Exegetical Exercise (Judges 4:1-10)

painting of Jael, Deborah and Barak

Jael with weapons of war, backed up by Deborah and Barak

The Uniform Series text for Sunday, June 4 is Judges 4:1-10, the first part of the story of Deborah and Barak vs. Sisera.

These are my notes on the text:

First impressions: there are a lot of place names; Deborah is located, Barak is located, the instructions Deborah gives Barak for mobilizing troops are detailed as to place. [So, with map in hand: Deborah is in the “hill country of Ephraim” between Ramah and Bethel, which is just slightly north of Jerusalem; Barak is in Kedesh of Naphtali, or maybe “from” Kedesh of Naphtali, which is about as far north as the Sea of Galilee. It sounds like Deborah calls for Barak to come down south, then gives him instructions to go back up north, mobilize the troops to take up a position at Mt. Tabor – also up north – and wait for God to draw out the enemy troops … so, a lot of travel. When Barak asks Deborah to go with him, it’s to back up north.]
Barak’s “if you go with me, I will go, if you don’t go with me, I won’t go” is reminiscent of¬†statements from God to people (“I will go with you,” “I will be with you”), and reminds me of Jacob’s conditional vow to God after seeing the ladder – at Bethel, perhaps notably, presumably same Bethel that’s a place reference for the palm of Deborah – “if you really will go with me and be my God and bring me back safe etc.” Genesis 28:20. We might also want to compare it to Ruth’s declaration to Naomi (also “time of the judges,” for that matter) that “where you go, I will go” etc. How are these things different, how similar? Also: is Barak using Deborah as a surrogate for God here? If you go with me, I’ll go; if you don’t go with me, I won’t. If someone says this to God, we normally don’t object. People have objected a lot to Barak’s saying this to Deborah, though, historically.

Why Naphtali and Zebulun? On investigation: doesn’t seem to be a pattern with respect to parentage; Naphtali is one of the children of Bilhah; Zebulun is Leah’s youngest. “Naphtali” means something like “wrestling” and is associated with Rachel’s declaration that she is prevailing over her sister. So maybe geography: proximity to Mt. Tabor. Still – why aren’t any of the other northern tribes named?

A little more text analysis: There are a lot of actors and action in the passage – seven subjects: Isralites/children of Israel; YHWH; Deborah; Barak; Sisera; Jabin; Zebulun and Naphtali. The children of Israel do evil and cry out; they are the object of oppression. YHWH sells the Israelites into the hand of King Jabin; and then commands Barak, via Deborah; and announces a military plan.

Deborah is the most active subject in these verses; she judges, sits (under her tree), sends, summons, says, gets up, goes, and goes up. In other words, she has a lot of verbs. Compared to Deborah, Barak doesn’t do a lot; he says, and he summons. Zebulun and Naphtali go up (to Kedesh).

The text in v. 4 strongly emphasizes Deborah’s gender. Literally, it reads “Deborah (fem. name) woman woman-prophet woman/wife of Lappidoth she she-judged Israel at that time.” That is: she she she she she she, get the picture?? Some of the gender marks are indispensable, but others are optional, so that’s additional evidence that the emphasis on her feminine gender is intentional.

What does it mean that Barak insists that Deborah go with him? Does this mean he does not trust God – so, is reluctant to follow God’s command? Or, does it mean he acknowledges Deborah as the voice of God under the circumstances, and wants that conduit to the divine close at hand – which might be a signal of reliance on God? The “right way to read it” doesn’t seem that obvious to me.

I don’t know that Deborah’s reply establishes it. She says pretty literally “I will surely go with you, notwithstanding/although/but (something like that) the journey that you take will not be to your honor; surely YHWH will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” So, it would be possible to read this something like “fine, I’ll go, but since you made this wimpy, not very masculine decision God is going to give the glory to a woman now.” This is actually a fairly common way to read it in older commentaries. But it would be equally possible to read it something like “Oh, I’ll definitely go with you, despite the fact that the whole thing is not going to bring you glory, whether or not I do, because God has already decided to give the glory of killing Sisera to a woman.”

A lot depends on the presuppositions of the readers about the “ordinary” relationships between men and women; and prophets and judges and military leaders. It seems fairly common to have the relevant clergy (prophets, priests) around at the time of battle: Moses presides over the battle with the Amalekites (Exodus 17:10-11); the priests have a BIG role at Jericho (Joshua 6); the Israelites go and get the Ark to help them against the Philistines at the time of Eli – of course, that idea ends disastrously (1 Samuel 4); Saul involves Samuel in the fight against the Ammonites (1 Samuel 11), with a good outcome; Saul also involves Samuel in the fight against the Philistines, mobilizing at Gilgal, but this time, pretty bad outcome (1 Samuel 13). My point is just that, maybe it isn’t at all strange that Barak wants Deborah with him, since she’s the relevant prophet and judge, and having the prophet/judge/person of God in the corps is what the Israelites do. So, maybe he’s being faithful to that dimension, notwithstanding the unconventional gender situation. [Not that she’s the first female prophet we know of in the text, either, for that matter, or the first associated with a battle. Think of Miriam.]

Basically, Deborah gets instructions for Barak from YHWH, Deborah gives them to Barak, and Barak follows them – on the assurance that Deborah (i.e., the Word of YHWH) is with him.

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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