Where the world comes to study the Bible

The Prophetess Deborah (Judges 4-5)

Introduction

My parents live on a lake in Washington State. This past week, something very unusual happened on the lake. Many years ago, the original owner (who homesteaded the property) planted some water lilies along the shore. They are beautiful, ranging in color from white to light pink to a brilliant red. Over the years, these lilies have become so prolific they are now encroaching on the swimming area and the open water. A man came by, offering to spray the lilies so they would die. It sounded like a great idea, and a whole lot easier than attempting to dig the lilies up by detaching their massive root system from the lake bottom.

My folks decided to try this approach to dealing with their water lily problem. The man came by and sprayed the lilies, and the operation seemed to be a great success. The encroaching lilies were indeed dying. It looked as though the problem had been solved with little effort or expense. Then, one day, something unexpected happened. When one of the neighbors looked out at the lake, they saw what looked like an “island.” The “island” turned out to be a floating mass of water lily roots. The lilies had died, alright, but when the roots below the surface of the water died as well, they became detached from the lake bottom and floated to the surface as a large floating island. When my parents contacted the man who had done the spraying, he admitted that in a few “rare” cases, this kind of thing was known to happen.

The neighbors were rightly concerned that my parents’ new island might float down the lake to their waterfront, or drift out from shore and thus become a hazard for the speed boats and water skiers. The question facing my parents was what they should do with this water lily island. The island of roots would have to be cut into smaller pieces which could be brought up on shore, loaded on a trailer, and then hauled away. First, the large island would have to be towed closer to the shore, where the water was not as deep, so that they could cut it into pieces. They decided to wrap ropes around the island so that they could try to tow it to shore with a powerboat. They were in the boat out in the lake, beside the island, seeking to attach a rope to the floating mass when a very strange thing happened. All around their boat bubbles began to surface. It was as though the lake beneath and around them had become carbonated. And then, much to the surprise of all, another large root mass broke loose from the bottom, surfacing underneath the boat, lifting it out of the water like a kind of natural dry-dock.

The boat, once useful for getting around the lake, was now useless. “Beached” as it were in several feet of water, the boat was of no value at all. This strange surfacing incident, and the way it immobilized that boat, reminds me of a battle scene that is described in Judges 4:1–5:31. For some 20 years, the Canaanites had reigned rough shod over the Israelites. Their superior military might enabled them to make Israel a vassal state. One of the weapons which gave the Canaanites military superiority over Israel was the chariot. Our text informs us that the Canaanites possessed 900 iron chariots, which they used to oppress the Israelites. For 20 years, these chariots had been employed against Israel, and the sight of them must have terrified the Israelites. When Sisera, the Canaanite commander, heard that a large number of Israelites had assembled for battle, he sent all of these chariots out to fight the Israelites. And when he did, God seems to have sent a great rainstorm, which rendered the chariots virtually useless. The once dry ground turned to mud, and the river flooded. The chariots were now a liability. Sisera abandoned his chariot and fled on foot, desperately trying to make his escape. Our text is about this defeat of the Canaanites, and it describes this moment in history as a great turning point for the nation Israel, brought about largely through the faithful ministry of Deborah, the prophetess.

In our last several lessons, we studied Balaam, and his vain attempts to bring a curse upon the Israelites. These same Israelites47 took possession of the promised land under Joshua, but they failed to completely dispossess the Canaanites. The Book of Judges picks up the history of Israel after the death of Joshua. Unfortunately, there was a very clear pattern to this period in Israel’s history, which is summarized in Judges 2:

11 The Israelites did evil before the LORD by worshiping the Baals. 12 They abandoned the LORD God of their ancestors who brought them out of the land of Egypt. They followed other gods—the gods of the nations who lived around them. They worshiped them and made the LORD angry. 13 They abandoned the LORD and worshiped Baal and the `Ashtars. 14 The LORD was furious with Israel and handed them over to robbers who plundered them. He turned them over to their enemies who lived around them. They could not withstand their enemies’ attacks. 15 Whenever they went out to fight, the LORD did them harm, just as he had warned and solemnly vowed he would do. They suffered greatly. 16 The LORD raised up leaders who delivered them from these robbers. 17 But they did not obey their leaders. Instead they prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them. They quickly turned aside from the path their ancestors walked. Their ancestors obeyed the LORD’s commands, but they did not. 18 When the LORD raised up leaders for them, the LORD was with each leader and delivered the people from their enemies while the leader remained alive. The LORD felt sorry for them when they cried out in agony because of what their harsh oppressors did to them. 19 When a leader died, the next generation would again act more wickedly than the previous one. They would follow after other gods, worshiping and bowing down to them. They did not give up their practices or their stubborn ways. 20 The LORD was furious with Israel. He said, “This nation has violated the terms of the agreement I made with their ancestors by disobeying me. 21 So I will no longer remove from before them any of the nations which Joshua left unconquered when he died. 22 Joshua left those nations to test Israel. I wanted to see whether or not the people would carefully walk in the path marked out by the LORD, as their ancestors were careful to do.” 23 This is why the LORD permitted these nations to remain and did not conquer them immediately; he did not hand them over to Joshua (Judges 2:11-23 NET).

