Thursday, January 21, 2010

Too Much for the Man

Village life in Israel ceased, ceased until I, Deborah, arose, arose a mother in Israel. (Judges 5.7)
Ready to Reach
The story of Deborah takes place during Israel’s transitional epoch between Moses and Joshua’s leadership and Saul’s monarchy. It has yet to formalize a government with a standing army and basically occupies the territory as squatters. A succession of judges oversees internal affairs and organizes counterstrikes against hostile forces. And the Jews are nearly always under attack, because they’re trapped in a cycle of dysfunction. They fight off one enemy, get peace and safety restored, grow lax in their obedience to God’s statutes, and—sure enough—another foe besets them, starting the cycle all over again. These conflicts involve years of maneuvering that drain Israel of forward momentum. Deborah is one of the judges caught in this cycle.

More than gender differentiates Deborah from her predecessors. She’s a prophetess. Yet her uniquely feminine worldview definitely filters her perceptions and how she works. She takes office during the most oppressive period to date in Israel’s history. Rather than seize Israel’s holdings, the Canaanite king has chosen to destroy Jewish life with relentless fear. His general, Sisera, parks 900 chariots on the border as a visible threat of total annihilation if Israel attempts to break the siege. A male prophet would confront his people with their wrongdoing and rally them to repent in hopes of regaining God’s favor. But Deborah realizes guilt would only weaken their morale further—possibly beyond the breaking point. She knows Israel will come to its senses and turn to God. Judges 4.3 says, because Canaan’s king “cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years, they cried to the LORD for help.” Deborah understands God can’t help us until we’re ready to reach for Him.

Conditioned by Fear
She summons Barak, a rising warrior, and tells him God commands he muster 10,000 men from two tribes, Naphtali and Zebulun. He’s to lead them to Mount Tabor while God lures Sisera to the Kishon River, a stream threading through Israel’s mountains. When Barak’s forces descend on Sisera, he’ll be unable to use his chariots effectively. The plan is too easy to seem feasible to Barak. It may be he also detects a strategic flaw. Naphtali isn’t a highly regarded tribe and Zebulun is best known for its penmanship. These aren’t the kinds of soldiers who can defeat a heavily armed opponent. Furthermore, Barak has lived most of his life under Canaanite oppression. He’s conditioned by fear to expect defeat. Trusting God to hand Sisera to him in such a way proves too much for the man.

“I’ll go if you go with me,” Barak says. “If not, I’m not going.” It’s a sad confession. Barak wants Deborah beside him because he doesn’t believe he warrants God’s protection without her. She agrees to accompany him, but cautions, “Because of the way you are going about this, the honor will not be yours, for the LORD will hand Sisera over to a woman.” (Judges 4.9) The battle plays out as predicted. Barak’s troops massacre the Canaanites, but Sisera vanishes into the desert. He shows up, parched and exhausted, at the tent of a tribesman allied with Canaan. Jael, the tribesman’s wife, serves Sisera milk and puts him to bed. Once he’s asleep, she drives a tent peg through his temple. The Canaanite threat is no more.

Village Life
Deborah and Barak gather the nation to render a customary song of jubilation. But their war anthem rings differently than most. It’s distinctively inclusive. They’re quick to share praise with others and express empathy for their foes. It strikes this note from the start: “When the princes in Israel take the lead, when the people willingly offer themselves—praise the LORD!” (Judges 5.2) After reciting Israel’s woes, Deborah casts herself as the restorer of its culture and traditions: “Village life in Israel ceased, ceased until I, Deborah, arose, arose a mother in Israel.” (v7,9) The song pays homage to tribes that rose to the occasion, chides those that didn’t, and concludes with two portraits: a rousing tribute to Sisera’s assassin, Jael, “most blessed of tent-dwelling women” (v24), and then a poignant image of the general’s mother as she watches for his return, wondering why he’s delayed. “She keeps saying to herself, ‘Are they not finding and dividing the spoils; a girl or two for each man, colorful garments as plunder for Sisera?” (v29-30) The image is devastating. Sisera isn’t ever coming home.

Offhand, I can think of only two or three Old Testament sagas more brutal than Deborah’s tale. Yet its violence is couched in surpassing tenderness, a gentle acknowledgement of how quickly simple things God asks us to do can seem like too much. What’s most notable, of course, is the men—Barak and Sisera—end up the fragile figures, while Deborah, Jael, and Sisera’s mother display genuine ferocity of spirit. Despite this, I’m not convinced gender reversal is the theme here. Deborah’s story teaches how detrimental surrendering to fear can be. When we allow by threats of power and violence to intimidate us, we sacrifice our sense of self-worth. We lose confidence in how much God values us. So often His solutions for problems that besiege us appear too easy to be feasible. They involve people we don’t ordinarily rely on and methods we dismiss as too risky. Constant fear has persuaded us we don't warrant his protection.

Acquiescence to fear destroys village life. It disrupts relationships, disturbs peace, and stalls progress. Until we’re ready to reach for God’s help, it won’t come. But once we do, we must also be ready to trust His plan. He’ll position us above our tormentors. When we can’t conceive how He’ll give us victory, he’ll raise up unlikely allies to defend us. While we rejoice, those awaiting news of our ruin will wait in vain. “When the princes in Israel take the lead, when the people willingly offer themselves—praise the LORD!” Deborah sang. That’s the moral of her story. That’s the answer to fear and intimidation. That’s what keeps our villages and lives safe and free.

Deborah was keenly aware of fear’s detrimental effects on daily life. Her story teaches us willingness to trust God’s plan is how we defeat fear.

(Next: Dog Days)


claire said...

Thank you, Tim. A neat look at Deborah.
Fear. Interesting topic. Especially today...
Fear of so many things, people, situations.
I will go back and read Deborah again.

Tim said...

Claire, sorry for the delayed response; had trouble logging in and just now getting back to it.

There are so many layers to this short story I didn't know where to start--and certainly didn't expect to finish where I did. But as I read it a few times, Barak's reticence intrigued me more and more. And I started thinking about how many times I personally had recoiled from opportunities because I was afraid. I think it happens a lot more often than we suspect, which makes me wonder how much do we miss (and how much do we suffer) simply by being afraid?

Just a thought.

Blessings and joy always,

claire said...

How much have I missed and still miss simply by being afraid?
Oh Tim, this is one of those questions I need to ask myself before I die -- just in case I change something still in the time I have left.


Tim said...

It's a worthy question we all should ask, Claire. I don't believe the undone work around us is because there's no one who can do it. It seems to me it goes undone because those who can are afraid they can't. But we can do all things through Christ, Who strengthens us, as Paul writes. And we should encourage one another to be brave, lest any or all of us miss our opportunities.

Peace, joy--and courage--dear sister,