Who doesn’t love a good story? Good vs Evil, light vs dark. An unlikely Hero rising up to take on a powerful enemy. In the Book of Judges we see God calling men and women to heroic action. But the story isn’t over, He may be calling you.
Today w’re going to look at a character from the book of Judges in the Old Testament.
And to start, I want to say a word about how to read the Bible and how to read the book of Judges in particular because it’s kind of a strange book for us.
Often in our day, people think the Bible is kind of a dull book mostly about morals.
It would not have been read that way at all by its original audience.
The book of Judges was to that audience a lot more like what an action movie would be to us in our day.
So this is how we should get ready for this story.
From the Marvel superhero universe, if you know that at all, and for this story, you want to think about two characters in particular — Iron Man, who has an impenetrable suit made of iron, and Thor, the great Scandinavian superhero, and his super weapon. Do you know it? A hammer.
So keep that in mind — Iron Man and Thor with his hammer.
In Judges, a lot like in an action movie, the heroes are basically fighting for the good side, but they’re very flawed, and they’re often prone to anger and sometimes to ego, and the action is often dark and morally complex and ambiguous.
People sometimes don’t understand the biblical writers are very capable of giving clear, moral instruction when it’s time to do that, and they do that.
But in narrative they often make the reader work through what’s good, what’s bad, and what’s mixed, because human life is very, very mixed.
In the book of Judges, the bad guys are really bad. There’s a moral arc to the universe, but it often looks very precarious, and the darkness of human actions is showed very clearly, partly to show what’s at stake in God’s world.
The book of Judges would have been read with the same kind of excitement and delight by ancient audiences that we get in a great movie about Thor, Iron Man, or whoever, but with the knowledge that behind the scenes God is at work in actual human history (these are not comic book characters) to ever so slowly teach Israel and eventually humanity there is a moral and spiritual reality underneath this world and that finding it and conforming to it is the ultimate battle for you and me and our world.
That’s the book of Judges (kind of like an action movie but with really deep stuff going on underneath).
Here’s the situation for our story.
God has delivered Israel from slavery from Pharaoh in Egypt.
They went through the wilderness for 40 years. They’ve now been brought into the Promised Land.
They don’t have any kings yet, but they have a problem. This is Judges 4.
Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. (Judges 4:1)
There’s a recurring cycle in the book of Judges.
Israel was brought into the Promised Land, but it gets idolatrous and corrupt.
God gives them over to their enemies.
In their suffering, they cry out, “God, help us!”
God will send a deliverer called a judge in this book, and Israel gets liberated, and they experience peace and then prosperity.
Then, they get self-sufficient.
They forget about God.
They get idolatrous.
And that cycle just keeps going over and over.
That’s the point of the whole book of Judges. It gets darker and darker.
We’ll look at what happens in one particular cycle.
They forget about God.
So the Lord sold them into the hands of Jabin king of Canaan.
Now, the Canaanites are bad guys in this story.
In a good story, there’s often an image that recurs that you want to watch, and that’s the case here.
They’re sold and given over “into the hand,” and hand is a theme or an image we need to watch for in this story.
King Jabin had a general named Sisera. Sisera is the arch villain in this piece, so think Hitler, Bin Laden, Stalin, or someone like that.
Because he [Sisera] had nine hundred chariots fitted with iron and had cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years, they cried to the Lord for help. (Judges 4:3)
The bad guys have Iron Age technology. This is relevant because Israel does not at this point in its history.
Iron chariots are the problem.
If you don’t have iron, iron is the enemy you cannot defeat.
You face iron chariots on your own and you’re going to lose every time.
General Sisera is kind of like Iron Man only he’s a bad guy.
Sisera was cruel, oppressive and vile in ways that we will not fully understand until we get to the end of this passage.
So Israel is in trouble.
Israel needs a hero.
Israel needs someone of tremendous strength and invincible courage and unconquerable faith.
Israel needs someone who would rather die than grovel.
And in the hill country of Israel there is such a hero.
