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(Sunday between November 13 and November 19)
Judges 4:1-7

Our Old Testament readings in Pentecost have moved slowly through the promises of Genesis, the exodus from Egypt, the wilderness wanderings, the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai, through to Moses’ death on the border of the promised land. In recent weeks, we have read of the conquest of the land under Joshua and briefly of the beginnings of life in the land. The whole set of readings has an eschatological note to it: it looks forward to the entry of God’s people into the promised land. This is not inappropriate as we move toward the final celebration of the Christian year – the feast of Christ the King or the Reign of Christ Sunday, when we mark the sovereign rule of Christ over all creation, and explore the nature of that rule. The story of Israel’s deliverance and entry into the promised land stands as a metaphor for the journey of faith.

But a sober warning lies beneath today’s reading, as there was in last week’s reading (Josh 24:1-3a, 14-25). The Book of Judges presents an entirely different story on how Israel settled in the land of Canaan after their wilderness wanderings. Far from the mighty military conquest recorded in Joshua, Judges 1 tells of a piece-meal settlement of the land. Tribe after tribe contests the land with the indigenous peoples, and according to Judges, most fail. This is put down to the people’s disobedience (Judg 2:3). The people are duly repentant (2:4), but after Joshua dies (2:6-10) another generation rises up ‘who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.’ Judg 2:11-23 then sets out a pattern for the subsequent story of Israel. The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; they followed other gods; the Lord is angry and gives them over to an enemy; they are in great distress; in pity the Lord raises up a judge to deliver them; when the judge dies they relapse and the cycle starts again (see 3:7, 12; 4:1; 6:1; 10:6 and 13:1). It is because of this behaviour that the editors declare that the Lord deliberately left some of the original inhabitants in the land to ‘test’ the obedience of the Israelites (2:22-3:1). At the same time there is a consistent theme running through the stories that it is solely the mercy of the Lord in seeing the distress of his people that moves him to deliver them. It has nothing to do with any inherent qualities they may have. Psalm 106 makes the same point.

We also note that some of the accounts of individual judges (e.g. Gideon, Samson) are longer than others. Additional stories about these judges have been added to the basic cycle. You can see from this that the judges of the book’s name are not judicial figures but military heroes.

Today’s reading is the beginning of the account of the only female judge, Deborah, also known as a prophetess (4:1-5:31). It is the story of the defeat of the Canaanite king Jabin, and his commander Sisera. No detail of the ‘evil’ said to have been done by the Israelites is given as the story moves quickly to tell of the victory of the Israelites. All we know is that the Israelites were oppressed for twenty years by Jabin.

The situation in the promised land seems to be little better than it was back in Egypt. This is probably not what readers of the story (let alone the Israelites) might have hoped for. The promised land was meant to be a place of security, peace and prosperity, ‘a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey’ (Exod. 3:8, 17; 13:5; 33:3; Lev 20:24; Num 13:27; Deut 6:3 etc.). Now it is a place of testing and oppression even as Egypt was. The problem is put down to the people’s lack of allegiance to Yahweh, lack of obedience to his commandments, and their breaking of the covenant (Judg. 2:20). It is as if the people see the gift of the land as an end in itself and the wilderness journey as simply a preliminary stage. They fail to recognise that the gift of the land is more than just ‘a good and broad land’, and the law given at Sinai, more than just a way to that land. The land is a place where the people are to live in God’s presence and know that presence in many ways. The law is their guide for living in that presence. The divine promise is, in the end, all about God’s presence with his people. That is the sum of it. That is what Israel struggled with in the wilderness and the promised land will not, in itself, deliver that. The promised land may have looked good and broad compared to the wilderness, but if Israel could not be assured of the Lord’s presence with them in the wilderness, the land itself with all its goodness and broadness will not convince them. It will only become a new place of oppression and, as we noted last week, a new place for temptation to disloyalty.

That is the thrust of the rest of the story in today’s reading. The lectionary makers have chosen to end it somewhat abruptly at v. 7. Deborah, the prophetess, assures Barak, the Israelite commander, of God’s word of victory. But then Barak wants the assurance of Deborah’s presence with him (v. 8). Her presence, as a prophetess, will be the visible sign of God’s presence. She assures him of that very thing (v. 9) but as usual there is a sting in the tail. This victory will not be to Barak’s glory ‘for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman’. This indeed comes about (4:17-23) and we are aware again that contrary to the usual (male) expectations, the Lord works his plans on his own, often unexpected terms, and often in ways that directly confront the less than righteous agendas we can bring to the task of serving the Lord.

In preaching from this text one needs to be sensitive to the fact that such texts as this and some from Joshua can be read as justification of the displacement of peoples from their land. Such texts may have even provided justification for the dispossession of indigenous peoples from their lands in Australia and other places. But a literal reading of such texts cannot stand in the face of either criticism from within Scripture itself or a developing understanding of the equality of all before the God whom we encounter in Jesus Christ. Such texts need to be read in a metaphorical way, as speaking, for example, of the hope we have for all creation when all peoples and creatures will live in peace and joy in the presence of God in a way only glimpsed now. The removal of all that stands in the way of such life-giving peace is what can be seen in these texts.

Psalm 123

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