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Friendships and alliances – Judges 5:1-9 – Deborah's Song

Blackfield Baptist Church, Sunday July 3rd 2005

 

Readings
Luke 7:1-10
Judges 5:1-9
Hymns used (from Mission Praise)
199, Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise
271, I give you all the honour
987, Here is love vast as the ocean
and to conclude, 266, I cannot tell why He whom angels worship

 

 

Well, last time I was here you’ll remember we were looking together at the theme of Disappointment, from a passage near the start of the book of Judges. Tonight we’re a few chapters further on in terms of pages, and something over a hundred years in terms of time. The reading was from the start of Deborah's Song, but this is one of those times in the Old Testament where we are treated to two different perspectives on events – chapter 4 tells us what happened in the form of a direct account, perhaps taken from the tribal records of the time, and chapter 5 gives us the perspective of the poet. To set the scene, and before we divert into the New Testament to consider the centurion’s story from Luke, I’m going to briefly summarise chapters 4 and 5. Tonight’s theme is “friendships and alliances”, so my own retelling is going to be focusing on this aspect of the story. What we’re going to be doing all through this evening is looking at the same ideas in three different ways – firstly the historical setting, secondly how matters in our own communities might be similar, and lastly how they apply in personal, individual terms.

Israel at this stage was not a nation, but a loose confederation of tribes. Each tribe had its own territory, its own leadership, but had a common religious faith and gathered several times a year at specific places for times of collective celebration and worship. To allow them to respond to issues bigger than those affecting a single tribe, certain individuals – Judges – were given authority over the leaders of the separate tribes. Now, we don’t know for sure how these Judges were chosen, but there is no sign that family dynasties held the position, and we suppose that people – both men and women – were recognised as having necessary talent and practical wisdom. We don’t really know the “job description” either, but it clearly involved being able to resolve disputes, and at need mobilise Israel for war. Deborah – her name means “honey-bee” – is the only woman Judge we are told of, but it seems to me unlikely that she was in fact the only one. Women are well practiced in arbitrating family quarrels, and we know that in this era women were found on the battlefield.

Having said that, though, Deborah is one of the very few women who we know for sure had a position of authority in ancient Israel. By the time Israel had become a kingdom, almost all the people we meet are men, and a woman’s place appears to have become very definitely in the home. But here, as Israel tried to establish a place in a hostile environment, it was clearly possible for women of talent to be affirmed in leadership alongside men. The times called for every able person to be trusted in the right position, regardless of gender, family status and so on.

Anyway, Jabin, ruler of the nearby city of Chatsor, was at this time dominating the lands nearby by use of superior military technology – chariots. Chatsor, a few miles north of the Sea of Galilee, had been an important and prosperous city in former years, but by Deborah’s time had rather declined from its peak. The tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun were closest to and most directly affected by Chatsor, which is why Baraq was told to take men from those tribes to tackle the matter.

Now, having established that, we start to come to matters of direct concern to us tonight. Baraq, although he acknowledges Deborah’s authority, refuses to go without her beside him, providing personal validation of his role. I love the little touch of humour in v10, where Baraq’s ten thousand men are not up to the job without this one woman. So Deborah maintains the alliance – she goes with him – but using her gift as prophetess foretells the consequences. Not Baraq, but a woman, would get the main credit for the victory – of course we all expect this will be Deborah herself. The story then breaks off, with Baraq, ten thousand men, and one woman en route to Mount Tabor, southwest of the Sea of Galilee. All of a sudden we learn of another man, Cheber the Kenite, whose tent was pitched lower down in the valley of the river Jordan. Why is he important? Well, for one thing, it is his wife Jael who actually kills Sisera, the enemy general, but there is more. You see the Kenites as a tribe had been nomads in this part of the world for years, mostly in the Sinai and Negev regions, and Moses had married into a Kenite family while away from Egypt. When the Israelites moved on from Sinai towards Canaan, Moses had persuaded his in-laws, Cheber’s ancestors, to go with them. So Cheber – in terms of family history – ought to have been on the Israelites’ side, but in fact – as we learn from v17 – had what we might term a non-aggression pact with the enemy king, Jabin. Not a full treaty, but what we might call an arrangement, an understanding.