Now Deborah, a prophet, 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 went up to her to have their disputes decided. She sent for Barak. (Judges 4:4-6)
Now, this is very interesting.
Israel is being led in this crisis by a woman.
Sometimes people think, according to the Bible, women are not supposed to lead men, but here she is.
Sometimes people think it’s okay for women to lead in certain limited areas, but at home they have to be led by their husband.
Here, the text tells us quite deliberately Deborah was the wife of Lappidoth, so a little syllogism for those of you who are into logic.
First, Deborah was leading Israel.
Secondly, Lappidoth, her husband, was part of Israel.
Therefore, Deborah was leading Lappidoth, her husband.
And that was God’s choosing.
I wonder how she responded when God called her. I wonder if any part of her said, “No, God, I can’t do that! That job is for boys.”
God said, “I know what I’m doing. I made women just like I made men, and I’m not calling your husband to do this. I’m not calling Gideon to do this. I’m not calling Joshua. I’m not calling Samson. Not now. I’m calling you. Deborah, you’re the one I want.”
Do you know God is calling you right now? Male or female, it doesn’t matter.
God has a great battle for you to engage in.
It may or may not look dramatic to anyone else, but it’s there.
I wonder what you’re saying to your call from God to that battle.
God calls Deborah to be a warrior.
In the book of Judges, that’s what they are. They’re primarily warriors.
But it’s very interesting. In this text we’re told she’s also a prophet.
That was not normally the case, so she’s a great warrior leader, and she’s also a great prophet.
Not only that, she’s the only judge in this book who actually settles disputes.
When we think of a judge, normally we’ll think of a courtroom figure in a robe. That wasn’t so much the case in this book, but it was for Deborah.
She’s the only one who hearkens back to Moses where the people would bring their disputes. And Deborah settles them.
She’s a warrior, and she’s a prophet (we’ll see how that plays out later on), and she’s deciding their cases. She’s a multitasker.
I’ll sometimes have conversations with people about multitasking. Is multitasking a good thing or not a good thing?
I don’t like it. I like single tasking.
Maybe because I’m a man and I don’t have to multitask like a lot of women I know.
Anyway, we’re told Deborah sends for Barak. Barak is the general in Israel.
In the book of Judges as was often the case in ancient literature and still in our day, to send for someone is the act of a person who is assuming authority, who is in power.
Being a woman, you might expect Deborah to go to Barak and tactfully offer a suggestion.
Make him think it was his idea. You know how men are.
But she doesn’t do this.
She’s leaning in. She’s a formidable character.
She tells Barak to take 10,000 soldiers to the Kishon River. That’s an old dried up wadi.
She says, “General Sisera will be there. Evil Iron Man with his 900 evil iron chariots, but don’t worry, General Barak,” because God has told her that God will deliver Sisera into Barak’s hands.
There’s that word “hands” again.
The audience would be loving this, and the audience would expect, of course, Barak, Israel’s general, is going to be the hero.
This is going to be the moment when Thor picks up his hammer and says, “Game on,” and goes after it.
But Barak does not say, “Game on.” He says something no one would be expecting at this point.
Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.” (Judges 4:8)
Really? A girl.
Girls can’t fight!
There are whole books by Christian authors in our day who say, “Boys are made by God to be warriors and girls are made by God to be beauties boys fight to rescue.”
It just turns out the Bible is not one of those books.
“Certainly I will go with you,” said Deborah. “But because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” (Judges 4:9)
That word “hands” again.
In any great action story (you all know about this), the final showdown has to be between the hero and the villain, the good guy and the bad guy, Batman versus the Joker, David versus Goliath.
Superman has to be the one to get rid of Lex Luthor, not Lois Lane, for crying out loud.
Lois Lane is going to be the rescuee not the rescuer, but here in this odd story in the Bible, Barak is not going to be the hero at all.
In fact, the hero is going to be a woman, and the listeners (the audience) would expect at this point, “I guess the hero must be Deborah.”
