Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | June 12, 2022
Judges 4 & 5
Today’s story is from the Old Testament book of Judges. It’s an ancient story with elements not so different from our own time.
If we look back to the world of approximately 3500 years ago, we would see a world of profound changes. Societies were moving from the age of bronze to the age of iron. It wasn’t just that people were using one metal instead of another; the shift from bronze to iron saw a change in many cultural reference points. People began to do something entirely new. They began to write down their thoughts, their ideas, their dreams and their stories.
People had written such things before; what was new was the development of alphabets to create individual letters that formed into words. The Greeks began the use of vowels. It was the dawn of literature. Stories could be written down.
Judges is the story of the Hebrew people after they entered the promised land. The problem was, when the followers of Moses and Joshua got to where they were going, there were people already living there. Fighting ensued.
From one ancient story comes this line:
“He sank, he fell, he lay still at her feet; at her feet he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell dead.”
This is the story of three women. Deborah, a wise woman; Jael, a tribeswoman, and a woman known simply as the mother of Sisera. These women lived in the land of Canaan – the promised land. The land was ruled by a people called the Canaanites. The Canaanites ruled the land from city-states. They had strict codes of governance and they ruled with a force of iron – literally the weapons of iron. Spears and javelins and most powerful of all, the iron chariot.
Jabin was the king of the Canaanite city of Hazor. Hazor was the chief city in a confederation of cities. Jabin had a problem that needed to be solved. Into the land of Canaan had come a mass migration of people known as the Hebrews. They were a loose confederation of tribes that had wandered up from the land of Egypt and claimed Canaan as their own, by some God-given right granted to them by their tribal deity who had no actual name. They referred to this God as “Yahweh,” which meant, “I am who I am.”
These refugees grew and multiplied like locusts and if they were not soon dealt with, they would overtake the land. Jabin needed to unite the cities and exterminate this threat of the Hebrews.
The Hebrews were ruled in a loose fashion by people who were neither born nor elected to office, but who simply rose up and seemed to take on the mantle of leadership. Not by contest of strength or battle, but rather by some mysterious calling from their God. These rulers were called “Judges.” They were wise men and wise women who gave guidance to the people.
Jabin had the weapon against which there was no defense: the iron chariot. Pulled by two horses and once moving unstoppable, the iron chariot would cut through the ranks of opposing armies like a hot knife through butter. One man would drive it forward and two men would strike out from either side with weapons of iron – swords and lances. An unbreakable, unstoppable force. And Jabin had 900 iron chariots.
He planned to mount his army against the hordes of Hebrews and cut through them, back and forth until they were no more. His army was under the command of a young military genius named Sisera.
Sisera came from a noble family. He had wealth and status. He possessed a power that came from a mother who drove him relentlessly to take command. In Hazor, Sisera’s mother was seen almost as a living embodiment of the divine. She was the closest thing to a living goddess the people had ever known. With her power behind him, Sisera could not fail.
For years now the Hebrew people had lived in the area around Mount Tabor. They had moved into the planes and the Valley of Jezreel. It was the perfect location for a battle which would surely see their destruction.
The judge of the Hebrews was a woman named Deborah. Her name in Hebrew meant “Bee.” She was a sage and a prophet. She told the people that God, their God, would hand them a victory over the Canaanites.
Deborah called upon a fierce warrior named Barak, whose name means “lightning.” She told him that God had promised to deliver Sisera, the general of the Canaanites, into the hands of a woman. She commanded Barak to gather 10,000 men and take them up the slopes of Mount Tabor. They would wait there for the battle to commence.
Strategically it was a bad move. 10,000 poorly armed foot soldiers against the power of 900 iron chariots was hardly a match. Once the battle commenced the chariots would make short work of the Hebrews.
Barak made a great show of gathering his army. Some of the Hebrews saw the futility of it and refused to fight. They said it was better to run and live for another day than to fight and die in a pointless battle.
