St. Paul’s – Proper 28 – 11/19/2023
The book of Judges contains some very troubling passages. We need to look at alll of chapter 4 and 5 to fully comprehend what is going on. To begin with…just about every thing in Judges 4 is offensive to enlightened sensibilities.
We learn already at the outset that God has sold the children of Israel into twenty years of oppression because of some vague and unnamed sin on their part.
Does God really impose military defeat as a punishment for immorality? What a stern and easily offended deity! Yes, it’s true, in the rest of the chapter God goes on to deliver Israel from the oppression of Jabin, King of Canaan, and Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army. But God does so by having Deborah summon up the Israelites tribes to engage Sisera on the field of battle. The resulting slaughter is brutal and total. All the army of Sisera fell by the sword, we’re told by the narrator. To make sure we’ve gotten the point, he adds No one was left. Punishment, warfare, annihilation-is this really the way of the Lord? Even aside from our moral reservations, God’s course of action hardly seems to hold much promise as a long-term solution to the problem of how it can live securely in the land.
Something, in fact, that we know well about the history of wars is that even the most decisive military victories never fully resolve political dilemmas. Just look at the Holy Land for the last 75 years…..And so it is here-for it turns out that the biblical narrator has been teasing us. Yes, all of Sisera’s army is killed-but not, it seems, Sisera himself. General Sisera has escaped and has made his way on foot to the nearby encampment of some Kenites, non-Israelites who were nevertheless distant relations of a sort, since they were descendants of Moses’ father-in-law. Fleeing through the camp, Sisera is met by Jael, wife of the Kenite chief. She invites him into her tent rather suggestively, tells him not to worry, maybe… engages in some hanky-panky (the text implies much on this score but tells little), she promises not to reveal his whereabouts, she gives him milk to drink and a coverlet, and then when Sisera has fallen asleep-Jae! creeps softly up to him and drives a tent-peg through his skull.
This is all so wrong! First, God apparently sanctions killing on an appalling scale; now Jael violates the ancient Near East’s most cherished first principle, the practice of hospitality, by deceitfully murdering Sisera in his sleep. The subsequent song in Judges 5 even celebrates both of these troubling aspects of the story: So perish all your enemies, O LORD!, it reads. Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, of tent-dwelling women most blessed. No wonder there aren’t a lot of sermons on this passage-how can Christians see God at work in the hand of an assassin? In fact, no wonder that many Christians down through the ages have had serious difficulty with the entire Old Testament. Such stories of battles and barbarism-what have they to do with Jesus, who taught us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us?
One response to this difficulty would be to do what Thomas Jefferson did…..Thomas Jefferson’s Bible…….And as we attempt to ignore those troubling passages, is there not the likelihood that we will identify what is Christian and comfortable withourowncultural assumptions,and therebyconstructanOldTestament inourownimage?
Wouldn’t it be better to keep offensive passages close at hand and to interrogate them constantly for thepossibility of their offeringa particularly needed contemporary witness….the texts that seem so obviously wrong are precisely the texts that might illuminate those blind spots we don’t realize we have.
The other approach might be to view these disturbing passages in a wider context. For example, the entire book of Judges could be characterized as a succession of bad examples. The book makes this point through the larger literary framework into which the individual stories have been set: through explicit narrative judgments and the implicit logic of the sequence of events, episodes of faithfulness are repeatedly followed by acts of disobedience, so that nothing ever gets better for good. The larger purpose for this bleak portrayal is to prepare the ground for the later establishment of the monarchy in Israel. At this level the quite numerous and varied people and events within Judges, whether praise-worthy or morally dubious in and of themselves, all combine to illustrate how chaotic things became without a king….in other words, why a king was needed.
So, if we return to our particular passage and look more closely, we find yet another hero in the story….what was his name again? It is Barak, an Israelite warrior, whom Deborah asks to lead the army of Israel against Sisera. She prophesies that Barak will be victorious. Only, she tells him, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman(4:9). Nowit is remarkable to find-not one but-two powerful women in this ancient story. We can rightly celebrate their place in Scripture; Deborah and Jael do what Barak and the other men of Israel cannot. But we only do justice to the contours of the passage when we see that traditional gender roles are being inverted for the sake of a theological point. Barak’s efforts will meet with success, Deborah tells him, but Barak must not imagine that his success will be due to his own efforts alone. In the end we see how providence unfolded entirely according to plan. Barak and his men did defeat Sisera’s army, and yet a woman was the one who made the crucial difference. Her decisive action was foretold, just as Barak’s inability to act. In both this action and inaction, however, it is God’s will that is ultimately accomplished. On that day, the narrator concludes the chapter, God subdued King Jabin of Canaan before the Israelites’ (4:23). So in this story God’s will is accomplished by the lowly even more than by the strong, a curious reversal that conveys respect to the underprivileged and teaches humility to the powerful.
