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Faces of Our Faith: Deborah

The Rev. Bart Smith
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 9, 2018)
Judges 4:1-10

After Ehud had died, the Israelites again did things that the Lord saw as evil. So the Lord gave them over to King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. The commander of his army was Sisera, and he was stationed in Harosheth-ha-goiim. The Israelites cried out to the Lord because Sisera had nine hundred iron chariots and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly for twenty years.

Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was a leader of Israel at that time. She would sit under Deborah’s palm tree between Ramah and Bethel in the Ephraim highlands, and the Israelites would come to her to settle disputes.

She sent word to Barak, Abinoam’s son, from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “Hasn’t the Lord, Israel’s God, issued you a command? ‘Go and assemble at Mount Tabor, taking ten thousand men from the people of Naphtali and Zebulun with you. I’ll lure Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, to assemble with his chariots and troops against you at the Kishon River, and then I’ll help you overpower him.’”

Barak replied to her, “If you’ll go with me, I’ll go; but if not, I won’t go.”

Deborah answered, “I’ll definitely go with you. However, the path you’re taking won’t bring honor to you, because the Lord will hand over Sisera to a woman.” Then Deborah got up and went with Barak to Kedesh. He summoned Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh, and ten thousand men marched out behind him. Deborah marched out with him too.


Last week in the Faces of Our Faith series, we reached way down into the book of Joshua and for the story of the Daughters of Zelophehad. Today we’re reaching way, way down into the book of Judges to explore the story of Deborah.

The story of Deborah and Barak continues past that last verse that Becky just read. Spoiler alert: Israel ends up winning the battle against the 900 iron chariots because God sends panic upon Sisera’s troops. Chapter five tells us that Israel then enjoys a period of peace 40 years-long, double the amount of time of their oppression.

After Sisera’s ranks are decimated, he ends up meeting his fate at the hands of Jael, the wife of Heber, when (ear muffs on this one, parents) Jael drives a tent stake through his temple. Read the rest of chapter four if you’re curious about that. The HBO series Game of Thrones couldn’t have done it better!

This is one of those texts that makes people say, “The Old Testament makes me squirm. I’d really prefer to skip.” I’ll be the first to admit that texts like these, with their violence and such, are troubling, but let’s see if there’s still something life-giving we can wring out of it.

We should hear more about Deborah in our tradition. Deborah, who was instrumental in delivering her people out from under the yoke of oppression. Deborah, who was the first and only female judge (part magistrate, part military leader) in the period of early Israel’s conquest and occupation of the land of Canaan. Deborah, whose name could have meant “bee” as in “queen bee. The wife of Lappidoth,” which could be a title that didn’t refer to her marital status but rather to her strength and wisdom as a leader (“Torch Lady” is another way of rendering “wife of Lappidoth”). Deborah, the dispenser of justice, who was so renown that the spot where she settled disputes was later named and hallowed as “Deborah’s Palm Tree.”

I find myself preoccupied by the palm tree part. That’s not the type of place I imagine a judge sitting. Judges are supposed to sit in places of authority and prestige, especially if their business includes summoning and deploying a general who commands an army 10,000 strong. But it seems Deborah did her best thinking under the branches of that palm. Maybe that was the only place where she could be by herself and clear her head to think. Maybe the palm’s shade gave her relief from the desert sun. Maybe it was just a choice spot between Ramah and Bethel, a perch in the Ephraim highlands where the view was so stunning that it gave her a sense of peace. Or maybe being up that high up gave Deborah the proverbial “view at 30,000 feet” so she could survey the scene and consider all the possibilities for action.

Do you have a place like that?

Maybe, being a prophet, one who spoke the word of the Lord (that could be another meaning of her name since Deborah shares the same root as the word for “word”), it was under the palm tree where she could slow down, rest, be silent for a while, and listen for the voice of God.

That’s probably what made people walk from as far away as Ramah or Bethel to that palm tree to seek her out. Deborah was a person so grounded in God that people considered her a prophet, one who spoke for God.

Who has been a “Deborah” in your life?

