And God gave them judge-leaders. Whenever God raised up a judge-leader among them, God was with them and saved the people from the hands of their enemies.
Deborah, a prophet, was the judge-leader of Israel at that time. Judges 4:4
Yesterday I preached on the story of Deborah and Jael. But before I begun, I read the following statements to the congregation and asked them to raise their hands if they recognised the phrase; if they had heard them before, whether spoken explicitly or implied.
1) Women must submit to men, in particular their husbands.
2) Girls must dress modestly to avoid causing men to sin.
3) Women are created for different roles to men: their ultimate calling is to serve their families by keeping things clean, having supper on the table by six, and, most importantly, making babies.
4) Women can’t preach in church, that is a man’s job.
5) A woman must not have authority over a man.
Our congregation at MCC Newcastle is very diverse, with members coming from various Christian traditions, and yet most of them had heard these statements at some point. Almost everyone raised their hands for points 3 and 5.
Then I asked for those who knew the story of Deborah to raise their hands.
And that’s when I could feel the anger starting. The good kind of anger, a kind that lent passion, nuance and humour to words I had fairly emotionlessly written earlier. The kind that finally gets it.
Churches lie to women. They lie to them all the time, and the lie is perpetuated over and over for countless generations until everyone believes it is Gospel truth.
Yes, the above statements are from the Bible (or from a certain interpretation of specific Bible passages, at least). And they are offered, over and over again, to men and women who are honestly, earnestly, just trying to live authentic, Christian, lives. Who are trying to fit into what they are told about gender, what a ‘godly man’ and a ‘godly woman’ should look like.
But if the story of Deborah and Jael teaches us anything it is that biblical models for being a woman are as varied as women – beautiful, God-created, real women – are themselves. In the real world, where not everyone is called to be a 50s housewife.
THERE IS NOT JUST ONE WAY TO BE A WOMAN OF GOD
I said it twice. The second time I let the anger creep into my voice. The second time I thumped my hand down on the lectern for emphasis and I asked for – I demanded – an ‘amen’ from the congregation.
(This is not how I usually preach. It was not the plan. I was overcome with something. I was trying to break free. To go somewhere beyond than the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’)
Deborah was a judge – that meant a leader, and it meant she was called by God. She was also a prophet.I suspect she was too busy to have supper on the table for six. Her husband Lappidoth presumably ran the household, although we don’t know that for sure since he is hardly mentioned in the story. Deborah had authority over the whole of Israel, including the men, including her husband.
A woman must not have authority over a man, they said. The pastors and the youth leaders and the mums and dads, reducing the boundaries of the world, squeezing women tighter and tighter into a stereotype,
And Jael. Jael, the forgotten woman. Why did she side with Israel? Why did she break her husband’s allegiance to Sisera, Israel’s enemy? She took the fate of a nation in her hands.
Women must submit to men, in particular their husbands, they said, stealing women’s agency and their voices and the very word ‘no’ from their mouths. Jael took life into her hands – she comforted Sisera with milk and then she finished him off, neatly, quickly.
Women are for mothering, they said, and Deborah mothered a whole nation, she called herself the ‘mother to Israel’. Her heart was with her people, her children, the volunteers she inspired to follow God’s plan. Her calling, her identity, her passion was to prophesy, to lead, and to bring peace. Her mothering was huge, it was a whole nation. It was going to war and leading the singing afterwards.
Hear this, you kings! Listen, you rulers!
I, yes, even I, will sing to God;
I will praise the God of Israel in song.
We must not let who we are be defined by what someone else thinks we cannot, what we are not allowed or not able to do because of our gender, sexuality, or anything else. We cannot stifle the God-given passion in our hearts to fit someone else’s model of what a woman/man should look like. We are so much more than the list of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ that are dictated to us by our societies, even our families. We are more than our religion, our job, our role. We are more than our gender and our sexuality. We are more able, more strong, more fabulous and beautiful than we dare dream. We are made in God’s image. And God’s image doesn’t fit the rules made by human beings.
We can choose to leave the messages we received from our churches, our society, even our own families behind. We can choose to embrace all of who we are. We can choose what God – what God-in-us, God’s Spirit, is calling us to do.
Villagers in Israel would not fight;
they held back until I, Deborah, arose,
until I arose, a mother in Israel.
Then the people of the Lord
went down to the city gates.
“Wake up, wake up, Deborah!
Wake up, wake up, break out in song!”
Judges 5:7, 12
You can listen to the audio of me preaching here (the first week of ‘Queer up North’ – the sound team missed the first minute or so of my preach so it jumps right in there)
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