Here is the text from which I preached today.
In it I suggest a way that we can appraoch OT Texts that reflect a God who embraces the second class status of women, genocide, murder, rape and death of the innocents among other attributes. Why does this matter? Because pastors today of some stripes still cite such passages as reflective of the heart of God. And people still believe in such a God and act accordingly.
Seeking the Heart of God: A sermon based upon Judges 4
So we have this book of the Bible before us called Judges. So what’s a judge?
A handy definition might be: “a public official appointed to decide cases in a court of law”
Great, well the in the Book of Judges there is only one person who really fits this description and all of the rest of the judges of Israel are really military chieftains and rulers who lead their people into battle. A few chapters earlier in Judges we are told that the people of Israel would abandon God and worship the other gods, the false gods of the people of the land who had not been driven out when the Israelites had arrived, and every time that they worshipped these false gods their enemies would over power them and “Then the LORD raised up judges, who delivered them out of the power of those who plundered them.” There is only one person who hears disputes and renders judgment in the entire Book of Judges and that person is a woman and that woman’s name is Deborah who as we heard this morning “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.” Not only that, but she was also a prophetess, who spoke the word of the Lord before the people.
Now today’s story involves this judge of Israel, Deborah, the military commander of Israel, Barak, a Kenite woman named Jael and Sisera, the military leader of the Canaanites under King Jabin. So let’s set the stage: A judge of Israel, Ehud, the left-handed son of Gera, the Benjaminite, who had killed King Eglon of Moab, died. Now remember that according to the formula in Judges when the judge dies, the people fall away from God and worship the false gods of the land and then their enemies press against them and then they cry out to the Lord who sends a deliver who saves them from their enemies. So after Ehud dies, what do you think happens to Israel?
Exactly, the formula holds. And King Jabin sends his troops under their leader Sisera to attack the Israelites. And we heard how “the Israelites cried out to the LORD for help; for he [Sisera] had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly twenty years.
Let’s talk about expectations.
When Deborah tells the military leader Barak that 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. 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.'" What do we expect him to do? To be brave and ruthless and destroy the enemies of God down to the last man? In the Book of Judges that’s what heroes do: they slay their enemies through cunning and bravery. Except in this case, Barak refuses to lead unless Deborah goes with him. If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go." He says.
And for this response Deborah declares “that 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."
That is not meant as a complement, is it? What will learn about the value of women before the Book of Judges is finished? Jephthah’s daughter will be sacrificed as a burnt offering because her father makes a vow to Lord to sacrifice the first person who greets him if the Lord grants him victory over the enemies of Israel. As the Book of Judges progresses to its conclusion, women are prostitutes, deceivers, objects of rape, whose bodies could be cut into pieces and sent special delivery as a sign and warning. They are to be taken as prisoners of war and made to be wives of their enemies. They are available for the taking, to be stolen away as wives when they come out to dance at Shiloh.
Does the narrator register God’s anger at such actions? No.
Does the narrator register God’s condemnation at such actions? No.
Does the narrator give evidence that God cares at all for these nameless women subjected to rape and murder, whose value us only measured in their ability to produce babies or serve as sacrifice? Sadly, no.
We might argue that was a long time ago in a culture much different from ours.
Women would never be devalued today, would they? Have they?
We might argue that most, but not all of these women in the Book of Judges were non-Israelites therefore enemies of God’s chosen people and got what they deserved.
Women belonging to a different ethnic group and considered enemies would never be subject to systemic rape and murder today, would they? Have they?
We might lay it all on God – it was God’s way, God’s plan – that God knew what God was doing and by defending that notion that we are being faithful. It is scripture, we might say. It must be true. Well, it must be true to someone anyway. Someone who took pen to paper or papyrus or whatever and wrote it down. Their understanding of events.
If we are going to confront some of the more difficult passages of scripture we better go in prepared or we are going to get lost. If we are going to dive into passages that extol violence as a central attribute of God, the murder of innocents as part of God’s plan, the treating of women as lesser objects unless they fit the warrior model as Jael does in Judges 4, cunning and murderous, then we better be prepared or we are going to get lost.
And we need to confront such passages or else we open ourselves to both a false understanding and false witness to the God we worship and love that came to us in and through Christ Jesus. We need to confront the narrators and narrative arcs of the stories of scripture when such promote an ethic that is not centered in Christ Jesus as revealed to us. Even today the scriptures when left unconfronted by the way of Jesus, the way of love and compassion, even and perhaps especially for the most unlikely of people, then they become a license to objectify, to erase the image of God in the other, to ignore, to hate, even to kill, though Jesus says those two are the same thing.
Our Savior and his ethic that caring for and loving people is more important than fidelity to the right understanding of God’s law. He proves this over and over again by his healings on the Sabbath, by his eating with sinners, by his touching the untouchable, by his love for the outcast. In fact, his embodiment of God’s love fulfills the law, he says. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets,” Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” And let’s be clear: How does Jesus fulfill the law? By humbling giving himself away in an act of pure love for the sake of the world.
The Apostle Paul seizes on this in Romans:
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law….Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
Here in the Book of Judges if we dare to buy unexamined and unquestioned what the narrator of these passages of hate, death and destruction is trying to sell us about the heart of God then in our quiet acceptance of them, do we not become guilty by association?
What we need for our confrontation of Scripture is a solid hermeneutic, which is a very fancy church word for our method of interpretation. What is the lens through which we will read the scriptures? What will shed light for us so that we do not get lost? What can help us to understand how we can best love God and neighbor? So here’s my proposition as we begin this journey from Joshua to Job over the next year or so: Let us proceed with a simple hermeneutic and see where it takes us. Along the way, if we find it lacking, we will make adjustments.
That which draws us deeper into our love of God and neighbor reflects most clearly the heart of God in and through Christ Jesus and our thus our Christian faith.
If a passage or story does not lead us into such love, then it is worthwhile for us to explore why and not merely accept a passage on face value as reflecting the true heart of God.
And in a world where pastors spurred on ethnic Hutus to slaughter nearly a million ethnic Tutsi in a mere 100 days back in the 1990’s shouting scripture from their pulpits; and in a nation where political leaders just last week accepted invitations to a conference led by a pastor who believes that homosexuality ought to be punishable in this nation by the death penalty; at a time when so many seek to claim to know the heart of God, we will journey together in faith and in love.