"Has the Lord not taken the lead?" This is the challenging question Deborah the Judge poses to the commander of Israel's army in the Old Testament story in the book of Judges. It remains a critical question for today's leader who aspires to serve the Lord.
Women like Deborah and Jael were not the expected leaders of a nation over 2000 years ago. People would rather put their trust in the strength of an army and its commander. In this episode, Fr. Dustin Lyon shares how the army commanders from both sides were judged by the Lord who accomplished His will through the unexpected leaders of Deborah and Jael, a righteous judge and fierce warrior.
Read the full episode transcript here.
Hollie Benton 0:04
You are listening to Doulos, a podcast of the Ephesus School Network. Doulos offers a scriptural daily bread for God's household and explores servant leadership as an Orthodox Christian. I'm Hollie Benton, your host and executive director of the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. And Father Timothy Lowe, former rector of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem is our co host. Hello there, Father Timothy.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 0:28
Good morning, Hollie. Nice to hear you.
Hollie Benton 0:30
You as well, Father. And we're also delighted to welcome back Fr. Dustin Lyon from the Twelve Holy Apostles Orthodox Church in Duluth, Minnesota. Fr. Dustin is the host and producer of The Way podcast on the Ephesus School Network. Greetings, Fr. Dustin, thank you for joining us.
Fr. Dustin Lyon 0:46
Good morning, Hollie. How are you today?
Hollie Benton 0:47
Fine, thank you. Fr. Dustin, you suggested we look at the story of Deborah today, not one that gets often told. I'm excited for the suggestion because I think it's a great opportunity to see again, that in Scripture, not everything works according to man's presuppositions, his strategies, processes and efforts. The heroes aren't necessarily the most strong, the most beautiful, or the most wise, or the most rich. In fact, because scripture often uses the anti hero, the weak, the ugly, the foolish and the poor, it is even more certain that it is the Lord Himself, who is the true and only hero of the biblical story. So 2000 years ago, women typically didn't hold positions of authority and power like they might in some countries today. They were seen as generally weaker and used more like property in bartering negotiations between men. So I'm a woman, and at the risk of offending my sisters, the story of military defeat of Israel over the Canaanite adversaries doesn't necessarily elevate the status of women. The Canaanites were defeated by God through Deborah the judge, and Jael the warrior. The story isn't told so that we can raise little girls to be judges and warriors per se, although the biblical stories in their use of unsuspecting heroes does carry an element of invitation and accessibility for all people, whatever their station, which is the power of its universal message. Precisely because Deborah and Jael were women, and the biblical hearer would be prejudiced against them, makes them the perfect anti heroes who demonstrate the might of the Lord because He shows His strength through the weak and the unsuspecting heroes. So now flipping it to the other side, there are many among us who may have experienced what people call the imposter syndrome, feelings of doubt, and incompetence, that despite your calling, assignment, education and experience, you don't deserve to be in the position you're in. Again, if you find yourself in whatever position, if it is the Lord's will, who are you to doubt him? Like we hear in St. Paul's letter to the Corinthians, the Lord told Paul, "My strength is made perfect in weakness," which is what we see in the story of Deborah and Jael, told in Judges, chapters four and five. So Fr. Dustin, could you provide us some more context for the story of Deborah that we will hear in the book of Judges?
