Saturday, February 8, 2014

Liberators (Judges 5:6-8, 12-13, 20-22, 24-30)

In the days of Shamgar ben-Anath,
     in the days of Jael,
the crime-ridden travel routes lay desolate,
     and travelers took roundabout paths to avoid robbers.
Village life died a lonely death until you rose up,
     Deborah, the great mother of Israel.
When the people chose new gods,
     war came to the city gates.
But nether spear nor shield was found
    among the forty thousand in Israel.
- - - - - 
'Awake! Awake, Deborah!
     Rise up! Rise up! Break out in song!
Arise, Barak!
     Take your captive prisoner, ben-Abinoam!'
Then the survivors triumphed over the mighty.
     The people of Adoni were victorious over trained warriors.
- - - - - 
The very stars of the heavens fought;
     from their courses, they defied Sisera.
March on my soul!
     Be strong!
Next came the thunder of horses' hoofs,
     galloping, relentlessly galloping went the beautiful steeds.
- - - - - 
'But blessed be Jael among women, the wife of Heber the Kenite!
     Among all tent-dwelling women, she is most blessed!'
He (Sisera, the enemy's general) asked for water, she gave him milk.
     In a bowl fit for royalty, she brought him curds.
Her left hand had held the tent peg,
     her right hand the mallet.
She struck Sisera and crushed his head,
     shattering and splitting his skull.
He fell at her feet, dead before hitting the floor.
     At her feet he dropped, and where he dropped, there he fell dead.
Sisera's mother peered through the window,
     behind the lattice seh cried out,
'Why is his chariot so long in coming? 
     Why is there no sound of his chaiorts?'
The wisest of her attendance answered her - indeed, she repeated the attendant's words herself:
     'They are sharing the spoils: the women, one or two for every soldier;
     beautiful dyed and embroidered cloth for Sisera,
     and one scarf - no, two, and embroidered - for you!'
Judges 5:6-8, 12-13, 20-22, 24-30 

The Song of Deborah is considered by many to be among the oldest pieces of the Hebrew scriptures dating to 1300 - 1200 BCE. In a nutshell Deborah was a prophetess who "governed" Israel. Which probably means something like a cheiftess among the tribes. The set up is now familiar as the Israelites have compromised away their identity and they are oppressed and exploited by a stronger tribe east of the Jordan lead by the "general" or warlord Sisera. 

Deborah plans a military ambush that includes drawing Sisera and his army to Mount Tabor - a solitary volcanic cone in the valley of Jezreel. This would give the Israelites the high country. Barak the warlord of Israel did not initially want to take part in this action. He agrees to the plan, but only if Deborah is also present for the battle. Deborah agrees but then notes that the victory of the battle will go to a woman and not to Barak. You can read up on the prose narrative in chapter 4 of the book of Judges.

During the pitched battle a thunderstorm erupts flooding a dry wash in the area and in turn snaring Sisera's chariots in mud. Having the advantage of the high ground the Israelites forces sweep down and across Sisera's army and routes the enemy. Sisera takes off and makes it to what he probably thought was a neutral and safe encampment of Kenites. Moses wife was a Kenite, but the Kenites were not numbered among the tribes of Israel. Although the description here may indicate the Kenites were nomads. 

Thinking himself safe Sisera either falls asleep or at least is in a non-alert state and is attacked by the woman Jael who kills the fierce warlord by driving a tent peg through the temple of his scull. Meanwhile back at home Sisera's mother voices concerns about his delayed return only to have a maid assure her that her son is busy spoiling women, when in fact he has been spoiled by a woman.

The passage is most noted for its high profile of women. There is a play of presentation - Deborah the leader weary of her less brave general, Jael a non-combatant outsmarts the scared and running Sisera, and Sisera's mother who is oddly comforted by the thought that her son is spoiling women following a military victory. Of the three women the mother of Sisera gets my pity. 

As a female this woman is caught up in an oppressive patriarchy which typified life at the beginning of the Iron Age. Women were property of either their father or their husband, and in the case of war plunder for the victor. Yet, Sisera's mother, due to her station, enjoys the fruits of the system. At the end of the song we have the juxtaposition of a female being comforted by the thought that her son is out spoiling other females.

For me this is the insidious sinfulness of unjust systems - that even those being exploited come to believe the exploitation is a correct and right structuring of society. Most of the liberation movements of our time - Civil Rights, Feminism, Queer Rights, Liberation Theology protest the very structures of society while at the same time move to untangled the knotted thinking of those caught up in the benefits of those structures. Here we have in sacred scripture a sad lament of those caught up in such oppressive systems they forget they are victims and not victors.

What's more fascinating to me is that Deborah falls into a small and elite group of personalities in the Bible stories. She is one of the "singing women" of scripture. That is she is one of four women who have songs attached to their stories. She joins Mariam, the sister of Moses, who sang of the defeat of the Egyptians at the Sea of Reeds (traditionally translated as the Red Sea). Later these two will be joined by Hannah the mother of Samuel (the last Judge of Israel who anoints first Saul and then David as Israel's king). Finally when we look into the Greek Scriptures we find Mary the mother of Jesus lifting her voice in a song of praise. 

What these "singing women" have in common is a joy that God raises up the oppressed and throws down the oppressors and systems that benefit the oppressors. In their songs God actively pulls for the underdog and works to bring about a restructuring of culture so that those who were underneath are now free and of what held them down. These songs have been the boon of those working toward self-dignity and self-determination and a bane to those who's life and livelihood feed off the misery of others. 

Before we leave Deborah and Jael as heroes who inspire us in our own struggles there is one last piece that we should take note of.  This is a bit of a larger play between the Hebrew and Greek scriptures. The term we typically translate as "judge" can be translated with other words such as "champion," "liberator," and most importantly "savior." Christians have shied away from this last translation, saving the term for Jesus of Nazareth. 

Luke, it appears, drew heavily upon the saviors of the book of Judges to help understand and explain Jesus as savior. It is in Luke that we find Mary's song. It is also in Luke that we find the words spoken about Jael, "blessed among women," spoken about Mary. On the one hand this is a brilliant use of Old Testament themes to elucidate and explain New Testament events. On the other hand we have an affirmation that God's work is incarnated through humans to bring about both personal and societal transformation.

Through Deborah's song we find a lesson for people of faith - whether queer or straight. God is not satisfied with injustice and works through unlikely persons to bring about change toward liberation. 

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