Under a Tree…On the Field…In a Tent

“Under a Tree…On the Field…In a Tent” by Rev. Michael Livingston
Judges 4:1-9, 12-22
Sunday, November 15, 2020

“She used to sit under” a tree.  That’s our introduction to Deborah.  She’s called a prophetess, “judging Israel.” There are six major military leaders in the Book of Judges.  One of them is Deborah.  A judge in that time was a leader on the battle field, delivering Israel from captivity.  The judge could also be one who settled disputes among the people.  Deborah was both of these and prophetess as well, the first woman in such a role in all of scripture.  I read this text and got an image of a woman sitting under a tree with a crowd gathered around asking questions, bringing problems, disputes for resolution by this wise woman trusted by the community to bring wisdom to bear on the stresses and strains of living in family, in community, in captivity.

And then I thought of my sister, Judge Lora Livingston of the 261st District Court in Travis County, Texas.  I called her Friday to ask about any recent cases and judgments she had made that might offer relevant illustrations for this morning—I was looking for a good story.  I got lots of stories but what I also got was what I think of as her judicial philosophy.  Last week I talked about Wisdom personified as a Woman in the Song of Solomon and I suggested that Jesus heard Wisdom-as-Woman whispering—his prophetic ministry and teaching evidence of that wisdom.  I was asked earlier this week talking to a wise coach with whom I consult, “What might God, might wisdom be whispering to us in the chaos of this moment?

All of this came to me as I listened to my sister, Judge Livingston reflect on her experiences over the years and our current moment: “Why should the good of one be elevated over the good of others, of all?  Why is everybody fighting over everything?  We have to resolve our disputes in a peaceful and civilized way.  We have to see that justice is done, not winning and losing, but finding a way of moving forward so that we can live together and love each other.”  She talked about a case involving a trivial matter of possession, I can’t be specific of course.  Between the two sides there were over five hundred “exhibits.”  The legal fees will be enormous.  The amount of time spent will be extraordinary.  The actual value of the possessions is minor.  Opposing one another in this case are two siblings.

Isn’t that what it always boils down to?  Family matters.  Israelis and Palestinians are distant cousins.  East Coast vs West Coast Rappers.  People have died over these beats.  Back the Badge, Back the Blue.  All lives will matter when Black Lives Matter.  Brown Lives.  First Nation Lives.  Women’s lives.  I imagine Deborah sitting under that tree offering wisdom to her people, to families torn apart by trivial disputes invested with eternal implications.  Women discarded like animals unable to produce or work. Violations of laws about what can or cannot be eaten, what sexual relations are or are not legal, property disputes.  Deborah heard all this and more and imparted a wisdom that kept the people coming.  But…

…Is Barak the Judge?  And not Deborah?  The other judges in the Book of Judges were military leaders.  They found glory on the battle field.  Debra heard God tell her to summon Barak and give him command of the army.  But you heard him in the text, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I. Will. Not. Go.”   Barack wouldn’t go on the field without her, without Deborah.  She heard Wisdom tell her to say to him, “Well, I’ll go, but God will give the victory to another, not you.  A woman.  He might have thought she meant herself.  She might have.  She might not.

Barak had reason to be afraid.  The oppressor had 900 hundred chariots, of iron.  Even 10,000 fighting men would not be enough.  They were on foot.  At the right moment Deborah told Barak to attack, “Up, this is the day.”  Well it was.  A terrible storm rose and overwhelmed the land and all those chariots were stuck in the mud—this predates Pharaoh’s army stuck in the muddy waters of the Red Sea—or really, the Sea of Reeds.  Barak prevailed, but Sisera, the general of the opposing army, got away.  Here’s where the tent comes into play.

At least she dulled his senses before she drove a tent peg through his head.  Jael, a name I’d bet not ten percent of you had heard of before you heard the story read this morning.  Deborah we’ve heard of, the first woman Judge of Israel, leader in Bible.  The lectionary reading actually stops at verse 7.  It doesn’t go on to include Jael’s role in this brilliant and complex story.  It’s incomplete without Jael’s part.  While protecting us from the violence of Jael’s act the scholars who put the lectionary together are also depriving us of deeper truths in the story.

We should know about Deborah—she wrote and sung what we know is probably the oldest text in the Bible—the Song of Deborah celebrating her victory in battle with Barak over the King of Canaan, though the city was more likely Hazor, “an important city about ten miles from the Sea of Galilee and along the trade route to the east.  But we should also learn about Jael.