The Book of Judges has several recurring themes. The first is the cycle of sin, suffering, petition, deliverance, the death of the deliverer—and then the cycle begins once again with sin. This is outlined in the text above. The next is the recurring statement, “there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (see 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). Another recurring theme is that, at this time, there were two problems in Israel, and both concerned leadership: (1) Israel had no king, and (2) its leaders (judges) kept dying. The solution will become apparent in time—Israel needed a man who could be their king, and yet who would never die. This could only be fulfilled in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ.

The Setting
(Judg. 4:1-3)

1 The Israelites again did evil before the LORD after Ehud’s death. 2 The LORD turned them over to Jabin, king of Canaan, who ruled in Hazor. The general of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth Haggoyim. 3 The Israelites cried out for help to the LORD, for Sisera had 900 chariots with iron-rimmed wheels, and he cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years.

By the time we reach Judges 4, Israel has already had two judges. God raised up Othniel to deliver Israel from Cushan-rishathaim, king of Mesopotamia (3:7-11). Then Ehud, the left-handed Benjamite, was God’s deliverer from the hand of Eglon, the king of Moab (3:12-31). After the death of Ehud, the cycle of sin and judgment commenced again. The Israelites did evil in the sight of God, and so God handed them over to Jabin, a Canaanite king. Jabin harshly dominated Israel for 20 years; his right-hand man was Sisera, the captain of his army. From verse three, we learn that a key factor in the Canaanites’ domination of Israel was their 900 iron chariots. Naturally, the Canaanites also had a number of other weapons as well. From Judges 5, we gain even greater insight into this period of Canaanite domination:

6 In the days of Shamgar son of Anath, in the days of Jael caravans disappeared; travelers had to go on winding side roads. 7 Warriors were scarce, they were scarce in Israel; until you arose, Deborah, until you arose as a motherly protector in Israel. 8 God chose new leaders, then fighters appeared in the city gates; but, I swear, not a shield or spear could be found, among forty military units in Israel (Judges 5:6-8).

The Canaanite presence in Israel wrought great havoc. The highways were virtually deserted, no doubt heavily patrolled by the Canaanites with their chariots. Villages were likewise abandoned because there were no walls to protect the people from being pillaged and robbed by the Canaanites. The Israelites seem to have retreated to the walled cities, and even these did not really protect them. And if the Canaanites had their chariots, swords, spears, and shields, it would seem that the Israelites were not allowed to possess any weapons. Israel may have been able to muster 40,000 warriors, but they would have had to fight unarmed.

From Shade-tree Prophetess to Side-kick Soldier
(Judg. 4:4-9)

4 Now Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. 5 She would sit under the Date Palm Tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the Ephraimite hill country. The Israelites would come up to her to have their disputes settled. 6 She summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali. She said to him, “Is it not true that the LORD God of Israel is commanding you? Go, march to Mount Tabor! Take with you 10,000 men from Naphtali and Zebulun! 7 I will bring Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to you at the Kishon River, along with his chariots and huge army. I will hand him over to you.” 8 Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go. But if you do not go with me, I will not go.” 9 She said, “I will indeed go with you. But you will not gain fame on the expedition you are taking, for the LORD will turn Sisera over to a woman.” Deborah got up and went with Barak to Kedesh.

Deborah really was a shade-tree prophetess. She did not occupy an office in Jerusalem,48 but worked beneath the shade of a “Date Palm tree” nearly ten miles to the north, in the mountains of Ephraim, between Ramah and Bethel (verse 5). People came out to her at this palm tree, and she settled their disputes (or more literally “judged them”). This appears to be the same kind of “judging” we see Moses doing (Exodus 18:13-27), and later his 70 helpers (Numbers 11:16-30). Her judging, like that of Moses and his helpers, was enabled by the Holy Spirit. It may be that the gift of prophecy she possessed first became evident in her judging. Who better to “judge” a matter than one who can “see” the situation exactly as it is? As the word got out that God’s will could be known through Deborah, many came to her for judgment. It would seem that she was but one of a very few judging prophets, and even more likely that she was the only person gifted and functioning in this way at this time.

It is during these dark days for Israel that Deborah the prophetess calls for Barak and issues him this divine directive:

She said to him, “Is it not true that the LORD God of Israel is commanding you? Go, march to Mount Tabor! Take with you 10,000 men from Naphtali and Zebulun! 7 I will bring Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to you at the Kishon River, along with his chariots and huge army” (Judges 4:6b-7).

The NKJV renders this text this way:

“Has not the LORD God of Israel commanded, ‘Go and deploy troops at Mount Tabor; take with you ten thousand men of the sons of Naphtali and of the sons of Zebulun; 7 ‘and against you I will deploy Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his multitude at the River Kishon; and I will deliver him into your hand’?” (Judges 4:6b-7, NKJ).

