Lesson 19: The Reign of the Judges #BCCSundaySchool2018

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Lesson Objective:  To understand the Judges pride cycle, and celebrate the leadership of righteous women.

Introduction:  This lesson attempts to grapple with a lot of material — the entire Book of Judges.  Judges is a mish-mash of Biblical stories, told in dramatic narrative but not necessarily chronological order, falling between the eras of Joshua and Solomon. 

The prolog and most of the dozen sub-narratives of the judges follow a pattern aptly described by Wikipedia:

  1. Israel “does evil in the eyes of Yahweh”,
  2. the people are given into the hands of their enemies and cry out to Yahweh,
  3. Yahweh raises up a leader,
  4. the “spirit of Yahweh” comes upon the leader,
  5. the leader manages to defeat the enemy, and
  6. peace is regained.

First Reading & Discussion Questions:

Joshua 2: 7, 8, 10-12 (NRSV)

The people worshiped the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the Lord had done for Israel.  Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died at the age of one hundred ten years….[But] another generation grew up after them, who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.

Then the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and worshiped the Baals; and they abandoned the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they followed other gods.

  • What does it mean that “another generation grew up … who did not know the Lord?”
  • Why is it important to teach our children the Gospel and the ways of righteousness?
  • The older generation under Joshua was righteous.  How did it happen that their children weren’t?  Why did the children turn to other Gods?  Is it the product of pride, a lack of hardship, their own agency?

Second Reading & Discussion Questions:

Joshua 2: 14-19 (NRSV)

So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers who plundered them, and he sold them into the power of their enemies all around, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies.  Whenever they marched out, the hand of the Lord was against them to bring misfortune, as the Lord had warned them and sworn to them; and they were in great distress.

Then the Lord raised up judges, who delivered them out of the power of those who plundered them. … Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he delivered them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the Lord would be moved to pity by their groaning because of those who persecuted and oppressed them.  But whenever the judge died, they would relapse and behave worse than their ancestors, following other gods, worshiping them and bowing down to them. They would not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways.

This cycle quickly repeats itself three times in Chapter 3 — Othniel, Ehud, and Shamgar each deliver Israel from wickedness and oppressors, and bring a generation of peace to the land, before Israel falls into idol worship again.

  • How does this overarching Judges narrative relate to the Nephite Pride Cycle in the Book of Mormon?
  • Is it inevitable part of the human condition that generations eventually sin and rebel?  How can that cycle be broken?

Third Reading & Discussion Questions:

It repeats itself again in Chapter 4, with Deborah.  Deborah is a major judge, a maker of legal judgments, and a prophetess.

Judges 4:4-9  (NRSV)

At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She 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 judgment. 

She 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. I 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….for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.

What’s going on here?

  • Deborah is a prophetess
  • Deborah is a judge
  • Deborah is married
  • Deborah is ordering her general around
  • Deborah is prophesying that another woman will be the cause of the downfall of their opponent’s army.  (Read verses 17-21 about Jael slaying Sisera, if you wish).

What does this passage say about the Lord’s / Bible’s views on women exercising public leadership?   In the world? In the military? In the law? In spiritual affairs?  In what way is Deborah a prophetess?

According to many Biblical scholars, the story of Deborah is one of the oldest pieces of the written Bible.  Does that age add anything to our understanding of God’s roles for women?

Why do we think the story of Deborah survived?  What other heroines like Deborah exist in the Bible?  Why do we think there aren’t more stories like Deborah and others? (Huldah, Ruth, Esther etc.?)

Fourth Reading & Discussion Questions:

All of Chapter 5 is the “Song of Deborah” — a tale of her conquest, the peace and propersity she, her generals, and Jael the slayer of Sisera brought to the land.  Choose some favorite excerpts to read and reflect on.  Here are mine:

 

Most blessed of women be Jael,
the wife of Heber the Kenite,
of tent-dwelling women most blessed.
He asked water and she gave him milk,
she brought him curds in a lordly bowl.
She put her hand to the tent peg
and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet;
she struck Sisera a blow,
she crushed his head,
she shattered and pierced his temple.
He sank, he fell,
he lay still at her feet;
at her feet he sank, he fell;
where he sank, there he fell dead.

Jael was pivotal to Deborah’s success, slaying the opposing general Sisera.  What does it mean to you, to hear the Bible poetically praise a woman for military victories?

As another verse of gratitude:

The peasantry prospered in Israel,
they grew fat on plunder,
because you arose, Deborah,
arose as a mother in Israel.

Deborah is called “a mother in Israel” yet nowhere in these two chapters is her home life or children mentioned.  What does “mother” mean in this context?  How can “mother” be an empowering word, encompassing numerous roles?

Maybe acknowledge that Mother’s Day was last week, but many women struggle with that day.  Invite some class members to share some perspectives as to why it’s difficult, to help others gain empathy.  Ask whether Deborah being a “mother in Israel” adds any additional perspective to the day.

From the BCC Archives:

 

*Image: Deborah judging under a palm tree, as depicted in a Mexican Cathedral

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Folks might be interested to learn that Deborah is the Hebrew word for bee.

  2. Carolyn says:

    Really!!! So does that make Utah “Deborah-land”?

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    And the Greek word for bee also comes to us as a common woman’s name, Melissa.

  4. About Deborah arising a mother in Israel even though it says nothing about her children, remember that Helaman had his 2000 “sons” and they called him “father.” I remember reading somewhere that military commanders often referred to the soldiers under their command as their “sons” and in turn, they called him their “father.” So perhaps Deborah applies this to herself in a feminine way, and arose “a mother” in Israel, which is to say that she became a commander of armed forces.

    I wish I could find the reference to this, though. I’ve been googling and googling. It might be a historical hint of proof of the Book of Mormon, that Aztec or Mayan commanders called their warriors their sons. Although one could argue that the Mesoamerican civilisations adopted this practice because of the Ancient Near East peoples that migrated to the Americas and brought their customs with them.

  5. I should probably say that the Poet applies this to Deborah, as we don’t actually know who wrote the Song of Deborah, and somehow I doubt that she did it herself.

    As for the piece being one of the oldest pieces of the written Bible, and how this age could add to our understanding of God’s roles for women, I have worked my way through Margaret Barker’s excellent book The Mother of the Lord. She goes through and details how scribes could have edited out references to our Heavenly Mother in the written words that later became our Bible, for instance, by small and simple changes of a single letter in a word. So I wouldn’t be surprised if God’s understanding of women’s roles was much more expansive and then was artificially shrunk, by men, of course.

  6. Wouldn’t Judges be better translated as heroes?

  7. Kristine says:

    Great for this lesson and others–Julie Smith on women’s songs in the scriptures: https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/V45N03_178d.pdf

  8. Ryan Mullen says:

    @jader3rd, If I could retitle the book, I’d probably choose “Chieftains” because not all of highlighted leaders were heroes.

    What I find most interesting about the cycle mentioned in the OP (steps 1-6) is how it differs from modern LDS discourse regarding supernatural evil. In Judges 2:14, the OP quotes “the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel”, i.e. YHWH is the exclusive force behind the tribes of Israel’s misfortunes. IIRC, Judges never credits either neighboring tribal deities (e.g Chemosh, Baal, Dagon) or Satan as the source Israel’s troubles. In contrast, we seem to blame Satan far more than God for evils in the modern world, from diarrhea before a temple trip to anything attacking the family.