Readings from the Scriptures – Judges 4:1-16
4 The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died. 2 So the Lord sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. 3 Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly twenty years. 4 At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. 5 She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment. 6 She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, ‘Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. 7 I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.’” 8 Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” 9 And she said, “I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” Then Deborah got up and went with Barak to Kedesh. 10 Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh; and ten thousand warriors went up behind him; and Deborah went up with him. 11 Now Heber the Kenite had separated from the other Kenites, that is, the descendants of Hobab the father-in-law of Moses, and had encamped as far away as Elon-bezaanannim, which is near Kedesh. 12 When Sisera was told that Barak son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor,
13 Sisera called out all his chariots, nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the troops who were with him, from Harosheth-ha-goiim to the Wadi Kishon. 14 Then Deborah said to Barak, “Up! For this is the day on which the Lord has given Sisera into your hand. The Lord is indeed going out before you.” So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with ten thousand warriors following him. 15 And the Lord threw Sisera and all his chariots and all his army into a panic[b] before Barak; Sisera got down from his chariot and fled away on foot, 16 while Barak pursued the chariots and the army to Harosheth-ha-goiim. All the army of Sisera fell by the sword; no one was left.
Road Out of Oppression?
The Bible has never shrunk from telling the whole truth about Israel and their relationship with God. And about how there were times when Israel was both oppressed and the oppressor of their neighbors. In the beginning of the book of Judges which is where we find today’s reading, the writer goes so far as to say that Israel is stuck in a bit of a pattern of behavior. They follow God. God blesses them. Then, They start to take God for granted. They start worshipping other gods and before you know it They are conquered by a neighbor. They endure hardship under this foreign king and finally They cry out in pain. They actually don’t repent, They just cry out saying, “What were we thinking? Lord, please deliver us.” In response God raises up a deliverer, a Judge. This judge will help them to find a road out of oppression. Just like Moses found a road out of the oppression of Egypt, where there was no road before. This Judge will unite the tribes so that together they can overthrow the oppressor. The Judge is able to do lead them from oppression and the people return to the right worship of God and the right living out of their faith. All goes well until the leader, that Judge, dies and they start the whole pattern all over again. Just listen to the first line of today’s reading, “After the Ehud died, the Israelites once again did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” Ehud was the previous Judge and with his death, Jabel a Canaanite king oppressed Israel. He was able to do this with 900 iron chariots that were commanded by his general Sisera.
Both God and Israel know this pattern well but it is God who acts to break the pattern. In today’s reading instead of picking a military leader to be raised up to be the Judge we were introduced to Deborah who is already a judge. She is an arbiter of conflicts within the Israelite people. Symbolically she sits at a crossroads between Ramah and Bethel. Ramah, is translated as a high place or a place of military advantage. Bethel is where Jacob saw angels ascending and descending on a ladder to heaven. It’s not clear but maybe she is saying that in interpersonal conflict you have to make a choice between going to war or going to God. As well she sits under the shade of a large palm which seems to suggest that those who come to her for guidance find shaded in her wisdom. Then the Word of God comes to her which means God has called her to be a prophet. Could it be that she will be the new Judge? The one who will find the road out of oppression for her people? The first thing she does as a prophet is to call Barack to take command of the combined armies of the Israelite tribes. She said to him “God commands that you set a trap for Sisera and his chariots”. Maybe it will be Barack who will be the Judge that will make a road out of their oppression for his people? Deborah tells him I’ll get Sisera to come to a place where you may trap him but you must command the army. He responds, “I can command an army but we’ll need God on our side to defeat those chariots.” Barack knows his limitations. He says to her, “if you go with me I will go. If you don’t go with me I won’t go.” “OK,” she says “but then the glory won’t be yours it will belong to a woman who will put an end to Sisera.” Oh so maybe it is Deborah who will be the judge who will find the road out of oppression for her people.
They put the plan into action. Sisera and his 900 iron chariots take the bait. I want to stop for a second and say that those 900 iron chariots representative a significant technological advance and advantage. This is why that even though Barack has 10,000 troops he still does not feel confident enough to take on 900 chariots without the hand of God doing the heavy lifting. This is a cautionary tale or flag to all of us who are right now learning and leaning on technology. I guess we have to remember that Sisera was using his technology to oppress other people. Technology in and of itself is not good or evil, it is always how it is used that tells the tale. Well Deborah does her part and gets Sisera to the place that they had planned. Barack assembles the army. Then Deborah says now and Barack attacks but the Scripture says it is God who routes Sisera. A defeated Sisera abandons his chariot and his army. He flees the battle eventually ending up in the tent of Jael wife of Heber. It is Jael who kills this general so maybe she is the one who will lead the people out of oppression?
I wonder if what we are reading here is God trying to create a new pattern where there isn’t such a reliance on only one person to lead the people in their faith journey and in their political life? Maybe this will break the pattern and maybe it won’t. One thing is for sure doing the same thing over and over again does not move the cause of justice forward and the road out of oppression will remain hidden.
On May 28th of this year, the news came out that the remains of 215 unidentified children are located beside a now shuttered residential school by special ground penetrating radar. As one writer put it, “the residential school system that was created by the Government of Canada and religious institutions was designed to ‘kill the Indian in the child and obviously it often killed the child.’” Edgerton Ryerson, a Methodist minister and the one given credit for developing Canada‘s education system once said “that Indian children were not worthy of a real education” and “that in the residential schools the Indian child will be so changed that when the child returned to their homes they would be ashamed of their primitive culture and religion.” This is the level of oppression that the first peoples of this land were subjected to by the leadership and the population of Canada. Present day institutions have consistently shown that these attitudes persist. This is the pattern of Canada that 1st Nations people have been dealing with since Europeans stepped foot on Turtle Island. A second pattern has developed which is that after there is a fresh exposure of what the settlers population has done to 1st Peoples there is a cry for change and political action. But like Israel very rarely repentance, just a cry for change. Then very little is done until the atrocity slips from the news and our general consciousness. Sadly a new atrocity is discovered and it starts the pattern again. Who will be the Judge that God raises up to help us finally find the road out of this oppression? Maybe the key is in this reading. God knows it is not enough for one person or one party to be the face of change. First there must be wide scale repentance by we who are in the settler population. Without hear and uncovering the complete truth we can never expect to receive complete forgiveness and freedom for this oppression for all. Second we cannot rely on a political leader or Pope to be the Judge, the one appointed to lead us out of oppression. God is asking that we accept the challenge of changing our society and act within the limitations of our abilities. God doesn’t expect us to do it all but God expects us to show up and do our part to create a road out of this oppression. One thing is for sure, that if we don’t show up the pattern will continue and the road out of this oppression will remain hidden! We must be involved, settlers and 1st Nations working together to uncover the sins of the past, to grieve those injuries and to change how we treat each other. If we do this before this present passion slips away then we have a chance to end this long and bloody pattern. The road out of oppression begins now and the only question is, “Will we join God on that road?” Amen.