It is interesting that a number of translations render this command less literally:

Now she sent and summoned Barak the son of Abinoam from Kedesh-naphtali, and said to him, “Behold, the LORD, the God of Israel, has commanded, ‘Go and march to Mount Tabor, and take with you ten thousand men from the sons of Naphtali and from the sons of Zebulun” (Judges 4:6, NAS).

She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead the way to Mount Tabor’” (NIV).

The difference is subtle, but apparent. In the Hebrew text, the command is more literally stated in the form of a question: “Have I not … ?” The less literal translations render it as a simple command. It may be that the New American Standard and the New International versions are right in translating more loosely, but I’m not entirely convinced. In the first place there are other places where a similar expression is found, and the more literal rendering seems more appropriate.

Deborah said to Barak, “Spring into action for this is the day the LORD is handing Sisera over to you! Has the LORD not taken the lead?” Barak quickly went down from Mount Tabor with 10,000 men following him (Judges 4:14).

Visit King David and say to him, ‘My master, O king, did you not solemnly promise your servant, “Surely Solomon will be king after me; he will sit on my throne”? So why has Adonijah become king?’ (1 Kings 1:13).

It appears to me from these examples and others that this form of expression is sometimes used to refer to statements previously made, or to action which has occurred prior to that which has been commanded. In verse 14 of chapter 4, for example, Deborah gives the word that God has ordered Barak to commence their march, with the assurance that when they do so, God will already have gone before them. In Judges 4:6, the way the order is given, I get the impression that God has already commanded this before. Is it not possible that God had previously ordered Barak to muster his troops and engage the Canaanites in battle? Are God’s words spoken through Deborah a repetition and confirmation of a previous revelation to Barak? I am inclined to think so. Either way, Barak now has heard a word from the Lord, and it is obviously not enough for him. Barak refuses to obey unless Deborah accompanies him. If she will go with him, he will go; if not, then he will not go.

Just what was it that caused Barak to respond in this way? I think we can say with confidence that Barak lacked the faith to act without Deborah. But what did Barak fear? What was it he felt Deborah would contribute by coming along? It was surely not her battle skills. She was not a David, who could handle a Goliath on his own. She was, in fact, a wife (Judges 4:4) and mother (Judges 5:7). It may be that Barak feared no one would follow him. Such fears were not unfounded. After all, the Israelites had been oppressed for 20 years by the Canaanites. The Canaanites were well armed; the Israelites were virtually unarmed. Many had been coming to Deborah for judgment. Perhaps they would follow her into battle, even if they would not follow Barak. Or, perhaps it was simply that Barak wanted to have this prophetess with him so that he would have a means of obtaining divine guidance at this critical time. This would not have been such a terrible request. After all, did the Israelites not take the means of discerning God’s will into battle with them at other times (1 Samuel 14:3, 18-20; 30:7-8)? Even Jonathan sought a sign to confirm that his attack was God’s will (1 Samuel 14:6-14). The difference here is that God’s will has been revealed to Barak, and he is reluctant to act on the command he has already been given.

Whatever his fears, he is rebuked by Deborah for his lack of faith. She assures Barak that she will accompany him, but he will not get the glory for the victory over the Canaanites that God has promised (verse 9). We can easily identify with Barak’s fears, but we can hardly defend them. When God spoke to Barak through Deborah, He told him all he needed to know. He did not need any further word from God. Look again at the instructions:

6 She summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali. She said to him, “Is it not true that the LORD God of Israel is commanding you? Go, march to Mount Tabor! Take with you 10,000 men from Naphtali and Zebulun! 7 I will bring Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to you at the Kishon River, along with his chariots and huge army. I will hand him over to you.”

Barak is told where to go, how many men to take with him, and even what tribes they are to come from. He is told that he is to provoke Sisera to attack, descending from Mount Tabor to the plain near the river Kishon, and there God will deliver him into Barak’s hand. There was nothing more that Barak needed to know. He did not need Deborah to accompany him for any further guidance, nor did he require her presence to obtain a following or a victory. Nevertheless, he thought he needed Deborah to come along with him, and so she consented to accompany him.

Israel’s Victory
(Judg. 4:10-16)

10 Barak summoned men from Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh. Ten thousand men followed him; Deborah went up with him as well. 11 Now Heber the Kenite had moved away from the Kenites, the descendents of Hobab, Moses’ father-in-law. He lived near the tree in Zaanannim near Kedesh. 12 When Sisera heard that Barak son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor, 13 he ordered all his chariotry—900 chariots with iron-rimmed wheels—and all the troops he had with him, to go from Harosheth-Haggoyim to the River Kishon. 14 Deborah said to Barak, “Spring into action for this is the day the LORD is handing Sisera over to you! Has the LORD not taken the lead?” Barak quickly went down from Mount Tabor with 10,000 men following him. 15 The LORD routed Sisera, all his chariotry, and all his army with the edge of the sword. Sisera jumped out of his chariot and ran away on foot. 16 Now Barak chased the chariots and the army all the way to Harosheth Haggoyim. Sisera’s whole army died by the edge of the sword; not even one survived.

