There is perhaps nothing more exhausting than a lack of consistent leadership. Problems get solved in four places at the same time by different people with different solutions. Or situations go on and on unresolved because noone assumes responsibility for addressing a difficult situation. Standards get relaxed. Feelings get hurt. People get ignored. Bullied.
The people of Israel were not supposed to be like other nations. They were not supposed to have a king like other nations have kings. Yahweh the Lord God of angel armies was to be their king. But after the death of Joshua who continued the leadership of Moses the people found themselves in the promised land without a visible leader. They found it hard to follow a king they could not see. And so every one turned to doing what they thought was best for themselves. The unity of the community was fractured. Evil persisted. It was a very messy season.
This is a story about leadership in a time of disorder, responsibility in a time when there are none to take it, an example of faithfulness in a time when its easier to apathetically go along in a tired semi-waking haze. This is the story of Deborah:
We know that Deborah was wise and that she made herself available. People came to her to have their disputes decided. That’s a lot different from shouting across the street “HEY SUE, I HEAR YOU’RE HAVING PROBLEMS WITH NATHAN I HAVE SOME IDEAS ABOUT THAT” People came to Deborah to decide between them. They trusted her to hear what they had to say. They trusted her to speak wisely into their situation. They trusted that she was capable of pursuing and achieving peace among them in a time when cohesion was weak. She waited, she sat, under a palm tree. She could consistently be found there and in being consistently available, in being trusted, in pursuing peace and justice in relationships God provided leadership to the people of Israel through her in a time when it was deeply needed.
What’s more Deborah was a prophetess. God’s Word came to her, was spoken by her and in her for the people. She submitted herself, her life, her judgement, to the provision of God’s Word in her that he might actually be their king, however invisible and difficult to follow the people were finding Him to be.
There was a new threat for the people of Israel. Their roads were no longer safe. A Canaanite king and his army oppressed the people of Israel, stealing their goods and plundering their trade routes. This went on for twenty years and Deborah did nothing until God took the initiative-that’s the kind of leadership and example Deborah shows for us, the proper leadership of any Christian, when God acts she follows. She summons a man named Barak to her and she tells him exactly what God gave her to tell him:
“You are going to go back to your part of Israel, raise up an army from your part of Israel, ten thousand men, and you are going to destroy the army of Canaan, got it?”
Now this was wild. Israel doesn’t have an army, Barak isn’t a military leader. Not to mention the fact that Canaan has a yearly army, soldiers who return year after year to fight with their king, who have discipline, experience and a command structure. What’s more they have the most devastating weapon of war in this time of history, they have chariots. Not just a few chariots. They have nine-hundred chariots. And Barak is supposed to go and raise up ten thousand men to knock down this army? But Deborah insists, this is what God requires of you, yes it seem scary, yes it is his word.
Deborah shows faithfulness to God’s Word, encouragement for Barak, and a readiness to serve. Barak is afraid to go and so she shows her confidence in God’s promise by going with him, if the army of Canaan destroys Barak it will destroy Deborah also. When those God calls to lead lack the confidence to do so, Deborah provides leadership in going with them into the frey. There are consequences for their lack of faith, and she is clear to them about that, but she pursues God’s plans in them despite their weakness.
When the army of Barak, and the army of Canaan meet Deborah reminds Barak again of God’s promise, she reminds and encourages him. Bishop Michael is found of saying that nagging is a ministry all of its own. She reminds him of God’s promise and he remembers and obeys.
Now when Barak pursued this army what happened?
When you, Lord, went out from Seir,
when you marched on the land of Edom,
the earth shook, the heavens poured,
the clouds poured down water.
The mountains quaked before the Lord, the One of Sinai,
before the Lord, the God of Israel.
The Lord intervened as promised and caused something that though a distraction for armies would be devastating to chariots. And so the men Barak raised were able to, as God promised, destroy the army that had been robbing and oppressing Israel. The roads again would be safe.
Some people’s favourite part of the story is this gory detail so I can’t ignore it. While Barak and his men were destroying the army that had oppressed God’s people for twenty years their commander had snuck away by foot. He came across some nomadic people. One of the women recognized him, she welcomed him and invited him into her tent. When he came in though he said “look, hide me under a blanket and if anybody comes looking for me tell them you don’t know where he is and that there is noone in your tents.”
This woman’s name was Jael and she was clever enough to know what this meant. The days of oppression and roadside-sackings could be over. If he was hiding someone had defeated him. That said he was a mighty man of war and she was a nomadic woman on her own in a tent. She had to be cunning. He asked for a little water. So to win his trust she brought out a lordly bowl and filled it with a skin of milk. She gave lavishly to the defeated man. And when he was full and trusting and rested she took a tentpeg and a mallet and drove it into the ground through his head.
When Barak’s army in pursuit finally caught up to the commander, Sisera was his name by the way. Jael showed him what she had down. After twenty years of oppression God had destroyed those who oppressed Israel. Deborah had delivered his word, encouraged his people to obey it, and faithfully risked herself trusting his promise. She provided leadership in a time of disunity and instability in leadership. She desired God’s judgment. She hungered and thirst after righteousness. And she was satisfied.
My favourite thing about the story of Deborah is that the song of Deborah contrasts the willingness to march of Deborah, the destruction of Sisera at the hands of Jael, with what the women of Canaan were doing:
Through the window peered Sisera’s mother;
behind the lattice she cried out,
“Why is his chariot so long in coming?
Why is the clatter of his chariots delayed?”
The wisest of her ladies answer her;
indeed, she keeps saying to herself,
“Are they not finding and dividing the spoils:
a woman or two for each man,
colourful garments embroidered,
highly embroidered garments for my neck—
all this as plunder” Judges 5:28-30
Where the women of Israel took initiative in defending their children the women of Canaan waited at home for spoils and riches. The contrast between cultivation and plundering is stark. We as Christians are called to cultivate, to create and to protect, to build up and enrich, to beautify not to ravage. Finally, the peace that Deborah pursued in the relationships among the people of Israel, the peace that God gave her over the enemies of Israel, lasted fourty years.
Let us pray:
Holy God we give thanks for your Word, and for your love for us. We thank you that you are our king. We ask that you will prevent us from doing evil in your sight. Strengthen us to cultivate, give us stable leadership and in instability guide us. Bless us in faithfulness to you. Defend us from our enemies. We give thanks for the leadership and responsibility of these women, receive it and use it to your glory, direct it according to your will, make it fruitful. All this we beg in the name of your Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.