The Canaanites have more advanced weapons technology than do the Israelites. The Canaanites have iron chariots. Not chariots made completely of iron – but wooden chariots held together with iron strapping. And even if the book of Judges exaggerates the number of chariots King Jabin has, it has many more such iron chariots than the Israelites have.
At this point in history, with the book of Judges, we are at the end of the late Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age. New technologies in metallurgy, and the practical application of those technologies, means a great deal in terms of the military superiority of one people over another.
And Israel is not only at a technological disadvantage in this context – they are also at a wider geographic disadvantage. The Israelites are largely peasants. They live in small villages. And theirs is largely a subsistence-level agricultural existence. The villages of Israel are scattered between the larger city-states of the commerce-oriented Canaanites.
So this military-technological advantage and this geographic advantage means that the Canaanites control the major roadways between the cities and through the villages. What is more, God’s people are living in a period of oppression as King Jabin of the Canaanites takes control of the roadways and cuts the Israelites off from participation in trade. They are isolated in their villages. Cut off from the resources they need. King Jabin outsources oppression and violence and abuse against the Israelites to one of his captains – named Sisera. As one verse in our passage for today suggests: “Village life in Israel had ceased.”
This reality and experience of oppression persists, as Deborah declares in her song in Judges chapter 5: “Until I arose, until I arose a mother in Israel.”
Who is this Deborah, whose name means bee, as in bumble bee? Who is this Deborah – and what does it mean that she arose as a mother in Israel? What is the significance for us of the fact her song, recorded in Judges chapter 5, is probably one of the most ancient passages in all of the Hebrew bible?
Often within the Hebrew Bible, and often within the New Testament, women are left unnamed. Yes, there are many named women, but there are many more unnamed women. We often end up referring to them in just that way: “The unnamed woman.” That woman whose identity is obscured. That woman who lives in the shadows, hardly permitted to be a self. That woman who has an identity only through her father or husband. But not Deborah. Deborah, obviously, has a name. And she has a song – the song of Deborah – the oldest song in the bible.
Interestingly, it is actually Deborah’s husband who might be the unnamed one. It says in our text for today that Deborah was the wife of Lappidoth – though this man is not mentioned anywhere else in the story. More important it is in fact possible that the word Lappidoth is not the name of a man – not a reference to her husband at all. Given the ambiguity of the Hebrew text here, it’s possible this word actually means woman of the torch. It’s possible we should read, not “Deborah wife of Lappidoth” but Deborah, torch woman.
In fact this makes some sense when we notice that within this narrative of Judges Deborah collaborates with a man named Barak – and the name Barak means “Lightening”. And so in the text we have an alliance and a working together of Deborah and Barak – in the text we have an alliance and working together of Torch and Lightning.
The oppression of God’s people persists – the lifelessness of their villages persists – “until,” as Deborah declares, “Until I arose, until I arose a mother in Israel.”
In our passage from Judges for today read: “At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, or woman of the torch, 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.”
There are a number of things to notice in this passage – the first being that Deborah was one who helped to address the disputes among her own people. She was a judge. In the midst of the Israelites shared life – even while they are under oppression and attack – the disputes of everyday life still arise.
Conflicts with neighbours still erupt.
Disagreements around contracts are still inevitable.
Among the judges whose lives and ministry are described in the book of Judges, Deborah is one who functions most clearly as a judge – in a kind of legal capacity. She has a reputation. She has a name. Presumably for fairness and for wisdom – presumably for honesty and a capacity to send both parties away happy. In the midst of daily life, she has her tree, she has her place where she settles in for daily work – the Palm of Deborah. The Israelites know where to find her when disputes arise.
This one who arises as mother in Israel, she executes justice among her people. She exercises the gift of wisdom among them.
But Deborah is more than a judge – and in fact her self-declared status as a mother in Israel doesn’t come primarily from her role as a judge. Rather, her status as mother in Israel comes from her role as a prophetess – as a prophet. As one who brings a word from God. Deborah is one who declares God’s purposes, who confronts God’s people with his truth, who declares to them his good purposes for their lives. She speaks the word of God.
In the midst of her people’s oppression, the most important word that Deborah offers is a word to Barak. He is a fighter. He is a military leader. And the word Deborah brings to him from God is this: “Get up, Barak. Go, Barak, take your position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand men from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. God will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, and God will give him into your hand.”
There is certainly violence in this text, and in this wider historical context. And a part of the violence is that of God’s people rising up against those who oppress them and who make their lives miserable – those who rob them, and marginalize them, and impoverish them, and cause them to suffer. Their liberation is announced by God, through the prophet Deborah: “Get up Barak, take your position at Mount Tabor.”
The oppression of God’s people persists – the lifelessness in their villages persists – “until,” as Deborah declares, “Until I arose, until I arose a mother in Israel.” As she arises, she offers the command of God that Barak act for his people.
