Woman, Prophet, Warrior, Leader: Deborah

A sermon given by Rev. Eleanor B. McCormick on Sunday, July 16, 2017

She is one of the most important female leaders in the Old Testament. She is the only female judge in the Hebrew scriptures. She is named a prophet, a warrior, recognized as a mother of Israel. She is a disrupter of norms and expectations. She is even referred to as “a woman of fire.” Do you know her name? As a prophet and judge she advised and inspired. She mediated and settled disputes among her people, planned a military strategy, appointed a general, and then led that general into battle, a victorious battle at that. Do you know her name? Her name is Deborah and Deborah’s song of victory that we heard in this morning’s scripture in Judges 5 is by general agreement a first-hand, authentic historical witness. It is one of the oldest passages of poetry in the Old Testament, written we believe by one who stood very near to the event itself, perhaps by a participant. As Old Testament scholar Bernhard Anderson writes, “This poem forcefully expresses the cardinal conviction of the mosaic faith. Yahweh is the god of Israel and Israel is the people of Yahweh. Although there is no reference to the term ‘covenant,’ this close relationship between God and God’s people is the basis for the whole poem. And in this poem we find the most clear witness in the entire Old Testament to the historical character of Israel’s faith.” There is no clearer witness than The Song of Deborah to the historical character of Israel’s faith. And yet, few have heard this text. Few know her name. Even fewer are able to recount Deborah’s story.

The text where we find The Song of Deborah, this clear witness to the historical character of Israel’s faith is not designated as a text in our Revised Common Lectionary. Therefore, sermons on Deborah are rarely preached. The Lectionary is a selection of Biblical readings that give us a set of guides, guides as to what Biblical texts to include in Sunday worship and what texts to pair, one with the other. This Sunday we begin a sermon series on women in the Bible, a sermon series that goes beyond and outside of the Lectionary using texts that focus on women’s voices and women’s stories. Some of the names ahead you will recognize, like Ruth and Naomi, while Eunia and Priscilla, women leaders of the early church may sound a bit less familiar. We are doing this work together because the Lectionary itself has historically diminished, or made optional, or completely left out critical texts written by women, about women, telling women’s stories. And it is my belief that if we wish for our liturgies and our church life to be inclusive, we should feel called to include more texts about women. As Ruth Fox, director at Sacred Heart Monastery, accurately points out, this effort is not just a matter of speaking to women. Just as men are held up as spiritual models for women, so too men’s spirituality is enriched and aided with feminine patterns of holiness, with feminine stories. As Marjorie Procter-Smith, an esteemed professor of preaching and worship says, “Proclaiming and amplifying the Biblical voices of women enables communities like ours to hear these stories not as peripheral and occasional, but as central and essential to our self-understanding as our ongoing relationship with God. The intentional inclusion of women’s stories in the Church’s proclamation invites a deeper hearing of the word of God.”  Amen.

So let us return to Deborah, a prophet and a judge who settles disputes for Israel beneath a palm in the hills of Ephraim. Her relationship to Israel has public dimensions, both religious and judicial, and her story follows a four part pattern that is repeated throughout the book of Judges: the people forsake their God; the Lord allows enemies to attack them; the people cry out to the Lord; and the Lord then sends a judge, like Deborah, to deliver them, and peace returns, whereby Deborah sings her song of victory and her song of praise to God, her deliverer. The book of Judges is a beautiful collection of stories about heroes from the early days of Israel’s history, written, compiled and edited to address the questions held in the hearts of the exiles who asked, “Has God forsaken and forgotten us? “

The people are in exile and in need – in need, most in need of having an answer to this question. Most in need of knowing that God’s love is a continuing love, is an abiding love. In ancient times the writers and editors of Judges told and preserved Deborah’s story, her triumph and her vindication in order to give her people hope, in order to help their listeners to persist through uncertain times and to turn back around to God. Deborah’s story is a story that helps the people of Israel to proclaim what God has done before and to look towards what God will surely do again.

