Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Law & Disorder: Deborah's Song [sermon excerpt]

Time and time again, by his choice of judges, God upsets people’s expectations and goes to unlikely sources to achieve liberation. We saw it in God’s use of Othniel, the younger-brother to Caleb the Warrior Spy, to overthrow Cush of the Double-Wickedness. We saw it in God’s use of the unclean left-hander Ehud to overthrow that manicured fat-cat Eglon from the Midianite throne.


Now we see it in God’s use of two women, who are willing to stand up to the swift fury of Canaanite’s iron-fisted rule as the men cower in fear and unfaithfulness to God. It foreshadows the ways of Jesus when the unlikely ones are called as Judges and Saviours for the people of Israel. Not only does it show God’s desire to use the “least of us”, but it is also God’s way of opening doors for the previously discarded. It is also God’s way of overturning the assumptions of the people and honour systems of the culture in order to foreshadow another way.

With Deborah God defies everything we continue to assume about the place of women and of leadership today. Of course, we have ways of maintaining those assumptions, even in the face of Deborah’s story. One way we do that is by saying Deborah and Jael are exceptions to the rule.... and there is a sense in which that is true. Patriarchy would generally prevail for many more centuries, and Deborah would prove to be an exceptional case, prompting men to follow her example more courageously in the future when they were called upon by God to do so.

But let’s not assume that this makes women in leadership no more than an exception to the patriarchal rule. Nowhere in the Bible does God say that Deborah was a less-than-ideal choice as Judge. No doubt Deborah is an unlikely Judge and Rescuer at that time--but to return to the Rule of Male Leadership would be as justified here as maintaining the Rule of Right-Handers or Oldest-Brothers only.

Does that mean that from then on we saw women’s equality prevail? No, not at all. Like I said, Patriarchy would continue to be the cultural norm for generations to come—and not always to the total detriment of the women of the day. Just as the Bible does nothing to discredit Deborah’s leadership or the honour of Jael, neither does it hail them as hasty revolutionaries for women’s liberation.

This has led many to conclude that the Bible was content with Patriarchy, uninterested to see it overturned. But others have seen something different going on in this text. Others have seen it as a text which upsets our assumptions not only of gender roles but also--and even before that--as a text which upsets our assumptions of what it means to be a strong and courageous Christian leader at all.

It is subtle but it is there. You need to have a bit of a lyrical eye to see it but it is there and, as a song, it asks to be read that way. It is right there in the beginning and the end of Deborah’s song, in chapter five.... We have to notice how the song is framed, which is so important:

Notice who sings Deborah's song.

Even though Barak refused to obey God’s instructions and Deborah had to go with him to get it done; even though it was Barak’s tribe who suffered most at the hands of Jabin and Deborah had to come way up from the south to give them the courage to step up for God; even though Deborah prophesied that the honour would go to a woman and it ended up being a foreign woman at that.

Even though the honour was to go to a woman, when Deborah is revealed as Israel’s Saviour and Judge and sings one of the earliest of Israel’s songs, is she content to go solo? Is she happy to sing it alone? Is she interested in the honour codes of her day and taking it for herself? No.

She brings Barak along and together they sing a duet.

In verse 12 they turn to each other and encourage one another in the Lord to wake up, to arise, and to follow the Lord their God.

It’s a precursor not just to women in leadership, but to the type of leadership we would have to learn when Jesus Christ came and fulfilled the Law and the Prophets of Israel. It is servant leadership, rather than grasping for honour and power. It is a Kingdom built not on power and violence but mutual submission in reverence to Christ.

It leads me to believe that Deborah herself, as the example of faithful and humble leadership she is, might have preferred that her song be titled some other way. She’d probably insist that it be known by its climactic and final line:

“May all who love you Lord, be like the sun when it rises in its strength.”

That is to say that our strength is revealed each new day, and its source is not of this world and its systems and means of honour and power and glory. The source of our strength is the Lord, and the sacred means of his kingdom in this world is love. Because God gave His Law for our good, and time & time again we’ve turned it to disorder, but God stepped into the mess in Jesus Christ, and reorders us in the goodness of his grace and peace.

(to check into all this, see Judges 4-5)

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