Beyond the Lectionary Text: Judges 4
by Kory Plockmeyer
The refrain is common in the book of Judges: “Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord” (4:1).
The pattern repeats itself over and over again in Judges: the Israelites abandon God, God delivers them into the hands of their enemies, Israel cries out to God, God sends a judge, things are fine until the judge dies, the cycle repeats itself.
The broad brushstrokes of the cycle clearly depict the grace of the One who does not abandon covenant promises. God does not abandon the people of Israel, no matter how many times the Israelites abandon God. The series of judges offer to Israel temporary respite and freedom as they strive to maintain the boundaries they established under the leadership of Joshua. God’s salvific inclinations are present in the refusal to abandon the people of Israel, no matter how many times those people abandon God.
While the broad picture of Judges points us toward the grace of God, the individual stories can be a bit more difficult to see in light of this broader story. The story of Deborah, complete with gruesome detail of Jael’s death, may leave us wondering, “How does the story of Deborah, Barak, Sisera, and Jael offer us a fresh perspective on this Good News?”
Of course, one cannot go far into the account of Deborah’s role as a judge without coming face-to-face with the elephant in the room: Deborah is a woman judging Israel. Barak takes orders from Deborah and refuses to fight without her presence. Interpretations vary, of course, as to whether we should see Deborah’s judgeship as an exception to the normal order of things or a relatively rare Old Testament experience of the way things ought to be. Regardless of how one understands the role of women in the church, we nevertheless face the reality that Deborah’s leadership is unusual in the Old Testament. Depending on one’s broader theological framework, this fact in and of itself may be the fresh perspective on the Good News refrain of the book of Judges – God’s redemptive plan invites men and women to work in concert with one another, to learn from one another’s leadership, and to celebrate our God-given gifts and callings. The refrain of Judges beats the rhythm of the book, but that rhythm, always answered by God’s redemptive activity, is here embellished with the glimpse of women stepping into spiritual, political, and military leadership of God’s people.
In a story ostensibly about the judgeship of Deborah, the story tells us little about her leadership. Despite Barak’s protestations that he will only go to battle with Deborah’s assistance, the story has little to do with the actual battle against Sisera and much more about the aftermath of the decisive battle. The story is as much about Jael as it is about Deborah.
As one of the primary foci of this passage, Jael joins the line of non-Jewish individuals (largely women) who are invited to experience the blessings of God’s covenant people. Sisera should expect safety in the tent of Heber, his ally. Jael breaks the laws of hospitality in order to destroy Israel’s enemy. Despite not belonging to the people of Israel, Jael chooses to change her allegiance. In response to this, Deborah sings, “Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, most blessed of tent-dwelling women” (Judges 5:24). In fact, earlier in the same song (5:4) Jael is equated with Shamgar, the judge who struck down six hundred Philistines with an oxgoad (Judges 3:31). Jael is placed in the same category as Shamgar, despite her status as an outsider.
What’s striking, however, is that Jael never appears again in the Bible. Despite such high praise and heroic deeds, she is never mentioned, even in passing. In fact, when Samuel attempts to dissuade the Israelites from asking for a king, he includes Sisera among a list of defeated enemies with Barak as the deliverer of Israel, passing over Deborah and Jael.
We often pause at the stories of women like Rahab and Ruth to notice their outsider status. They, after all, join the ranks of Jesus’ genealogy. We pay less attention to the stories of women like Jael who remind us that God’s covenant promises were never meant to be exclusive to the people of Israel. Abraham was blessed in order to be a blessing. Through Abraham, all nations on earth were to be blessed.
The easiest way to read those covenant promises are, of course, as reaching their fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus Christ, through whom all nations on earth are blessed and receive God’s forgiveness and grace. In a fuller sense, however, the covenant promises themselves were always intended to bring Jew and Gentile together. God’s covenant with Abraham was always God’s-single-plan-for-all-of-creation, to borrow from N.T. Wright (paraphrasing Justification).
In Psalm 19, for instance, the themes of God’s rule over all of creation are intertwined with reflection on God’s covenantal relationship with Israel: “[The sun] rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is deprived of its warmth. The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul” (Psalm 19:6-7). God’s covenant with Abraham’s family was always about bringing all of creation, Jew and Gentile, back into alignment with God. Through the work of the Messiah Jesus, we are all brought into God’s covenant promises, where there is “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for [we] are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Like the stories of Rahab and Ruth, the story of Jael reminds us that God’s covenant with Abraham is about the whole world, about inviting all people to experience grace and mercy. Like the stories of Rahab and Ruth, Jael is an outsider, one who is drawn to God’s people, one who becomes part of the story of Israel’s salvation.
Unlike Rahab and Ruth, however, we don’t know what becomes of Jael. We don’t know what happened when her husband discovered that she had killed an ally. We don’t know if Deborah’s praise of Jael secured safety and protection for her. We don’t even know if she ever had anything to do with the people of God again.
Even still, for a brief moment we are reminded, even in the midst of the darkness and gloom, between the grime and the gore of Judges, that the light cannot be extinguished. The Good News of God’s invitation to join the covenant family, the Good News that cannot be contained to the nation of Israel but is meant for all people shines through ever so dimly, a brief interruption in the rhythm that pervades the book.
As pastors we often come face-to-face with the reality of the brokenness, darkness, and the effects of sin on individual and systemic levels. At those times we need to be reminded that even in the darkest of places and times the light cannot be overcome. Even if it shines through only ever-so-dimly, the good news cannot be contained.
In a world full of such darkness, we need the glimmer of hope that the covenant is not meant to be contained to the people of God. The good news of the Gospel is for the whole world, for all peoples. Deborah did not wait to see a firm commitment to serving God before singing the praises of Jael. The encounter with the grace of Jesus Christ should always turn us outside of ourselves, to celebrate the gifts of the Spirit in others, to invite them to be a part of God’s covenant family.
The juxtaposition of prose and poetic accounts in Judges 4 and 5 gives some indication of the varying traditions surrounding the account of Deborah. While there is much agreement between the two chapters, there is discrepancy over some details. While much of this discrepancy may be attributed to poetic license, at least some should be traced to differing traditions about Deborah.
The name Lappidoth, meaning “torches,” can in some contexts also mean “lightning-flashes.” This has led some scholars to suggest that Barak (“lightning”) and Lappidoth may actually be the same person in earlier traditions of this story.
One does not need to turn far, of course, for evidence of the brokenness in the world. What can be more challenging is pastorally naming the brokenness within our own congregations.
In St. Augustine’s spiritual autobiography The Confessions he describes how Cicero’s Hortensius awakened his spiritual life in a new way: “The book changed my way of feeling and the character of my desires altered. All my hollow hopes suddenly seemed worthless, and with unbelievable intensity my heart burned with longing for the immortality that wisdom seemed to promise. I began to rise up, in order to return to you” (Book III, chapter 4.7). Augustine found an unexpected spiritual ally in Cicero. Although his spiritual journey is still in its infancy, reading Cicero becomes a precursor to Augustine’s time with Manichaeism, from which he eventually converts to become a Christian. Like finding aid against the enemy in Jael, Augustine found in Cicero an unexpected spiritual inspiration.
Rev. Kory Plockmeyer is the pastor of Westend Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, MI.