Deborah: Order, Disorder, Reorder

Deborah’s story is told in Judges 4 and 5.

Whoever wants to keep his life will lose it,” says Jesus. (Mark 8:35, Luke 17:33).

“No one gets out of this life unscathed,” says Richard Rohr.

We know this not because we have been taught it, but because we have lived it. Our lives are testimony that, sadly, we tend to grow closer to God in the tough times than in the smooth and easy ones. In finding this to be consistently true in the great spiritual traditions, Richard Rohr identifies a pattern he calls “order, disorder, reorder.” He writes, “It seems quite clear that we grow by passing beyond some perfect order, through an often painful and seemingly unnecessary disorder, to an enlightened reorder or resurrection.” Christianity teaches it as creation-the fall-redemption.

But it is in Israel’s history that this pattern becomes part of our story. “Israel is the ‘womb of the incarnation,’ says Rohr, “for it is in their history that the whole drama is set in motion.” (Rohr, a Franciscan priest and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, writes about order, disorder, reorder in several books and in his daily meditations for August 23 to 28, 2020.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the biblical book of Judges. The setting is the period after Israel has entered the Promised Land – Canaan – as God’s army under Joshua. But after Joshua’s death, succeeding generations settled in by accepting  the indigenous culture, customs, and gods.  They forgot God’s covenant that “You will be my people and I will be your (one and only) God.” As scripture has it: they continually “did evil in the eyes of the Lord,”  then cried out for help from the Almighty. The pattern is: God saves his people, God’s people forget him and sin, God unleashes Israel’s enemies against them in a series of wars, the people cry out to God for help, and God in his mercy delivers them. Then, says scripture in a repetitive refrain, “the land had rest for xx years.” 

It is a time of recurring calamity and chaos. The Israelites were led during this time by a series of judges whom God raised up from the various tribes before the rule of the monarchs. There were a series of 12 judges who functioned not in a judicial sense of meting out rewards and punishments, but as charismatic leaders, frequently militarily, who listened for the voice of God and proclaimed it.

Of these, only one was a woman – Deborah.  But her story can serve as an archetype for all of the order-disorder-reorder vignettes in the book of Judges and amplify a pattern we will come to see in our own lives. The story is told in two versions: Judges chapter 4 is a prose narrative of the battle Deborah led against Israel’s enemies; chapter 5 is a poetic telling often called “Deborah’s Song.” It is likely that the poem is the older version, perhaps written by Deborah herself immediately after the event. 

We meet Deborah as she is performing her duties under a palm tree where she hears the people’s complaints against one another and rules fairly, openly, and without partiality. From where she sits she sees the distress of her people wo are frequently harassed by the Canaanites under the rule of King Jabin. The Israelites are even afraid to travel by the main routes where they are often set upon by marauding Canaanites.  The economy suffers; the people are disheartened. This has been going on for 20 years until Judge Deborah says, “Enough” and calls upon her general, named Barak, to mount a holy war.

Barak is to assemble 10,000 troops at Mount Tabor; the Lord will call out Sisera, the Canaanite general, to meet him. Barak is reluctant – Sisera has 900 chariots of iron. 

Barack agrees to lead the battle only if Deborah will go with him. Deborah acquiesces but declares to Barak that “The road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (4:9). And she doesn’t mean herself. 

The battle begins, the troops rally, a torrent of rain falls so that the 900 chariots get stuck in the mud, the Canaanites desert, and the Israelites are victorious.  The enemy has been defeated to a man, except for one man: Sisera.  

Defeated, Sisera flees to the tent of an ally and asks for protection. It happens that the woman Jael is at home. She is no ally, although she leads Sisera to believe otherwise and invites him in. Then when Sisera is asleep, Jael takes a mallet and a tent stake and drives it through Sisera’s skull. 

Jael has won the day. In the poetic rendition of the battle (Judges chapter 5), she is called “Most blessed of women.” Deborah is named “a mother of Israel.”

And the land had rest for 40 years. Until the next battle.

In addition to the heroes and heroines of judges, It is easy to find culprits in the continually-recycled battle stories. The Israelites are spinning in place, never actually moving forward toward their potential. They are looking for an authority other than God to guide them, and God obliges by raising up judges who themselves often became corrupt and do evil. The very last words in the book capture it: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (21:25). Eventually they clamor for a king – everyone else has one, they complain, and we want a king too.  Against his better judgment, God gives them one. But that was never their salvation. Read Samuel I for that story.

Nevertheless there is much to be learned from Israel’s intermittent chaos.  “In Israel’s growth as a people we see the pattern of what happens to every individual and to every community that sets out on the journey of faith,” remarks Richard Rohr: Order, disorder, reorder. 

We know about this. We have experienced it again and again in our lives. No matter how joyful the birth of a baby, that new person in the house is total disorder. No matter how sweet the wedding ceremony, being married includes times of bewilderment.  No matter how much we encourage our children to grow up and leave home, that first day after the last one leaves home is bittersweet. 

We likely have each had the experience of driving a car that gets stuck in the mud or the snow.  No matter how many times we gun the engine, the car refuses to move forward. The wheels spin, and the rut gets deeper. 

Sometimes we just have to get out of the car.  It has been a good and safe container, but it no longer serves us well.  To move forward we need to leave the car and trudge through the mud or the snow toward the light on the hill.  That light may turn out to be a campfire around which are gathered others who have made the journey and who welcome us with joy and love. 

This season, in the last third of our lives, has its own form of disorder.

Very little is as it once was. Our children have grown up and are engrossed in their own lives. Our careers in which we occupied positions of importance have come to an end. It may be that our life partners have died or become so incapacitated that we no longer can rely on them. Our own bodies are failing us – physically there is much we can no longer do. 

And still the invitation for us now is to move into a new season of reorder. It is not a shedding of all that brought us to this time and place, but an opportunity to bring with us into this new season all that has served us well in our spiritual journeys. It is a time to release whatever holds us back from full and complete acceptance of where we are and what future God is calling us into. 

These are the years when we have the time to look deeply at our relationship with God, to finally live into all that God is calling us to become, and to see these years as blessings rather than burdens. These are the years when we can gently look back on our lives and ask, “Where do I need to seek forgiveness?” “Who do I need to forgive?” “What relationships need reconciliation?” “What is the character of my soul and how can I leave that to my family when I die?” “What is the inner work I still have to do so that I may die in peace, for me and for my family?”

This will take courage and wisdom. Mary’s part in saying “yes” to God’s further revelation of God’s self in the incarnation took courage and wisdom. Deborah’s leading God’s people back to God’s provision took as much courage and wisdom as she knew. We are assured that even as God manifests himself in our lives, he will provide not only the way but also the light by which to travel it. 

  • – Marjorie George, Advent 2021

Questions for Reflection

What event or circumstance can you recall that threw your life into disorder? What was revealed to you through that experience? 

What are the current disorders in your life? Where specifically do you need to accept and move on? What would help you do that?

What have you had to let go of in the last few years? What remains for you to come to terms with?

As you consider this last third of your life, what stands in the way of your reaching a sense of reorder? What can you do about it? 

Return to Toward Incarnation – Readings and Reflection Questions page.