Barak calls the troops. Deborah goes up with him, as he asks.
The armies are in place.
The battle is about to begin.
Everyone is waiting for this moment. It’s like we’re watching a movie. This is the big climactic battle, and everyone is just paused with bated breath here because this is going to be good.
A huge battle, and the bad guys are going to get what’s coming to them (blood, gore, spears, horses, maiming, gouging, beheaded death).
Except it’s not. That’s not what happened.
They all know it’s coming, but it doesn’t.
Here’s the next line in this story.
Now Heber the Kenite… pitched his tent by the great tree… (Judges 4:11)
The audience is thinking, “Who in the world cares about whoever Heber the Kenite is and why he’s pitching his tent someplace?”
The story gets even stranger.
There’s a battle. Israel wins the battle against General Sisera, but the battle doesn’t hardly get described here at all.
In fact, it’s not till the next chapter until what is called the Song of Deborah that we find out God sent a rainstorm and that wadi, the Kishon River, gets flooded and the iron chariot General Sisera is so proud of becomes a liability instead of an asset with the floods, and the bad guys lose.
The good guys win! That’s what happens, but it hardly gets described here.
To make matters worse, General Sisera, the arch villain in the piece (the bad guy), gets away on foot, and he comes to a tent, the tent of Jael who is the wife of Heber the Kenite, another woman in this story of great battles!
Now, the Kenites were not part of Israel. They were not good guys.
They were tent dwellers. They were considered nomads.
The word in our culture would be something like hillbillies or gypsies, a pejorative term. Polite people wouldn’t use it.
They were blacksmiths, which means they would be the ones who made the iron chariots that were being used by General Sisera and the bad guys.
This tribe had an alliance with the bad guys.
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 covered him with a blanket.
He expects he’s entitled to her generosity, so he says:
“I’m thirsty,” he said. “Please give me some water.” She opened a skin of milk, gave him a drink, and covered him up. (Judges 4:18-19)
She actually gives him milk, which is an act of generosity.
And she covers him with a blanket.
If you ever watch movies, you know anytime someone goes to sleep and another person covers them with a blanket, that’s always kind of a tender moment.
It’s always done to demonstrate the compassion of the heart of the blanket spreader, so we understand this woman Jael has a tender heart.
Sisera had said to Jael:
“Stand in the doorway of the tent,” he told her. “If someone comes by and asks you, ‘Is anyone in there?’ say ‘No.’” (Judges 4:20)
“Stand guard and lie for me, if need be,” because Sisera knows it would take a man — it would take quite a man — to bring him down.
Sisera has had his milk. He’s covered up with his blanket. He falls asleep. Cue the lullaby. He’s taking a nap.
Jael goes on with the story.
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 4:21)
Didn’t see that one coming!
Scrawny, little hillbilly lady — not even part of Israel — picks up the mighty hammer.
Thor turns out to be a girl. Who knew?
She picks up a tent peg and drives the nail into the evil general’s temple through his skull into his brain clear out the back of the skull and into the ground.
And this is in the Bible.
In case you’re wondering how serious this injury might have been, the text tells us. “She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died.”
No kidding! Maybe the three most unnecessary words in all of the Bible.
In case anyone missed this, in the next verse Barak comes by the tent and Jael invites him into her tent.
Just then 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)
In case anyone wasn’t paying attention to that, here’s what we read in the next chapter, in the poetic summary that’s called the Song of Deborah.
Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, most blessed of tent-dwelling women.
He asked for water, and she gave him milk; in a bowl fit for nobles she brought him curdled milk.
Her hand reached for the tent peg, her right hand for the workman’s hammer.
She struck Sisera, she crushed his head, [This is in the Bible!] she shattered and pierced his temple.
At her feet he sank, he fell; there he lay.
At her feet he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell—dead. (Judges 4:25-27)
Is anyone unclear on what happened to Sisera here?
What a shock to Sisera, because he knew only a man could take him down.
I think the last thing to enter his mind — other than that tent peg — was the thought that he had been defeated by a woman.
