At the head of a long line of celebrity judges dispensing mock justice on daytime television stands an equally popular and historic female magistrate whose wisdom and valor saved the ancient people of Israel.
The walls of Jericho had fallen two hundred years earlier in a spectacular victory for the Hebrews. After forty years of wandering in the desert following their release from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites led by Joshua had conquered the unconquerable city. Like a buzzsaw, they quickly mowed down most of the remaining native settlements in the land of Canaan.
But somehow the indigenous peoples of that region survived and grew powerful again. They soon infected the Israelites with their wicked and idolatrous practices, and the results were disastrous. The tribes of Israel were scattered in the hill country of Canaan and divided into separate enclaves. Worse yet, they had fallen into apostasy. From this impious mess, God raised up an unusual heroine to rescue his people.
From the time of Joshua’s death to the reign of Saul, Israel’s first king, the tribes were led by a series of twelve charismatic individuals called “judges.” They did not rule in tight succession but were raised up by God when things got really bad. A woman named Deborah was the fourth and only female judge of this era.
These judges were military deliverers who saved the nation from foreign powers, in order to stop the people from imitating their idolatry. Indeed, Deborah is best known for obeying God’s command to liberate the Israelites from a coalition of Canaanite rulers who had been oppressing them for twenty years.
In addition to leading military conquests, however, judges also settled difficult legal issues when disputes arose among the people of Israel. Rather than hearing cases from an elevated mahogany dais, Deborah held court under a palm tree. Located several miles northwest of Jericho, the site came to be known as the “Palm of Deborah.” Towering up to sixty-five feet in height, the majestic date palm was native to the region. In fact, the Promised Land was called the land of “milk and honey,” in part because of the sweetness of the date syrup produced by these trees.
But the palm tree also was a symbol of peace and justice. Deborah led her people in a quest for justice by sitting under a palm tree because, unlike the unbridled savagery of the locals, God expected his chosen people to act with justice. His law was a moral code that demanded generosity to the alien, partiality to the poor, and fairness to everyone. His were to be an ethical people, who would “learn to do good” and “seek justice.” (Isaiah 1:17).
Deborah was a heroine for God because she lived and administered justice by a divine moral code. By whose standard are you living?
--Father Roger Gustafson, Pastor
Father Roger Gustafson