Fr. Dustin Lyon 3:19
Yes. So for those listeners who listen to this podcast regularly, you'll know that we talked about Samson a while back. And so you kind of got a brief background on what's happening with the Judges. So the judges are these people who God raises to help Israel in times of need. This is after Moses frees them from Egypt. They're now into the Promised Land, Joshua has done his thing, getting people integrated into the society, and now they're living there in the land. Fr. Timothy summarized so nicely last time, there's a cycle that happens, God has given His law that people somehow abused that or failed to follow his law or his instruction. And so they are punished. And then they cry out for help. And then God raises up one of these judges or a hero or as you said, Hollie, an antihero, I think that adds a new color or depth to it all. This person then brings the people back and starts the cycle all over again. That's kind of where we're at here. Deborah, and the name in Hebrew means bee, like those honey bees. As we'll see in the story, you could say that she has a little sting to her. Deborah is, it'll say in the opening chapters here, that she is a prophetess. I think this is interesting for a couple of reasons. She is the first prophetess since Miriam, who is a sister of Moses. So we've not seen a female in this role before. But for me, it's more interesting the way that God works. So when we go back to Moses and Aaron, after he had freed them out of Egypt, he sets up a system, the temple, the tabernacle system, to do sacrifices, and the Levites are the priests there to interpret the instruction to kind of act as judges in that way. But here we see someone acting outside of that regular institutional system. And it seems to be acceptable for Deborah or other judges or other prophetesses or prophets to do these sorts of things. You have these people who are also called by God, but yet also not a part of the institutional system. The other thing I think that is really interesting is calling these heroes or anti heroes, judges. So the word for judge in Hebrew is mishpat. Mishpat can also have the idea of to lead or to govern. I don't want to say they're the ones leading but they're following God's lead, or God's leading through them. And as we saw with Samson, sometimes they don't follow God's lead, and they go in bad directions. In Greek, though, the word for judge is krino, I judge. It's where we get our English word for crisis. So every crisis is a judgment of some sort. You're going to have to decide which direction you're going to go in a crisis. It may end well for you; it may not end well, depending on what you decide to do. So these judges that are raised up, even the word itself, is an indication that something has gone wrong. And they're at this crisis moment. And they have a decision to make. At the end of Deuteronomy, when Moses brings all the people before the holy land, and he says, these could be God's blessings. And these could be God's curses upon you. But it's up to you to decide which path you want to take. That in some ways is the judgment. And these judges are coming at times of crisis. What's happening here, the Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. And so they're looking for this judge to help them out because they've been overrun. And this is where Deborah steps in to call forth armies on behalf of Israel.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 7:04
You mentioned her name, Deborah, means bee, wasp, something that stings and hurts. The same root for word, dabar. I think her name is significant as the one who brings the word, but also brings the judgment that the word carries in a stinging sort of difficult fashion.
Fr. Dustin Lyon 7:24
That's really good. Thank you, Father. I like that. Yeah.
Hollie Benton 7:26
Yeah. Thank you, Father. So here's part of the passage for today. "So Deborah summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali. She said to him, "Is it not true that the Lord God of Israel is commanding you? Go march to Mount Tabor. Take with you 10,000 men from Naphtali and Zebulun. I will bring Sisera the general of Jabin's army to you at the Kishon River along with his chariots and huge army. I will hand him over to you. Barak said to her, if you go with me, I will go but if you do not go with me, I will not go. She said I will indeed go with you. But you will not gain fame on the expedition you are undertaking for the Lord will turn Sisera over to a woman. Deborah got up and went with Barak to Kedesh. Barak summoned men from Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh and 10,000 men followed him. Deborah went up with him as well. When Sisera heard that Barak son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor, he ordered all his chariotry, 900 chariots with iron rimmed wheels, and all the troops he had with him to go from Harosheth Haggoyim to the Kishon River. Deborah said to Barak, Spring into action for this is the day the Lord is handing Sisera over to you. Has the Lord not taken the lead? So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with 10,000 men following Him. The Lord routed Sisera, all his chariotry, and all his army with the edge of the sword. Sisera jumped out of his chariot and ran away on foot. Now Barak chased the chariots and the army all the way to Harosheth Haggoyim. Sisera's whole army died by the edge of the sword; not even one survived.