What a sight it would have been, if one could have seen these two armies setting out for battle. Barak set out with his men, armed with little or nothing (see 5:8), but Sisera had his well-armed soldiers, and 900 iron chariots. Barak set out with 20 years of defeat behind him; Sisera set out with 20 years of military dominance. Sisera must have been accompanied by a number of top military strategists; Barak is accompanied by Deborah, a wife and mother in Israel. Can you imagine Lappidoth, Deborah’s husband, standing among those sending off their loved ones to war, holding the children Deborah had born to him? No doubt they were crying as their mother waved farewell to them. If they were old enough to comprehend the situation, they would have wondered if they would ever see their mother again. What a contrast! And what a contrast their going out was with their return!

Quite frankly, the battle plan God had given Barak made little sense, militarily speaking. Chariots were very effective on the plains, but they were of little or no value in the mountains. God ordered Barak to muster his troops on Mount Tabor, and then to lead them down from the mountain and onto the plains. This is precisely where the chariots had the advantage and could do the most damage. Humanly speaking, the plan didn’t make sense. But in retrospect we can see how shrewd God’s plan was. Because the Israelite army was on the plain, Sisera felt that his chariots were the perfect weapon. He ordered all of his chariots to engage the Israelites in battle. It looked like a slaughter, which is exactly the way God wanted it to appear. Now, Deborah makes her contribution to the battle. She orders, “Up! For this is the day in which the LORD has delivered Sisera into your hand. Has not the LORD gone out before you?” (verse 14). This was nothing more than a repetition of what she had spoken earlier, other than the indication that now was the time to commence the battle.

From Judges 4, we learn only that the Israelites soundly defeated the Canaanites. Just how this was accomplished is explained more fully in Deborah’s inspired song of triumph in chapter 5:49

19 Kings came, they fought, the kings of Canaan fought, at Taanach by the waters of Megiddo; but they took no silver as plunder. 20 From the sky the stars fought, from their pathways they fought against Sisera. 21 The Kishon River carried them off, The river confronted them—the Kishon River. Step on the necks of the strong! 22 The horses’ hooves pounded the ground, the stallions galloped madly (Judges 5:19-22, emphasis mine).

How ironic this sounds, especially if the Canaanites practiced astrology. Did they look to the stars for direction, or for help? The stars were fighting against them! Did they trust in their chariots? God created a rainstorm, turning the plains to mud, causing the river Kishon to overflow its banks, sweeping the Canaanites away. The horses seem to have panicked, so that they probably killed their share of Canaanites. No wonder God had instructed Barak to bring his army down from Mount Tabor to the plains, near the river Kishon. Now the wisdom of His plan is apparent.

It was not really the Israelites who overcame the Canaanites. The victory was the Lord’s. He routed Sisera and all his chariots (verse 15). It would seem that no Canaanites were surviving. The Israelites needed only to perform what might be called a “mop up” operation. They could go about the bodies of the Canaanites, making sure each soldier was dead, and then plundering their weapons. Now the Israelites had their weapons! Sisera saw that defeat was certain, and so he took flight, leaving his chariot behind and running with all his strength, hoping to find a place of safety with his own people. The next verses take up his flight and his death at the hands of a woman.

Sisera Goes to Jael
(Judg. 4:17-22)

17 Now Sisera ran away on foot to the tent of Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite, for Jabin, king of Hazor, and the family of Heber the Kenite had made a peace treaty. 18 Jael came out to welcome Sisera. She said to him, “Stop and rest, my lord. Stop and rest with me. Don’t be afraid.” So Sisera stopped to rest in her tent, and she put a blanket over him. 19 He said to her, “Give me a little water to drink for I am thirsty.” She opened a goat-skin container of milk and gave him some milk to drink. Then she covered him up again. 20 He said to her, “Stand watch at the entrance to the tent. If anyone comes along and asks you, ‘Is there a man here?’ say ‘No.’” 21 Then Jael, wife of Heber, took a tent peg in one hand and a hammer in the other. She snuck up on him, drove the tent peg through his temple into the ground while he was asleep from exhaustion, and he died. 22 Now Barak was chasing Sisera. Jael came out to welcome him. She said to him, “Come here and I will show you the man you are searching for.” He went with her into the tent, and there he saw Sisera sprawled out dead with the tent peg in his temple.

