Things Are Seldom What They Seem - Reflections on Judges 4:1-7

by Dr. John Holbert on Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Things Are Seldom What They Seem

Judges 4:1-7 

The Peripatetic Hebrew Bible Preacher

          Any fans of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas reading? If so, you will recognize my title as theft from HMS Pinafore’s song about uncomfortable surprises, which regularly occur in these hilarious and farcical English plots. Well, Judges 4 may not be hilarious, although it surely has its humorous moments, and it is deadly serious in a most literal way. I have written a much lengthier article about this wonderful chapter in my 2015 book, Telling the Whole Story, so for further details, I direct you there. I can only point to a few choice bits in this brief essay, but I hope to show that the chapter contains far more than meets the too-easy eye.

          Judges 4 has received far less attention than its poetic neighbor in Judges 5, long thought to be among the oldest pieces in the Hebrew Bible, replete with thorny Hebrew grammatical conundra and rich theological reflections about war and its ultimate horrors. The final scene of the poem, depicting the mother of the murdered general Sisera, anxious for her son’s return from battle, with the reader knowing all too well that he will never return, is heartbreaking in its deep pathos. The poetic structure adds immeasurably to the sadness of the scene and to the emotional impact of the entire poem. On the contrary, the prose account of Judges 4, locked as it is into the unbreakable Deuteronomic pattern of Israelite sin, divine punishment, enemy oppression, and eventual victory by means of a savior, leading again to sin, would appear to undercut any possible literary artistry. However, a closer look reveals considerable flair within the straightjacket of the pattern. 

          The beginning of the tale (Jud.4:1-3) provides at least two interesting insights. First, the powerful general Sisera, leader of the armies of King Jabin of the Canaanites, is said to be “sitting” in his hometown of Harosheth of the Gentiles. To be sure, the Hebrew verb may also be translated as “living” or “dwelling,” but the broader context of the stories of Judges suggests that “sitting” may in fact be the correct reading. In the previous tale of Ehud and the fat king Eglon, the corpulent king receives Ehud, the left-handed Benjaminite (the word means “right-handed”) warrior while seated. When Ehud claims that he has a divine message for the king, he stands up, but instead of hearing a message, he instead receives a short sword in his enormous belly and dies instantly. Like Eglon, Sisera sits, suggesting that he may not be finally a dangerous enemy at all. 

          Second, Sisera is said to “have 900 iron chariots,” formidable weapons to be sure, but merely having such weapons does not imply that he will in fact use them. Besides, the tiny story that precedes this one, where we are told that Shamgar “killed 600 Philistines with an ox-goad” (Jud.3:31), indicates that the possession of the terrible chariot weapons may not be what is needed to gain victory. If an ox goad, an ancient cattle prod, can be used for such slaughter, why waste time with all those chariots? As the story unfolds, we will see just how useless Sisera’s war chariots prove to be. Within these apparent boring details of the story’s beginning, already we have discovered surprising realities that arrest us. 

          Jud.4:4-5 offers even more surprises. “Now Deborah, a woman, a female prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, she was judging Israel at that time. She was sitting (note!) under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel near Mount Ephraim. The children of Israel came to her for judgment.” Here is the apparent savior who comes to complete the Deuteronomic pattern. But she is a woman! And that fact is magnified in the grammar of the sentence in multiple ways: “Deborah” is itself a feminine noun, meaning “bee;” we are then told, grammatically unnecessarily, that she is a “woman;” she is a “female prophet,” using the feminine form of the familiar Hebrew word for “prophet;” and she is wife of Lappidoth, a man whose name has a feminine ending and who will never appear again in the tale! In these cascading ways, we are told that the savior of Israel this time will be a woman—make no mistake! 

          And we soon learn that Deborah is far more than a simple attorney, sitting placidly under her famous palm tree, adjudicating cases for her people. She is primarily prophet who quickly calls in the name of YHWH for Barak to assemble a great army to confront Sisera at the river Kishon (Jud.4:6). Well, perhaps the story has reverted to a more familiar masculine mode; perhaps we were fooled by that insistence on Deborah’s femaleness. Perhaps Barak will be the masculine savior after all. Not so fast! In Jud.4:8, instead of rushing off to form and lead the army of Israel, Barak flat refuses to go unless Deborah goes with him! “If you will go with me, I will go,” he whines, “but if you will not go with me, then I will not go.” Some savior! Once again, the woman must lead the way, and because that is so, Deborah now warns Barak that no longer will he gain any glory from the battle to come; “because into the hand of a woman YHWH will sell Sisera” (Jud.4:9). 

          There are many more delicious details that cause us to look again at this supposedly bland narrative, but one brief essay unfortunately cannot go on. But even this short look at the tale makes it plain that things really are seldom what they seem. YHWH does not always send the men to perform the divine work. In this story Barak is a coward, and his cowardice is matched later by that of general Sisera (Jud.4:17). Deborah is the initiating heroine of the story, and Jael, the clever woman of the tents of Heber the Kenite, is the active heroine, luring Sisera into her tent with a promise of safety but then murdering him with a fatal blow to the head (Jud.4:18-21). When generals are cowards and women show their power, the patriarchal world’s expectations are dashed and the settled order of society is decidedly unsettled. In the world of God, things are seldom what they seem.

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