Fr. Dustin Lyon 9:26
Yes, thank you. So Barak here, the the general that Deborah uses to gather the army, his name means lightning. It seems like a fitting name for a general, although it's very interesting. It gets stuck to him because Deborah makes it very clear, You are not the one that's going to get the glory. In fact it says, it is going to go to a woman. St. Paul says in Hebrews 11:32, "And what more should I say for time will fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Japeth and David and Samuel and the prophet who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight." The key here is through faith that they did this, that by all rights, this army that's raised by Barak should not have been able to win or should not have been able to conquer anything. And indeed, the enemy army, the wording that's used in the passage you just read recalls the idea of the Egyptians crossing the Red Sea, that they just kind of scattered in this chaos in the Red Sea is able to kind of run them over. And the same thing here, Barak's army, as they're coming, it says that, "So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with 10,000 warriors following him, and then the Lord threw Sisera and all his chariots and all his army into a panic." And so here, it's not Barak that's doing anything, it's not really his army, you see, it's God at work. It's God who's the one that causes the panic, the one who causes the victory in this case, and ultimately, it's God, who's the judge. These stories are very interesting, because they undercut us in that sense, they keep us from being too prideful in any of our own accomplishments. And I think this is what Paul was picking up in Hebrews is that it's through faith, or if we translate faith, probably more appropriately, it's through our trust in God or loyalty to God, because it's God then who brings the victory, and not anything that we do. We're just called to respond to God, to have that faith, that trust in him to follow His instruction or his lead, and go forward with it, even when the circumstances look dire, in this case, and from that God will raise the victory for us. And that's why here it's not Barak, who's getting the glory, because it's not really Barak that's doing anything in this particular passage.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 11:53
You know, again, the key to the book of Judges is this cycle that you mentioned earlier, Fr. Dustin, of judgment, first against the Israelites, their cry for help, their repentance, the raising up of a judge. Paul lists some of them, Deborah being the one we're discussing now. And then judgment. And the judgment is first Israelites, then Canaanites, or whoever's persecuting them, and then it'll go back to Israelites, so the cycle has begun. And so just so our readers understand that it is God, as you say, both bringing judgment depending on who the offender is - Israelite or non Israelite - and starting all over again. So that's this endless cycle that begins and just like it was with Moses in the wilderness and whatnot, they're good, they're bad, they're good, they're bad, they whine, they complain. There's no permanent solution. We know that cycle in our lives because we tend to spin and not move forward, which is a human thing. So I'm interested to see where this takes us. But I want our readers to know that God is judging the Canaanites here, and rendering them up to the General Barak, as you say. I want to get to the final story of Jael because that's the coup de gras.
Hollie Benton 13:05
Yes, so we found out that Sisera's whole army died, but what happened to Sisera? "Now Sisera ran away on foot to the tent of Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite, for King Jabin of Hazor and the family of Heber the Kenite had made a peace treaty. Jael came out to welcome Sisera. She said to him, Stop and rest, my lord, stop and rest with me. Don't be afraid. So Sisera stopped to rest in her tent, and she pulled a blanket over him. He said to her, give me a little water to drink because I'm thirsty. She opened a goatskin container of milk and gave him some milk to drink. Then she covered him up again. He said to her stand watch at the entrance to the tent. If anyone comes along and asks you, Is there a man here? Say no. Then Jael, wife of Heber, took a tent peg in one hand and a hammer in the other. She crept up on him, drove the tent peg through his temple into the ground while he was asleep from exhaustion, and he died. Now Barak was chasing Sisera. Jael went out to welcome him. She said to him, come here and I will show you the man you are searching for. He went with her into the tent. And there he saw Sisera sprawled out dead with a tent peg through his temple. That day, God humiliated King Jabin of Canaan before the Israelites. Israel's power continued to overwhelm King Jabin of Canaan until they did away with him." Wow. It doesn't get much better on Netflix.
