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Monday 20 September 2021


Over the last couple of weeks we’ve had some brief glimpses into the story of Joshua, and the book of Judges picks up events after Joshua’s death, so it seems that we’ve raced through quite a significant period of history in a really short time. Our reading today focuses on an important story of a woman leader of ancient Israel. The lectionary seems to cut it rather short, so I would suggest reading on to verse 16 at least, or even to the end of the chapter.


Judges 4:1-7Judges 4:12-16

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve had some brief glimpses into the story of Joshua, and the book of Judges picks up events after Joshua’s death, so it seems that we’ve raced through quite a significant period of history in a really short time. Our reading today focuses on an important story of a woman leader of ancient Israel. The lectionary seems to cut it rather short, so I would suggest reading on to verse 16 at least, or even to the end of the chapter.

The first 3 verses tell us about what has brought Israel to the present crisis. There’s a bit of a formula to this, which can be seen frequently in this book. The people sin. Yahweh punishes them for this by allowing an oppressor to flourish. The people cry out to God for mercy and help. Yahweh responds graciously and sets the stage for a divinely appointed deliverer. You can see this in Judges 2:11-16 and Judges 3:12-15, and again in Judges 6:1-6. We can tell that the Israelites have seriously gone astray because the punishment is very severe. They are punished by King Jabin who has a vast army and oppresses them cruelly for twenty years we can read in verse 3.

In verse 4 we are introduced to Deborah. She lives a long way from Jabin’s power base and serves as both a prophetess and a judge, looking after the affairs of the Israelite tribes from her home in Bethel. People come from far and wide to seek her judgement and she seems to be well respected. She summons Barak, a warrior from the tribe of Naphtali, and he responds. The fact that he goes to her not only shows the clout she carries, but also reflects the distress that Barak feels over the oppression of the Israelite people.

We don’t know exactly how Yahweh communicates with Deborah, but in verse 6 it’s clear that she’s acting under divine authority. God wants Barak to lead a combined army from his own tribe (Naphtali) and the nearby tribe of Zebulun against the army of Jabin. We hear a lot about General Sisera who commands Jabin’s army, giving the impression that he has immense skill and power, but neither of those things are any match for Yahweh’s strength. In verse 7 we’re reassured that the whole situation is under Yahweh’s control and authority - Yahweh will be the one to draw Sisera and his troops out in order that Barak and his troops can destroy them. You might be interested to know that the Wadi Kishon which is mentioned in verse 7 and Mount Tabor in verse 12 are both situated near the Jezreel Valley which was the scene of many ancient battles. Saul meets his death against the Philistines at a place only a few miles south of Mount Tabor (1 Samuel 31:1).

Sisera hears that Barak has mobilised, and he counters with his own army (vv.12-13), doing exactly what Yahweh has promised in verse 7. Previously Barak has stated that he will only act if Deborah goes with him, which she does. In verse 14 she renews her command to Barak and again emphasises Yahweh’s involvement in what is happening: “This is the day on which the LORD has given Sisera into your hand. The LORD is indeed going out before you.” These are key theology statements that underpin the whole story - the LORD has given, the Lord is going before. What will happen is not just a demonstration of Yahweh’s power over the mightiest of human armies, but more importantly it’s supposed to be seen as evidence of Yahweh’s love and mercy towards a sinful and suffering Israel.

In verses 15-16 we read that things turn out just as Deborah said they would. Barak has a large army, but it’s Yahweh’s power and presence that makes all the difference. Sisera escapes (although not for long as we see in the rest of the chapter), but his army is completely destroyed.

We’ve got to be careful here, and in other passages such as this one, to avoid projecting our own political and social tensions onto a biblical screen. It is always wrong to assume that the people with whom we have differences are therefore the enemies of God. That kind of misunderstanding of religious faith has led to immense suffering and loss, and texts like this one should never be applied in that way. It’s hard to read a story like this, and perhaps you felt rather uncomfortable as you were going though it. I know I did! And you might be wondering what positives you can take away from it. After all, it’s not easy to read about a decisive victory in which God is seen to have planned the complete destruction of the losing side.

We must assume that the compilers of the lectionary considered that there is something of value here for the life of the church. Perhaps we can see both Jabin and Sisera as symbols of the many oppressive consequences of human sin. For example greed leads people to consider their own wants and desires as more important than other people, and ultimately this can lead to a situation in which some are treated almost as slave labour, working in inhumane conditions for little or no money. Surely God calls us to act to bring about the destruction of those kind of oppressive practices. So too perhaps we are challenged to see Barak as symbolic of God’s concern that oppression of any person or group of people should not be allowed to stand.

For further reflection…

  • Read through the whole of chapter 4 and take note of your own responses. How does the story make you feel? What is your gut reaction to it? Are there any phrases that stand out for you in a good or bad way? What sentences do you consider to be positive or encouraging?
  • Think of a time when you have had a difference of opinion with someone. How do you deal with this kind of situation?
  • Are there any times when you are tempted to claim that God is on your side and therefore not on somebody else’s? If you ever feel like this, how does it make you see the other person and how does it make you act?
  • What do you think this passage might be able to speak into religious conflicts today?
  • Spend some time asking for forgiveness for times when you may have promoted and inflamed a conflict situation. Think about any times when you have not stood up against those who oppress, and when you have not supported those who are oppressed. Bring them to God, and ask God to challenge you with ways in which you can take a positive stand for justice.