The Book of Judges 4:1-7
November 19, 2017
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died. 2So the Lord sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. 3Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly for twenty years.
4 At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. 5She 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 judgement. 6She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, ‘The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, “Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. 7I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.”
Judges 4:1-7, NRSV
This morning’s reading from the Hebrew Bible is our one and only reading from the Book of Judges. Which is sort of a shame. Because Judges is an action-packed thriller of a read filled with power and greed, love and death, lies and deception, assassination, suicide, seduction, rape murder, political intrigue, civil war, victory and defeat, and that’s just what would fit in the trailer! It has all of the elements of a great graphic novel, and it is fodder for a good fire and brimstone sermon! So settle in.
Judges marks a major transition in our story of Israel. The Pentateuch precedes Judges; the Books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. And these are all about creation and covenant and law. They are about the constitution of the Israelite community, with God at the helm. The Book of Joshua immediately follows the Pentateuch.
And once the community has been constituted in the first five books, beginning with the Book of Joshua, the hot topic shifts to land acquisition. Before Joshua, (in the Pentateuch) the land belonged to God, not the Israelites. Before Joshua, the use of God’s land was predicated on obedience to God’s covenant. Before Joshua, access to the land was just a reality that came with being in right relationship with God. Before Joshua, the theme was land giving, not land taking.
But in the Book of Joshua, for the first time, the Israelites take the land into their own hands….they acquire land without God explicitly giving it. They defeat Cana, and for the first time, they possess the land. The land is no longer given by God, it is taken by armies. Let us not miss or underestimate this turning point in the relationship between humans and their divine Creator; when the land became almost separated from God. The land was no longer the connection with God; no longer the currency of the relationship with God.
And so After Joshua there was a transitional interim. A period in between the time when God was the head of the community, and Kings rose to the head of the growing empire. A period dating to around the Iron Age, for we who like to know such things. A period when God appointed a series of Judges to mediate between God and the people; to provide military and civil leadership…. but not without God’s direct oversight as the ultimate landowner.
These Judges were ordained by the Spirit of God to bring the people back to God; back from their wanderings toward human constitutions, as it were. Today’s reading from the Book of Judges is our only lectionary reading from this Book…and it comes at the very end of our liturgical year. Short shrift, if you ask me.
It features one of God’s premier chosen humans who happens to be, thanks be to God, a woman: Judge Deborah. Just a quick show of hands: how many of you have even heard of Deborah, let alone know who she was? Not many. Deborah was a real, bonafide Judge. She was equal in power with Ehud and Samson and all the other Judges in the Book, whom we just assume are male. But the Book of Judges tells of more prominent women than any other book in the Bible. There are 19 women of note in this relatively short, and ubiquitously under-proclaimed Book.
But if you have never heard of Deborah, do not feel bad. It’s not unexpected that we might miss Deborah’s stature. For one thing, the translators over the years have not exactly done a great job of lifting this lone divinely ordained woman. In fact, I think they have done her and us a grave disservice.
For starters, every text of this scripture that I checked, every single translation from the Tanak to King James, to the NRSV identifies her as Deborah, the wife of Lappidoth. Who is Lappidoth? Lappidoth is not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible. By all accounts, there is no husband Lappidoth. There is, however, a place called Lappidoth. Which makes perfect sense when we know that the Hebrew word for woman and wife are exactly the same. The Hebrew word isha can be translated as woman or wife, a designation that makes all of the difference in a description such as this.
Deborah is the only woman of this stature in the Bible. She is not just a prophet, she has actual political and military power. She is a Judge, a commander in chief, the top civic ruler, in her own right. And yet the translators, every last one of them, have chosen to translate the Hebrew as Deborah, wife of Lappidoth, rather than the equally viable and much more likely, Deborah, woman of Lappidoth. Which one confers the more impressive status? A commander in chief identified by her husband or by her heritage?
Think for a moment if 2000 years hence the story we hear of the first woman to be the presidential nominee from a major party is about Hilary Clinton or Hilary, wife of Bill? Or may a better analogy would be Elizabeth Warren, wife of Massachusetts or woman of Massachusetts? You get my point.
Deborah is described as a wife of a man rather than a woman in her own right. And then to further diminish her status, many of the translations say that she would sit beneath the palm tree and the Israelites would come to her for decisions. But in the Hebrew text, that word decisions, or judgments, is not plural and it has a definite article. So the better translation is that the people would come to Deborah, not for her decisions, but for The Decision, the Judgment. The plural without the definite article makes it sound more like folks came to her for her opinion on their issues. But the singular with a definite article makes it abundantly clear that she has the power to decide the one outcome of the case. These are small inaccuracies of translation, but given the scarcity of good female role models in our faith tradition, it seems a travesty that this single example of a woman with outright political power should be so obscured by the text itself.