Fr. Dustin Lyon 14:40
Yeah. Well, and this has been an artist's inspiration for a lot of different pieces of art. They love to show Jael there with the tent peg and Sisera laying there in the bed. What gets me is the idea of hospitality in this particular passage. You think, here's Sisera, he's fleeing for his life, literally, and he comes across Jael. Well, he's looking for her husband and he's not around. Between Jael's husband and Sisera's King, there's an alliance. So he thinks that it's going to be okay to take refuge with Jael. And in fact, she offers hospitality. Come on in, here's something to drink, lay down, take a nap, here's a blanket to cover you. But instead of extending the hospitality as you would expect, she ends up driving the tent peg through his head and killing him. It's also interesting that Jale is not an Israelite. And I think this is an important point. She's a Canaanite. So you see God working through a foreigner. Again, it goes back to not what I can do, but what God can do. If God can raise up stones to be His children, then God can obviously use foreigners, or bless foreigners. It should bring to mind the story of Rahab. Although this time, it's a little different. Again, Rahab is a foreigner, she ends up helping the Israelites in extending hospitality to them in a time of need. This time, the foreigner is not extending hospitality, but extending some sort of victory. But I think it's very interesting. Again, God will use whomever He wants. This is going back to the comments I had made earlier, where Deborah herself is bypassing the temple system, God's working the way He wants to work. And if He wants to use a prophetess, instead of the actual priesthood, He can. And in this case, if He wants to use a foreigner, He can do that, instead of doing it through the actual Israelite people. So again, it's humbling to the Israelites themselves. It prevents the glory going to them, particularly, because it has to go to God because God is going to use whomever He wants in this particular case.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 16:50
From the flow of the story, the full destruction of Sisera's army, he alone escapes, which means there's still one out loose, that has to be dare I say, done unto. So the idea that he flees and thinks he can escape the judgment of God and goes into as you say, a non Israelite. The word Heber means the word for friend, partner. The sattire, it gets layered even more in the guise of hospitality, where you think you're safe. When someone is brought into your tent, they are responsible for your security. Once you leave their tent, they're not responsible. It's just the law of the desert. I've lived that experience of hospitality in the desert, and it's just universal, okay. You have a responsibility that even makes the flow of the story much more ironical, and no, no, you cannot even have rest and the protection of anybody else. Why? Because you've come under judgment. That may be difficult for our listeners to understand once something is rendered unto judgment. That's it, there is no escape. And I think that's the powerful message just in general, universally to us all, that there are no safe havens, at some point. We're going to stand before God. I found that aspect disturbing, as you mentioned, but also in the flow, it just takes us to a place that well, now the matters closed. And another aspect, when you're talking about Jabin, and the irony is there when you realize his name means wise one, someone with understanding, okay. So the irony is filtering through the names of all these characters, to just further develop the point that there is only the one true God and He will raise up who He will, inside the system, outside of the system. And that's God's business. So even as you say, the system fails us all the time, our church leaders, us priests, and so on. So then God has to go outside the system to get someone who will hear and do His will.
Hollie Benton 18:54
What's fascinating is we don't even know her motives. And I know as a reader, we're tempted to place judgment on her, you know, does she do the right thing? Did she do the wrong thing? Well, it's not our business. It's the word, it's the story, it's the De-bo-rah, dabar, the word being told, the story being told. And ultimately, the book of Judges, for those who would read it, the judgment of the reader, right?
Fr. Dustin Lyon 19:18
Well, yeah, and I think that's the right approach to these texts in the Old Testament, is not to try to use them as science books or history books or trying to discern the motives of individual people, but to see them as teachings. So that each of these characters within the story are functioning to a greater lesson, if you will. The two great lessons, if I can attempt to summarize the conversation so far, is that God's the ultimate Judge, and He's going to work the way that He wants to work, that He's in control here, but also there is no escape from God. We may want to criticize Jael for driving a stake through Sisera's head rather than extending hospitality, or we may cringe at the violence in it. But the ultimate teaching in this isn't the motives of Jael or what she was thinking or anything like that, but that you can't escape God. God is everywhere. He's not just the God of Israelites. Even if you're in a foreign land among the nations, God is still there. There is no running from him. It all comes down to that trust. You have to trust in Him and Him alone and follow His instruction and not anyone elses.
Hollie Benton 20:26
A good lesson even for leaders in any setting that you can't escape God's judgment, no matter how you try to control the outcomes in the situation, that the Lord is the final judge over at all.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 20:39
And I hate to add, we are quite dispensable. Because God can raise up the women to do the business that the men weren't doing. Deborah and Jael for example. As you've emphasized, it is all about faithfulness. Trust.
Hollie Benton 20:54
Thank you, Fr. Dustin, another great conversation, and glad to get back into the Old Testament. Thank you.
Fr. Dustin Lyon 20:59
Glory to God.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai