Judges 4-6, Psalm 74, John 8
Women rule in a world turned upside down!
Judges 4 – 6
Today’s readings are fascinating and tell stories of women acting in powerful ways to carry out God’s will. The Israelites, however, are as fickle as a fair weather friend. We are told that “The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died.” Their fortune therefore fluctuates constantly throughout the Book of Judges like a volatile stock.
Yahweh therefore allowed King Jabin of Canaan to exert control over the region and reign from Hazor, which was a strategic outpost located in northern Galilee 10 miles from the Sea of Galilee on the road from Megiddo to Damascus. Both Joshua and Judges note that Jabin ruled this region. (Joshua 11:13, Judges 4:24) Archeological evidence confirms that this region was destroyed in the thirteenth century.
Jabin cruelly oppressed the Israelites for 20 years, wielding 900 chariots. Biblical numbers, especially regarding military strength, were often exaggerated in order to inflate the power of Yahweh to bring about a glorious victory over an enormous army. I Samuel 13:5 tells us that the Philistines mustered “30,000 chariots, and 6,000 horsemen, and troops like the sand on the seashore in multitude” to fight the Israelites. I Kings 10:26 notes that Solomon had 1,400 chariots and 12,000 horses, and I Chronicles 19:7 says Ammonites hired 32,000 chariots from the king of Maacah to fight against David.
Thankfully, the Israelites had Deborah. She was the only “judge,” who the Bible actually depicts as serving in the role of a judge. We are told that she was “a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth” and “was judging Israel. “She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment.” (Judges 4:5)
A prophet or prophetess served as a conscience for the nation. Prophets challenged the establishment when the Israelites wavered in their obligation to fulfill Yahweh’s Covenant. They often bore the harsh task of notifying the people of punishment that would ensue unless the nation changed its behavior.
The prophets were often reluctant to deliver these messages to their own people, but over time they always relented and spoke the truth to power despite the cost. Some prophets did outrageous or symbolic actions to draw attention to their message, but it was the message that was the most important thing about the prophet, not the prophet himself. The key test of a prophet was whether or not his or her prophecy came true. Initially, the prophets always addressed the king and his court, but by the eighth century B.C. they began to address the people at large about God’s policies.
Deborah summoned Barak and ordered him to bring 10,000 warriors from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun. The Hebrew word used here is difficult to render and may mean 10,000 warriors or ten clans. The latter would be far less than 10,000 soldiers. What is important to note is that the Israelites had no central government. There was no institutional mechanism therefore to draft an army or to command several tribes to unite and fight against a perceived enemy. Hence, everything depended upon whether or not a persuasive figure arose who had enough stature and authority to convince one or more tribes to engage in battle on behalf of Yahweh. Deborah was just the woman for the job.
Yahweh instructed her to tell Barak and his warriors to take the high ground around Mount Tabor while Deborah drew out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, and his chariots from across the plain. The plain included a wadi, which during rainstorms flooded and could be a muddy nightmare for chariots and soldiers. Hence, Barak and his warriors were able to remain concealed and to observe their enemy from a height and pounce upon them following a rainstorm produced by Yahweh. We are told that “All the army of Sisera fell by the sword; no one was left.” (Judges 4:16)
Sisera fled on foot for his life and made his way to the tent of Jael, wife of Heber. Whereas in Genesis 18:1-8, Abraham offered hospitality to three strangers, it is Jael wife of Heber the Kenite who “came out to meet Sisera, and said to him, ‘Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me and have no fear.’” (Judges 4:18) It was the husband’s role and not the wife’s to offer hospitality to strangers. Tradition was breached.
Likewise, Sisera breached tradition by asking his hostess for water. Normally, the guest merely received whatever was given to him or her. “Please give me a little water to drink; for I am thirsty,” said the general. After giving him milk, Jael covered Sisera with a rug that concealed him and he fell fast asleep, but not before Sisera broke tradition again and asked his hostess, “Stand at the entrance of the tent, and if anybody comes and asks you, ‘Is anyone here?’ say, ‘No.’” (Judges 4:20)
Jael obliged, but while the general slumbered, she took a tent peg, returned inside the tent and hammered it through his skull. Barak soon arrived at the site and Jael ushered him into her tent to see the dead general. The Bible tells us that “God subdued King Jabin of Canaan,” and the Israelites destroyed him. Deborah and Barak sang a victory song,
When locks are long in Israel,
when people offer themselves willingly –
bless the Lord! (Judges 5:2)
Victory songs were common ways for people in the ancient Near East to immortalize heroic deeds. But the volatile stock of Israel, which rose high under Deborah’s leadership, plummeted again. We read, “The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord gave them into the hand of Midian seven years.” (Judges 6:1) The Israelites were forced to live in caves and strongholds in the mountains.
Whenever they planted crops, the Amalekites and Midianites swept down and destroyed their fields. Yahweh then sent the first unnamed prophet in the Bible to remind the Israelites of all that Yahweh had done for them beginning in Egypt. The prophet admonished Israel not to worship the Amorite gods. Then the prophet came to Gideon, who was said to be a “mighty warrior” (Judges 6:12), which can also mean a “man of stature,” and informed him that God would use him as the instrument to deliver the Israelites from the Amalekites and Midianites. Throughout the Bible God intervenes in daily life and calls ordinary people to serve him. Jesus called James and John while they were fishing, saying, “Come, follow me.” Likewise, the angel summons Gideon while he is on the threshing floor beating the wheat.
When God calls people to serve, the human response is almost always one of surprise, fear and a feeling of being ill equipped to fulfill God’s mission. We may think, “Who am I to teach Sunday school?” “How could I lead a Bible study?” “How can I tutor prison inmates?” “How can I go on a church mission trip?”
Again and again, God chooses the least likely. “But sir, how can I deliver Israel?” Gideon asked the angel. “My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” We shall later see how the prophet Samuel came to Bethlehem to anoint a king and met each of Jesse’s sons, but did not find one who seemed to be what God had in mind to lead Israel until he met David, Jesse’s youngest son. The Lord assured Gideon, “But I will be with you, and you shall strike down the Midianites, every one of them.” (Judges 6:16) When God calls us to serve, we are never alone. God is always at our side.
Reluctant, Gideon asked for a sign, which the angel provided by touching his staff to a sacrificial offering that Gideon offering and consuming it in fire. The Lord instructed Gideon to tear down the altar of Baal, which was said to be his father’s, but belonged to the community. The people were angered and threatened to kill Joash’s son Gideon, but Joash said, “Let Baal contend against him.” (Judges 6:32)
The Midianites and Amalekites crossed the Jordan and camped in readiness to strike the Israelites again. Desiring a clear sign that God still wanted him to lead the people into battle, Gideon tested Yahweh, asking him to dampen a fleece with dew and leave the threshing floor dry and the following night to do the opposite. Once this occurred, Gideon was certain that he knew what God wanted him to do.
This psalm is a plea for help in a time of national humiliation. It dovetails with our readings from Judges, where Israel has been subjugated for 20 years by opposing kings with strong armies. The Psalmist asks,
O God, why do you cast us off forever?
Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture? (Ps. 74:1)
The Psalmist recognizes that there is no prophet who can tell the people know how long they must wait for vindication. “…there is no one among us who knows how long,” says the Psalmist, noting, “You crushed the heads of Leviathan…” (Ps. 74:14) The Leviathan is believed to have been a crocodile, which were plentiful in Egypt but sparse in Palestine. The Leviathan has also been depicted as a sea monster.
On that day the Lord with his cruel and great and strong sword
will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting
serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea. (Is. 27:1)
Likewise, Ugaritic texts speak of a chaotic watery beast, creating anarchy in the oceans, which was a many-headed serpent that had to be defeated by Baal. This gave birth to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
Water and the sea are often symbols of chaos in the Old and New Testaments. The Leviathan embodies this chaos and may be referred in Revelation 12:3-9 as the seven-headed dragon, which represented the fall of Satan. The final battle is seen as one waged between order and chaos on earth. The psalm offers some of the most poetic words of the Psalter, which are recited in Evening Prayer (BCP p. 115),
Yours is the day, yours also the night;
you established the luminaries and the sun.
You have fixed all the bounds of the earth;
you made summer and winter. (Ps. 74:15-16)
When we finish this chapter, we will not be even halfway through John’s Gospel, yet the Jews are ready to stone Jesus. What has occurred? Why has Jesus stirred up so much animosity against himself?
The chapter opens with the Pharisees dragging a woman caught in the act of adultery to Jesus, who was seated in the Temple teaching. A rabbi gave his most definite teaching while seated. It is from this position that we get the bishop’s seat or cathedra in Latin from where the bishop teaches. A bishop is meant to be a “teacher.” This is especially true of English bishops, who traditionally have been scholars. The word cathedral comes from the cathedra from where the bishop teaches the people.