I suspect this is a common state of affairs in church life. Perhaps some of us are in a place where everyone we know is a devoted Christian, passionately dedicated to doing the Lord’s will on every single occasion. But for most of us, I suspect, it is not this clear – some family, friends or work colleagues are actively choosing a life of faith, and others are not. Most of us, I suspect, are part of families with men like Cheber in them – people who have made temporary peace with a different culture, and who find themselves in alliances with people outside the camp of Christianity at the moment. But this applies to each of us as individuals as well. I suspect in fact that most of us have been at some part of our life in Cheber’s position, more-or-less in the right location but hooked up with the wrong people. There are so many questions we’d like to ask here – what did Jael, Cheber’s wife, think of this alliance? Did she approve or disapprove of it? Did Cheber himself regret it but see no other way out of a difficult situation? Had he argued with other family members and entered into this pact as an act of defiance or revenge? There are so many reasons why any of us might end up in his position.

At any rate, back again with the Israelite army, they chose the battlefield well – the mountainous terrain suited their foot-soldiers better than Sisera’s chariotry, and the Song suggests that a sudden storm rendered the chariots useless, bogged down in the river. In defeat, Sisera abandons his troops and flees on foot towards the encampment of his ally, Cheber. But instead, he arrives at the tent of Jael. Now, alliances like this were rather like a well-organised protection racket. Jabin would have offered security to Cheber in return for service, usually military service along the borders. While on such service, the men would encamp away from their womenfolk – partly to protect them from attack, and partly no doubt to lessen the chance of distraction while on duty. So it seems likely that Sisera was actually looking for the men's encampment, where perhaps he intended to gather troops for a counter-attack. But in the gloom and confusion of the moment, he stumbled into the women’s tents. I’m sure the first reaction of the women would have been considerable fear – battle nearby, their menfolk away, and a soldier blundering into the camp. But the story is full of twists and turns – the man turns out to be an ally… but he is killed… the man is seduced into a false sense of security and is destroyed… the woman is triumphant. The whole story is full of unexpected reversals.

Before we go a bit deeper into the Song and its lessons for us tonight, let’s turn over to the New Testament passage we read, about a Roman centurion and his Jewish advocates in Luke’s gospel. As I mentioned earlier, geographically it happened quite close to the battle Deborah and Baraq fought all those years before. You probably remember the verse at the start of Isaiah chapter 9 we read at Christmas, in which the Son to be born is promised to the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali – Baraq’s land. Suppose here in Blackfield represents the main street at Capernaum. Then Mt Tabor is a little bit further away than Lymington, Nazareth is about as far as Christchurch, Sisera assembled his troops on the outskirts of Bournemouth, and Chatsor is on the northern edge of Southampton. Cheber’s tent is on the Isle of Wight, a couple of miles west of Newport. All very close to home for Jesus. It’s enticing to think that as a boy he would have walked the few miles up Tabor to look for twelve hundred year old swords and chariot wheels buried in the grass. The very next episode Luke relates, in which a widow’s son was brought back to life, took place in Nain, on the southern slopes of this same mountain. Perhaps as Jesus and his disciples walked to Nain, they took shelter in the heat of the day under the great trees of Tsa’annayim, where Cheber had pitched his tent and Sisera met his end.

Of course there is a lot in the centurion’s story we could talk about, and I dare say most often he is held up as an example of faith, aware that Jesus had authority to command things to happen – and they did – even when he was not physically present. All that is true, but that’s not the point I want to draw out tonight. Both the Roman army of occupation and the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ time tend to get something of a bad press in Christian sermons – the Romans are normally just brutal and efficient, and the Jewish leaders are bound up in rules and regulations. Of course neither picture is really accurate, but that’s how we tend to portray these groups. But here – since we’re thinking tonight about friendships and alliances – I want to paint each of them a little differently. Luke, as he wrote his gospel, loved including details of human interaction, and he loved to show how Jesus would include in his circle of action and affection, people who were often excluded. So here is this Roman military leader, about the same responsibility as a modern lieutenant or captain, and rather than standing aloof from the Israelites, he had chosen to involve himself with them. He had contributed to their place of worship, and was clearly respected and trusted by the community. The Roman practice was to recruit army members from anywhere in the Empire, but they were never allowed to serve in their own country. So this man might have been from Rome itself, but was more likely from another country elsewhere in the Roman Empire. When he had first arrived, language would have been a barrier. Perhaps he looked different – maybe he was a Spaniard, an African, or a pale-skinned northerner. He represented a dominant power that had conquered Israel. But during his posting in Capernaum he had worked hard – and successfully – to overcome these barriers. So by the time Jesus arrives in his vicinity, the Jewish elders are more than happy to come to Jesus and present his case. I wonder what his own people, the Romans, thought? His superior officers, the troops in his command, his own family? Did they make jokes about him “going native”, fraternising too closely with the locals?