We know nothing of Deborah’s husband, Lapidoth, other than his name. We know a little more about Heber, the husband of Jael, but what we know does not sound good:

11 Now Heber the Kenite had moved away from the Kenites, the descendents of Hobab, Moses’ father-in-law. He lived near the tree in Zaanannim near Kedesh.… 17 Now Sisera ran away on foot to the tent of Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite, for Jabin, king of Hazor, and the family of Heber the Kenite had made a peace treaty (Judges 4:11, 17, emphasis mine).

Heber the Kenite was related to Moses and thus to Israel through Moses’ father-in-law (verse 11). Yet Heber seems to have abandoned his relationship with Israel, moved to the north, and allied himself with Jabin, the Canaanite king who was oppressing Israel. In other words, it looks as though Heber had changed sides. He was no longer on Israel’s side, but on the Canaanites’ side.

This seems to have been common knowledge, because Sisera fled to the home of Heber, thinking that he would surely be safe there, under the protection of an ally. It would appear that, providentially, Heber was not home, and thus Sisera made a fatal error in seeking sanctuary there. Jael’s response to Sisera led him to believe that he had found a place of safety, where he could eat, rest up, and then continue his retreat toward home. She invited him into her tent and told him not to fear. When he came inside the tent, she covered him with a rug or something similar. She gave him milk to drink, and this, combined with his fatigue, was sufficient to put him to sleep. She had promised to stand in the doorway and to keep watch. Sisera assumed that if anyone came looking for him, she would tell them he was not there. Sleep overcame him, for the last time. He would never wake up.

We are not told when or why Jael decided to put Sisera to death. Quite obviously, Jael’s loyalties were not the same as those of Heber, her husband. Her loyalty was to Israel, and not to the Canaanites. She refused to be bound by the covenant of peace that her husband had made with the Canaanites. From Sisera’s arrival and subsequent actions Jael must have realized that the Israelites were prevailing in the battle with the Canaanites. She must have sensed this was her opportunity to come to Israel’s aid by putting Sisera to death. Putting up tents and taking them down was the woman’s work, and so Jael had the tools of her trade close at hand and knew how to use them. While Sisera was deep in sleep, she seized a tent peg and drove it through Sisera’s skull and into the ground. Not long afterward, Barak arrived, in hot pursuit of Sisera. Jael called him to her tent and showed him Sisera’s body, with his head still pinned to the floor. From an Israelite point of view, Jael did a masterful piece of work. The glory did, indeed, go to a woman, and not to Barak.

A Turning Point for Israel
(Judg. 4:23-24)

23 That day God humiliated Jabin, king of Canaan, before the Israelites. 24 Israel’s power continued to overwhelm Jabin, king of Canaan, until they did away with Jabin, king of Canaan.

These verses are important because they tell us that this victory over Sisera and his army is not the end of the story, but rather the first of a series of battles by which the Israelites overcame the Canaanites. The defeat of Sisera and his army was a turning point in history because it put the Israelites on the offensive and the Canaanites on the defensive. This victory not only eliminated some of Jabin’s top warriors,50 but it deprived him of his greatest weapons—his 900 iron-rimmed chariots. The spoils of this victory would also have provided armor and weapons for many Israelite soldiers, men who previously would have had to fight unarmed (see Judges 5:8). This placed a great handicap on the Canaanites, and leveled the playing field for future battles.

This victory over the Canaanites brought about a change of heart on the part of the Israelites. For 20 years the Canaanites had oppressed them. They had gotten used to being subject to Canaanite domination. They had virtually given up any thought of resisting the Canaanites, let alone defeating them. No wonder Barak was so reticent to lead. But this victory changed all this. While only the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun were summoned to this battle (4:6), others now joined in the fight (5:14). Over time, the Israelites grew stronger and prevailed over the ever-weakening Canaanites. Israel had been delivered once again.

A Divine Perspective on the Battle
(Judg. 5:1-31)

1 In that day Deborah and Barak son of Abinoam sang this victory song:

2 “When the leaders took the lead in Israel, When the people answered the call to war—Praise the LORD! 3 Hear, O kings! Pay attention, O rulers! I will sing to the LORD! I will sing to the LORD God of Israel! 4 O LORD, when you departed from Seir, when you marched from Edom’s plains; the earth shook, the heavens poured down, the clouds poured down rain. 5 The mountains trembled before the LORD, the God of Sinai; before the LORD God of Israel.

6 In the days of Shamgar son of Anath, in the days of Jael caravans disappeared; travelers had to go on winding side roads. 7 Warriors were scarce, they were scarce in Israel; until you arose, Deborah, until you arose as a motherly protector in Israel. 8 God chose new leaders, then fighters appeared in the city gates; but, I swear, not a shield or spear could be found, among forty military units in Israel. 9 My heart went out to Israel’s leaders, to the people who answered the call to war. Praise the LORD! 10 You who ride on light-colored female donkeys, who sit on saddle cloths, you who walk on the road, pay attention! 11 Hear the sound of those who divide the sheep among the watering places; there they tell of the Lord’s victorious deeds, the victorious deeds of his warriors in Israel. Then the LORD’s people went down to the city gates—