Because words matter. How we tell the story matters. It can be the difference between who is in and who is out. In her book Becoming Wise, On Being host Krista Tippett writes, “The words we use shape how we understand ourselves, how we interpret the world, how we treat others. Words make worlds.” And Deborah is a case and point.
Even when the words don’t sound derogatory. Even when they sound innocuous. Sometimes we need to listen more deeply, more carefully, outside of our context, which can skew the words to change their meaning altogether.
Kevin had shingles.
He walked into the doctor’s office and told the receptionist that he had ‘Shingles.’
So she wrote down his name, address, medical insurance number and told him to have a seat.
Fifteen minutes later a nurse’s aide came out and asked Kevin what he had…
Kevin said, ‘Shingles.’
So she wrote down his height, weight, a complete medical history and told Kevin to wait in the examining room.
A half hour later a nurse came in and asked Kevin what he had.
Kevin said, ‘Shingles..’
So the nurse gave Kevin a blood test, a blood pressure test, an electrocardiogram, and told Kevin to take off all his clothes and wait for the doctor.
An hour later the doctor came in and found Kevin sitting patiently in the nude and asked Kevin what he had.
Kevin said, ‘Shingles.’
The doctor asked, ‘Where are they?’
Kevin said, ‘Outside on the truck. Where do you want me to unload ’em??’
Context matter. Language matters. How we hear words, and how the context influences how we hear words, matters. Whether we hear Deborah the wife of Lappidoth, or Deborah the woman of Lappidoth. Whether we hear Deborah weighing in with her opinions or Deborah with the authority to make the decision. It matters……at least to me it matters.
One of the reasons that I left the church at age 15, is that I could not find myself in the story. I could not find myself in the biblical witness….the stories of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph were not stories that included the likes of me, they did not include women. Sarah and Hagar and Rebekka and Rachel and Leah…were the wives, they were not the ancestors. They were not the recipients of God’s promise or God’s covenant. They seemed to me to be almost bystanders.
And I could not find myself in the life of the church, the community of faith that calls itself Christian. The community that worships the Father and the Son and the genderless Holy Ghost. Where are the women in the liturgies of the church? Where do I fit in to the prayers and the hymns and the sacraments?
The ecumenical movement has, since the 1970’s, been exploring the implications of the masculine pronominal references to God. Committees of thousands of faithful souls from many denominations have been thinking about the overwhelmingly patriarchal language of the liturgy, if not the biblical texts. But I am here to tell you that almost 50 years later, the patriarchy is yet alive and well.
Women are still, even as we read today’s scripture, either left out of the mix altogether or grossly minimalized in the few instances where we appear. But my dear friends, if women are left out, let us think how left out are those among us who do not identify fully as either the male or female; those whose gender status is not binary, not one of the two “normal” categories – imagine how left out those children of the living God must feel. Left out not only of the stories of the patriarchs, as am I….but left out all the way back to Eden, all the way back to Adam and Eve. A world in which everyone who is pleasing in God’s sight is either Adam OR Eve.
Tomorrow is the Transgender Day of Remembrance. And so I am thinking about the several kids connected with this very small parish who either identify as transgender or non-binary in their gender identification. A few do not claim either gender, in an exclusive sort of way, and prefer to be referred to with the pronoun “they.” Instead of she or he, the only available pronominal option that does not totally misidentify these non-binary folks is “they.” I think I do not have to go into much detail regarding the difficulty that ensues when referring to a single person as “they,” at least in this cultural context. And so I have been putting my mind to thinking of ways that we might better include everyone in our midst, at least linguistically.
I don’t know how hard is existence in this binary world for these beloved children of God. But I myself know a bit about how hard it is to live on the margins. I am a woman priest in the Fatherland of Christianity; and a gay priest following the ferociously straight-laced footsteps of the Son of God. I know a bit of what it feels like to be on the margins. And although my margins have become appreciably more socially acceptable in the last twenty years, I still find myself in contexts where good hearted people mean to include me, but often end up making me feel even more marginalized by their heartfelt special accommodations. It still feels lousy to have to be the exception that even the progressive world often contorts to accommodate. I often feel uncluded rather than included. And I am betting that I am not the only person in these pews to know what I mean.
Uncluded in some way that separates us from the pack. Separates us by ethnicity or color, by gender, by sexual orientation, by country of origin, or physical abilities that require special accommodations. Unempowered. Unabled. Uncluded in one way or another.
And yet, we tell each other every time we gather that we are one in Christ. And we are. But that is not what our language conveys.
And so by assigning the third person plural pronoun “they” to a particular singular person of God, even with the best intentions, feels to me a bit like bringing the handicap ramp to the back door of the church, where it is the most affordably and easily accommodated – instead of reworking the front entrance to include everyone in the same egress, without special accommodation.
