shared with you last Sunday my realization that because of our
stewardship campaign being earlier this Fall, I'm now confronted with
texts that I normally would not preach on because they just didn't seem
to be appropriate in the stewardship campaign. And I've really got
a doozy for you this morning.
hope you have enjoyed the past couple weeks as we've been exploring the
story of Joshua, which tells the story of the conquest of the promised
land. The conquest is really a misnomer, as it becomes quite
evident in the story in Judges, because the Hebrew people never quite
gain complete control of the territory. And so in Judges we have
the story of the twelve tribes before the time of Kings when they were
ruled by a series of Judges. And in the second chapter of Judges,
a pattern is set forth that is repeated over and over and over and over
again. And in that chapter we read how after the first leader dies
(in this case it's Joshua), without their revered leader the people do
what is described in the text as 'evil in the sight of the Lord'.
And therefore they are punished by God until they come to their senses
and cry out to God from the suffering for God's help. And every
time, every time in the story God hears their cries and responds by
sending a new leader who restores the nation to a time of peace and to
the ways of God.
the names of some of those judges would be familiar to you -- like
Gideon, and Samson, others are quite obscure, we don't remember. But
the most surprising of them is the person we are considering in our text
this morning, and that is Deborah, a woman who is the judge of the
nation. And so we read in chapter 4 of Judges:
The Israelites again
did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, after Ehud died. 2So the
LORD sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in
Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera [remember
who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. 3Then the Israelites cried out to the
LORD for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron [this
is the beginning of the iron age, by the way],
and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly twenty years. [So
Sisera, commander of the Canaan army, has 900 chariots of iron]
4 At that time Deborah,
a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. 5She 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. 6She sent
and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to
him, "The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you, 'Go, take
position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of
Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. 7I will draw out Sisera, the
general of Jabin's army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon [that's
a stream, a valley] with
his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your
hand.'" 8Barak said to her, "If you will go with me, I will
go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go." [10,000
burly soldiers aren't enough, you see, he's got to have Deborah to go
9And she said, "I will surely go with you; nevertheless, 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." Then Deborah got up and
went with Barak to Kedesh.
so the story continues, and sure enough Sisera comes forth with his
chariots and there is a storm and they get bogged down in the mud.
And thereby this fearsome military weapon is neutralized. Deborah tells
Barak to send his troops forth, and they go down and they wipe out
Sisera's army. But Sisera escapes. He flees to the home of
an ally, that of Heber, but Heber is not home, his wife is -- Jael.
Jael welcomes Sisera to her tent in a good middle-eastern fashion.
She plays the good hostess. 'Can I give you something to drink,
Sisera?' 'How was your day?' 'Have you had a rough
time?' 'Here's a blanket to keep you warm'. And she tucks
him in for a nice good night's sleep so he can rest from all of his weary
travels and battles. And it's just a very touching story.
then we come to verse 21, where we read:
Jael wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and
went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, until it went
down into the ground--he was lying fast asleep from weariness--and he
duh! If only she had given him something for his splitting
headache, maybe he would have survived J.
Do you see what I mean by a doozy of a story?
the Rice-Siefke Institute the Lieutenant Colonel Karen Diefendorf, who
is a chaplain in the U.S. Army, very high mucky-muck of that whole
system, and responsible for many people under her, and teaches soldiers
and chaplains alike, she was here to reflect with us on the theme of
ethics and preaching. So I was in one of the workshops with her
and I asked her "What do we do with the ethics of a text like
this?" To which several of my colleagues said 'well, you
preach from the New Testament text for that morning, you know, the
gospel of Matthew, or Thessalonians'!
nothing else, this is a phenomenal story of the role of women in ancient
Hebrew society. First we have Deborah, without whom Barak appears
to be hopeless. And then we have Jael, with 10,000 men chasing
Sisera, she is the one who finally has him pegged J.
