Judges is a terrible book.
There. I said it.
It is awful. It is violent. It is full of dark episodes and dark characters. If I got to put the Bible together, this is a book I would leave out. A lot of us would. Think about what we remember from Judges: Gideon and his fleece; Deborah and Barak; Samson and Delilah. We tell these stories in Sunday school and in Vacation Bible School and we make them tame and sanitary.
So we often forget, all too conveniently, the whole story Judges is telling. The first verse and the last verse of the book tell the story we need to hear:
“After Joshua died, the people of Israel asked a question of the Eternal One: “So now who will lead us in our wars against the armies of Canaan?” (Judges 1:1, The Voice).
“During that period, there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what seemed right to them (Judges 21:25, The Voice).
The book of Judges is telling us the story of God’s people looking for a leader. And they look everywhere EXCEPT to God. They are begging for a prophet like Moses or Joshua. They are longing for a king like the other nations. They turn to foreign gods and idols and begin to act like the ungodly people who live among them.
But they don’t turn to God. And by the end of the book, the only person each individual looks to is him/herself.
And that is a story we need to hear.
The book of Judges contains a cycle. The people of Israel enjoy a time of peace. However, in that time of peace they became complacent and lazy and quit doing the things they know they are supposed to do. They rebel against God in a variety of ways. Due to their rebellion, God sends the Israelites into some sort of oppression. Out of that oppression, the Israelites call out to God, begging Him to save them. At that point, God sends a deliverer, called a judge, to rescue them. Which brings another period of peace. Thus the cycle starts all over again.
The second judge we read about is Deborah (Judges 4, 5). She is not only a judge, she is also a prophetess. She is a spokesperson for God. She is a leader of God’s people.
This has caused problems for people in my denomination because we have taught for so long that only men can lead God’s people. So it is challenging when the Bible gives us a story of a woman who is in charge. I have listened to several arguments over the validity of calling Deborah a judge: maybe it’s really Barak who was the judge. Which leads me to two questions:
- Could you be any farther away from the point of the story?
- Have you actually read the story?
Deborah the prophetess becomes a judge, a deliver. The spokesperson for God (who is married by the way, but her husband is not the one who is called) is now to become the deliverer for God. People went to her to learn from her wisdom and to have her settle their disputes.
Because of the oppression brought on by Sisera, the enemy army’s general, Deborah sends for Barak. Who is afraid to do what Deborah calls him to do.
Barak is not the savior of the story, stepping in to be the hero to Deborah’s damsel in distress. Barak, in fact, tells Deborah he will only go and do that which he is called to do if Deborah will go with him. This does not necessarily mean he is afraid; after all, he is a general. But it may mean that he realizes the God given power and wisdom that exists within Deborah.
Because God uses anyone who is willing; whether they are a female spokesperson or an acclaimed general.
God also acts in ways that we don’t understand. When the war starts, Deborah has to wake up Barak to come and see what is happening. And what is happening is quite remarkable. Barak and his army watch while Sisera’s army basically destroys themselves.
So what happened? Who knows? God did something.
God delivered His people in a way His people could not fully comprehend.
Then Deborah sings a song. There is something powerful in poetry. There is a depth of emotion in our music. We say so much to God through the words we sing.
Deborah sings (at least) three important things:
1. God moves. “Eternal One, when You went out from Seir and marched from the field of Edom, the earth shook, and the heavens poured; yes, the clouds poured water. The mountains flowed like water before the Eternal, the God of Sinai; they melted into a flood before the Eternal One, the True God of Israel” (Judges 5:4,5, The Voice).
God moved, and the earth responded. God moved, and the enemy was defeated. God moved, and His people were delivered.
2. God often uses the lowliest to perform the greatest deeds. “But Jael, the wife of Heber, the Kenite—most blessed of women is she, favored above all women who dwell in tents!… At her feet (Sisera) bowed, he fell, he dropped silent. At her feet he fell, he dropped, and where he dropped, there he lay dead” (Judges 5:24, 27, The Voice).
Jael is an incredible character. She recognized Sisera when he was escaping the death and destruction befalling his army. She invited him into her tent, gave him some milk, allowed him to lay down, covered him up, and waited until he fell asleep.
And then she drove a tent spike through his forehead.
Remember that discussion about the validity of Deborah’s judge-ness? Not only was a woman called to be a prophet and a judge, a woman was called to bring about the ultimate defeat of the enemy general.
Man, woman, black, white, brown, red, yellow, rich, poor, homeless, young, old are categories that do not matter in the eyes of God. God does not see as humans see. God sees His children. All of us.
3. God’s enemies are left wondering what happened. “The mother of Sisera waited for him, watching through the lattice of the window. “Why is his chariot so long in returning?” she wondered. “Where are the hoofbeats of his horses?” Her wisest ladies in waiting have answers—in fact, she herself thinks she knows the reason. “Aren’t they still dividing the spoils of a successful battle?” (Judges 6:28, 29, The Voice). Umm, actually Sisera’s mom: No. They aren’t.
Just like Sisera’s army was thrown into confusion and chaos on the battlefield, the enemies of the Lord are doomed to perish. Eventually. Even when they outnumber God’s people. Even when they are stronger. Even when they are smarter.
Because God delivers His people.
I don’t like Judges. It is violent. It is dark. In many ways, it is depressing.
But it is the story of God’s people. It is the story of God acting in the lives of people who mess up again and again. It is the story of how an earthly master came to exist among God’s people.
And it is a story that fits the 21st century church all too well.