From this perspectiveJ udges 4 neither glorifies nor advocates violence.Instead it portrays a God who is absolutely committed to Israel-not Israel as merely an idea or symbol, but Israel as a flesh-and-blood people threatened with extinction. The depth of this commitment is so profound that God consents to work within the messy ambiguities and imperfect structures of the human world as it is in order to secure Israel’s safety and guide its future. This God, we might say, is a God for whom consequences are finally more important than the kind of purity that could only exist in splendid isolation. This is a God who is willing to wade into the muddy stream of history, to mix things up at the street corner of human conflict. This is a God who sides with the weak and undermines the proud.
And so throughout the book of Judges, dubious candidates….people who don’t measure up to ordinary social preconceptions about who is most likely to succeed, misfits-are chosen to lead God’s risky venture on Israel’s behalf: Ehud is left-handed (Jud 3:15): Gideon is a doubter (Jud 6:36-39); Jephthah is the son of a prostitute (Jud 11:1): Abimelech murders his brothers (Jud (9:5, 24, 56); Samson is a buffoon (Jud 16:1-20).
Yet with these choices God not only sides with the socially-disadvantaged at the expense of the socially-advantaged,God subverts and transforms those very categories. God uses the flawed presuppositions, practices and institutions of the human world because…well, they’re all that’s available. The world is a world of wars, sexism, racism and prejudice, and so God lays hold of these things, but God does so to subvert them.
God exposes their inadequacies to us from the inside out. And at the same time God patiently, steadily, cleverly turns these flawed conceptions upside down in order to gesture toward, to lend credence to, to offer a precedent on behalf of a positive vision, a new way of human
flourishing genuine community, true peace. The Bible calls this new way of human flourishing the kingdom of God. And in God’s upside-down kingdom, servants rule and rulers serve. Those who are hungry and thirsty hunger and thirst no more. while those with plenty to eat and drink go about unsatisfied. The poor are rich and the rich arc poor. In the upside-down kingdom of God weakness is strength; humility is authority; giving is receiving; peace-making is heroism; sacrifice is love; forgiveness is success. Those who were once considered socially sub-paar havean acknowledged ability lead the people of God’s kingdomin to greater righteousness.These leaders, like the judges of old,like Deborah and Jael are esteemed for little in the eyes of the world but in that very lack of esteem, they possess a great spiritual advantage. They bear traits and perspectives that remind us to be ever suspicious of success as the world conceives it, and they are themselves. in their brokenness even more than in their victories, signs for us of God’s Son Jesus Christ. whose lifei s the perfect expression of God’s new way, God’s holy kingdom: the renunciation of worldly authority and earthly power, the futility of killing, a life truly lived for others.
We know all this.And yet all-too-often we fool ourselves into believing that God’s kingdom is only some kind of pie-in-the-sky ideal and not a performable ethic for ou rdaily lives.Or we restrict the claim of God’s kingdom to the interior landscape of our hearts, to only our emotional and affective lives, and we refuse to acknowledge how God’s kingdom is also a world-historical phenomenon competing for allegiance against the other principalities and powers that seek control of our planet. The irony of renouncing earthly power as Jesus did is that it requires us to take a clear and consistent stand against the principalities that presently exercise that power.God is not only the Lord of our hearts and our private decisions. God isGod of the nations, too. And by comparison with God’s kingdom the nations are being weighed upon the scales of justice and measured against the plumbline of God’s abiding purpose. In Jesus Christ, God has indeed brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly (Luke l:52). for ·at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth (Philippians 2:l 0).
That claim, that demand, that pretension of the kingdom of God is what is truly offensive to enlightened sensibilities, and there’s no help for it. An actual counter community, existing on earth, but with upside-down standards; a community in which jealously guarded privileges are revoked but personal limitations contribute toward the common good; a community in which sufficient resources for social harmony and lasting peace are really to be found….that is what the kingdom of God is. That is who Jesus Christ is. That is the word of Deborah to Barak, and that is God’s word to us. Amen.