A sermon preached by the Rev. Adrienne Koch at Cheshire House on Sun., Nov. 19, 2017
“If Trump were a woman” is the name of a play that opened earlier this year swapping the presidential candidates’ gender. The play gave all of Trumps lines to a woman and all of Clinton’s lines to a man and watched them deliver their debate speeches.
The result was that each candidate became more socially palatable. Trump’s bumbling phrases and high emotion seemed natural coming from Hillary Clinton, even some Democrats could stomach the crassness; and Clinton’s cold smile and overly promising rhetoric seemed natural coming from a man, she just looked like, well, a politician, that even a Republican could vote for.
What does this tell us about gender expectations in our culture? About the way that women and men should speak and act?
This question is an old one; it was examined hundreds of years ago in the book of Judges, from which our Old Testament reading comes today.
“The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.”
This is how our text begins. We are only at Chapter 4 of the book of Judges and this is the 4th time that phrase has been used.
“The Israelites did what was evil in the sigh of the Lord” is used 7 times in the book’s 21 chapters, each occurrence marking a dramatic turn of events and introducing a new judge appointed by God to guide the people.
In our chapter today, that judge is Deborah.
Deborah is the only female judge mentioned in the bible, and she is the only judge who is also called a prophet.
She is introduced to us without much preamble and without justification for her femaleness.
In fact, though most translations assume that the Hebrew words that come after Deborah’s name in the text should be translated into the name of the man she married, “Deborah, wife of Lappidoth,”
this phrase could also be translated, “Deborah, woman of torches,” possibly not referring at all to her marital status, but instead, to her prophetic nature.
Deborah had to have been a fiery woman, for as she is depicted in our text, she is not in the home, but out in the field, giving battle instructions to an army commander named Barak.
The story of Deborah and Barak is a story of gender expectations, it is a story of how disobedience to God creates a chasm between women and men.
As the story goes, the woman judge, Deborah, gives Barak, the man of war, instruction on how to win an impossible battle. But instead of obeying his judge, Barak gives Deborah an ultimatum.
Because of the lack of respect in his response, Deborah changes her prophesy. Instead of Barak winning the battle, the battle will instead be won by a woman. (That woman’s name is Yael and she shows up later in the story).
But if we step back from the details and look at the book of Judges as whole, the men become more and more powerless, depicted with empty hands, losing what once shaped their masculine identities, victory in war and women as wives, while the women begin to look more and more like warriors (Yael, who I mentioned earlier, murders the enemy king by smashing in his head with a millstone – the common household item women used to make bread).
By the time we get to the last chapter of Judges, the entire book is summarized with the words, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”
What is right in their own eyes is, in part, referring to these men and women not following conventional gender roles, and it is related to how our chapter today began, “The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.”
Expectation of gender roles and doing evil in the sight of the Lord are connected, but perhaps not in the way some might assume.
There is a long and disappointing history in the Christian tradition, of men and women abusing the words of the bible to oppress women. But the book of Judges is not doing this. In fact, the story praises Deborah and Yael for their initiative, strength, and wisdom, and reprimands Barak and other men for not heeding the will of God in these women’s words and actions.
The book of Judges reveals to us, God’s disappointment in men and women who cannot release their hands on the grip of power enough work together to accomplish God’s will. The men won’t listen to the women and the women won’t forgive the men for it.
We learn from Judges that when men and women do what is right in their own eyes, they lord power over one another; dividing themselves from each other.
This act of division from one another doesn’t just affect the relationships between men and women, it ultimately creates a schism between humanity and God, for all gender was designed in the image of God.
This story of schism through gender is older even than the book of Judges, it began in book of Genesis, in the beginning of all things, with the curse in chapter 3 where men and women are set at odds with one another:
Women were prophesied to desire rule over men, but instead, men would always rule women.
This ruling over one another was not a prescription made by God, this was not God’s design or desire; the rule of man over woman is a human rule, the direct result of human beings doing what is right in their own eyes, a result of disobedience to God’s will.
God’s design for us was best described by Jesus in his golden rule, that we heard just a few weeks ago in our Gospel lesson. God’s design for us is to love God and to love each other.
Deborah and Barak’s story reveals to us that hundreds of years after Genesis, the human rule was still winning out, and our last presidential election confirmed that it is still winning today.
There is not one person in this room untouched by gender expectations. I grieve that even my unborn son has already been socially marked by gender for scripture tells us that for those of us who follow Christ, there is not supposed to be any domineering human rule over one another,
There is no male and female gender, there are no divisions of race, no Jew or Greek, and there are no divisions of socio-economic class, no slave or free.
All of us are called to be one in Christ Jesus. For only when we begin to see one another with the eyes of our God made flesh
will we treat one another as we want to be treated and no longer do what is right in our own eyes, but instead, do what is good in the sight of the Lord.