be done, she was the one who was in charge. Even generals jumped when she snapped her fingers. Barak, for instance.
She summoned him to the palm tree and told him she wanted him to take ten thousand of his best men and beat the stuffing out of the Canaanite forces under a general named Sisera. Barak said he'd do it but indicated he'd feel more secure if Deborah came along. She said she would. She also said it was only fair to warn him, however, that the main glory of the day was going to be not his but a woman's because a woman was going to be the one to wipe out Sisera. In addition to her other hats, Deborah was also something of a prophet and had pronounced feminist sympathies.
Her prediction turned out to be correct, of course. Barak won the battle, but Sisera was disposed of by a lady named Jael in a rather spectacular way, which can be read about later in this book, and to make sure that Jael got all the credit that was coming to her, Deborah wrote a song to help spread the word around.
It is a wonderful song, full of blood and thunder with a lot of hair-raisingly bitter jibes at the end of it about how Sisera's old mother sits waiting at the window for her son to come home, not knowing that Jael has already made mincemeat of him. Deborah composed it, but she got Barak to sing it with her. Barak looked like Moshe Dayan, and it must have been quite a duet. The song brushes by Barak's role rather hastily, but it describes Jael's in lavish detail and must have gotten her all the glory a girl could possibly want. Yahweh himself gets a plug at the end—"So perish all thine enemies, O Lord!" (Judges 5:31)—but by and large the real hero of Deborah's song is herself. Everything was going to pot, the lyrics say, "until you arose, Deborah, arose as a mother in Israel" (5:7), and you can't help feeling that Deborah's basic message was that Mother was the one who really saved the day. And of course, with Yahweh's help, she was.
It's hard not to bridle a little at the idea of her standing under the palm tree belting out her own praises like that, but after all, she had a country to run and a war to fight, and she knew that without good press she was licked from the start. Besides maybe the more self-congratulatory parts of her song were the ones that she assigned to Barak.