It’s a line from Canadian singer Bruce Cockburn: ‘Sometimes a wind comes out of nowhere and sweeps you off your feet’.
Some lines in the bible seem to come at us out of nowhere.
When we read the scriptures, we are reading a large and diverse collection of writings - the latest of which is almost 2000 years old - the earliest fragments of which come from a thousand years before that. We are reading a heavily edited collection of writings, which have been preserved and copied and handed down by groups of scribes and scholars. There has been time enough for the material to be shaped in particular ways by more than one generation of those who passed it on.
Someone said to me this week - about this collection of writings we often refer to as the Word of God - there is a lot of us in it - and they were absolutely right. When Christians and Jews speak about the divine inspiration of the scriptures and about God’s revelation through them, we do not say that these writings were dictated word for word by the Holy Spirit to a series of human stenographers - we recognise that the scriptures are fully human - they are marked and shaped, coloured and characterised by their historical and cultural origins - and they are limited by these as well. They reflect the biological and geological and psychological and sociological assumptions of people living in ancient societies - they reflect their cultural and geographic origins - they reflect their linguistic origins, they reflect their historical origins.
If we misdescribe the bible, if we misrepresent the kind of book it is, if we try to protect it from critical scrutiny by pretending it is something it is not - we do it no favours - and we do no service to the authority of the bible within the church.
Equally, if we patronise the scriptures, if we become convinced we always know better than them, if we stop reading and respecting them, if we find nothing to obey in them - we cut ourselves off from a great tradition of witness and a great cloud of witnesses - for whom their encounter with the bible was transformative - who testify that God’s Word has come to them through these texts and through the work of the Holy Spirit.
So we read the bible in church, and as the church, with a strange mixture of suspicion and trust, of criticism and reverence, of wariness and openness. We do that not just because of the kind of writing it is, but because of the history of how people have used it - what they have used it to justify, to excuse, to insist upon, to authorise. And I would go so far as to say that if we don’t read the bible with a proper degree of suspicion, criticism and wariness, we are closing ourselves off from the work of the Holy Spirit, who is sent by Jesus to lead us into all truth.
One of the most important ways in which we have to be careful and critical in our reading of scripture is in relation to the role and experience of women. The bible, like virtually all ancient literature, is very male - if not 100% of it then 99% of it has been written by men - written and edited within societies dominated by men - where women were allowed very little by way of role or status in public life - where most women were not educated or literate - where their domestic roles were heavily prescribed and limited and scripted - in societies without artificial contraception, where their marriages were arranged and they spent a lot of time pregnant and raising children, where they were often viewed as the property and responsibility of a male relative.
To say that is not to say anything shocking or unusual - it is to recognise key features of how most women, in most times and places have lived for most of human history. Despite all of the myriad of cultural differences - differences of language and landscape, ritual and religion - most women, with some fascinating and important exceptions, have lived under what we call patriarchy - the rule of men, the dominance of men.
To say that is not to say there have been no exceptions, it is not to say that women’s experiences have always been the same or that their roles have always been the same - in every time and place - the power of women’s capacities and the reality of men’s limitations have seen women find ways to assert themselves, to make themselves heard and felt and noticed - women’s wisdom has enriched human wisdom, women’s art has shaped and coloured the fabric of human life, women’s songs and dances have moved human bodies and hearts, women’s love has nurtured and tortured men’s lives, women’s power has flowed around walls and barriers, has burst dams and bounds, has broken through ceilings and has trespassed into new territories -
Without signing up to a view of ‘Progress’ – we do see things in history which change for the better which we can thank God for.
In the lifetimes of people sitting here - in the lifetimes of women like my 94 year old mother - we have seen wonderful and powerful changes in our culture and our society - in the place and status of women, in the legal and political rights which they have, in the access they have to education and opportunity, in the freedom of expression they have, in the economic power and independence they have. For all of which, we in the church should be praising God and glorifying the God in whose image and likeness women and men are made.
