After Joshua’s death the Israelites struggled to maintain loyalty to God. Eager to be in right-relationship with God’s people, God sends judges to guide the Israelites back to God. However, every time the judge in power dies, the Israelites forsake the way of God and are turned over to the hands of their enemies.
Deborah, the third major judge in this cycle, is a powerful figure. She is the first woman introduced in the Bible to hold a position of authority. Unlike Eve who came from Adam, Sarah and Hagar the child-bearers of Abraham, Miriam the wife of Moses, or the prostitute Rahab, Deborah is introduced with very little mention to her mate. Instead, she is known for her commitment to God’s holy ways and for her gift of prophecy. When Deborah victoriously liberates the Israelites from the Canaanites she and Barak rejoice: they praise God for their redemption by singing the Song of Deborah
As mentioned in my reflection on the exodus story, the Old Testament authors wrote retrospectively and were constantly making sense the past in their writing. It is clear that the author of Judges interpreted the story through this lens: when we follow God we have peace but if we disobey God we will be punished. In this way, the success and/or defeat of the Israelites is wrapped up in God’s opinion of their behavior. But alternatively, what if the Israelites suffered because greed and corruption leads to disarray? Or what if they prospered because caring for one another is conducive to peace? Perhaps there were larger political dynamics at play between the countries?
There are endless questions that could be raised to challenge the paradigm of interpretation but they all reveal the same point: we cannot write history without removing our own bias. On the one hand, if we win we interpret through the lens of power, God’s blessing, merit, and rightful victory. On the other, if we experience defeat we tell stories through the lens of shame, God’s punishment, or internalized oppression.
Instead of falling into this pattern of thinking we could instead turn to curiosity. What might have influenced this outcome? How might God be inviting me to something new through this experience? What could this mean for all involved in this situation? What was my role?
I wonder if the Israelites could have stopped repeatedly breaking the covenant if they were honest about participating in their own plight rather than claiming divine punishment.
To be clear, I am not belittling Deborah’s contribution to the community of Israel or negating the Biblical interpretation of the story. I only intend to caution us from claiming a single narrative, and I encourage us to listen deeply for the unexpected ways that God speaks to us through our experiences.
Prayer: Open us to the many ways you move in our lives.
Reflection: How can I let go of my rigid interpretation of current or past events? How might God be active in unexpected ways?
Art: “Deborah Under The Palm Tree” by Adriene Cruz