12 Wake up, wake up, Deborah! Wake up, wake up, sing a song! Get up, Barak! Capture your prisoners of war, son of Abinoam! 13 Then the survivors came down to the mighty ones; the LORD’s people came down to me as warriors. 14 They came from Ephraim, who uprooted Amalek, They follow after you, Benjamin, with your soldiers; From Makir leaders came down, from Zebulun came the ones who march carrying an officer’s staff. 15 Issachar’s leaders were with Deborah, The men of Issachar supported Barak, Into the valley they were sent under Barak’s command; Among the clans of Reuben there was intense heart searching. 16 Why do you remain among the sheepfolds, listening to the shepherds playing their pipes for their flocks? As for the clans of Reuben—there was intense heart searching. 17 Gilead stayed put beyond the Jordan River, As for Dan—why did he seek temporary employment in the shipyards? Asher remained on the seacoast, he stayed put by his harbors. 18 The men of Zebulun were not concerned about their lives; Naphtali charged on to the battlefields.

19 Kings came, they fought, the kings of Canaan fought, at Taanach by the waters of Megiddo; but they took no silver as plunder. 20 From the sky the stars fought, from their pathways they fought against Sisera. 21 The Kishon River carried them off, The river confronted them—the Kishon River. Step on the necks of the strong! 22 The horses’ hooves pounded the ground, the stallions galloped madly. 23 ‘Call judgment down on Meroz,’ says the LORD’s angelic messenger, ‘Be sure to call judgment down on those who live there, because they did not come to help in the LORD’s battle, to help in the LORD’s battle against the warriors.’

24 The most rewarded of women should be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. She should be the most rewarded of women who live in tents. 25 He asked for water, she gave him milk; in a bowl fit for important men, she served him curds. 26 Her left hand reached for the tent peg, her right hand for the workmen’s hammer. She “hammered” Sisera, she shattered his skull, she smashed his head, she drove the tent peg through his temple. 27 Between her legs he collapsed, he went limp and was lifeless; between her legs he collapsed and went limp, in the spot where he collapsed, there he went limp—violently murdered.

28 Through the window she looked, Sisera’s mother cried out through the lattice, ‘Why is his chariot so slow to return? Why are the hoofbeats of his chariot-horses delayed?’ 29 The wisest of her ladies answer, indeed she even thinks to herself, 30 ‘No doubt they are gathering and dividing the plunder—a girl or two for each man to rape! Sisera is grabbing up colorful cloth, he is grabbing up colorful embroidered cloth, two pieces of colorful embroidered cloth, for the neck of the plunderer!’ 31 May all your enemies perish like this, O LORD! But may those who love you shine like the rising sun at its brightest!

The focus of our lesson has been on Judges 4, but I must tell you that as a result of my study I am convinced that the key to the interpretation of our text is found in the chapter which follows—Judges 5. This chapter is poetry, as you can see. It is similar in form and substance to the “song of deliverance” which the Israelites sang after they passed safely through the Red Sea, at which time the Egyptian army was drowned (see Exodus 15). As the prophetess Miriam may have had a hand in writing the “song of the sea” (Exodus 15), it was Deborah who penned the inspired “song of deliverance” in Judges 5. Time will not allow me to attempt to expound this song in detail, but I think we can quickly summarize the flow of the argument of chapter 5.

I believe the key to chapters 4 and 5 is found in verse 2 of chapter 5: “When leaders lead in Israel, When the people willingly offer themselves, Bless the LORD!” Israel praises God because the leaders actually lead, after years of little or no leadership at all. And because the leaders led, the people (at least some of them) followed. Many volunteered to join their Israelite brethren in going to war against the Canaanites.

Verses 3-11 link the giving of the Law at Sinai with the deliverance of the Israelites from the Canaanites under Deborah and Barak. At Sinai, God made a covenant with Israel. His presence and power at Sinai were demonstrated as He employed nature to accomplish His purposes. The earth quaked and the heavens brought forth rain, testifying to the presence of God (verses 4 and 5). That was in the past, and it was witnessed by the first generation of Israelites to be delivered from Egyptian bondage. Now, the second generation of Israelites sings a similar song, based upon the deliverance God gave Israel from her Canaanite oppressors. Here, too, Israel’s deliverance was due to God’s grace and power. The Israelites were ill-equipped and powerless before the Canaanites and their chariots, but God intervened, employing nature to defeat those who oppressed His people. Israel had nothing but a rag-tag army, with virtually no weapons. It was an army with a woman among those who went to battle, Deborah, a “mother in Israel” (verses 6-8, see NKJV). It looked as though Israel was about to suffer a great slaughter, but now, thanks to the victory God has brought about, God’s people are urged to join in praising God for His salvation (verses 9-11).

