“Who is Sisera?”
Judges 4 & 5
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
June 24, 2018
University Baptist Church
At the end of the service last week, worship leader Gayla Marty pulled from the grab bag the topic for today’s service. “I would like to hear a sermon about ‘who is Sisera?’” Roger Johnson later confessed that he had not been able to answer this question at a Bible trivia contest fifty-something years ago, giving the teenager second place in the state of Indiana. Of course, he skipped town this weekend, leaving us with this bloody story. Thanks a lot.
I tend to skip over the bloody sections of the Bible, don’t you? It messes with my equilibrium. But here’s a question. Why do we have trouble with the bloody books of the Bible, but not the bloodiness of, say, the Avengers franchise? Killing has become entertainment. Is it no wonder that gun violence in the US is at an epidemic level?
Two thirds of the Psalms, those wonderful hymns of triumph, are war psalms: laments or rejoicing in the midst of blood and gore and guts.
Even Jesus’ passion is the stuff of great bloody hymnody which makes us feel a little bit better about the carnage around us. “There is power, power, wonder working power in the blood of the lamb…”
The Bible was written in a time when warfare was rampant. And God was a part of the battle plan.
The book of Judges is a book about military conquest. The drama is written with God as a warrior and deliverer of the people. Most of us have never fought in a war on our soil, although many of us feel that our city streets and even our home lives can at times resemble war zones.
Here, the story tells of a battle from the perspective of the Hebrew people—voices from the front lines. I wonder what the Afghani or Iraqi or Israeli or Palestinian or even Nicaraguan people might write about their experience of war. Words from the front lines carry a different tone than intellectual theories and ethical conundrums worked out from miles and centuries away.
Before there were kings, there were Judges—people who served as God’s intermediaries and interpreters. The most notable judge I remember was Gideon who slew the Midianites with 100 men. And then there was the mighty warrior Samson with his super-human strength and his long hair. All the judges were men, except for one, Deborah. Her story is in the 4th and 5th chapters of Judges. The 4th chapter gives you the prose while the 5th chapter tells it in dramatic poetry. She’s the only judge with two versions of her story.
Sisera, we hear from Judges 4 was a brutal and cruel general of the army belonging to Jabin. In this story, he’s Deborah’s foil. He treated the Hebrew people harshly for 20 years. He had an arsenal of 900 chariots. That’s the equivalent of a huge army of tanks and artillery. Think of a brutal dictator who commands an army and an arsenal. Someone who dehumanizes his enemies and rules by threat and intimidation. That’s who Sisera was.
Now, this story is left out of the lectionary. Why is that? Is it because there are too many stories and we don’t have enough Sundays for all of them? Is it because it’s a bloody story and not suitable for a Sunday morning? Is it because it’s a story about a woman, or two women who wield power in a new way? Maybe it’s because the power they wield looks like male power. It’s cunning and ruthless. It doesn’t look like the finer sex. One of the reasons I don’t like to follow the lectionary is that it gives you the greatest hits version of the Bible. There is value in looking at these obscure stories—more value than a Bible trivia contest.
Deborah is the only judge who’s called both a prophet and a judge. She’s also the second woman to be named a prophet. The first is Miriam.
Deborah is identified as “Wife of Lappidoth”. But the Hebrew word for “wife” can also be translated at “woman”. Lappidoth can be translated as “On fire”. So Deborah wife of Lappidoth might mean Deborah the Spirited or Fiery Woman. Now that’s a provocative image, reminiscent of Katniss Everdeen. If you don’t know who that is, ask a millennial.
It so happened that after the judge Ehud dies, the Israelites came under threat by Jabin, the king of Canaanites. Jabin and his people oppressed the Israelites for 20 years. Judges 5:6 says that trade stopped because of their oppression. This was enforced by 900 chariots of iron in the Canaanite army lead by General Sisera. The people went to the prophet Deborah. She was sitting under a tree that bore her name—like a guru, prophesying the word of God. And she gave the commander of the army, Barak (there’s a name for you), a plan which should go down in military history. How can a rag-tag army on foot possibly hold back 900 chariots? Such is the question for a prophet of God. She told them that God would deliver them. But there would be a twist. God would deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman. We all expect the woman to be Deborah, the Hebrew prophet-judge. But it is a foreigner with no dog in this fight that metes out the final punishment, hitting the nail on the head, so to speak.
Deborah told Barak to encamp at one side of the river Kishon with 10,000 people. If I do the math right, that’s about 10 people per chariot. For good measure, Deborah went alongside Barak. It seems that she would also lead a set of troops which would lure Sisera into a trap. Deborah was not only a prophet and a judge, but also a military strategist.
