painting of Jael, Deborah and Barak
Jael, Deborah, and Barak – agents of God in Judges

The text this morning (Sunday, June 4, 2017), which is the one we are studying in our class using the Uniform Series texts, is the first in a series of texts that remember God’s history of calling people into the service of God throughout the history of the people of God. We’ll be looking for the similarities and differences, the patterns and the unique features, in these call stories, and for what they have to tell us about how to listen for, and to respond to, the call(s) we ourselves receive from God – in the conviction that God does, in fact, reach out to us in this way, just as God reached out to God’s people in earlier times.

This week, we are looking at the story of Deborah and Barak, two people who lived in the early days of the Israelites’ time in the geographical land we have sometimes called Canaan, sometimes Israel, sometimes Palestine:

Judges 4:1/ The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of YHWH, after Ehud died. 2/ So YHWH 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-hegoiim. 3/ Then the Israelites cried out to YHWH for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly twenty years.

4/At that time woman Deborah, a woman prophet, wife [or woman] of Lappidoth [lights, torches], she was judging Israel. 5/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. 6/She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “YHWH 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. 7/I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.’” 8/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.” 9/And she said, “I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for YHWH will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” Then Deborah got up and went with Barak to Kedesh. 10/Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh; and ten thousand warriors went up behind him; and Deborah went up with him.

How well do we know God? God’s preferences, God’s predilections, God’s “rules of engagement” and “standard operating procedures”?

Some people, and some of us sometimes, think we know God so well we could write up God’s policy and procedures manual, set up an HR department for God, administer God’s personnel committee according to God’s express wishes. Vehement voices full of certainty speak out, even today, from various quarters of the people of God, eager to tell us who God can use, who God permits to serve, who God delights to anoint, etc. Most of us have heard these voices.

Today’s story – and today itself, for that matter – may serve to remind us that, while God does tell us things about God’s preferences and delights, God is also in the business of demonstrating to us, over and over, that God is not bound by the policies and procedures that make the most sense to us, by the conventions that we have baptized for ourselves, and certainly not by humanly-devised canons of propriety. God is not bound by our self-imposed boundaries, or even – this must be said as well – by some of the boundaries we believe God to have imposed on us. Something it seems we can know about God is that God is on the move, accomplishing the New Creation, and making humankind and human history part of the epic story of that New Creation, as well as the material for it, and even as the co-agents of that new creative process. On the way to that New Creation, then, it probably shouldn’t surprise us that New Stuff keeps happening!

And it probably shouldn’t surprise us, either, that where we need to look for God most diligently isn’t finally in policies and procedures, but in personal relationship. We have a lot of evidence for that. And yet, that insight often still surprises us as well.

So today, let’s listen to the story of Deborah and Barak with “new ears” if we can – ears that have been woken up by the sounds of rushing wind and crackling flame and unfamiliar language and the thrill of recognition of communication from God in our native languages – a heart-to-heart language transmitted through the surprising people God just picked, just designated, as best we can tell for the reason that those people had agreed to meet to remember Jesus, someone they loved, someone God loved, the Word of God. That is probably our best explanation for Pentecost. So with those ears, let’s turn to this story of Deborah and Barak. Because it seems to me that story hints to us that there’s a surprising consistency – a consistency of surprise – in the way God gets things done around our world, and that we can learn a lesson for ourselves from this consistently surprising consistency of surprise.

We are probably not surprised, for instance, that God looks for faithful, loving people to do God’s work. But it might surprise us how seemingly small – even trivially small – are the crucial signs of faithfulness and love of God. The tradition about Deborah, which we have from the early rabbis, is that she prepared wicks for the lamps in the Tabernacle – the place of worship, still, even in the land. As the story goes, Deborah made thick wicks. “So what?” we might think. But thicker wicks burn a little brighter – although they also use up oil faster, and they take more material to make in the first place. So, Deborah was someone who put making God’s glory apparent than about economy, about filling a quota, about sparing the oil. Her thought was God’s glory in worship. So, if we credit that story, and after all, it’s the story we have, this detail attested to the faithfulness and devotion that prompted God to bless Deborah, in turn, with a prophetic gift.

And that prophetic gift and Deborah’s wisdom and discernment bless her people, in turn – the Israelites come to where she is, for counsel. Tradition, again, assigns a significance to the place where she judges. It’s related to Ramah, which will later be the place Samuel lives when he is judge. This tells us that her wisdom and importance are similar, comparable, to his. Being near Bethel may also be significant. Bethel is the place of one of the important beginnings of the story of Israel – literally, the story of Jacob, who is the legendary father of the “children of Israel,” including Naphtali and Zebulun who come up again in our story today. Jacob’s, later to be named Israel’s, first vision of his future occurs at Bethel, where he has a dream of angels ascending and descending on a ladder, and wakes up and says “God is here, and I didn’t even know it,” and then God tells Jacob that he will be with him wherever he goes, and then Jacob rather famously says – well, IF you will do that, and take me there, and bring me back, THEN I will definitely be your person and I will come back here and give you a tenth of everything. And since Jacob is more or less running for his life at that moment, from his angry older brother whom he has cheated a couple of times, we can understand how he might have felt that was a very big IF, and his announcement reminds us that even people who’ve just seen beatific visions have a need for the reassurance of God’s continuing presence. Jacob at Bethel said, in effect, please, God, stay with me, because I still need you.

