Wonder Woman

There’s this saying that you can’t judge a book by its cover, and may we extend that to we can’t judge a book by its title. The book of Judges would market better if entitled The Justice League of the Israelites, or The Liberators. And it’s a bummer that the title is so dreary because the Book of Judges has more stories about women than any other book in the Bible. Today’s Scripture story could aptly be entitled “Wonder Women.” The Book of Judges is a timely reminder of how far we as a people have NOT come.

In ancient times, they also were bipartisan and addicted to arguments and judges to handle disputes were essential. It was a huge deal to be a judge, or liberator, because you were called to bring about justice. It was also a huge deal to be a prophet, to speak truth to power as prophets delivered the message God gave them. To be both? Only one person recorded in history, and yet we know little about her. Why is that? Have any ideas why an extraordinary liberator and prophet of Israel is hardly known? No other woman recorded in the Bible comes close to having her authority and responsibility . And what if I told you of a woman who took out one of Israel’s most feared enemies? We all know the story of David and Goliath, but have you ever heard the story of Jael and Sisera?

Historian Luarel Thatcher Ulrich, writing a scholarly article about sermons spoken at funerals for Christian women, penned the phrase that is now a popular bumper sticker: “Well behaved women seldom make history.” Ulrich wrote those words lamenting the fact that so many women who made positive impacts on society are mostly overlooked by history.

Today, we explore the story of Deborah, who not only wrote her own super-hero story, she lived it. We also will learn about Jael, who I dare say is the most courageous character in all the Bible. But some five thousand years after Deborah and Jael lived, their story barely has a heartbeat in the Biblical narrative. If we proclaim ourselves as Christians, then it helps to know our history, but what happens when the stories we hear have an underlying agenda in them? Does our Christian identity then truly understand the message of God, or the agenda of the storyteller? At one time, storytellers did not have an agenda to direct people how to think, but to create narratives to think about. But, at some point, storytellers manipulated narratives to portray a world where those who have power could maintain that power without guilt or accountability.

Our most known story-teller industry today, aside from the news media, is Hollywood. Can you believe that until the recent film, Wonder Woman, no woman ever directed a Hollywood 100-million-dollar live action film? Less than 2% of film directors are women, which led actress and director Angelica Huston to say, “They don’t want us to be priests. They want us to be obedient nuns.’’ Huh. Women leadership in Hollywood is like women leadership in the church…not too many. Left out of the lectionary readings, seldom preached on, the problem with today’s story is the main character of Deborah— if Deborah was a top leader in ancient Israel, and if a woman could lead Israel, then why not a church?
A Barna report released this past March entitled “What Americans Think About Women in Power,” found that:

Though large numbers of Americans embrace the presence of female leadership at work and in politics, they are least comfortable, comparatively, with women leading the church…Evangelicals by definition have a more traditional interpretation of the scriptures, particularly concerning female ordination, and so express by far the lowest levels of comfort (39%)….
There is a long history among evangelicals emphasizing motherhood and family as a woman’s primary calling. While the broader culture, and much of the Christian church, has shifted away from this, evangelicals seem more reluctant to do so. This reluctance is often tied to a scriptural reading that insists men are to occupy primary leadership positions within the family and church and, by extension, society.

https://www.barna.com/research/americans-think-women-power/

How stories are told shapes not only our hearing of them, and stories cannot only inspire us, but they can also tend to shape a narrative that affect the way we view the world and ourselves. But what if the process of the way the stories of the Bible have been relayed communicate a message that deviates from the conception that each of us are unique and special creations from a Creator who desires for us to love one another and live in peace?

Back to the Book of Judges. This is the context—Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt to the Promised Land. He died and Joshua took over. Then Joshua dies and the opening sentence of the Book of Judges reads, “After the death of Joshua, the Israelites asked GOD, “Who will take the lead in going up against the Canaanites to fight them?” The people are afraid of the Canaanites because they have a weapon never seen before, sort of like the nuclear weapon of our day—iron chariots. For 20 years, no one has had the courage to take on the Canaanite Army, led by Sisera.

The way one directs a film makes a difference on the way a story is told, and therefore construed. Many ways to tell a story, and I invite you to listen to the story of Deborah and Jael from two different perspectives:

Today we will learn about Deborah, who is the wife of Lappidoth.
Today we will learn about the only woman judge who was also a prophet, her name is Deborah which means woman of torches.