Deborah and Jael broke the cycle.  Israel sins and worships false gods.  God turns her back and an enemy attacks Israel.  The people cry in pain and God takes pity.  God raises a judge to deliver Israel and the people behave…for a while.  When the Judge dies the cycle starts all over again.  Exile follows inattention.  When we fall asleep on truth as Israel did repeatedly, as we have done repeatedly in this nation, we wake up to lies on parade as fact.  Militias with men brandishing guns hoping to return to a time injustice was legal.  That’s the trouble with Robert E. Lee Day and Jefferson Davis day and monuments to traitors.  Generations of white men grow up thinking defending slavery is a good thing and believing one race superior to all others.  So, we get an Alabama Police Captain who says everybody who voted for Biden should be lined up and “…put a bullet through their skull.”

I saw a telling post about this cycle on Instagram yesterday.  It was a split screen top and bottom.  On the top was a picture of white high school kids, their faces twisted by hate screaming and cursing at black students on the first day that Public schools were integrated in Montgomery, Alabama.  We’ve all seen these black and white pictures, they look hazy, dated, buried in our past.  On the bottom was a picture of smiling white people at a Trump rally.  The high school students would have been born between 1945-1949 making that generation 71-75 today.  77% of whites in Alabama voted for Trump.  What has changed?  Nationally, 57% of all white voters voted for Trump.

One in. One out.  Deborah was an Israelite.  Jael was not.  She was a Kenite, it denotes an ethnicity and a word meaning iron-worker.  Her husband may have made those 900 Chariots deployed against Israel in the battle.  That’s why Sisera, the Canaanite general may have felt safe going into Jael’s tent looking for shelter.  His army crushed, the Chariots getting stuck in the mud of the battlefield—Sisera goes into Jael’s tent.  He’s certain she is a patriot.  Her husband was on a civilian employee of the army.  So, he felt safe.  So safe he gives her orders, “First give me some water, I’m thirsty, then stand at the entrance to the tent and if anybody asks ‘Is anyone in there’ you say ‘No.’” when they come looking for me…”

But this is no friend of the family, the text says “…he (Sisera) had oppressed the Israelites cruelly twenty years,” so much that they “cried out to the Lord for help.”  God sent a woman, two women to end this abuse, this oppression. He asked for water…she gave him a sedative.  Put him to sleep, then drove a spike through his head.  Sarah Jobe an interfaith chaplain at a women’s prison in North Carolina and a PhD. Student at Duke School of Divinity, uses this text in classes with women convicted of killing their husbands who have been abusing them and, in some cases, attempted to kill them.

Because of changes in the law in 1970 women in relationships with men who abuse them are denied the use self-defense in their trials.  If a woman is at home and there is a door in the room where she is battered, she should have used it to escape.  If she uses a weapon of any kind to defend herself against a man of superior strength abusing her, it is premeditation by law.  Jobe asked a sister preacher and songwriter, Susannah Long, how she could preach this text and Susannah replied, “We already know how to preach this story…however you preach David and Goliath.”

“The Bible says that when Jael killed Sisera, God subdued Israel’s enemy (4:23). Jael does not do what is expected of her. She violates hospitality. She violates her husband’s alliances. She violates gender roles—one of very few women in the Bible to kill anyone at all. Jael keeps her own counsel. She chooses to kill a violent oppressor, and by her act Israel ‘grows stronger and stronger’” (4:24). (Sarah Jobe)

I’m not advocating violence, more killing.  You know that.  Every time one human kills another, we all lose.  We have failed our very humanity.  Did you read the account of the assassination of Abdullah Abdullah in the Times yesterday?  Number two in the leadership of Al Qaeda.  (Quoting here…) “He was gunned down on the streets of Tehran by two assassins on a motorcycle…He was killed along with his daughter, Miriam, the widow of Osama bin Laden’s son…”  Was that her crime?  Marriage to a bin Laden?  The death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment.

What do I want to leave you with from all of this?  I want to celebrate the role of women in our common life.  Women have given, do give everything, in every walk of life.  They judge among us like Deborah, not like Amy Coney Barrett, who dishonors the profession by accepting a place on the Supreme Court under these circumstances.  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)  And women are sitting under the tree, on the bench is rising numbers all over the world.  Bringing their wisdom to bear on our common life.  I know you saw the “Black Girl Magic” stories when seventeen Black women were sworn in as jurists in Houston, TX.

What do I want to leave you with from all of this?  I want to celebrate what women are to us, mean to us.  You teach, lead, fight in battle, lead in the boardroom, work on the assembly line, heal, preach, govern, invent, design, calculate, adjudicate, make us laugh, comfort us, calm our fears, pray for us and with us.  We would not be who we are apart from you.  We praise you and thank you and ask your forgiveness for how we have treated you, abused and oppressed you, as if you were not equal to any man.

You give life, nurture life, love us, live and die for us.  And by us I mean the partner, spouse, friend, family, the community, the nation and world.  We love you and thank you for who you are and who you are becoming.  Grace and peace to you, Amen.