READ : Judges 4-5
There are valuable lessons to be learned in the book of Judges. Deborah’s story offers us an important reminder of the power and freedom of God, and serves to rebuke us for our own cowardice and lack of faith.
Generally speaking, the women of the Bible who achieve prominence do so through either marriage or motherhood. Usually a woman is remembered and celebrated in scripture either because she married a famous husband (Sarah and Abraham, for example) or bore a famous son (Hannah and Samuel, and supremely Mary and Jesus). This is understandable, given the nature of culture in biblical times, and in no way does it imply that women are inferior to men.
Nevertheless, there are also several notable examples in the Bible of a great woman whose achievements in faith are due neither to who their husbands or their sons were. Ruth and Naomi are both heroes of faith whose husbands are incidental to their story. And in the New Testament, Mary Magdalene is an independent woman who, especially during the crisis of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, acquitted herself far more nobly than any other of the Lord’s disciples.
And then, coming to the book of Judges, there is the great woman figure of the judge Deborah. She was the wife of one Lappidoth, we’re told in Judges 4:4, but nothing whatever is known of him except for this reference, and he is remembered only as Deborah’s husband. Deborah was a prophet herself, the biblical historian tells us, and she was leading, or judging, Israel at the time of our story. This remarkable lady offers us a timely reminder that God’s call to leadership can come to anyone; his choice is sovereign and he bestows his gifts on whom he pleases. Our responsibility is to recognize those gifts and respond in faith and obedience.
Let’s begin by recalling something of the background and setting for the story of Deborah the judge. The book of Judges covers the period of biblical history following the arrival of the people of Israel in the land of Canaan and prior to their unification into one kingdom with the inauguration of the monarchy in the days of Samuel, Saul, and David. Conditions during this time can best be summarized in one word: chaotic. We cannot make sense of the book of Judges without an understanding of several background factors relating to the life of the people of Israel at that time.
First, it was a time of political disunity. The twelve tribes were scattered throughout Canaan, independent in their own territories and unrelated in their actions. Their lack of unity or even concern about what was happening to the others made each tribe an easy target for its enemies.
Second, it was a time of economic and military oppression. The conquest of Canaan had been incomplete under Joshua. Many pockets of pagans had been left in the land. These pagan peoples were a constant threat to the people of Israel, tempting God’s people to join them in their Canaanite fertility cults at times when Israel was strong, and preying upon her cities and villages at times when she was weak.
Finally, the period of the Judges was a time of spiritual and moral anarchy. The Tabernacle, the tent of God, the Ark, and above all the Law should have been rallying points for all Israelites, but instead this was an age when, in the famous words that close the book of Judges, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
Deborah’s story comes about midway through this chaotic period. Its setting is in the north-central portion of Israelite’s territory. Joshua and his generation, who followed Moses and began the conquest of the land, have been dead for perhaps a century or so, and things have not gone well for the people of God. Geography plays a major role in what happened when Deborah called upon the Israelite general Barak to lead God’s people in a campaign of liberation against their Canaanite oppressors. The action takes place in the tribal territories of Ephraim in central Palestine and Naphtali and Zebulun further north. This is hill country then as now, and between the ridges of the hills are several valleys running roughly east-west.
The valleys were controlled by the Canaanites, and were dotted with their cities, while the Israelites were confined to the uplands. In controlling the valleys, the Canaanites also dominated the trade routes between Egypt and Mesopotamia, which gave them access to superior technology and to better weapons. The biblical writer makes reference to nine hundred iron chariots in the army of the Canaanite commander Sisera (4:3). The Israelite clans scattered through the hills were no match for these powerful enemies; they were outmanned and outgunned, as we would say, and they knew it. The men of Israel were, quite simply, afraid.
Now the action in our story is introduced in verse 6 of Judges, chapter 4:
[Deborah] sent and summoned Barak the son of Abinoam . . . and said to him, “Has not the Lord, the God of Israel, commanded you, ‘Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor . . . and I will draw out Sisera . . . to meet you by the River Kishon with his chariots and his troops, and I will give him into your hand’?” (esv)
Barak, we’re told by the biblical writer, was from Kedesh in Naphtali, the area in the north that was hardest hit by Canaanite depredations. But in ordering him in the name of the Lord to attack by the river Kishon, Deborah was sending Barak to assault the enemy on his own ground, in the valley where the Canaanite heavy chariots could be used with deadly effect. And Barak’s faith and courage were simply not equal to the assignment.
Despite the straightforward command from God, and even more significantly, the divine promise of victory, Barak said he would only go fight if Deborah would go with him (v. 8). “Very well,” says this courageous woman, “I’ll come along. But because of your fearfulness and reluctance, you won’t get any personal glory out of this victory, Barak. The Lord is going to finish off Sisera by the hand of a woman, just to show you who’s really in control.”
I suppose we shouldn’t be too hard on Barak; after all, he was being asked to do something that seemed downright suicidal. To attack against overwhelming odds an enemy who was technologically superior – and on ground of the enemy’s choosing which favored his weapon and tactics – that was quite an assignment. But none of that should have mattered to Barak, as it didn’t to Deborah. She was obviously a woman of great wisdom.
Now Deborah reveals herself to be a woman of great faith and courage. If Barak does not dare to face the enemy alone Deborah will stand beside him. Deborah knows what God has decided to do, she realizes that battles are not won by human courage, skill, or strength alone, but that the hand of the Lord is the decisive factor. So she acts out of her faith, and in so doing she rebukes the cowardly unbelief of the man, the warrior, Barak.
When Barak and his ten thousand men finally do attack the enemy, the results are nothing short of spectacular. As the lightly armed Israelites descended into the valley, a tremendous thunderstorm struck (Judges 5:4-5), rendering the Canaanites’ heavy chariots worse than useless. They’re all stuck in the mud while the Israelites are able to go in among the enemy. God himself, using the forces of nature which he created and which he commands (cf. 5:20), was fighting on behalf of his people. The demoralized enemy were routed, pursued, and cut down before they could reach the protection of their city walls, and most of the dead were drowned in the waters of the rain-swollen Kishon River (4:15-16; 5:21).
In an after-word, the fate of Sisera is recorded. As a rebuke to Barak for his hesitation, the honor of finally taking and destroying the enemy commander is given not to the Israelite general, but to a “lowly” woman. Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite (a clan with ancient ties to Israel), welcomed the fleeing Canaanite into her tent. Weary from the shock of combat and believing himself to be safe, Sisera took some nourishment and then fell into the sleep of utter exhaustion. Whereupon, in a particularly gruesome and – to be honest – treacherous manner, Jael murdered him.
There are certainly some problems for us in reading and understanding this Old Testament story. We no longer look upon war in quite so simple terms as the Hebrews did, nor are we as comfortable in glorifying it. Our political enemies are not necessarily God’s enemies, as the Canaanites were. Nor do we believe that the best thing for them is extermination. And it is difficult for us to appreciate the relish, the sheer delight, with which the Hebrew poet recounts Sisera’s gory end and praises Jael’s action.
But there are valuable lessons to be learned in the book of Judges, including in these chapters. Deborah’s story offers us an important reminder of the power and freedom of God, and serves to rebuke us for our own cowardice and lack of faith. How often don’t we let our fear of our spiritual enemy and our human calculations about the impossibility of what needs to be done weigh more in our thinking than the Word of God? Let Deborah encourage us; the battle is the Lord’s, after all. The outcome doesn’t hinge upon our strength or skill. It is his to win.
And win it he will, in the end; we have Jesus’ resurrection as proof of that!