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Converge Bible Studies Women of the Bible
By James A. Harnish
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2013 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
1 After Ehud had died, the Israelites again did things that the LORD saw as evil. 2 So the LORD gave them over to King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. The commander of his army was Sisera, and he was stationed in Harosheth-ha-goiim. 3 The Israelites cried out to the LORD because Sisera had nine hundred iron chariots and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly for twenty years.
4 Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was a leader of Israel at that time. 5 She would sit under Deborah's palm tree between Ramah and Bethel in the Ephraim highlands, and the Israelites would come to her to settle disputes. 6 She sent word to Barak, Abinoam's son, from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, "Hasn't the LORD, Israel's God, issued you a command? 'Go and assemble at Mount Tabor, taking ten thousand men from the people of Naphtali and Zebulun with you. 7 I'll lure Sisera, the commander of Jabin's army, to assemble with his chariots and troops against you at the Kishon River, and then I'll help you overpower him.'"
8 Barak replied to her, "If you'll go with me, I'll go; but if not, I won't go."
9 Deborah answered, "I'll definitely go with you. However, the path you're taking won't bring honor to you, because the LORD will hand over Sisera to a woman." Then Deborah got up and went with Barak to Kedesh. 10 He summoned Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh, and ten thousand men marched out behind him. Deborah marched out with him too.
11 Now Heber the Kenite had moved away from the other Kenites, the descendants of Hobab, Moses' father-in-law, and had settled as far away as Elonbezaanannim, which is near Kedesh.
12 When it was reported to Sisera that Barak, Abinoam's son, had marched up to Mount Tabor, 13 Sisera summoned all of his nine hundred iron chariots and all of the soldiers who were with him from Harosheth-ha-goiim to the Kishon River. 14 Then Deborah said to Barak, "Get up! This is the day that the LORD has handed Sisera over to you. Hasn't the LORD gone out before you?" So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with ten thousand men behind him. 15 The LORD threw Sisera and all the chariots and army into a panic before Barak; Sisera himself got down from his chariot and fledon foot. 16 Barak pursued the chariots and the army all the way back to Harosheth-ha-goiim, killing Sisera's entire army with the sword. No one survived.
17 Meanwhile, Sisera had fled on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, because there was peace between Hazor's King Jabin and the family of Heber the Kenite. 18 Jael went out to meet Sisera and said to him, "Come in, sir, come in here. Don't be afraid." So he went with her into the tent, and she hid him under a blanket.
19 Sisera said to her, "Please give me a little water to drink. I'm thirsty." So she opened a jug of milk, gave him a drink, and hid him again. 20 Then he said to her, "Stand at the entrance to the tent. That way, if someone comes and asks you, 'Is there a man here?' you can say, 'No.'"
21 But Jael, Heber's wife, picked up a tent stake and a hammer. While Sisera was sound asleep from exhaustion, she tiptoed to him. She drove the stake through his head and down into the ground, and he died. 22 Just then, Barak arrived after chasing Sisera. Jael went out to meet him and said, "Come and I'll show you the man you're after." So he went in with her, and there was Sisera, lying dead, with the stake through his head.
23 So on that day God brought down Canaan's King Jabin before the Israelites. 24 And the power of the Israelites grew greater and greater over Canaan's King Jabin until they defeated him completely.
INSIGHT AND IDEAS
If you've ever been tempted to think that women are the "weaker sex," you've 1) never been with a woman in labor, and 2) you've never met a woman named Deborah. She was one tough woman who was strong enough to get the job done when the men around her were weak.
The year was 1125 B.C. The Israelites had been oppressed by King Jabin the Canaanite for twenty years while Sisera, the commander of his army, occupied the plain of Jezreel.
The Israelites were discouraged, depressed, and downhearted. Their leaders had lost the will to struggle against their oppressors. The people had settled into a servile life that was beneath what God intended for them. Their sense of their own identity as the covenant people had been dashed to smithereens under the weight of Sisera's occupation.
Enter Deborah. She was married to a man named Lappidoth. The only thing we know about him is that he married above himself. We meet Deborah under a palm tree where she served as a judge or counselor to the people.
My guess is that Deborah got sick and tired of listening to people describe the way they were suffering under Sisera's occupation. She confronted a leader named Barak with a rhetorical question: "Hasn't the LORD, Israel's God, issued you a command?" In no uncertain terms, she told him that God was directing him to take ten thousand troops to Mount Tabor and lead the insurgency against Sisera. She even laid out the battle plan and promised that together they could overcome the occupation.
Barak wasn't convinced that this was such a great idea. With something less than undaunted courage, he replied, "If you'll go with me, I'll go; but if not, I won't go." That's not exactly what you call courageous leadership. Deborah told him not to worry. She would have his back. She promised, "I'll definitely go with you." But she also warned him that the honor of the victory over Sisera would go to a woman and not to him.