While seated and teaching, “the scribes and the Pharisees” confront Jesus with a moral dilemma in hopes of trapping him and being able to accuse him of false teaching and bring charges against him to the high priests. This is the only time in John’s Gospel where “the scribes and the Pharisees” are mentioned. John speaks frequently about the Pharisees, but nowhere else about the scribes. The scribes, by contrast, are often mentioned in Luke’s Gospel. They are closely associated with the chief priests in the Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 2:4; Mark 8:31, Luke 20:19) and the Pharisees. (Matt. 23:2, Mark 2:16 and Luke 6:7) Scholars believe that this episode is an interpolation or a later addition, and therefore was not part of John’s original gospel. Whether or not this is true, it is a fascinating story.
This passage describes the only time that Jesus ever wrote. We do not know what Jesus wrote. It may be an allusion to Jeremiah. 17:13, which declared that those who depart from God shall be written in the earth or “underworld.” Some scholars suggest that Jesus’s writing was an allusion to the written Torah. Since he wrote in the dust, perhaps Jesus was reminding his listeners that they came from the dust and would return to the dust. We do not know. Jesus said, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7) It is one of the most insightful lines in the Bible.
One by one, beginning with the oldest men, they departed. I remember being outraged by a priest whose conduct was less than becoming when I was fairly newly ordained. I was striving to be “the perfect priest,” and I could tell that this man fell far short of that. I was young and full of hubris. Now I know what it is like to be an older man, like one of those who left before the younger men, knowing that there but by the grace of God go I. We are all sinful and in need of God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of those around us we whom we have hurt.
Jesus had clarity about his mission in John’s Gospel that surpasses how he is portrayed by the Synoptic writers. “…my testimony is valid,” he said, “because I know where I have come from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. You judge by human standards; I judge no one. Yet even if I judge, my judgment is valid; for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me.” (John 8:14-16) Comparing himself with God the Father angered his Jewish audience, inciting many to want to kill him. But they refrained, for “his hour had not yet come.” (John 8:20) This is an illusion to kairos or “God’s opportune time.”
Like it or not, Jesus affirmed repeatedly in John’s Gospel that we must “believe” in him in order to be saved by God. John’s Gospel is not for the casual Christian or complacent Episcopalian who wants to feel that God is like a gentle grandfather, who will welcome everyone home. Jesus said, “I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he.” (John 8:24)
Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus spoke in nuanced ways, using metaphors. He said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me.” (John 8:28) He was alluding to his crucifixion, but it is easy to understand why his audience did not realize this.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus is “the truth,” “the way,” “the light,” “the life,” the vine” and “the bread which comes down from heaven.” He told the Jews who accepted him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31) When I first encountered Christianity in college, after being raised in the Episcopal Church and stopped attending for several years, I feared that following Jesus and taking Christianity seriously would ruin everything fun about college. I could not have been further from the truth.
One night as I watched television in my fraternity house at Emory University a younger fraternity brother came into the TV room where I was sitting. He was dressed in a toga and was clearly inebriated, but also quite happy. “Oh man, you have to go to the party,” he told me. I was not even aware that there was a toga party, but I responded like a robot, grabbed a bed sheet from my room, wrapped it like a toga around my body and headed to the party, where I, too, had plenty to drink.
As I wrestled with college life and the Bible, which I was just starting to read, I realized that I was not truly free. Sin had me in its clutches, and I was not free to hear someone suggest attending a toga party and respond, “Thanks, but I am happily watching TV.” Only after becoming committed to the Christian faith and moving from being an inquirer to someone seeking to be a disciple did I come to experience freedom in Christ and realize that Jesus was right. Jesus is God’s truth, and “the truth will set us free.”
Jesus now antagonizes his listeners. “Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word. You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He (Moses) was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:43-45) It is not hard to see why devout Jews listening to him would lean down to pick up stones and threaten to kill Jesus. The truth will set us free, but hearing the truth can be very painful.
If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. (John 8:31)
Which female leaders to you most admire in the world today? Who speaks prophetically today? Who speaks the truth to you and tells you what you need to hear? How much truth can you stand to hear? If you were standing there when Jesus said, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone,’ would you be among the first or the last to leave? What is Jesus’s truth mean to you?
Most Holy and All Forgiving God, we often assess our own goodness and purity far greater than we should and assess the goodness and purity of others below what we should. Help us to be mindful of judging others and be aware always of our own need for grace and forgiveness, so that we might walk humbly before you. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania