Judges, Pt. 1: "A Woman's Place" (Judg 4)
CRY TO THE LORD
Judges is a most bizarre period in Israel’s history. Every man did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord (Judg 3:12, 4:1, 10:6) and what was right in his own eyes (Judg 17:6) The transition from Joshua's leadership to the kings of Israel was characterized by lawlessness, apostasy and disbelief. God had used Israel’s enemies to test her faithfulness in the new land (Judg 2:3), but Israel failed miserably. God gave Israel judges who were local or national leaders to relieve Israel of her misery from enemy oppression as individual tribes struggled to keep the land they were promised. The period of the Judges was characterized by internal and external strife, individual and collective sin, disaster and deliverance.
Six wars took place during this era that lasted a few hundred years. The enemies included the Mesopotamians (Judg 3:7-11), the Moabites (3:12-30), the Canaanites (Judg 4, 5), the Midianites (Judg 6-8) and the Ammonites (10:6-12,17), but the biggest test, even till the period of the Kings, were the Philistines. At times, God delivered their enemies into Israel’s hand, but at other times the Lord delivered Israel and even sold them (3:8, 4:2) into their enemies hands - once, seven years to Midian (6:1), but not as severe as the forty years into Philistines hands, the longest duration of suffering in the land (Judg 2:14, 13:1).
A WOMAN'S PLACE (JUDGES 4)
Los Angeles Times (5/13/02) called the 45-year old Karen Hughes one of the most powerful unelected women in the United States, but she resigned from her post less than a year and a half after helping George Bush win the presidential election. Her husband and teenage son were “homesick,” so the family headed back to Texas. The Austin family did not fit into Washington. Hughes told reporters, “Throughout my career I have tried to prioritize my family while I have a career. I've prided myself that this is a family-friendly White House, and I think this is a family-friendly decision.” Hughes will continue her unique work for Bush - as a confidant, advisor and speechwriter - but she will no longer serve constantly at his side. She will return regularly to Washington to advise the president and will be in touch constantly by phone.
A few editorials lauded Hughes' family-centric decision, but Washington insiders openly wondered if there were not other reasons. Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, insisted that Hughes had not quit working: “The fact is Karen is going to continue working, just in a different location for the president. We keep pushing people back into the old boxes - work or family, all or nothing. But none of us really fit that anymore.” Kay Koplovitz, a prominent author, also rose to her defense: “Every time there is someone this visible who makes such a decision it's a big stir mostly because people still don't trust that women can stay in these positions, but trust me, we will hear more from Karen. She's very strong, so don't be surprised if she does something else important.”
Mary Matalin, an advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, said, “Karen didn't care about the power and access thing that is so big in the Washington culture. The only thing she liked about her job was [writing] the speeches, the big projects and advising [Bush]. She'll keep doing all that. What she didn't like was all the Kabuki dancing in the White House, all of which ate away at her time with her family. And that's over.”
The president gave her the biggest endorsement yet, saying, “Karen Hughes will be changing her address, but she will still be in my inner circle.”
The story of Deborah is not a forum or statement on biblical equality, a proof-text for and a biblical defense of feminism in the Bible or a theological treatise on the role of women in the church or pastoral ministry. It was about a woman who used her testimony, gifts and skills faithfully and selflessly dedicated more than forty years of her life in consistent service to God (Judg 5:31), her country and her people. Unrest, oppression and suffering were at its peak when Deborah arrived on the scene. The “oppression” (v 3, Ex 3:9) the Israelites suffered was an uncanny resemblance to their suffering in Egypt, a situation unheard of when the first two judges, Othniel and Ehud (Judg 3), were around.
What good is a woman in a male-dominated society and ministry? What role has a godly woman today? How can a woman excel in service to God?
Be Fervent in Service
1 After Ehud died, the Israelites once again did evil in the eyes of the LORD. 2 So the LORD sold them into the hands of Jabin, a king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. The commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth Haggoyim. 3 Because he had nine hundred iron chariots and had cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years, they cried to the LORD for help. 4 Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. 5 She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites came to her to have their disputes decided. (Judg 4:1-5)
One of the most remarkable imitations of a handyman I have seen was done by a homemaker - May, who painstakingly restored the church sign that was ravaged by strong winds. She already had her hands full with a seven-year old daughter and three-year old son at that time, but she was determined to save the sign and save the church the estimated $2,500 in repair. We were ready to pay professionals for the job when she insisted. I had asked her when she volunteered, “Are you sure?”
The church vice-president gave a detailed e-mail account of what May had done with the encouragement of his husband: “First, the sign had to be sanded to rid the wooden board of old paint chips. Several coatings of white paint were then given to each side of the sign. They have to wait for one side of the paint to dry before proceeding to the other side. Later, they traced the Chinese characters over the sign and hand-painted the Chinese characters on both sides of the sign using a tiny brush. Additionally, each side of the sign has a straight-lined border in blue. They've ordered 2 pieces of plexi-glass to protect each side of the sign - a feature that was missing from the original sign. All these were done while their house underwent major renovation due to water damages caused by broken water mains and pipes!”