The conversation between Deborah and Barak reminded me of the way Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth tells her spineless husband, "Screw your courage to the sticking place and we'll not fail."
Barak followed Deborah's battle plan. Sisera's forces were defeated. None survived, except for Sisera, who ran to the tent of Jael where he hid under a blanket. While Sisera was sleeping, Jael pounded a tent stake through his head and showed Barak her handiwork when he arrived. As Deborah predicted, the final victory was in the hands (and the hammer) of a woman.
When it was all over, Deborah and Barak celebrated the victory with a song (Judges 5:1-31) that scholars generally consider to be one of the oldest pieces of literature in Scripture. Deborah became one of the most heroic, if easily overlooked, figures of biblical history.
The question is: What on earth (literally, on earth) do followers of Jesus do with a story like this? How do followers of the "Prince of Peace" deal with a story that is soaked in bloodshed, violence, and war?
This is the kind of story that causes many thoughtful people to reject the Old Testament. People who are reading the Bible for the first time are sometimes shocked and often turned off by the sheer amount of bloodshed and violence in the Hebrew Scriptures and the way much of it is seemingly commanded by God.
In response, the first thing we can do is name it: There is a lot of violence in the Old Testament. God's relationship with Israel was revealed in a world that operated on the assumption that might makes right and that a nation's favor with God was confirmed by its military power. God's covenant with Abraham was hammered out in a sin-broken, war-torn, politically conflicted, power-intoxicated world that was not all that different from the world in which we live.
The second thing we can do is remember that these stories were not the firsthand accounts of a CNN reporter on the scene. The Hebrew people told and retold these stories for generations after the events as a way of putting their history into the context of the covenant. As a result, they were not interested in answering a lot of the questions we are interested in asking. They were not historians doing academic research. They were cultural theologians who interpreted everything that happened in light of their covenant relationship with God.
Finally, as followers of Jesus, we can read these stories from the perspective of the gospel. We can interpret these stories through the Word made flesh in the words and way, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
When we do that, we begin to see the violence in these stories as a fundamental contradiction of the nonviolent kingdom of God revealed in Jesus Christ; the Kingdom, we pray, will come on earth as it is in heaven. Conflict, bloodshed, and war are never God's will. There is no such thing as a "holy" war. Rather, we can read these stories as the all-too-graphic evidence of the persistent power of sin. Violence between nations and people is the result of our sinful rebellion against the saving, life-giving purpose of God.
It is possible that our discomfort with these stories is a sign that we are getting closer to the heart of the gospel. The more intimately we follow Jesus, the more difficulty we have with the violence in these stories, the conflict in our world, and the hostility in our own hearts and lives.
During the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, Methodist pastor Trevor Hudson led his white congregation on what came to be known as "The Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope" as a way of building relationships with black South Africans. It was not an easy journey. One day his daughter asked, "Why do you follow Jesus when he keeps getting you into so much trouble?"
The more closely we follow Jesus, the more deeply we engage in the values of the kingdom of God, the more we find ourselves out of sync with many of the assumptions of the conflict-ridden culture in which we live.
How might the story of Deborah speak to us today?
By an interesting twist of Providence, I was scheduled to preach on Deborah on the Sunday prior to the Fourth of July. As I reflected on the Song of Deborah in that context, I began to think that the Hebrew people repeated Deborah's story and sang her song in a way that was similar to the way American citizens recite Longfellow's version of "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere."
Both poems contain details that are difficult to reconcile with what we know of the historical event. Their purpose was not historical analysis but to awaken people from their lethargy. The Hebrews passed Deborah's story on to awaken their faith, stir their conscience, call them to action, and remind them of their identity as the covenant people of God.
In the same way, Longfellow concluded the legend of Paul Revere's ride with a challenge to his readers.
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.
Deborah aroused her people to go to war. Unfortunately, we had more than enough of that call in the decade following the 9/11 attacks; and the world has paid an awful price for it.
Perhaps we need the spirit of Deborah to arouse us to what the pilgrims called "the common good." We need Deborah to remind us that our individual freedoms are bound up in what the preamble to the Constitution called "the general welfare." My freedoms are restrained by my responsibility to others in my community and nation.
We need the voice of Deborah to awaken us to values that are wider than narrow self-interest, higher than the lowest common denominator of rampant individualism, and noble enough to lift us out of the paralysis of political polarization by uniting us in a fresh vision of who we are and who we have it in us to become.
That is what Abraham Lincoln did at Gettysburg. Historians tell us that the ground was soggy with the shallow graves of the dead from both North and South. The air hung heavy with the stench of decaying bodies when Lincoln delivered the 273 words that historian Garry Wills called "The Words That Remade America."