We have chosen to accommodate the access rather than the inclusion. Because including everyone in the same entrance would require a radical rethinking of the whole façade of the building. A front entrance ramp would require that we change the look of our beloved nineteenth century parish. That we change the path through our historic lych-gate. That we lose some of the front yard and most likely the beautiful, but heavy, red wooden doors. And anyway, we have a perfectly usable access ramp to the side door, which assures us that “they” who need it are on our radar and that “their” presence is important to us. And yet my friends, let us not kid ourselves, “they” are still on the margins. “They” are still being accommodated rather than fully included. Even if “they” do not mind a bit that the ramp is especially for “them.”
And so no matter how comfortable we might get with calling the non-binary folks in our midst by the pronoun “they,” the rest of us will still be the norm; the rest of us will still be the culturally embraced he and she. We will not be plural. We will not be “abnormally” ambiguous. None of us will need to stretch to remember that we need a special accommodation. And like it or not, good intentions or not, every non-binary child of God will continue to exist on the margins.
I don’t know about you, but I think…I hope…I pray that is not who we are.
And so as I lamented this regrettable state of affairs, I remembered an article that I read over the summer in Orion magazine, written by Robin Kimmerer, a botany professor at New York College. In her article “Speaking of Nature” she noted the importance of grammar in charting our relationships with each other. She wrote: “Grammar, especially our use of pronouns, is the way we chart relationships in language and, as it happens, how we relate to each other and to the natural world.”
Her article recalled her own indigenous heritage. Her grandfather was a Potawatomi Indian. And she had begun learning some of that lost language that was her inheritance. It is a language that, like most indigenous languages, honors the earth and the life force that animates it. Kimmerer wrote that our English language has, “a special grammar for personhood. We would never say of our late neighbor, “It is buried in Oakwood Cemetery.” ….In the English language, a human alone has distinction while all other living beings are lumped with the nonliving ‘it’.”
But not in the Potawatomi tongue. In that vernacular there are no such pronouns that separate homo-sapiens from the rest of the living, that separate male and the female. In that vernacular, the designation is either imbued with the Spirit of life or not. Beyond that, there is no linguistic category. For example, the word that most often describes living things is: “Aakib-maadizii-win,…which means ‘a being of the earth.’” Kimmerer wondered about creating a new pronoun, signifying the divine life that flows through all living creations, by using the first part of that long Potawatomi word; the “aaki” part. The part that means land. The land that belongs to the Creator.
Kimmerer mused, what if our language returned our identity to the land, what if we used “Ki to signify a being of the living earth. Not he or she, but ki. Not it, but ki. So that when the robin warbles on a summer morning, we can say, ‘Ki is singing up the sun. Ki runs through the branches on squirrel feet, ki howls at the moon…. all alive in our language as in our world.” And so why not also: ki is downstairs with the rest of the kids. Or We love our God, Ki’s mercy endures forever.
Almost like a linguistic return of the land to God. To the time when the land was filled with God’s wholeness and not divided by human distinctions. Why can’t every living being simply be ki….a being of the living creation?
And plural of ki is, of course, kin…..as in kinship. As in the Kindom of God. Kimmerer writes; Kin are ripening in the fields; kin are nesting under the eaves….Our words can be an antidote to human exceptionalism, to unthinking exploitation, an antidote to loneliness, an opening to kinship. If words can make the world, can these two little sounds [ki and kin ] call back the grammar of animacy?
And I wonder, can these two little words, ki and kin establish a grammar of inclusion?
We will see. Because this Advent, December 3rd until December 24th we are going to attempt a linguistic challenge that may feel almost as radical as the world introduced by the birth of our Savior. We are going to live without third person pronouns, and without gendered references to God or God’s Son. We are going to stop accommodating those whose identity is not included in our tidy binary pronominal world. We are going to put us, each and all, the one body of Christ, on the same grammatical playing field. We are going to rethink the façade of our linguistic building and change the ramp of our grammar, even if it is hard….and it will be. Even if it feels awkward. And it will. Even if it changes the look of our liturgy; even if it causes us to sacrifice some of the heavy red wooden doors of our prose that make us feel at home. Because I can assure us that we are not home, until and unless we are all here together on the same hallowed grammatical ground.
What we may be called to sacrifice is not as important as who we will welcome.
And that my friends, is the miracle of Christmas in a nutshell!
And so just as Deborah is from Lappidoth….identified by her heritage, like the rest of the Judges.
We will all be referred to as ki…..identified by God’s animating life force, like the rest of God’s Creation.
© November, 2017 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw
 Orion Magazine, “Speaking of Nature” by Robin Kimmerer, March/April 2017 (https://orionmagazine.org/article/speaking-of-nature/)