And I particularly liked the artful way that the song of Deborah retells
the story in the 5th chapter of Judges (and by the way, scholars think
that this is probably one of the oldest written sources of scripture
that we have, the song of Deborah). And so we read there (Judges
blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, of
tent-dwelling women most blessed. 25He
asked water and she gave him milk, she brought him curds in a lordly
that so wonderful and touching] 26She
put her hand to the tent peg and her right hand to the workmen's
mallet; she struck Sisera a blow, she crushed his head, she shattered
and pierced his temple. 27He
sank, he fell, he lay still at her feet; at her feet he sank, he fell;
where he sank, there he fell dead.
is kind of the Dr. Seuss version, I think, of a very gruesome
story. But you can just imagine them singing and making light of
it, I'm not sure which. But it calls to mind for me, this scene
from Lord of the Rings, in the final climactic battle for Minas Tirith,
the city that is the crown jewel of Middle Earth. And Eowyn,
daughter of a good King, has disguised herself as a soldier so that she
can go to battle with her father. And the Lord of the Nazguls,
those evil creatures that come back from the dead, is confronting
her. So let's see what happens (video played in church):
"No man can kill me. Die now!"
[Removes mask and says] "I am no man". Stabs
Nazgul in the face, destroying him.
scene, I think, comes right out of this story (in Judges). The
victorious woman here, who defeats the enemy of Israel.
the victorious role of women, this story is ripe for problems for
us. Back at that Rice-Siefke
Institute, Colonel Diefendorf said in response to my question on what to
do with stories like this: "Some scripture is meant for
repetition -- go and do likewise, while others are meant for
reflection". For instance, she said Psalm 137, which is a
lament for the destruction of Jerusalem, concludes "Happy are those
who dash their babies upon the rocks", referring to the babies of
their enemies. And the Colonel's point was until you can get to
that point where you can identify with their anguish and their anger
that you too have that kind of feeling, you can't begin to work through
that feeling and to get over it.
so this is a text, then, that is for our reflection, not for our
repetition. The first problem that occurs when we read stories
like this of Jael is if we see it not as a story for reflection on the
brutality of war but as an ancient confirmation of God's judgment on
modern sins. And then self-appointed prophets tell us that they
know the mind of God better than anyone else and know what God is
punishing us for, for such sins.
latest example of this occurred just this week, after the voters of
Dover, Pennsylvania, ousted all 8 members of their school board.
Did you catch that story? People who had required the inclusion of
intelligent design in the science curriculum of their biology
classes. Now keep in mind, intelligent design is the idea that the
universe is so complex that it had to have been created by an
intelligent force outside of the universe. And this is supposed to
be a scientific alternative to that of evolution, and not a religious
belief. So why, then, when these voters ousted those 8 members of
the school board, did the Reverend Pat Robertson proclaim on his
television show that the citizens of Dover had voted God out of their
city, and therefore they should not expect God's help if there is any
disaster in their neighborhood. I mean, how Christian is that?
by the media to clarify his answer, given a little chance to do a little
spin-control, the Reverend Robertson said "we can't keep sticking
our fingers in God's eye forever. If they have future problems in
Dover, I recommend they call on Charles Darwin, maybe he can help
I believe God created the universe. That is a deeply held
religious belief that science can neither confirm nor refute.
Evolution or no evolution, which I also believe is an accurate portrayal
I believe science should be taught in our schools and religion should be
taught in our churches. And if you want children to believe that
God created the world, bring them to church.
if you want evidence of intelligent design, look no further than not
one, but two miraculous victories in the last two weeks of the Oregon
if you want evidence that we are descendents of apes, why study
evolution when we have tele-evangelists? (Some have evolved
further than others and do very good work).
problem comes, you see, when we read texts like the story of Deborah and
Jael and see not the mercy of God in responding to the cries of
suffering, but the judgment of God in punishing those that we
to be ungodly, without realizing as Pogo, the great theologian of the
comic strip from yesteryear said 'We have met the enemy and he is
us'. And never has Pogo been more true than today.
Washington Post reported this week our government is holding an unknown
number of prisoners in secret detention centers abroad, in violation of
the Geneva Conventions. It has refused to register these detainees
with the International Red Cross or to allow visits by its
inspectors. Its prisoners have disappeared like the victims of
some dictatorships. Is that the government we want? I don't
care how evil they may be (the prisoners).
don't want to talk to you, though, about known or suspected abuse of
prisoners in our care, or how much physical pain and discomfort
constitutes torture, or who is committing what atrocities to whom.
