Judges 5:1-11 – A Woman in the Middle

Illustration of Deborah in “Woman in Sacred History” by Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1888

On that day Deborah and Barak son of Abinoam sang this song:

Praise the Lord!
    The Israelites were determined to fight;
    the people gladly volunteered.
Listen, you kings!
    Pay attention, you rulers!
I will sing and play music
    to Israel’s God, the Lord.
Lord, when you left the mountains of Seir,
    when you came out of the region of Edom,
    the earth shook, and rain fell from the sky.
    Yes, water poured down from the clouds.
The mountains quaked before the Lord of Sinai,
    before the Lord, the God of Israel.

In the days of Shamgar son of Anath,
    in the days of Jael,
caravans no longer went through the land,
    and travelers used the back roads.
The towns of Israel stood abandoned, Deborah;
    they stood empty until you came,
    came like a mother for Israel.
Then there was war in the land
    when the Israelites chose new gods.
Of the forty thousand men in Israel,
    did anyone carry shield or spear?
My heart is with the commanders of Israel,
    with the people who gladly volunteered.
    Praise the Lord!
Tell of it, you that ride on white donkeys,
    sitting on saddles,
    and you that must walk wherever you go.
Listen! The noisy crowds around the wells
    are telling of the Lord’s victories,
    the victories of Israel’s people!

Then the Lord’s people marched down from their cities. (Good News Translation)

In the Middle

At the center of the celebration – of Israel’s victory over their oppressors – was a woman.

Today’s Old Testament lesson is a classic Hebrew poem and song of celebration. Yet, there is something a bit different with this poem. The structure of Hebrew poetry points to the middle of the poem as the central idea and focus, with verses before pointing forward to it, and the verses after pointing back to it.

In many poems, God is at the center. The poet’s aim is typically to highlight the Lord as the ballast or resolution to some situation. But today’s poem has Deborah, a woman, smack in the middle. Israel was in a bad way, that is, until Deborah became the leader and judge in Israel. And this was no weird aberration.

Women in the Middle

Women are central to Holy Scripture. God called the people of Israel and labored to shape them into a community built on love, mercy, and justice, reflecting God’s image. Through the Israelites, God continued the work begun in creation, commanding them to love God and serve their neighbors–the orphan, the widow, the stranger, and the alien. Women and men, together, served God in Israel.

The women filled their primary roles in Israel as wives, mothers, and grandmothers. In bearing and caring for children, they patterned their lives on the life of the One who in the beginning labored to bring forth the world, and who later brought forth the nation of Israel and patiently taught it to walk.

Whenever freedom and liberation were needed, women played a central role. The Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah trusted God and refused to obey Pharaoh’s orders. When instructed by Pharaoh to kill the male children, but to let the daughters live, these daughters of Israel preserved the lives of all the newborn. They risked their own lives in order to serve God’s purpose in setting the Israelites free from their slavery in Egypt. (Exodus 1:6-22)

Women were at the heart of hospitality, loving the stranger, as God instructed all the people to do. God empowered the widow of Zarephath to offer lodging and food to the prophet Elijah. Her ministry came at a critical time for Elijah, and this poor widow placed herself and her child at risk by offering her only morsel of food to the prophet. Through her acts of service, the widow advanced God’s work in the world and was sustained by God because of her ministry. (1 Kings 17:7-16)

Miriam and Huldah were prophets, revealing God’s will to the people. (Exodus 15:1-21; 2 Kings 22:11-20). And, along with them, Deborah was both a prophet and a judge, the leader of all the people. She gave wisdom, discernment, and justice to Israel. Deborah even had her hand in the military affairs of the nation. She directed Barak, the general, in a battle against the Canaanites. Although men usually filled such roles, God uses whomever God wants to use in accomplishing the divine will here on this earth, as it is always done in heaven.

God in the Middle

God is the Lord of the past, present, and future. God reigns over both the old and the new, utilizing each for good purposes in the world. In other words, God is not boxed-in. The Lord didn’t start wringing his hands in heaven saying, “Oh, my, I can’t find a man for the job. I guess I’ll have to use a woman!” No, instead, a woman was the Lord’s first and only choice for each situation in which females were used to accomplish God’s will. The Lord is not a victim of circumstances. Rather, God is sovereign and reigns supreme over all situations.

Let’s keep in mind that God is not limited to using men. In fact, God is always doing a new thing in the world. Women and men, equally created in the image and likeness of God, are equally able to be partners with God in the never-ending work of bringing life and redemption to all. Women fulfilling roles of ministry and leadership are not exceptions to God’s order and purpose in creation. Instead, they illustrate God’s true intent for women and men in the world.

We need to hear the stories of women’s leadership and service in Israel as testimony to God’s intent that women and men should be co-laborers with God in God’s work. The Lord isn’t laboring in this world with one hand tied between his back. He is using both hands, both men and women, to establish a benevolent rule and ethical reign.

So, loose the bonds and let the women serve!

Soli Deo Gloria

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