Sunday, March 09, 2008

Judges 4-5: Deborah

The Story Thus Far:

The Israelites are enslaved, but Moses leads them to freedom. (136 pages)

The Israelites lapse into sin and are enslaved, but Othniel leads them to freedom. (1 paragraph)

The Israelites lapse into sin and are enslaved, but Ehud leads them to freedom. (7 paragraphs)

The Israelites lapse into sin and are enslaved, but Shamgar leads them to freedom. (1 sentence)

Well, if you guessed that the Israelites might lapse into sin and be enslaved, then you are catching on to one of the themes of this section of the Bible. This time, the baddie is Jabin, along with his sidekick General Sisera, who commands 900 iron chariots. With this kind of military supremacy, they are able to keep Israel down for 20 years before a new hero rises to take them on.

Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time (4:4) says the text, very matter-of-factly. Whoa! Really? I mean, we've seen sidelong glances at wives and sisters and daughters before in the Bible, and the occasional hooker, but we've also seen an entire body of law that implies a full legal standing only for males. We've certainly not seen women yielding political power to date, so this is a pretty big deal.

But Deborah doesn't seem to have control over the Israelite military, and therefore has to enter into something of a power-sharing arrangement with her general, who is named Barak. They work out that he will take troops from two of the tribes, Naphtali and Zebulun, and take the high ground on Mt. Tabor, by the Kishon River. When Sisera leads his chariots up the valley after them -- it's not clear what advantage Barak has that Sisera wouldn't know about, but hey, this isn't a class on iron age tactics -- the Israelites descend on him, the retreat becomes a rout and, typical of Israelite battles, not a man is left alive.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Jael & Sisera.
Not a man, that is, except for Sisera himself, the enemy general, who staggers into the camp of a family of Israelites that he thinks are his pals. He is welcome, fed, and encouraged to nap of the day's discouragements, but once he is asleep, the woman of the house, Jael, puts a tent peg through his temples. Very vaguely, I remember this story from a Sunday school class of long ago. I do wish I can remember what moral lesson I was supposed to draw from it.

In Genesis 5, Barak and Deborah recap the events of the previous chapter in song. Songs in the Bible seem to be a bit like songs in Shakespeare plays, rich with nuance and meaning for the specialist and scholar (and presumably the original audience), but a bit inpenetrable for the casual reader. There is lots of praising of Jael, and Deborah and Barak aren't too hard on themselves either (Fun Bible Verse of the Day: "Arise, O Barak!" Judges 5:12), but the most interesting part is the bashing of all the other tribes besides Naphtali and Zebulun for not participating in the battle. There seems to be a new tone about the tribes lately, a change from the Pentatuech, in which great pains were taken to stress the exact equality of the tribes in all things. In Joshua and now in Judges, the tribes are beginning to seem as separate entities, with different histories and different, perhaps competing, interests. Whether this is a sign of things to come, I don't know.

Next: The section headings say "Gideon" comes next, so maybe we'll find out where all those hotel Bibles came from. If you are in a hotel, grab one and read along!


gl. said...

wow. you'd think deborah -- and women-- would make a bigger splash in the christian community. at least, it would broaden the potential roles. i mean, it sounds like she's already used more ink than othniel or shamgar.

chuckdaddy said...

Tent stake through the head? I think that beats the aforementioned oxgoad for weapon aewsomery.

You go girls!

Anonymous said...

Curious. A female leader of a loosely conglomerated group warring against a militaristic group led by a war hero. And the female leader is actually a co-leader with a guy named Bara(c)k? I thought that was a story the American people just weren't ready for. Maybe we should let the Dems in on the parable of the tent peg. It's pefect that the citizen soldier-woman is named Jael (jail?). She bests the military genius while he lies in the lap of his "base" camp (red state), and she does this with a basic home implement rather than feminine wiles. I'm liking this chapter the more I read into it and interpret its symbolism to suit my politics. The Reps have always had something there. The Bible Is Useful in creating OT parallels to one's current (tenuous, unscrupulous, or simply uncertain) position.