And interestingly enough, the writers and the cartoonists behind comic books today create collections of stories about heroes, too. And they do this work often for the same reasons – to help their audiences find meaning in uncertain times, to find hope. The latest of these comic book heroes brought to life through a movie is Wonder Woman. Have you seen it? If not, I will try to avoid too many spoilers, because I went to see the movie this last week just as I was beginning to think about the character of Deborah and other Old Testament women heroes, like Esther. Now Stefan, my beloved husband, may have thought that we were going to the movies as a date night. You see, we were off to see a great movie, one that he wanted to see, to actually go to a movie, just the two of us, and then my sermon notebook joined our date. So, yeah, that happened.

Wonder Woman, also known as Diana Prince in this film, is a warrior, the daughter of a god. Because of her, war ended. Because she persisted, love won. I was in some ways surprised by the parallels between Diana Prince’s story and the stories of several women in our Hebrew scriptures, including Deborah. In Judges 4 the enormity of the Canaanite army, Deborah’s enemy, is described, and those descriptions are not far off from Hollywood’s war scenes as depicted in Wonder Woman. In Deborah’s mission, leading her people to safety, she was faced with obstacles, of stereotypes, rules and the disbelief of men, as was Wonder Woman. In the film set during World War One, an amazing scene called No Man’s Land, the soldier that has escorted Diana Prince through the world of men discourages her from leaving the relative safety of the allies’ bunker. As they move forward towards his mission, and his goals, he doesn’t believe that she has the powers she claims to have, the power to end war, but Diana doesn’t listen. She feels her call and she enters the battle, clearing a path through enemy fire and ending the stalemate. Responding to the push-back from the male soldiers around her, she says, “It is not why you have come, but it is why I have come.” Wonder Woman’s faith in her own identity, her own purpose, her own mission, helps her to overcome the disbelief of men and the obstacles standing in front of her. She steps out of Diana Prince and into Wonder Woman, stepping into the role that she was called to fulfill.

I can imagine Deborah following conventions for a time, but then needing to break out of those conventions too, as she began to embrace the prophecy that God called her to hear. Deborah stepped out of one role and into a role that God called her to fulfill. God spoke directly to Deborah, and Deborah in turn summoned the best general she knew, Barak. She instructed him on the word of Yahweh to call a large army. But Barak responds cautiously to Deborah, saying, “If you will go with me Deborah, I will go. But if you will not go with me, I will not go.” According to the Women’s Bible commentary, it is unclear whether Barak’s response indicates cowardice, a lack of self confidence, or distrust of Deborah’s authority as a woman. Neither Barak nor any of the people have heard Yahweh speak, and he has only this one woman’s word to go on, a word that has come out of the blue after twenty years of persecution, a word that is backed by zero military experience, a word that seems strategically naive, and that hardly takes into account the fact that the Canaanites had 900 iron chariots. Barak may well have been testing Deborah because she was a woman, asking her to stake her own life on this message from God. And she does. She is faithful to God, and she does what is asked of her, even though she is met with great danger, with skepticism, with hesitance.

As any good super hero film would have it, we know by the closing scene of Wonder Woman that a sequel is just around the corner. And that Wonder Woman’s destiny is not yet fulfilled. More battles for Diana Prince lie ahead. For Deborah’s people there will also be a sequel. While her campaign was successful, and her prophecy correct, she did not save the Israelites once and for all, but rather for her time. Both women, however, persisted in their call, both women lived into their beliefs and identity. Wonder Woman tells the community who says they don’t deserve her, “It’s not about what you deserve,  it’s about what you believe, and I believe in love.” It’s not about what you deserve, it’s about what you believe, and I believe in love, I can hear Deborah proclaiming this at the end of her song. As UCC pastor Reverend Chris Alexander notes, we as God’s people, female and male alike, are not called to be about winning but to be about persisting in the midst of uncertainty, carrying our identity as Christians, carrying our markers of love as a sword and a shield as we battle our way through all the obstacles we face on any given day. The winning is up to God, not us.

Persistence means seeking to live most fully into our identity as God’s people in the world. Despite, despite all those voices who seek to silence us and seek to silence our love. Persistence means seeking to tell our stories in their fullest so that the identity of God can be revealed to us in its fullest. Persistence is key here, we must persist in giving our communities access to these texts because without access to these stories, the church is poorer. Over the course of the next several Sundays the voices and the stories of women will be amplified because we are called to hear the stories not as peripheral and occasional but as central and essential to our self understanding and our ongoing relationship with a still speaking God. Alleluia. Amen.




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