Our text this morning comes from the time in Jewish history known as “the days of the Judges.” It’s that part of Jewish history told in a “minor key” because it was a time of shame and apostasy by the people of Israel.
Think about it, they had inherited the land from giants! I’m not talking about the giants they feared upon their return from Egyptian slavery. I’m talking about the spiritual heritage from the giants of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Miriam and Aaron, and most recently, Joshua. The days of the judges predated the coalition of tribes united by Saul and the Shepherd King known as David. Instead of glory, they were known for the cycle repeated over and over again:
Israel sinned and Yahweh gave them into the hand of one of their enemies who oppressed them for a number of years. Israel then cried out to the Lord, who sent a deliverer to save them from the enemy. The land had rest for a period of years, then Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and the cycle repeated itself.
This turn of the cycle is told in Judges 4 and 5. The narrative story of chapter 4 is repeated in chapter 5 in poetic form better known as the “Song of Deborah,” and it is regarded as one of the most ancient Jewish writings known to exist.
In this story the prophetess Deborah goes to Barak with the word of the Lord: “Gather the tribes of God at Mt. Tabor and prepare to meet our invading neighbor, Sisera, the Canaanite commander, in the valley of Jezreel.”
The Canaanites had controlled the Israelites for 20 years and oppressed them cruelly. They were powerfully equipped, and from a military point of view the Israelites would naturally expect the Canaanites to again crush them in battle. Now outfitted with iron weaponry, Sisera commanded a unit consisting of 900 chariots, while the less well-armed Israelites were on foot.
Ironically, the battle took place in the rainy season, and the Kishon River overflowed its banks, spilling out across the valley and turning it into mud and muck. When all those chariots rolled out onto the valley floor they were immediately stuck up to their axles in mud. Everything about the battle changed in that one moment, and the Israelites rushed into the mud and killed all the Canaanites easily. Because of Barak’s lack of faith, Deborah told him that he would not share in the glory of the battle and instead a woman would win the glory of victory.
Sisera escaped from the chaos of battle and fled the valley to higher ground where he met Jael, a Kenite woman, who went out to Sisera and showed him kindness and hospitality, as was the Bedouin custom. She invited him to rest in her tent. She urged him to not be afraid and provided shelter for him. She gave him milk to quench his thirst, and soon he fell asleep as she stood guard from the Israelites who were seeking him. As Sisera slept, Jael took a tent stake and hammer and drove the stake into his temple killing him!
As she stepped out of her tent, Barak arrived in hot pursuit and this simple tribeswoman, Jael, the Kenite, had the glory of defeating the commanding leader of the Canaanite army. With this victory, the Israelites were able to press on to complete victory over the Canaanites.
In an age when men ruled the earth and women were commonly bought and sold as property, a woman came along who was given the message of God and the wisdom to judge. In this compelling Hebrew story, there is a woman appointed by God to be the spokesperson for the divine message. Deborah is her name, and clearly she is unlike any other woman of her time. Her power came from God; she was powerful and wise because God created her that way.
Patriarchalism was a system where virtually every power and aspect of human existence was vested in men. Women in the ancient world were powerless and often victimized, having few rights of their own. This was true all the way through the New Testament era until modern times, when women have gradually been granted powers and abilities far beyond anything in ancient history. Even in America, women have only been given the right to vote since the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, whose 100th anniversary will be celebrated three presidential elections to come. Thus, we are all pioneers of a movement that has a very short existence.
In some liberating ways, the message of the New Testament is a message of hope for the giftedness of women. An example would be to observe Jesus at the well as he spoke to the woman drawing water. Listen to the way he recognized her as a unique person. The Gospel stories of Jesus are filled with one example after another showing Jesus as the great liberator of women. Sadly, however, men continue to twist these same stories to continue suppressing women.
Beyond the example of Jesus, the history of the church has largely maintained the ancient model of female subservience. In our own time, conservatives controlling the Southern Baptist Convention affirmed the old order whereby women are given a secondary place in our churches, citing the story of the creation that woman was created from man and then fell for the temptations of the serpent in the Garden.
I’m glad this is a church that has found room for the gifts of both male and female to be expressed equally. Maybe our task is to look long and hard at stories like this one to see how God responded to the issue of sex and gender in the telling of the story of how God has moved in human events. Thus, this story instructs us in several ways ¦
Keith Herron is senior pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo. He holds degrees from Baylor University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a doctor of ministry degree from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. He and his wife, Wanda, have a son and daughter, Ben and Alex.