And it is because of how far we have come - because of how much we have learned - that our spirits are primed by the Spirit of God to be wary of some aspects of the scriptures - to read the Old Testament is to read many texts which normalise male power and privilege, which marginalise women and their voices - and that is how it is and that is why we need to learn to read the Bible wisely and critically - with discernment and judgment -
But sometimes… sometimes a wind comes out of nowhere and sweeps you off your feet.
Sometimes a green shoot splits the hard ground - sometimes patriarchy cracks in a new place and a little more light gets in. Today we read this:
At that time Deborah was judging Israel.
Nobody ever agrees on exactly how to date the Hebrew Scriptures - but many scholars think that Judges 4 and 5 are among the oldest parts of the bible - Judges 5 is an epic and fairly bloodthirsty poem about Deborah and Barak’s victory over King Jabin and his General Sisera, with a special role for another woman - Jael the General Slayer. Judges 5 is kind of like ‘Judges 4 - The Musical.’
There is a recurring formula used throughout the book of Judges - we find it at the start of our reading: The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD -
If we heard here the echo of an ancient warning against the idea of Progress - we would not be too far wrong. Evil seems to be capable of surging and resurging in human affairs - the price of freedom - the price of change for the better - is eternal vigilance - against ourselves.
In the worldview of Judges 4 - the people were punished by God for their evil - the Iron Age King Jabin of Canaan - with his 900 chariots - oppressed them for twenty years. In an echo of Exodus - they cried out to God for help -
And at that time Deborah - was judging Israel !!
Nothing prepares us for this sentence - but it appears in the text as if it was the most natural thing to be reported and recorded in Israel’s history books. There is a woman in the seat of power and men come to her for judgment - she is a leader and a prophet and a judge - Barak is the brawn, Deborah is the brains - between them, with the help of both an army and another woman insurgent Jael - and with the help of God - we read of how they win a famous victory over those who have oppressed and exploited Israel.
It is remarkable that Deborah’s story survived - how both the saga and the musical - made it into the Director’s Cut of the canon of scripture - after her there is no other woman seen in such a prominent role within Israel - as both prophet and judge. If she is a glorious and puzzling anomaly - the exception who proves the rule - perhaps she is also the promise that the rule - the rule that men must rule - can be broken!
Sometimes a wind comes out of nowhere and knocks you off your feet…
At that time it was Deborah - in our time, we have been the people who were blessed by not just a sudden gust of wind, but a steady and sustained prevailing wind - middle class suffragettes, working class women in trade unions, women missionaries and deaconesses, women in ministry, first a trickle now a steady and increasing flow - three waves of feminism - a rising proportion of women in our parliaments - women as Prime Minister and First Minister and Supreme Court Judges women as CEOs and Professors – as Anglican Bishops and Moderators of the Kirk.
This is the work of God in our time - overturning centuries, millennia of oppression - and we are blessed to be living through it. As Christians I believe we should recognise God’s hand in it - but if there is much to celebrate in 2020 - we may also, in our time, hear the echoes of the resurgent evil of Judges 4 – this is still a world deformed by male privilege and power, marked by patriarchy and sexism and violence against women.
Sometimes men respond to this by saying ‘as a father of daughters’ - and they have been, I think rightly, criticised for this. I say that as a father of daughters. A more powerful and perhaps even prophetic word came from the theologian and activist Jim Wallis - he said I write as a father of sons. We who have been privileged to live in this time, when the Spirit has led both church and world in the struggle for women’s liberation - and I say this particularly as a man and to men - we need to be those who will come to Deborah for judgment - who will recognise and respect the rights and the authority of women in our lives - who will recognise the power and the dignity God gives to women as their birthright, because they are in the image and likeness of God - because they are the daughters of Eve.
And if we as men will not do that - if that is too much for us, too threatening to us - if we cannot see in the empowerment of women a gift which we can engage with and work with, which can enrich us all - well perhaps, we are demonstrating a new way to read today’s other scripture from Matthew 25 - this unsettling, uncomfortable, hard edged parable - in which the men who refuse to live in a world where women are empowered are revealed to be as unimaginative and as limited as the man who buries his talent in the ground.
May it not be so - may we rather be able to share as women and men in the task of bearing God’s image and be set free to enter into the joy of God… AMEN.