It’s interesting to look at the reply of Barak to the word of God given through Deborah. Here is what he says: “If you will go with me, Deborah, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” Barak will only lead his fighting men against king Jabin of the Canaanites, and against Sisera his general, if Deborah goes with him. Is it because he is afraid? Is it because he doesn’t trust the word of God? Why is it that he won’t go without Deborah? Perhaps it is because she is a representative of the promises of God – perhaps it is because she is the embodiment of God’s assurance that He will deliver his people. Deborah is his assurance they will not be defeated.
She agrees: “I will surely go with you.” Three times in fact, within the short space of two short verses those words are repeated. “I will surely go with you.” Then, “she went with him.” And again, “she went with him.” Three times in two verses. And we read the conclusion: 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.
The oppression of God’s people persists – the lifelessness in their villages persists – “until,” as Deborah declares, “Until I arose, until I arose a mother in Israel.” Through Deborah, God leads his people. Through Deborah, God accompanies his people. Through Deborah, God strengthens his people, and saves them.
There is another woman in this most ancient passage of Hebrew scripture. Another woman whose name is given. Her name is Jael, and along with Deborah she is praised in Deborah’s song. As we mention the presence of Jael within the narrative we are again confronted with the violence in the narrative. Remember that Sisera ran away on foot after the battle – and through a series of events he happens into the tent of Jael – and she dispatches him from this world with a tent peg driven through his forehead. The song of Deborah says of Jael: “Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, of tent-dwelling women most blessed.”
Here in this narrative from Judges chapter 4, and this song of Judges chapter 5, we have a triumverate of sorts – three who work together to release God’s people from oppression – three who work to drive away the oppressor – three who work to give back to the villages the life they had lost – three who deliver the freedom they longed for. Barak, Jael, and Deborah. And at the centre of this triumverate is Deborah – bringer of justice to God’s people – bearer of God’s word – embodiment of God’s promise – fearless and faithful representative of the liberation of God.
The narrative and the song of Deborah conclude with these words: “And the land had rest for forty years.”
Oppression, “Until I arose, until I arose a mother in Israel.”
Well here is the thing about Deborah – we have no indication she was a mother. There is every likelihood she was married. There is a possibility that her husband is named as Lappidoth. But there is certainly no mention of children in the narrative.
But she was a mother in Israel. The only way we can know what that phrase means – the only way we can know what it means that she was a mother in Israel – is by recounting her story – by discovering what it has said about her.
She is a mother in Israel – a woman who put her faith in God’s promises.
She is a mother in Israel – pursuing justice for fellow citizens.
She is a mother in Israel – declaring the purposes of God.
She is a mother in Israel – showing courage in the face of battle.
She is a mother in Israel – bringing peace that lasted more than a generation.
Deborah has no children that are mentioned – but she is as much a mother in Israel as anyone – if not more so.
Already in the children’s story this morning, we have offered an expansive vision of motherhood. We pushed beyond the merely biological to the spiritual, to the life we have as the family of God, as the Body of Christ. Jesus pointed to those around him and said, “here are my mother, my brothers. For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, my sister, my mother.”
None of this is to say that there isn’t a unique experience and challenge and vocation for those who are mothers in the physical and biological sense. None of this is to say that there are not particular challenges and responsibilities and joys that accompany motherhood. But this morning we take a broader, more expansive view of motherhood, with Deborah, mother in Israel.
Drawing all of these reflections into the context of our faith in Jesus Christ, we briefly offer these three reflections:
Being a mother in the way of the risen Jesus – means the pursuit of his justice. In relation to children, and in relation to all those God gives in daily life, there is an invitation to give voice to the justice of Jesus. As Deborah enacted justice there under her tree, so Jesus invites us to embody his justice. We do this by giving expression to his compassion for the marginalized, by giving expression to his forgiveness and reconciliation in our relationship, and by showing what it means to extend kindness and grace to our enemies. To be a mother in the way of the risen Jesus, is to pursue his countercultural way with children, and with all those God gives us in daily life. Mother in pursuit of God’s justice.
Being a mother in the way of the risen Jesus also means being one who speaks the word of God – becoming a prophet like Deborah. Within our New Testament faith there is no clearer way to speak the word of God than to share the story of Jesus – with our children or with all those God gives to us in daily life. Deborah spoke the word of God to Barak, and she supported him in his effort of faithfulness to that word. To be a mother in the way of the risen Jesus means to share Jesus’ life and teaching, to share the story of his death and resurrection, to share the story of his ascension to glory and the message of the kingdom he is bringing to our world. Mother as prophet of Jesus.
In all of this, there is finally a requirement of the courage and of strength – a courage and strength that the Spirit gives. It is no small thing to accept the challenge of motherhood in the way of the risen Jesus. It is no small thing to embody his justice with child and neighbour. It is no small thing to become a prophet of his resurrection life, especially in our day. But the call is to take up precisely this challenge – and by the grace of the Spirit, courage and strength are given. The spirit leads all women into motherhood in the way of the risen Jesus. Thanks be to God. Amen.