Whatever others had said, this man had persevered at making his alliances with the Jewish people in the village. I wonder what some of the other Jews said, especially those who were inclined towards rebellion? Were there harsh words spoken about the elders associating with a Roman, not being loyal to their own people? Twice in the next 70 years the Jewish nation was – unsuccessfully – to rise up in rebellion against Rome, and it is clear that there was deep resentment in Israel against the occupation. But here, in this little pocket of village life in Galilee, Roman officer and Jewish community had managed to make a friendship alliance that overcame the natural, cultural and religious walls that divided them. We normally – and rightly – think of Jesus as the one able to break down dividing walls and reconcile people who by nature are estranged. But this story – as well as its value as showing faith in action – tells us that individual people have both a responsibility to break down walls in their own situations, and tremendous opportunities when they do so. It would be hard to imagine a more unlikely combination than some Jewish community leaders, a Roman military officer, an itinerant preacher, and a sick slave… but the persistent efforts of the different people to break down barriers turned this into fertile ground.

Let’s go back now to Deborah and Baraq. We left them victorious on the battlefield, though – just as Deborah had prophesied – with the real credit for defeat going to Jael. It’s an odd part of the story, really – this woman chooses to take a stand against her husband’s politics, to break all the conventions of hospitality, to take great personal risks – and why? Apparently, simply because she wanted above all to make her alliance with the God of Israel, to throw in her personal lot on His side rather than any other side. Perhaps she had fonder memories of life in community with the tribes of Israel than Cheber did, perhaps she was less inclined to put up with convenient but inappropriate friendships than he was. I have to admit I wonder what the conversation was like between the two of them when he got back to the tent. Was he angry? Shocked? Frightened of the consequences? Relieved? Pleased?

I think if you were to look at anyone’s life there come certain key moments where you have to choose your alliances then and there, on the spot. For most of us these moments don’t come in times of battle, with someone’s life and death literally in your hands, whether to strike them down or not. Jael’s moment came when Sisera came into her tent – whose side would she choose? The name Jael can mean one of two things – it can mean someone who climbs up a height (and so is used of a mountain-goat) or it can mean someone who profits or gains benefit. In striking down Sisera, Jael risked everything. If her husband disowned her, she would be cast out of his tent, abandoned to make her living as best she could – and for a single woman no longer valuable in marriage there were very few options that would not be degrading or humiliating. But the Old Testament writer presents her not as someone who was in decline, but as someone in the ascendant. The writer leaves us in the dark as to Cheber’s reaction, but the prophetic meaning of Jael’s name suggests that she won victory rather than rejection.

So much for the written account. You could make a good documentary programme out of it, although to satisfy a modern audience we would have to have some more biographical details, perhaps a political analysis of Chatsor before and after. Since we’re dealing with the Old Testament, what we get is not an economic or political lecture, but a poem. We read just the first part earlier, but it’s a fine piece of poetry to read through in its entirety when you get the chance. There are two great victory poems in these early books – Exodus 15, celebrating the crossing of the Red Sea, and this one, Judges 5, celebrating the defeat of the Canaanites. They mark critical points in the emerging life of Israel – in the first one, freedom is achieved from Egypt, and in the second, the strongest power in northern Israel is defeated. After this point, the Canaanites are never again a threat to Israel, and the focus moves southwards to the Philistines, and to the nations on the east of the Jordan. Miriam’s Song declares that the journey to the Land is possible – Deborah’s Song declares that the journey has been made: it renames the land from Canaan to Israel.

So in terms of the life of the nation, we have moved from possibility to reality. What does that mean in terms of the life of the individual? Well, if the Exodus from Egypt represents salvation, then the process of securing the Land is discipleship. Now, discipleship takes considerable time – just as with the Israelites moving into their land, there are triumphs and setbacks, there are parts within us that resist the new lifestyle, there are thoughts, feelings, habits and attitudes that prefer to be joined with the original occupants than the new ones. I suspect that each of us at different times is like each of these characters – a Deborah, to be sure, prophetic, attuned to the needs of others and the leading of God. But also a Baraq, willing to try out the right thing but rather timid and in need of continual support and encouragement. A Jabin and a Sisera, representing parts of your life that are hostile to new life in Christ, angry at the changes that have to be made. And, most relevant for tonight, a Cheber and a Jael, parts of your soul that actually belong with the new but have made a temporary pact of convenience with the old ways.

