“Wisdom like Deborah’s”
(Excerpts from Judges 4)
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 Jabin 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 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. 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. 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. Now Sisera had fled away on foot to the tent of Jael wife of Heber the Kenite; for there was peace between King Jabin of Hazor and the clan of Heber the Kenite. Jael came out to meet Sisera, and said to him, “Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; have no fear.” So he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. Then he said to her, “Please give me a little water to drink; for I am thirsty.” So she opened a skin of milk and gave him a drink and covered him. Then Jael wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple – and he died. Then, as Barak came in pursuit of Sisera, Jael went out to meet him, and said to him, “Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.” So he went into her tent; to find Sisera lying dead, with the tent peg in his temple. So on that day God subdued King Jabin of Canaan before the Israelites.
I have been asked many times during my many years in ministry to share how it is that I believe my call to ministry to be valid. I have come to understand that this thinly veiled question is actually asking me how I, a woman, can justify the validity of my call to pastoral ministry. I suspect that this question arises from the sad fact that so little information is shared in our churches today about the great female heroes, and the women involved in ministry and mission found in the Holy Scriptures. There are stories about many great women of faith found in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. As a step toward rectifying this situation, by enlightening us about these great women, I decided to share with you this morning the story of one of the greatest female heroes of our faith, the prophet Deborah.
By way of an introduction to our story, Deborah is believed to have been a prophet to the people of Israel for the forty years from 1107-1067 B.C. This was an era, before Israel had kings reigning over the nation, when judges were chosen to guide and judge the people. As a prophet, Deborah received the word of the Lord, and she delivered God’s messages to her people. It is likely the wisdom and of her prophecies, as she spoke the word of God she received, were so trustworthy and reliable that the people of Israel chose to entrust her as a judge over the affairs and disputes that arose among them. And so it is extremely important that we understand the significance of Deborah’s role as a judge over her people; for it was not commonplace in those days for women to hold roles of power and authority as Deborah held.
The scriptures inform us that Deborah would sit under the palm tree known as “the palm of Deborah,” and the people would come to seek her wise judgement over their disputes and other affairs they brought to her. On a certain occasion, Deborah sent for Barak, who led the armies of the Israelites, and she 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 with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.'” King Jabin had oppressed the Israelites cruelly for twenty years. Barak replied to Deborah that he would go and lead this battle only if she would also go alongside him. Deborah agreed to accompany Barak on his military campaign; however, she prophesied to him that the glory for this victory would not be his, for Sisera, the general of king Jabin’s, army would fall at the hands of a woman.
Barak led the armies into battle, with Deborah accompanying him, at Mount Tabor. The Lord caused Sisera and his armies to panic under the siege of Barak, and the armies of the Israelites overtook them, killing all of the soldiers. But Sisera fled the battle and holed himself up in the tent of Jael wife of Heber the Kenite, for King Jabin had kept peace with the Kenites. But, while Sisera rested in her tent, Jael killed him with a tent peg to his temple. When Barak later came in pursuit of Sisera, Jael brought him to her tent and showed him that she had gained victory over King Jabin by taking the life of his general Sisera. Indeed, as Deborah had wisely prophesied, the glory of the Israelites’ victory over King Jabin and his army came at the hand of a courageous woman.
On the surface, this is a great Old Testament story about a time in the history of Israel when God led the people to a victory in battle against their oppressive king. It is even more eventful in the story of the Jewish people because the heroes of this story are two strong and courageous women; Jael the wife of Heber, a Kenite woman who sided with the cause of the Israelites and killed general Sisera to ensure their victory, and Deborah. Deborah was a both judge and prophet. She spoke God’s word and then bravely followed it through by accompanying Barak into battle against King Jabin’s army. It was very uncommon for a woman of that time to hold a position of such power as a judge. This is a testament to God’s mighty work through Deborah that merited the people’s trust in her judgements. These were judgements author and speaker, Rhonda Stoppe, reminds us were faithful to the law and words she received from the Lord God. Thus, she became a great matriarch of Israel’s history. As we mentioned earlier, it was uncommon in that time for a woman to be elevated to a position of such great authority and power. Yet, it was not impossible; for nothing is impossible with God!
Down through the centuries, this great story has been a source of hope, inspiration, and courage to many women. Yet, sadly, as we look down these centuries and even into our world today, we find that the struggle of women for equality of opportunity and recognition of their initiative and gifts wages on. Wikipedia, one of my online reference sources, states this about women’s right to vote in our country:
Women’s legal right to vote was established in the United States over the course of more than half a
century, first in various states and localities, sometimes on a limited basis, and then nationally in 1920 with the passing of the 19th Amendment.
It took a fifty year struggle, with limited, often isolated successes along the way, for women to be granted the right to vote in this country; and, it took a Constitutional Amendment to ensure its uniform adoption and implementation. So, that was one hundred years ago. Let’s move forward in time to discuss something near to my heart as well as on my mind. Our own Methodist Denomination first ordained women as elders in full connection, with all of the ministerial rights and privileges of their male counterparts, in 1956; just 66 years ago, friends. And women are still being asked to justify our ministries with that frustrating question I shared with you this morning; “Why do you feel that you, as a woman, have a call to pastoral ministry?”
As if these factors alone are not enough to convict us of our sins, errors and omissions in our treatment of women as a nation, let me bring us into the present day with another harsh reality amid these difficult inflationary times. Statistics from Forbes inform us that in 2022 women workers in our nation earn, on average, 83 cents on every dollar earned by their male counterparts. I experienced this inequality in a former position. I was required to justify pay raise, and this raise was to make my salary equal to my male co-workers with the same job title and description. This trend is intensified in our country by the fact that many women are the primary caregivers their children, often meaning that they work shorter hours which further decrease their earnings and their eligibility for benefits that their male counterparts receive. As people of faith who are called by Jesus to show our love in the world through our actions of mercy, compassion, healing and justice, these situations, like so many other injustices we encounter, should both alarm us and motivate us to work for positive and meaningful change. As a reconciling church community, we need to dedicate ourselves to two important activities: caring for the needs of those who suffer injuries under the many forms of injustice that are found in our society, and advocating and working for positive change that will rectify the root causes of these injustices for the future. The time has come, and now is, for opportunities to improve the quality of life be made equally accessible to both men and women. We have many Deborah’s, many women of great faith leading the charge toward victory over the gender inequality that exists in our land today. May we work for the day when Paul’s word to the Galatians truly ring true, when “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” In the 11th Century B.C., the wisdom and courage of Deborah allowed her to break gender stereotypes and barriers to lead her people to victory over their oppressive king. May we summon the same wisdom and courage that is needed to break the stereotypes and barriers to full equality that oppress all God’s people living in this very time and place. Amen.