Summary: The story of Deborah remind us that the key to winning the victory over struggles in our lives is to listen to God and heed what God says.
We come this morning to one example of what I consider to be the most difficult part of the Bible to understand. So I’m just going to name it for what it is, right up front. This scene of Deborah calling members of the Israelite tribes into battle is just one story among many of the seemingly “God-endorsed”, militant takeover of Canaan, the Promised Land, that occurred in the generations following Israel’s exodus from Egypt. We don’t like these stories because they clash so much with the God we see in Jesus Christ in the New Testament—a God who is loving, peaceful, and even anti-violent. And, unfortunately, I don’t know how to explain these Old Testament stories of war to you except to say that God had made a covenant with Abraham that his descendants would settle in Canaan. Yet in the meantime, the Israelites had been enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years and other tribes had settled in to the Promised Land, but God’s plans had not changed.
So it is that, as we continue our look at women of the Old Testament, we come this morning to a judge by the name of Deborah. Since, instinctively women aren’t prone to violent tendencies quite like men are, we might think that the presence of a woman would soften the brutality of the ongoing story a bit, but it doesn’t really; actually, not at all. So let’s look at what’s going on here.
By way of introduction, Judges does not tell us a whole lot about Deborah. But in a world dominated by males, it’s worth noting that the only thing the Bible tells us about Deborah’s husband is his name. This woman Deborah is known by her own merits. She is a judge, a decider, a leader, a prophetess. She is so well respected by the Israelite people that she has set herself up in a place where she can be easily reached by many people from the surrounding towns and villages. And the tree under which she holds court is called by her name, “the Palm of Deborah.” Deborah, it seems, was just that kind of person; kind of like the CEOs and “high-achievers” of our day. Place her anywhere, and before long, her mark was so indelibly on that place that the inhabitants forget what they once called it and simply give it her name.
Some might argue that the Israelites had been suffering a lack of strong leadership since the days of Joshua, and so Deborah was just the best among a bad crop. Indeed, this was a critical time in Israel’s history. For several generations they had been a nomadic people, eventually moving to their Promised Land and taking it conquest. Now, though, they must settle the land and become a nation, but the displaced surrounding nations were not cooperating; it was to their advantage to destroy Israel before it had time to establish itself. During those perilous days, there was no central government and no structure for selecting leaders or for passing leadership from one generation to another. It was just this awkward amalgamation of twelve tribes. And in Israel, the role of leadership was especially difficult because the leader had to be not only a person of political and military talent, but also someone who could nurture the nation’s spiritual responsibilities; after all, their primary purpose as a nation was spiritual. They were to carry into the world a unique quality of godliness, of divine purpose.
So, who was qualified to lead such a people on such a quest? In the Old Testament, those roles typically and expectantly fell to men. First there was Abraham, then Noah, then Moses and Joshua. Later came Elijah and Elisha and King David. But God doesn’t always work in the “expected” way, does he? And when God wants to break through in unexpected ways, he often does so through prophets, and sometimes, those prophets are women. So it is that Deborah makes her way onto the stage of Israel’s history; a strong leader chosen by God after generations of faltering leadership.
The name Deborah is Hebrew, and the meaning of this Hebrew word is bee. Deborah knew who she was and she was utterly confident that God was with her. Deborah goes to action, and her presence is felt, in some cases like a sting from a bee. The Bible does not tell us that God spoke to Deborah or that he came to her in a vision; nevertheless, Deborah was so confident in God’s endorsement of her leadership that she didn’t hesitate to give unqualified orders to the best military leader in reach. And she was so clearly in command that General Barak had no problem following her orders.
Now, a man taking orders from a woman at this point in history is odd enough in and of itself; but it doesn’t stop there. It’s not as if Deborah just gives the command to Barak and he goes off and takes care of the problem from the threatening General Sisera. Rather, Barak gives a qualification for following this command from the judge, Deborah. “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” It was quite unlikely for a military leader to speak to a woman; women kept the home fires burning so that when the warriors returned there would be a place of celebration in victory or of solace in defeat. Barak was wise enough to know that Deborah, the bee, possessed some intangible qualities that were essential to their nation’s unlikely venture as they faced the 900 charioteers of King Jabin’s army. Really, Israel had no chance against the superior forces of Canaan; but if they were to have a chance, it lay in this woman, Deborah.