And not just a woman — Jael is called in the Bible the most blessed of women.
You have to understand. The audience is thrilled.
I mean, this is a dark story. This is a bloody story.
But the audience is cheering.
Because evil doesn’t win.
Because the injustice of the powerful does not have the last word.
Because, for all of the darkness and ambiguity, there is a moral arc to the universe.
If you want to know how vile Sisera’s oppression was, we get a glimpse of it at the very end of chapter 5 — Deborah’s Song.
It’s a very artfully constructed piece. It’s thought to be one of, if not the oldest passage in all of the Old Testament.
She imagines what happened back at Sisera’s home when he doesn’t come back.
She creates this little fictional moment where Sisera’s mom, the general’s mom, is waiting and looking out the window for her son to come back home, but he doesn’t.
One of the servants says to her, “Sisera and the boys must be enjoying the plunder of winning the war as they always did. ‘Are they not finding and dividing the spoils: a woman or two for each man…’”
“…a woman or two for each man…” That’s how Sisera rolls.
The act of assaulting innocent women who are made and loved by God has been a frequent part of war from the beginning of time, and it goes on today in our world, in our enlightened world.
Scholar Mark Thompson said that sexual assault continues to be used as a strategic tool of war and genocide. In our world.
Eighty percent of all refugees and displaced persons of war are women.
“…a woman or two for each man…”
These were real people who lived thousands of years ago with real daughters and sisters and moms.
In the Hebrew it’s even more graphic.
It would literally be translated a womb or two for each man. — Just a body part. A womb or two for each man.
That’s what sin does.
That’s what evil does.
That’s what this man, Sisera, and his soldiers do.
That’s part of what God was saving his people from.
That’s why the people are cheering.
“Not this time,” God says.
The end of Judges 5 says:
Then the land had peace for forty years. (Judges 5:31)
Now, this is just one story of many stories that would come to involve exile and suffering over which God would show Israel and humanity that our real battle is fought most often with prayer and suffering love not tent pegs and hammers.
But the darkness of this world and the battle goes on.
A Christian scholar named Elaine Storkey has written a book called Scars Across Humanity: Understanding and Overcoming Violence Against Women.
This is our world today, not Deborah’s.
Acts of violence to women aged between 15 to 44 across the globe produce more deaths, disability, and mutilation than cancer, malaria, and traffic accidents combined.
From selective abortion to domestic abuse to genital mutilation to sexual assault, it is epidemic in our world and often deeply embedded in cultures.
You see, the need for heroes has not passed.
And maybe God is calling you to be a Deborah.
In 2017, allegations about the abuse of power by a man named Harvey Weinstein to intimidate and violate and silence young women began a movement.
An actress named Alyssa Milano asked those who had experienced sexual assault to use the hashtag #metoo, and within minutes, social media was flooded with millions of stories, every one of them with a name and a face behind them. Every one of them.
And you would think the church would be the greatest champion for women, but often you’d be wrong.
A study cited by Elaine Storkey found that 95 percent of Christian women who go to Christian churches say they have never heard a sermon declaring abuse is wrong.
Sometimes the church has been worse than silent.
There’s a prominent church leader who said if a woman is being physically abused by her husband that woman should remain in the home and submit to further violence.
Are you kidding me?
That is not biblical.
It is not godly.
It is not Christlike.
It is not God’s will.
It is not right.
If you’re in a marriage or a relationship and there’s physical aggression and you’re the victim of abuse, get out! Get safe.
Talk to a pastor at Blue Oaks. We will help. It is not right.
Violence against victims is evil and wrong.
The abuse of power for sexual gratification is evil and wrong. It is against God’s will, and the church ought to be the first and the loudest to say so.
We live in a world of injustice and darkness and sin, and that’s part of what the book of Judges paints in ways that make us very uncomfortable.
The writers of Scripture intend for that to be the case and they all agree in this world there is a great battle.
I wonder what battle God is calling you to fight.
It’s probably not going to involve a hammer and a tent peg. Probably not.
God was on a long journey to teach the human race about the real battle, and it took a long time in exile and suffering, and it reached its peak many centuries later with a man named Jesus who, by the way, freely laid aside his superpowers.
A big Roman soldier picked up a hammer and a nail and drove a nail through each one of those hands.
There’s that little image of hands again, because the real battle was won by nail-scarred hands on a cross.
Jesus won that battle not by inflicting violence and hate, not the way we think our action movies are going to be won, but by bearing violence and hate. Now, that’s a story.
His Father raised him on the third day, and now we’re part of that battle scene.
If you follow him, you’re part of that battle.
It wages out there but it also wages in here, that battle between good and evil inside every one of us.
Paul put it like this. “For our battle is not against flesh and blood…” People are not the enemy. “…but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil…”
They are real and they are iron chariots and you cannot defeat them on your own, and neither can I.
What battle is Jesus calling you to?
Maybe your battle is against an addiction.
That’s a worthy battle.
And I know there’s darkness there.
Maybe God is calling you to fight a battle against anxiety or depression.
Some of the greatest heroes I know and admire and love are fighting that battle, and no one knows outside of God.
Maybe you’re fighting to save a marriage or to reconcile a relationship with your child.
Maybe God is calling you to stand with the most vulnerable, for people who are experiencing homelessness and so often in our culture the shame that goes with it.
Or for suffering immigrants or for frightened children or for the unborn or for veterans in a hospital who everyone has forgotten.
What you need to know when you’re called to the battle is that you do not fight alone.
There’s a wonderful ending to this story.
Chapter 5 is called the Song of Deborah.
Judges 4 tells the story, and Judges, chapter 5, is called the Song of Deborah. It’s a whole chapter.
By the way, guess who wrote the song of Deborah. It’s not a trick question. Take a wild guess.
Deborah. That’s a woman, and it’s the fifth chapter of Judges.
In other words, it’s a part of the Bible. In other words, a part of the Bible was written by a woman named Deborah.
It’s called the Song of Deborah.
Song is a kind of theological reflection.
It’s not like a tune for the radio. It’s not like it goes, “Oh, Sisera is dead! They nailed him in the head.” It’s not that kind of a song.
It’s an expression of theological reflection to reveal the deep spiritual truth about what has been going on in the world.
This is what Deborah is saying in this Song of Deborah. — “It was God who fought the battle. It was God who gave the victory. The mountains quaked before the God, the Lord of Israel.”
The final words of Deborah, chapter 5, are:
But may all who love you [Lord] be like the sun when it rises in its strength. (Judges 5:31)
Not may all who sit in powerful offices with great titles.
Not may all who drive luxurious cars and live in giant homes.
Not may all who command vast amounts of wealth.
No. There’s another kingdom.
“But may all who love [the Lord] be like the sun when it rises in its strength.”
For God loves to use people who our world thinks are marginal.
His strength is made perfect in weakness.
There is a big God. There is a really big God, bigger than old General Sisera and bigger than his chariots of iron, bigger than your addiction, bigger than your failure, bigger than your disease, bigger than your problem. I promise you.
Bigger than oppression, bigger than injustice, bigger than evil, and he will give you courage if you ask and he will give you wisdom if you ask and he will give you love if you ask.
There is a great battle. There is a great battle, and this is your day.
You do not fight alone.
So show up.
Be a hero.
Let me pray for you.
Heavenly Father, you know about the battle everyone here is fighting, big or small, public or private, whether they’re feeling like they’re filled with resources or feeling alone and inadequate.
Heavenly Father, for all of us who are followers of Jesus, we place our lives this moment in his hands.
We know what it is to go up against iron chariots. We do not trust Jesus in our own strength, our own power, our own courage, or our own smarts. Just him. Just our friend. Just those nail-scarred hands and that blood-stained cross and that empty tomb. Help us, God, fight the battle well. We pray in his name, amen.
Blue Oaks Church