I might also add that the couple had a mild panic when rain fell while they were drying the paint on the board. The fascinating thing was that May was a restaurant and hotel management major who had audited the church accounts as a volunteer and she took on the job of restoring the church sign while most people hardly thought about doing so. Many years after the job, she testified that the salvage job she did gave her the confidence to repair and remodel many things in the house by herself!
Deborah was an incredible woman who was adept at multi-tasking – a wife, a prophetess and a judge. She did not hide her gifts, hide behind the family or play hide and seek when things were not right, when hearts were troubled and enemies were threatening. Not that she was out to prove herself or distinguish herself as a woman, but she could not wait for a man, another prophet or another generation to rise and take her place. She had to be the person God meant her to be. There were no ifs, buts, and whys. She multiplied the gifts she had, did all in her ability and everything in her capacity to serve God. The word “leading” in verse 4 is “judged” in Hebrew. She had to cope with the busy day, the packed schedule, the prying public in ministry, a horde of people and a slew of issues and non-issues every day. Besides that, she had to manage the home, lead the country and keep both separate. The stress women face today is nothing new, nothing to crow about and nothing compared to what Deborah had to face, carry and endure.
God, however, is good and His grace is always sufficient. He equips, supplies and assures us when He calls us into service - men or women.
Deborah was a capable woman. She did good, quality work. Her workplace was often flooded with calls, visitors and activities. She was busy as a bee and had her hands full. People kept asking, coming and pleading. Their problem was her problem. She had the greatest honor among all the judges. People loved her. They respected her teaching, advice and judgment. She had insight, skill and compassion in settling disputes, dispensing counsel and upholding justice. They came to see her for their problems in the family, with the office and with the law. The people did not always like what they hear, but they always accepted, trusted and respected what she said.
Deborah had her work cut out for her. She did not just rule; she judged. She had to put her foot down, make an unpopular decision, disappoint people but not let them down, follow her head and not her heart, rule for the sake of every one and not one or some or self.
Be Faithful in Service
6 She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you: 'Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead the way to Mount Tabor. 7 I will lure Sisera, the commander of Jabin's army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.'“ 8 Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don't go with me, I won't go.” 9 “Very well,” Deborah said, “I will go with you. But because of the way you are going about this, the honor will not be yours, for the LORD will hand Sisera over to a woman.” So Deborah went with Barak to Kedesh, 10 where he summoned Zebulun and Naphtali. Ten thousand men followed him, and Deborah also went with him. (Judg 4:6-10)
A salesman got lost on a side road, so he stopped to ask directions from a ragged and bare-foot man sitting in front of his depilated house. After receiving the information he needed, the salesman asked, “How is your cotton coming on?” “Ain’t got none,” replied the farmer. The traveler continued, “Did you plant any?” To this the man responded, “Nope, afraid of boll weevils (beetles that infest cotton plants).”
The curious visitor then asked, “How is your corn doing?” To which the man quipped, “Didn’t plant none. Afraid there wasn’t goin’ to be any rain.” Undaunted, the stranger made still another inquiry, “How are your potatoes?” again, the reply came, “Ain’t got none; scare o’potato bugs.” Somewhat puzzled, the salesman made one final inquiry, “Really, what did you plant?” The answer was, “Nothin’, I just played it safe.”
God’s chosen woman has to do above and beyond the call of duty.
Barak was a man who shirked his duty. He wanted to play it safe, cover the angles and involve more people. His appeasing reply (v 8) to Deborah actually cut her down, let her down and put her down in an unkind way. Deborah was unique and unlike other judges. She was the only acknowledged prophet or prophetess in the period of the Judges. No peer was her equal. She gave the word, instead of receiving the word. God did not speak to Israel through His Spirit or an angel, but through her. The word of prophecy was not given or taken lightly. Death threatened the prophets who spoke presumptuously or vainly in God’s name (Deut 18:20-22). Further, God had not spoken directly to Israel as a nation through a prophet for over a hundred years (Judg 3:8, 2:11, 2:13, 3:30) and Canaan had cruelly oppressed and terrorized the Israelites for twenty years (Judg 4:2-3)
Deborah not only had many hats to wear, she had many people trying to tell her how to do her job. When the word of prophecy came through Deborah, Barak could either go or not go, but his answer was: “I will go if you go; I will not go if you would not.” It was a “yes and no,” “yes, if,” or “yes, but” answer, which was not an option God had given him. Deborah saw through Barak’s reply. She was not touched, impressed or delighted by his request. In fact, she felt manipulated, entrapped and rejected in the worst way. He did not thank her or raise questions, but turned it down in a nice way. Barak’s confidence in her presence but not her word of assurance at war was a ploy. He wanted out and was hoping that Deborah would back out, too. His passive and aggressive response did not work.