We know a few more things about Deborah. Her name is the Hebrew word for “bee,” so maybe this means she is busy, industrious; or maybe it means she is pesky; or maybe it means nothing at all, just a fancy her mom and dad had when she was born! And we know she is a woman. In face, we are reminded emphatically that she’s – well, a she – a woman, a woman prophet, a woman associated with lights, whether the wife of someone named Lappidoth, “Lights,” or a woman of lights, and that this woman-or-wife of lights she was judging Israel, at a time when they had been oppressed for a long time under King Jabin and his army commander Sisera and his iron chariots. So we know it matters, to the Bible anyway, that Deborah is a woman. Deborah is, in fact, the only woman judge named in the book of Judges, although she is not the only woman prophet in the Bible. So her judgeship also bends convention, comes as something of a surprise. Although maybe what surprises readers today most of all is how open the people of Israel seem to have been to the activity of a woman judge – after all, people used to go up to her for judgment, presumably since she was the judge in those days.

On the other hand, we know almost nothing of the kind of thing that we, today, tend to think explains how people end up where they end up: personality, psychology, special personal qualities, that kind of thing – not enough, surely, to develop a theory of why God picks this person rather than that person. And similarly, when Deborah sends and summons Barak, we know even less about him. We know his name means something like “lightning.” There is a tradition that he himself might be Deborah’s husband, but this tradition is disputed, not universally accepted. We might presume that he is already someone with the authority to muster or mobilize fighters – so, maybe a chieftain, a captain, a clan leader – but we have stories of people who are commanded to fight who aren’t in those positions, so we can’t know this for sure, and the Bible doesn’t tell us. We don’t even know for sure whether this Barak is a pious and trustworthy man, or more ordinary in that regard. None of this information, evidently, is “need to know” for the ancient Israelites who first told this story; and the Bible certainly doesn’t present it as “need to know” for us.

The point here is that, surprising as it might seem, the most important criterion for Barak’s call is not anything we know about Barak; and despite our traditional admiration of Deborah’s legendary act of piety, is Deborah’s call contingent on anything we really know about Deborah. Rather, it is something we know about God, namely, the call itself: God’s designation, according to God’s design.

Now when God calls – sends, summons, commands, lays out a plan of action, involving specific individuals and places and tactics – it seems the wisest course of action would be to say “yes” to that instruction. While we are under the general impression that human freedom really, legitimately matters to God, we also have good reason to believe that God prefers to get God’s way, and arranges incentive structures accordingly (we have recently noticed this in the story of Jonah, for instance).

On the other hand, we also often run into situations where people are only willing to follow through on God’s instructions according to conditions they want to set, and we find God, often, perhaps surprisingly, accepting these conditions. Barak’s response to Deborah’s relayed communication from God is a good example of this kind of condition. He says: “If you go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” Deborah, moreover, agrees to do it.

As an aside, people have often faulted and criticized Barak for stating this condition. They’ve questioned his trust in God; they’ve questioned his masculinity, because he wants a woman to go with him I into battle; they’ve questioned his fitness for the commission. But God seems to accept Barak’s insistence on Deborah’s going with him. And this probably shouldn’t surprise us, any more than Jacob’s insistence on the substance of God’s being with him should have surprised us back in that earlier time in Bethel. Barak seems to want assurance of God’s continuing presence, and presumably guidance, in what is bound to be a dangerous and risky mission. And if we’re honest, we would probably want that ourselves – do want it, when we notice that’s what we’re about to embark on in our own lives. If God is involved, no risk really seems too great; but without God, risk is just recklessness and wishful thinking. Barak, no surprise, wants assurance of God’s presence, which is God’s blessing.

For Barak, that presence of God comes through God’s word, and that word comes to him through Deborah, the prophet who communicates the Word of God to Barak. So, unsurprisingly, Barak wants this prophet, this person who communicates the word of God, to stay close. Barak wants the person God has called, designated, to remain in the picture – whether or not that complicates the picture from a conventional standpoint. God seems to go along with all of this.

For those of us who are certain we know God’s policies and procedures manual, this may come as a surprise. But how surprising is it, after all? God designates people to participate in the adventure of liberating God’s people from the bondage, the bondages, in which they find themselves – rather predictably, it seems. The most important qualification for that designation seems to be that God makes it. It is specific to the situation, and ultimately known only to God, although we discern some dim patterns, like details that give evidence of faithfulness, and like willingness to acquiesce in God’s plans – although hesitation and even outright flight are sometimes also part of the picture. So should it really surprise us that God would designate the faithful Deborah as prophet and leader, and designate Barak, who is willing to insist on the presence of God, in whatever form it takes, as the military commander?

What seems to many on first blush is that Barak’s insistence on Deborah’s presence represents some kind of failure to trust God. But is it? Is it not, finally, an insistence on the indispensable presence of God, present through the word of God? Barak encounters that word of God in the communication of the prophet Deborah. It’s personal, and the personal relationship that communication establishes becomes the basis of Barak’s trust and confidence, his ability to fulfill the rather surprising commission he receives. That deeply personal connection is, in the end, no different in this story of God’s call or designation than in the story of the designation of the apostles, or the encounter of God’s word in the persons of men and women who suddenly, surprisingly, communicate in the language of people’s parents, childhood homes, birth – the most personal language they know.

If it surprises us that God’s presence is, in this story, made effective through the work of a woman – woman prophet – woman judge – woman of lights – this may only be because we have gotten too comfortable with conventions and boundaries that would make that a violation of God’s policies and procedures manual. And that simply suggests that we probably know less about God’s policies and procedures manual than we might think. Which ought not to surprise us too much … since revisions are to be expected when the boss is constantly in the creative process of doing something new.

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