Leading this peasant army was Barak, accompanied by Deborah. Deborah was instructed to awake and to sing a song (was this song given to her in the night as a prophetess?). Barak was told to lead away the captives. The volunteers, mentioned in verses 2 and 9 are now identified by tribe in verses 14 and 15. They came from Benjamin, and from the half-tribe of Manasseh (Machir, cf. Genesis 50:23, etc.), as well as those from Zebulun (verse 14). Issachar and Reuben also took part in the fighting (5:15).

In verses 16-18, we see a stark contrast being made between the “workers” (Zebulun and Naphtali, verse 18) and the “shirkers” (e.g., Gilead and Dan, verse 17). If there were those like Zebulun and Naphtali, who were first to volunteer, there were also those who shrunk back from their duty. It may well be that they were far enough away from the conflict that they felt no obligation to involve themselves in this fight. The fact that they were a part of a larger entity—the nation Israel—did not motivate them to come to the aid of their brethren. And for this they are condemned.

Verses 19-23 describe, in poetic language, the battle that was fought between the Canaanites and the Israelites. The kings of Canaan came and fought, but they did not prevail, and they took away no spoils of war. God called the forces of nature into “active duty” and employed them in defeating the Canaanites (verses 20-21). The “stars” joined in the fight, doing battle against Sisera. Torrential rains turned the river Kishon into a raging flood. The Canaanites’ chariots were immobilized and their horses traumatized (verse 22). In verse 23, a curse is pronounced against the city of Meroz, for while others came to the aid of their brethren, the people of this city did not.

Verses 24-27 are a poetic, but very graphic, description of the slaying of Sisera, at the hand of Jael. Here, she gets the glory that would have been Barak’s. She is blessed as a woman among women. She, like Deborah, is identified in relation to her husband. She was a tent-dwelling woman, but in her sphere of service, she played her part well. Sisera asked for water, but she gave him milk. It would most certainly have to be warm milk. No doubt this was her way of giving him the equivalent of a sedative. She brought him curds (or yogurt) in a bowl, which he gladly consumed. And then, as he lay at her feet deep in sleep, she took a tent peg, and with a hammer, she drove it through his head. There he lay dead at her feet. She was the victor. She had prevailed over the arch enemy of Israel. Three times in verse 27 it is said that Sisera bowed at the feet of Jael. This refers, I think, to his posture in sleep, but the song sees more to it than that; in so doing, he symbolically submits himself to Jael as the greater one.

Verses 28-30 paint a very dramatic picture. Note that once again this is given “from a woman’s point of view.” If Deborah, a “mother of Israel,” represents the women of Israel, Sisera’s mother represents the grieving Canaanite women whose losses have been so great on this day. The song writer focuses on the mother of Sisera, waiting for her son to return, triumphant in battle, as he has done so many times before over the past 20 years. But time passes, and the sound of hoofbeats is not heard. Why the delay? Has something gone wrong? The maidens wisely attempt to assume the best. Surely the victory was so decisive and the spoils so great that more time was required to gather them and to bring them home. That was it; it must be.

Verse 31 concludes the song with blessing and cursing. If Deborah saw the power of God at Sinai repeated in the war with Sisera, she now sees this battle as a prototype of God’s future dealings with men. Let all the enemies of God perish, just as the Canaanites have in this battle. And let all those who love God be blessed, rising like the sun in all its glory and power. Is this not, in effect, a repetition of the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 12:1-3)? Let those who bless God’s people be blessed; let those who curse them be cursed. This applies across the board. Those fellow-Israelites who came to the aid of their brethren were blessed. Those who refused to help were cursed, not unlike the Canaanites who opposed God’s people.

Conclusion

I cannot help but compare these two men, Sisera and Barak. Sisera was a man who had a good deal of faith, but in the wrong things. Sisera trusted in his own judgment. He trusted in his army. He trusted in his 900 iron chariots. He even trusted in Heber’s wife, Jael. And the result was that Sisera died at the hand of a woman, with a tent peg driven through his skull.

Barak, on the other hand, was not a man of great faith. He was reluctant to take on the Canaanites with their weapons and their superior army. He refused to go to battle unless Deborah accompanied him. Barak did not have great faith, but he had a little faith. His faith, small as it may be, was in God. He obeyed God’s word as communicated to him through Deborah, and the result was that God gave the Canaanites into the hands of the Israelites. His faith may have only been the size of a mustard seed (cf. Matthew 17:20), but it was in God. Little faith, rightly directed, is far superior to great faith in the wrong object.

Barak is one of those listed in the New Testament “hall of faith” in the Book of Hebrews:

32 And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets. 33 Through faith they conquered kingdoms, administered justice, gained what was promised, shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, gained strength in weakness, became mighty in battle, put foreign armies to flight, … (Hebrews 11:32-34, emphasis mine).

The question should arise in our minds, “If Barak is listed in the ‘hall of faith,’ then why is Deborah not named?” I think the answer is found in verse 34. Barak was one who “gained strength in weakness,” and “became mighty in battle.” Barak was weak in his faith, and he became strong. In our story, Deborah was strong in her faith all along. Indeed, I believe Deborah was the primary reason why Barak’s faith was strengthened. The absence of Deborah’s name here is not an insult to her; it is a compliment.