Deborah lured Sisera’s army within eyesight of Barak. She wisely waited until a rainstorm. When the rain hit, she ordered Barak to flee down into the river valley. They did so with Sisera right on their tails. But by the time they got to the bottom, the river had swelled from the rain and Sisera’s chariots got stuck in the mud. With their advantage nullified, Sisera’s army, those old stick-in-the-muds, easily fell at the hands of Barak’s troops. We remember how Moses, a few centuries earlier, also got an army to get stuck in the mud. And the people were delivered once again by God, through Deborah. And Deborah the prophet, like Miriam the prophet, sang as an army was defeated in the water.
Now this is certainly a gruesome story. It get’s worse as Jael takes out her revenge on Sisera by impaling him with a tent stake.
The story goes that Sisera has been left as the sole survivor of the battle and he seeks refuge in the tent of Jael, a Kenite—a foreigner who might kowtow to Sisera’s reputation for revenge. He asks her for water. She gives him milk instead and covers him up. Might the skin of milk be a euphemism for her breast and the covering for sexual intimacy? We can only conjecture. But when she made sure that Sisera is good and asleep, Jael, like a spider, kills her prey. And so, as Deborah prophesied, Sisera was delivered at the hands of a woman.
Four years ago, we looked at this story of Deborah and sang an oratorio on it by Handel. Jean Lubke sang Jael’s happy recitative about the tent peg and afterward said she may have to give back her UBC Shalom Award. Judges 5:24 calls Jael “Most blessed among women”—a title also given to Mary the mother of Jesus.
I do not tell this story to glorify warfare. In fact, the book of Judges is full of more stories that are even more gruesome than this. But oh, I am tempted to ignore it. Wouldn’t it be easier and neater to only concentrate on the positive stories? I could, and we do, but such a practice waters down the diversity of the Bible. We take the Bible too seriously to ignore its dark side. We can’t ignore the fact that the Bible, especially in Judges, Joshua and even Revelation depict God as a warrior. We make choices when interpreting the Bible to focus on one aspect or depiction of God and God’s people. Remember, the Bible is not just the static word of God. But people reading the Bible with the Holy Spirit as the guide and the community as the sounding board find the word of God for our lives. This includes the stories that make us squirm.
So here are a few things that might redeem the story.
The battle was the last against the Canaanites. It was a war against oppression, the only one in Judges. It was meted out by volunteers and lead by women. It was another example of God working miracles in unexpected times and places. In these days when things look really down and out, it is good to know that God is still there, seeking to overthrow those who are oppressing and abusing the people—seeking to redeem the victims of abuse and torture. And it is heartening to see women at the forefront of a renewed political movement.
Here’s another thing to consider.
Did Jael just seduce and kill an innocent, or did she also save her sisters from being raped? Remember that Sisera and his army had oppressed the Hebrew people for 20 years. They had 900 chariots and the upper hand in all battles. That is, until Deborah and Jael came along.
In Judges 5:30, the women awaiting Sisera’s return assume he is late because he is out pillaging and raping. They even say, “Are they not finding and dividing the spoil?—a girl or two for every man..?” Boys will be boys and their reward for triumph is a girl or two for every man? Jael and Deborah put an end to this. It is said that peace reigned in the land for 40 years after the death of Sisera.
Guatemalan activist Julia Esquivel reflected on Deborah’s violent story this way: “It breaks the tradition of submission and calls on us to place our bodies before machine guns. It observes that we continue to talk instead of taking our liberation concretely into our own hands while thousands of our people are being massacred.
It breaks through the false understanding of pacifism that masks the face of God, reducing God to ineffectual neutrality in the face of injustice and oppression.” (Liberation, Theology and Women, p. 22)
Finally, God even delivers us from such people, using unsuspected people and situations to bring about deliverance.
However you take this story, remember that the Biblical narrative tells us that God has not left us comfortless. The people of God will always be supported by a God who remembers them and brings up judges like Deborah, foreign peasants like Jael and commanders like Barak to save us from oppression and deliver us from evil.
My friends, Sisera still exists. He has built his empire and commands armies of itron and steel. He rules by intimidation and fear. And it is up to the people of God to use cunning, wisdom, creativity, bravery, savvy and even a little moxey to bring about justice.
Sisera’s demise was set in motion, not when his supposedly unbeatable army got stuck in the mud. It was not the doom at the hand of Jael or Deborah that did him in. His demise was set in motion when he treated the people cruelly. When that happens, then the inevitable chickens come home to roost. That’s the point of the story of Sisera. And we, like Deborah and Barak and Jael must lead with courage so that we can establish peace in the land. Because that’s why we’re here.
Who is Sisera?
Many names come to mind of brutal dictators who rule by fear. They always exist, doing the bidding of evil.
The real question is who are we?
I’m not implying that we need to take matters into our own hands like Jael, but I am saying that we need to struggle against the Siseras of the wrold. That’s the message of today’s text. Know who Sisera is and struggle for freedom from his grasp. Who knows, we might know peace for forty years.