The Hebrew Bible reading for Proper 28 in the semi-continuous reading is Judges 4:1-7. I was surprised to learn that this is the only reading from Judges in the entire three-year lectionary cycle. That means some of the great stories of the Hebrew Bible might not be encountered by ordinary churchgoers–the Samson cycle, for example, or the story of Gideon.
Judges belongs to a larger historical work that spans the books of Joshua through II Kings (not including Ruth). They’ve given it the tongue-twisting name of the Deuteronomic History, because it tells the history of Israel and Judah from the conquest to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile in the 6th century BCE. It was written during the Exile to explain why the Exile happened.
Judges plays a central role in this story. It’s a collection of stories, some of them stories of heroes, others occasionally seeming like folktales. Each episode follows a similar pattern. A judge dies (judges are as much military rulers as judges in the contemporary sense) and the land falls into chaos with the Israelites suffering from foreign invasion and abandoning the worship of God. They cry out and God raises up a new judge who defeats the enemy and establishes a period of peace; but when he (or she) dies, the cycle repeats itself. The book helps to explain why monarchy was needed, but there is also something of a critique of the Israelites, had they been faithful to God, they would not have needed the strong hand of a monarch. The last verse in Judges expresses it well: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes (21:25).
So the question becomes, why of all the possible stories in Judges, is this one included? That’s a puzzle of its own, for it really isn’t a story at all, but the beginning of a story involving two women, both of them also involving military victory. Deborah is a judge and prophetess, who leads the Israelites (with Barak) into battle. Interestingly, of all the judges mentioned in the book, it is only Deborah who is shown actually “judging:” “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” (4:4)
Nestled between this scene and the actual battle is another story–the assassination of the Canaanite general Sisera by Jael a woman who, after offering him hospitality, kills him with a tent peg. The Deborah story concludes with what may be the oldest part of the Bible, the Song of Deborah (5:2-31). In it, Deborah is called “mother of Israel.” The story concludes with the observation that “the land had rest forty years” (5:31).
No doubt, this story is included in the lectionary because it shows a powerful and important woman, Deborah, a judge and prophetess, and calls us to remember that God calls both men and women to leadership roles. The nature and exercise of authority is a theme that has run through the Hebrew Bible readings from the story of Moses to this point and it will continue to dominate the history of the Israelites throughout the monarchy.
It’s an issue for contemporary Christians as well. Shaped by our culture and historical context, models of authority from politics and the corporate world contribute to our notions of the proper exercise of authority in the church. On the other hand, in the gospels, Jesus offers a very different model of authority: “I am among you as one who serves” (Lk 22:27).