Barak took what men he could gather to the base of Mount Tabor and waited there to meet the chariots of Canaan. The day of battle was hot and humid, with hardly a breeze for relief. The streams, or wadis, were all dry as a bone. Off in the distance they could see the clouds of dust thrown up by the approaching chariots. They could feel the slight tremors in the ground from the rolling thunder of the heavy armaments.
But then there was the sound off in the distance of actual rolling thunder. And there was a slight cool breeze in the air. Off in the distance, there were rain clouds gathering for a much needed downpour; a spring rain – rare but not unheard of.
The sound of the thundering chariots approaching from the west grew louder as they picked up speed. Barak shouted through the ranks for his men to stand fast. And as the chariots could now be seen in clear view approaching at great speed it seemed that within minutes they would be slicing through the ranks of the Hebrew farmers, potters and artisans who had taken on the role of warriors.
And then, it began to rain. Not a slight mist, but a downpour. Soon the ground was soaked and the rain that had been falling on Mount Tabor descended through the wadis in a flashing torrent water. The water spread out on the on the Valley of Jezreel and the mighty onslaught of iron chariots came to a sudden stop in the mud.
Drivers were whipping horses, but they could not gain a foothold in the muck and mire. The heavy weight sank them to their axels, and they tilted and would not move. The heavily armored soldiers with their heavy swords and spears floundered in the mud and by the time they realized they were not going to move under any circumstances, they came to realize that they were being cut to pieces by a swarming horde of fleet soldiers, armed with knives and wooden implements, who would have been no match under any other circumstance.
There was confusion and panic and men were running for their lives only they couldn’t run fast enough in their heavy armor. Even the mighty general Sisera was running for his life. He ran, he escaped, and he made his way to an encampment of tents some miles away. His army was destroyed, and he was lost. But the oasis where he found himself was occupied by some people of the Hebrews who had stayed out of the battle, and with whom his soldiers had traded.
From one of the tents a woman called out, “Over here!” Her name was Jael, which means “wild goat.” She stayed in her own tent apart from her husband. The rules of hospitality were strict. A guest in one’s tent was to be protected at all costs. Sisera saw that he was saved.
He begged her to hide him and if anyone came by asking if someone was with her, she was to say, “no.” He went in and fell down exhausted.
“Please, may I have a drink of water?” he asked.
Jael said, “You are tired and worn and I know what you need.” She gave him a long drink of warm goat’s milk. It was what he needed. He fell into a deep sleep.
The rules of hospitality were strict. But there was a loophole. Only the husband or male of the family could offer the protection of hospitality. In Jael’s tent, Sisera was under no such cover of safety. When Jael saw that he was sleeping soundly, she picked up a wooden mallet and a tent peg. She knelt down by his head and placed the tent peg above his temple. She struck the tent peg with the mallet and drove it through his head and into the ground.
Later, when Barak and his men came through the oasis, Jael called out to them from the door of her tent. “I have something to show you,” she said. She pointed them to the body of Sisera and said, “There is your enemy.”
Meanwhile, back in the city of Hazor, Sisera’s mother was waiting for his return. She stood gazing out her window at the horizon. She said to the women of her household, “Where is my son now? Probably he is gathering up the spoils of war. Two women for every man and two silk scarves for his mother’s neck.”
But he would not return. “He sank, he fell, he lay still at her feet; at her feet he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell dead.”
The “Song of Deborah” is found in the book of Judges, chapter five. The defeat of the Canaanites in the Valley of Jezreel did not settle the conflict once and for all. But it was a defeat nonetheless and the story ends with the simple statement: And the land had rest for forty years.
What do we make of that? It’s a story about human nature and the blood-soaked conflicts that form our histories. It’s also a story about how weapons of superior military force are sometimes not as effective in changing the course of history as are the natural elements, a rainstorm for instance, or a small implement, such as a tent peg.
When Deborah composed a song about the victory, she said that it was God who did this thing. Therein lies for us a warning to be careful about assigning to God the motives and outcomes for our own violent tendencies. Amen.