Someone strong. Someone wise. Someone whose judgment you trusted. Someone who wasn’t afraid to tell you the truth. You might not have sought them out under a palm tree, but somewhere else in your day-to-day landscape–maybe on their front porch, or in their garden, or in their office.

My former pastor told a story about the first church he served. It was a huge church with a large staff and there was a hierarchy of sorts with the physical layout. I’ll re-tell his story:

The Head of Staff occupied the largest, corner office of the main suite of offices…Then as one walked down the hall, one passed the next most senior associate, the theologian-in-residence, then the minister of evangelism, and so on, until one reached the areas for Children’s Ministry and Youth Ministry. In between all of these offices were cube cities where the administrative staff made their offices, and these too were sort of “ranked” in terms of size and location. It was a veritable totem pole of offices.

My desk was [basically] in the parking lot.

Much to my surprise, after a few weeks, I began to notice another pattern. One particular member of staff, way down the hall, in an office with no window, had a regular flow of visitors. Her office was tiny.

But she managed to fit a rocking chair in the corner, and every time I walked by, it was occupied. Some days it would be an administrative assistant, some days it would be the senior pastor, some days it was the youth minister – that rocking chair had more traffic…

One day, I saw the rocking chair empty, and so I knocked on the door.

“Come in. Have a seat,” she said.

So, I did.

“How are you doing,” she asked?

For the life of me, I don’t how it happened, but an hour later, I left. And I had been to church, so much was the restoration of my soul! As I walked out a colleague said, “I see you’ve been to our resident wise woman.” [1]

Her name might as well have been Deborah.

We’re drawn to people like that because they create space for us to seek a steadiness in the chaos of the moment. Our “Deborahs” help us see past our present myopia and take a look at the big picture. Their strength helps us gain victory over our enemies, even when, especially when, we are our worst enemies. And the thing is they’re usually humble enough to realize that they don’t have all the answers.

“Deborahs,” you see, have the gift of discernment.

That’s what it meant to be a judge in the early days of Israel: to discern God’s will, God’s justice for the people.

Of course discernment can be just another church jargon word. I distinctly remember one elder being asked in a Session meeting to lead a project. He said, “I’ll be in discernment about that.” There was an audible groan… “That’s a no.”

But in it’s fullness, it’s a key concept. I appreciate what Diane Millis wrote about discernment:

“Discernment means to separate, distinguish to determine and sort out… Discernment is sifting through our inner and outer experiences to determine their origin – whether they are the voice of our ego or the Spirit.” [2]

Discernment takes time. Deborah wasn’t able to know the best course of action for Israel with the snap of her fingers. How many hours, days, weeks, or longer, did she sit under that palm tree, waiting for a word from the Lord?

As we begin another program year at St. Mark’s, that’s one way to look at what we do here as a congregation. Not just in our worship, but in our classes, small groups, and yes, even in our committees and teams too, we aim to cultivate spaces of discernment. At our best we foster spaces like Deborah’s palm tree where we can slow down, rest, and listen for the voice of God in our daily lives and in our communal life.

Such spaces don’t come naturally to those of us who are the “get it done” kind of people. Some of us are rightly skeptical of what Dr. King called “the paralysis of analysis.” But considering the tense, volatile, reactive social climate we find ourselves in, don’t we need contemplation as well as action?

Don’t we need more palm-tree like spaces?

And don’t we yearn more for Deborahs?

As a new season here at St. Mark’s begins, my hope for all of us is that we carve out time for listening and reflection. That we seek opportunities to draw closer to God. Maybe it’s in trying a small group for the first time. Maybe it comes through a new prayer practice.

You never know where you might find your palm tree, so to speak.


[1] As told by the Rev. Dr. Baron Mullis in a sermon, “Wisdom,” preached at The First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, August 19, 2018.

[2] Quoted by Jean Wise in “Desiring Discernment” on www.healthyspirituality.org.

Featured image: “In Tune” by Lauren Wright Pittman, A Sanctified Art LLC. Used with permission.