I want to tell you about Frau Frisch:
Frisch is an elderly German woman who lived above me in my apartment in
Berlin back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. She was such a
delightful woman. She took in my laundry, she darned my socks, she
constantly was doing things for me like her own son. She was so
dear to me that when I was in Turkey two years ago I had to stop by and
visit her and others in Berlin on my way home. And sat there once
again at her kitchen table as she prepared a very traditional German
coffee and German Apfelkuchen, a German pastry, and we reminisced old
times. And I can't tell you how often I sat at that table 25 years
ago as I learned history from Frau Frisch. I learned about the war
from her own experience. I learned about the hardship she
endured. I learned why and how Hitler was received so well among
the German people. And how he had them all fooled. And she
looked me straight in the eye and she said "we never knew about the
Holocaust. We knew the Jews were being taken away to Poland and
elsewhere but we didn't know about the Holocaust."
long will it be, people, that we will say the same thing? 'We
never knew about the abuse in Abu Ghraib'. 'We never knew about
the torture that wasn't really torture'. 'We never knew about the
secret facilities designed to avoid the formalities of international
law'. 'We never knew about the thousands of our veterans returning
home from Iraq with severed limbs'. 'We never knew about ten
thousands more with mental and physical disorders from exposure to
trauma and chemicals and depleted uranium, not to mention those in
long will we continue to say that we never knew what the rest of the
world sees as obvious? How long? Are we not called to be the
children of light and not the children of dark? I don't know what
the answer is or how we are ever going to get out of this mess, but I do
know this: God is much more concerned with the cries of those who
suffer from war and terrorism than the results of school board
elections, as important as they may be. If we don't get that
former right, if we don't get in tune with God, we will become the
victims of our own ignorance and arrogance.
we accept the image of God as a warrior bent on destroying our enemies,
then there is no evil we can't do, whether it is killing a sleeping man
with a tent peg, or stacking naked prisoners in a pyramid of human
shame. Because God is on our side, all is justifiable. When
the reality is, because God is just, God is not always on our side, and
it is only when we are on the side of justice that we can say we are on
mark my words: secret prisons and torture are never on the side of
justice. And that's why Senator McCain, who was a true hero of
Vietnam, is a true hero of this time, is calling for an end to such
what do we do with Jael, who secretly using deception and lies assassinates
the enemy of Israel? Should we not do as the song of Deborah does
and sing of her victory and celebrate her cunning ways? Well
here's what the song of Deborah does -- after praising Deborah's wisdom
and Jael's courage, it concludes with a third woman. Not a Hebrew
woman, but a Canaanite woman. Waiting for her beloved son to come
home. We read (Judges
of the window she peered, the mother of Sisera gazed through the
lattice: 'Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why tarry the
hoofbeats of his chariots?' 29Her
wisest ladies make answer, indeed, she answers the question herself: 30'Are
they not finding and dividing the spoil?-- A girl or two for every
man; spoil of dyed stuffs for Sisera, spoil of dyed stuffs
embroidered, two pieces of dyed work embroidered for my neck as
so with this haunting image of a mother fantasizing what her son is
going to bring home (her now dead son) as a spoil of the war, the song
of Deborah ends.
reality of the terror of war is brought home, and the grief of an
enemy's mother has no less grief than that of anyone else. And in
the end, instead of celebration, there is only the grief of the
survivors and the mercy of God that some are spared such grief.
final story from this week's news that gives me hope as I reflect on
this gruesome tale, in this time of many such tales. And it comes
from the very same land, from this very same place, from Palestine, that
source of so much conflict and terror. Ahmed Khatib, 12 years old,
shot to death in a Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank by soldiers who
mistook him for a militant because of the toy gun he carried. A
Palestinian who died in an Israeli hospital. By all rights his
family should be angry like so many others in that unending conflict of
more than 3,000 years, seeking revenge in their anger and hatred as all
others before them. Instead, the parents asked that his organs be
donated to whomever needed them. A Muslim, dying in a Jewish
hospital, his heart, liver, lungs, and the like went to 6 Israeli
citizens ranging in age from 3 to 58, including 4 Jews. His father
expressed the hope that "maybe this would touch the heart of
everyone to bring an end to the killing." His son had known
Israelis only as soldiers and used to throw stones at their tanks.
To give away his organs was a different kind of resistance, he
said. "Violence against violence is worthless, maybe this
will reach the ears of the whole world so they can distinguish between
the just and the unjust."
leaders have called this act the most remarkable gesture of peace they
have ever witnessed.
with ears for the good news, listen. May we ponder the deaths of
these two Palestinians, 3,000 years apart. And revere not the
killing by Jael, but the dying of Ahmed, who in so doing, has given life
it is in such transformations of death into life that is the heart of
our gospel. May we so live.