I think it’s instructive to contrast the two couples here – Deborah and Baraq on the one hand (who though not married are paired in a working relationship), and Cheber and Jael on the other. In both couples, it’s the woman who takes more of the initiative, the man who is the more timid and self-protective. Not that the men are redundant here – Baraq’s willingness to go despite his doubts, and his role in actually leading the combined troops of Zebulun and Napthali was crucial, and Cheber’s choice of dwelling place put Jael in exactly the right place at a divinely-appointed time. Just so we’re not tempted to think women are invariably in the right, the Song finishes with a snapshot of Sisera’s mother leaning out of her window, waiting, anxious for her son to return. Of course we as audience know that he never will, and the poet leaves us in suspense as to her reaction when the news breaks and the tattered remains of the army slink home weaponless. But what we learn of her does not put here in a good light. Naturally she wants wellbeing for her son, but she is casually willing to consign Israelite men to death, and Israelite women to rape and servitude as a legitimate cost of his success. In her eyes, the safety of the family group is elevated above the needs of strangers. At its extreme, this elevation of family over strangers usually leads to brutality, as in Rwanda a few years ago. All of us have each of these facets within us – the timid, the angry, the doubtful, the waverer and the cruel as well as the willing, the confident and the faith-filled. My prayer here is that we, under the sovereign eye of our Lord and Christ, acknowledge these parts of ourselves and seek to disciple them with humility, and not try to deny their existence, thinking against all the evidence we have been already made perfect.

Moving back a little, I suspect that we can find all these personalities in and around our Christian congregations and our wider communities. I’m sure we have our Deborahs, our people who are attuned to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. I’m sure we also have our Baraqs, our people who are willing to go in the service of God, but who are hesitant and uncertain. It is most important here that we treat them, we treat ourselves, as Deborah did – she was not superior or condemning of him, but graciously accompanied him, gave up her own time and comfort in order to facilitate the real need. We also have our Jabins and Siseras in our communities, people hostile to the work of the gospel. But my plea here concerns our attitude towards the Chebers and Jaels that are around us, people who have been in fellowship with the body of Christ but who are for a season making pacts with the world outside.

I wonder if you know a Cheber and Jael in Blackfield, or amongst your own friends or family members? Some say “they’re not walking with the Lord at the moment” and in some Christian circles this would be grounds for excluding them from companionship, shunning them. I don’t think this is what these words from Judges and Luke are telling us tonight. I believe that our attitude should be that we expect them to reawaken a desire for fellowship with the people of God, for one or other of today’s tribes of Israel. Both Judges and Luke show us that those who we think are outside the fold, their tent pitched in enemy land, may well be the ones who carry out the greatest service, or display the greatest faith. My prayer is that we speak and act in ways that honour their potential rather than denying it. This is what will draw them to fulfil their potential in Christ, that is what will accomplish great things in our land.

Appendix – Readings

Judges 5:1-9

So on that day Deborah and Baraq son of Abino'am sang, saying:

For the leading of leaders in Yisra'el,
for the volunteering of the people, bless Yahweh!

Listen, you kings!
Give ear, you leaders!
I to Yahweh, I, I will sing,
making music of praise to Yahweh, Elohim of Yisra'el.

Yahweh! At your setting out from Seir,
At your marching from the open fields of Edom,
the land quaked, yes, the skies dripped
yes, the clouds dripped water.
The mountains melted before the face of Yahweh -
He of Sinai - before the face of Yahweh, Elohim of Yisra'el!

In the days of Shamgar son of ‘Anath,
in the days of Ya'el, deserted were the paths
and travellers on roads travelled paths all round about.
Deserted the villages in Israel, deserted
until I rose up, Deborah,
I rose up a mother in Yisra'el.

Elohim chooses anew,
then strife at the city gates
with shield - if seen - or spear
among forty thousand in Yisra'el.
My heart is for the lawgivers of Yisra'el,
for the volunteers among the people - bless Yahweh!

Luke 7:1-10

When Jesus had finished saying all this in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” So Jesus went with them.

He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to sat to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go’, and he goes; and that one, ‘Come’, and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this’, and he does it.

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said. “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.

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