We encounter Deborah lethargically sitting under a palm tree settling disputes.
The Israelites traveled from far away to have Deborah settle their disputes.

Deborah needed a strong military leader to defeat the Canaanites, who were led by the undefeated military commander, Sisera. Women couldn’t lead men into battle, so she summons Barak, a man, to be the military leader.
Relaying God’s command, Deborah strategically devises a plan to lure Sisera into a trap and calls for Barak to lead 10,000 men into battle.

Barak doesn’t like being ordered by a woman, and replies, “If you go with me, I will go. But if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.”
Barak has great faith in Deborah’s vision and leadership and replies, “If you go with me, I will go. But if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.”

Deborah is upset that Barak responds this way, and replies, “Very well, I will go with you but 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.”
Deborah understands Barak’s faith in her: “Yes, I will be there with you for we dare not go into battle without the presence of God, who will deliver Sisera over to a woman.”

Sisera gathers his 900 iron chariots and fierce warriors to fight against Barak and the Israelites.
Sisera leads his 900 iron chariots and troops right where Deborah planned.

Under Barak’s leadership, Sisera and all his chariots and army were defeated, but Sisera got away.
When Deborah commanded Barak, he responded when she said, “Go! This is the day the Lord has given Sisera into your hands. Has not the Lord gone ahead of you?” At Barak’s advance, the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and army by the sword, and Sisera abandoned his chariot and fled on foot.

Sisera seeks refuge in the tent belonging to Jael, who Sisera knows will be hospitable to him because her husband is Kenite, an ally of his tribe. She gives him milk and Sisera falls asleep.
Sisera, seeking refuge, sees that Jael is in a tent by herself and instead of going to her husband’s tent, he forces himself in her tent against her will and orders her to give him water, guard the tent and lie if anyone asks if someone is with her and then he passes out.

Violating all rules of hospitality, the sacred custom in the Near East, Jael takes advantage of exhausted Sisera while he is asleep and murders him.
Jael, in self-defense of the aggressive intruder, awaits until Sisera is a asleep and drives a tent peg through his head and fulfills Deborah’s prophecy, that Sisera will be delivered into the hands of a woman and she becomes a hero to all of Israel, viewed as a woman warrior..

Barak, the great military leader saves Israel and is listed in the Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11.
The people of Israel rejoice and proclaim Deborah and Jael the wonder women who save them.

When on the Pine Ridge reservation a few weeks ago, we learned for hundreds of years the leaders of the tribe were the elder women. But when white military and political leaders wanted to talk to a tribal leader, they refused to dialogue with a tent full of grandmothers, and therefore the native Americans had to find a male chief in order to fit into the white man’s paradigm of leadership. A similar change happened in the history of the Israelites. After the period of the Judges, Israel wants kings, and only men can be kings. Israel becomes a monarchy, a bureaucracy and a patriarchal society. And the way the story was told adapted to society.

In all the sermons I’ve heard on great leaders of the Bible, and living at West Point (the premier institute on leadership) for fourteen years I have heard ad nauseam sermons on leadership, but none included Deborah or Jael. I hope that if you are asked to name a great leader of the Bible, you think about their story. Leadership does not have to be all about the military. It can be about peace. It can be about love. Liberating others at one time in our history was the quintessence of leadership.

Much in our world today imprisons us, and we need liberation. The health care debacle, treatment of the poor, the immigrant, the mentally ill. If you are looking for inspiration, read the Book of Judges. Experience the courage enacted out by Deborah, by Jael. If you have a chance, take in the movie, Wonder Woman, and observe the incredible source of her power.

We all long for justice, to live in a world where all have access to health care, a home and food. Does our world truly need a miracle? I am reminded of a book by Marianne Williamson on her reflections on A Course in Miracles, entitled Return to Love. What if we all returned to love? In closing, I leave you with a paraphrase from Williamson’s book that speaks to me what Deborah would say to each of us:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be a leader, brilliant, courageous, talented, fabulous? But what we need to ask ourselves is, Who am I not to be? You are a child of God…We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Be the story teller God calls you to be.