Lincoln reminded a war-torn nation of the common roots out of which we had come. "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
He named the horrendous cost of our conflict. "We cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract."
In perhaps the greatest understatement in American history, he said, "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here."
He concluded with words that continue to arouse us from our lethargy and call us to go forward with the unfinished work we have to do. "It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us ... that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
The truth is that there are times when we become discouraged or downhearted. The issues we confront and the struggles we face sometimes seem to overwhelm us. In those times, we need the Spirit of the God who spoke through Deborah to awaken us from our lethargy and to energize us for the still unfinished work we have to do.
1. What was the purpose of the LORD giving the Israelites over to King Jabin of Canaan in verse 2? What do we learn in verse 3 about the technological superiority of the Canaanites?
2. The Hebrew words translated "wife of Lappidoth" in verse 4 can also be translated "woman of torches." Is this an accurate descriptor of Deborah? Why or why not?
3. Deborah was the only named female leader (judge) of Israel and the only named prophet in Judges. What circumstances do you think led to such an unusual appointment to a leadership position for a woman during this time period?
4. In verse 6, why does Deborah word her question to Barak in such a way? Why does Barak refuse to go into battle unless Deborah goes as well?
5. In verse 9, Deborah tells Barak that the LORD is going to hand Sisera over to a woman. Does this play out the way you expected? Why, or why not?
6. In verse 19, why does Jael give Sisera milk to drink when he asks her for water?
7. Were Jael's actions in verses 17-22 faithful and heroic or deceitful and sinful? Give reasons for your response.
8. Compare and contrast Deborah and Jael. In what ways are they both exceptional among biblical figures?
9. In Judges 5:7, Deborah is called "a mother in Israel," the only biblical figure to be given this descriptor. In what ways was Deborah a mother in Israel?
10. What qualities of leadership are exemplified by Deborah? What can Christians today learn about leadership by reading this passage?CHAPTER 2
TOO WISE FOR WAR
1 SAMUEL 25:1-44
1 Now Samuel died, and all Israel gathered to mourn for him. They buried him at his home in Ramah. David then left and went down to the Maon wilderness.
2 There was a man in Maon who did business in Carmel. He was a very important man and owned three thousand sheep and one thousand goats. At that time, he was shearing his sheep in Carmel. 3 The man's name was Nabal, and his wife's name was Abigail. She was an intelligent and attractive woman, but her husband was a hard man who did evil things. He was a Calebite.
4 While in the wilderness, David heard that Nabal was shearing his sheep. 5 So David sent ten servants, telling them, "Go up to Carmel. When you get to Nabal, greet him for me. 6 Say this to him: 'Peace to you, your household, and all that is yours! 7 I've heard that you are now shearing sheep. As you know, your shepherds were with us in the wilderness. We didn't mistreat them. Moreover, the whole time they were at Carmel, nothing of theirs went missing. 8 Ask your servants; they will tell you the same. So please receive these young men favorably, because we've come on a special day. Please give whatever you have on hand to your servants and to your son David.'"
9 When David's young men arrived, they said all this to Nabal on David's behalf. Then they waited. 10 But Nabal answered David's servants, "Who is David? Who is Jesse's son? There are all sorts of slaves running away from their masters these days. 11 Why should I take my bread, my water, and the meat I've butchered for my shearers and give it to people who came here from who knows where?" 12 So David's young servants turned around and went back the way they came. When they arrived, they reported every word of this to David.
13 Then David said to his soldiers, "All of you, strap on your swords!" So each of them strapped on their swords, and David did the same. Nearly four hundred men went up with David. Two hundred men remained back with the supplies.
14 One of Nabal's servants told his wife Abigail, "David sent messengers from the wilderness to greet our master, but he just yelled at them. 15 But the men were very good to us and didn't mistreat us. Nothing of ours went missing the whole time wewere out with them in the fields. 16 In fact, the whole time we were with them, watching our sheep, they were a protective wall around us both night and day. 17 Think about that and see what you can do, because trouble is coming for our master and his whole household. But he's such a despicable person no one can speak to him."
18 Abigail quickly took two hundred loaves of bread, two skins of wine, five sheep ready for cooking, five seahs of roasted grain, one hundred raisin cakes, and two hundred fig cakes. She loaded all this on donkeys 19 and told her servants, "Go on ahead of me. I'll be right behind you." But she didn't tell her husband Nabal.
20 As she was riding her donkey, going down a trail on the hillside, David and his soldiers appeared, descending toward her, and she met up with them. 21 David had just been saying, "What a waste of time—guarding all this man's stuff in the wilderness so that nothing of his went missing! He has repaid me evil instead of good! 22 May God deal harshly with me, David, and worse still if I leave alive even one single male belonging to him come morning!"
Excerpted from Converge Bible Studies Women of the Bible by James A. Harnish. Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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