The issue at hand was personal obedience, not joint action. Obedience cannot be co-opted, co-joined co-executed, co-produced or co-sponsored with another person, not any person for that matter. Barak’s halfhearted obedience was 50% compliance. He was wary of the enemies’ power and was not convinced of outright victory, undermining the moral of the army and making Deborah’s company, power and support the critical factor - and not God’s.
Deborah went anyway, doing above and beyond the call of duty. She had sent for Barak, issued the ultimatum and proclaimed the victory, but abruptly canceling the plan, dropping the issue and doing something else were not her options. Her handicap was obvious; she was not skilled in warfare or trained in battle. It was insensitive and outrageous of Barak to quit in a time of crisis, when war was looming, people were uneasy and guidance was needed. Deborah should be flattered but she was not. Her place should be with the civilians and Barak’s should be with the army, but he ducked for cover, passed the buck and diverted the attention. She had done her job but now she also was doing Barak’s job for him.
Be Fearless in Service
17 Sisera, however, fled on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, because there were friendly relations between Jabin king of Hazor and the clan of Heber the Kenite. 18 Jael went out to meet Sisera and said to him, “Come, my lord, come right in. Don't be afraid.” So he entered her tent, and she put a covering over him. 19 “I'm thirsty,” he said. “Please give me some water.” She opened a skin of milk, gave him a drink, and covered him up. 20 “Stand in the doorway of the tent,” he told her. “If someone comes by and asks you, 'Is anyone here?' say 'No.'“ 21 But Jael, Heber's wife, picked up a tent peg and a hammer and went quietly to him while he lay fast asleep, exhausted. She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died. (Judg 4:17-22)
Finally, God’s chosen woman has to do what she has to do.
A minister who is a widow and a mother of two had lunch with me. Before we departed, she asked me what I thought of women in ministry. She has a Bible college degree and 25 years of pastoral experience, but she was thrust into ministry by the untimely death of her husband when the children were elementary students. The church was kind enough to retain her in her husband’s place. She did the best she knew how, the best she could under the circumstances, the best she could with two young kids.
Caring for two kids and shepherding a church at the same time for an extended period of time was almost an impossible task, but she has done it for more than a decade on her own. She shared that people take a woman lightly and do not give them as much leeway and respect as they give men in ministry, which I totally agreed with her. She even suspected that the church had offered the job to her out of sympathy for her plight. Then she asked me point-blank, “What do you think of woman in the ministry?” Without much thought, I gave my two cents worth: “Aiya! Don’t think so much. If God has given you the opportunity, just serve Him faithfully whenever the opportunity is there.”
She called me a few days later and thanked me. “What did I do?” I asked. She said that my practical advice had helped her to have a more positive attitude. She said she will remember my advice, “As long as God gives me the opportunity, I will do my best!”
Jael was a woman of incredible strength, means and resolve. Killing Sisera was not the highlight of the story, but putting two and two together, taking matters into her own hands and deciding things on her own were the point. She was knowledgeable of current events, independent in thought and wise in her ways. Jael was, however, not always that way. She and her husband used to live in the city, but they moved to the countryside to avoid further conflict with relatives. There in the thick of the woods, they learned how to survive and thrive on their own. She had learned to make adjustments, find food, and even defend herself, especially when they were in alien land, when her husband was not always by her side and when family ties were strained.
This time, Jael was caught in a situation similar to many instances in the past. She did not curse her luck, ask for permission or seek for approval. The housewife had to do what she had to do, with what she had at hand and what her hands were dealt, but she used her brains and her mouth before her hands. The decision was not easy. She could not harbor a fugitive enemy, turn an acquaintance away (v 17) or consult her husband, who was away.
Some scholars decry Jael’s use of violence and treachery, but her actions were not the spur of the moment decisions. It was not an emotional decision, an impulsive decision or even a controversial decision. For the first time in the new land, things were so desperate that the Israelites “cried out” to the Lord (v 3). The only other time Israel had cried to the Lord was when they suffered oppression in Egypt (Ex 14:10, Num 20:16, Deut 26:7). The nation was in a sharp decline, in a sorry state, and in a big mess. The new generation was facing what the past generation had experienced. Things had reached a critical point and a new low. The situation was unbearable because of the might, cruelty and onslaught of the Canaanites for twenty long years and counting.
Conclusion: Where is a woman’s place? A woman’s place is in the home, the church and the workplace, where she uses her gifts, skills and life to serve and honor God to the best of her ability. Diamonds are not a girl’s best friend, beauty is only skin-deep, but behind every successful man is a relational, responsible and resourceful woman. Do not strive for recognition, success, and power; cultivate knowledge, wisdom, and skill. Are you waiting hand and foot on the man of the house to act, the men in church to work, and the old boys club to weaken? Have you asked God to empower and embolden you to act? Women do not need the final say, but they can and should take most things into their own hands when necessary.