The problem we face when we come to the interpretation and application of this text of Scripture is that many seek to use it as a proof text for their personal agendas. To be more specific, those who resist the biblical teaching on the role of women in ministry (that men should lead in the church) latch onto this text and claim that it proves that women are justified in taking the lead, especially when men refuse to do so. In so doing, they miss the message of the passage, which teaches the opposite.

Of particular interest to some is the fact that Deborah is a prophetess. Does having the gift of prophecy somehow change the rules, as some seem to suggest? Let me begin to address this matter by pointing out that the term prophet or prophets (and prophet’s) occurs some 490 times in the New King James Version of the Bible. The term “prophetess” occurs eight times (“prophetesses” occurs once in the New American Standard Bible, in Acts 21:9). Of these nine references to prophetesses, two refer to false prophetesses. In the whole of the Bible, we find a total of nine prophetesses identified (Miriam, Exodus 15:20; Deborah, Judges 4:4; Huldah, 2 Kings 22:14; 2 Chronicles 34:22; the prophetess who bore a son in Isaiah 8:3; Anna, Luke 2:36; and the four daughters of Philip, Acts 21:9).51 This must be contrasted with a vastly larger number of men who were prophets. Women prophetesses were comparatively rare, in both Old and New Testament times.

Miriam was a prophetess, but it seems that her ministry was with the women. We never see her leading men (except, perhaps, when she was wrongly a leader in a rebellion against Moses—see Numbers 12:1-16). She is identified as a prophetess in Exodus 15:20, and she seems to have played a role in the writing, as well as the singing, of some of the Song of the Sea, which the Israelites sang after God brought them safely through the Red Sea (Exodus 15:20-21ff.). Deborah seems to have written the “song of deliverance” recorded in Judges 5.

In the Book of Acts, Luke informs us that Philip had four daughters who prophesied, and yet when the time came for the prophecy that arrest and bonds (jail) awaited Paul if he persisted in going to Jerusalem, it was not through these women that the prophecy was revealed. Agabas, a prophet from Judea, came down and made this known to Paul (Acts 21:10ff.). Why, if these women were prophetesses and were on the scene, did God bring a man down from Judea? I think it was because this was a task he wanted a man to perform. (It is possible that these women actually prophesied of Paul’s fate in Jerusalem, and that Agabas was sent to confirm it, but Luke’s account of this matter portrays Agabas as the leader.)

I have already pointed out that every time a prophetess is identified in the Bible, she is identified in relation to a man (e.g., her husband, her father). I think it can be demonstrated that when there was a woman prophetess who assumed a leadership role, it was meant to be a very clear indication of spiritual decay:

9 You will be shocked and amazed! You are totally blind! They are drunk, but not because of wine, They stagger, but not because of beer. 10 For the LORD has poured out on you a strong urge to sleep deeply. He has shut your eyes (the prophets), and covered your heads (the seers) (Isaiah 29:9-10).

I believe the Israelites had to seek out Deborah (in our text) and later on Huldah (2 Kings 22:14; 2 Chronicles 34:22) because of Israel’s sin and spiritual decay. Because of the sin of His people, God took away the prophets, the “eyes” of the people (remember that prophets were called “seers”). People sought God’s will from Deborah and from Huldah because of Israel’s sin and spiritual decline. That they had to come to a prophetess, rather than a prophet, was a rebuke, not to the prophetesses, but to the nation.

I would particularly caution any who would attempt to make our passage their proof text for women leaders in Israel and the church. Remember that Deborah’s ministry is recorded in the Book of Judges. It is in Judges that we read, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6; cf. also 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). The Book of Judges is not holding forth an ideal for us to follow, but is depicting evils for us to avoid. If one were to say that Deborah is the model for all women in ministry (i.e., that women should lead men), will we also urge all women to follow Jael? Would we tell men today that they should be like Samson? Judges describes real people, people with very serious flaws, people that God nonetheless employs for His own purposes. But let us not make the mistake of assuming that since they are found in the Bible they are examples for us to follow in all that they did.

The story of Deborah and Barak does not advocate a general principle that women should lead men. And yet having said this, I would agree that our text does teach us about leadership. I would go even farther. I believe that Deborah did lead here. Indeed, I would say that Deborah led and that Barak followed. But there were definite limits as to how far Deborah was willing to go. I would also say that Deborah did not lead to the degree that Barak seems to have desired. She did not lead the Israelite army in war; Barak did. Deborah followed Barak into battle, as did the others (Judges 4:10). Deborah does give Barak the word to go to war in 4:14, but she is merely repeating what she had already said. Barak should have seen that it was the time to fight on his own, based upon what God had already said. Deborah plays a crucial role in this battle. She operates behind the scenes as much as she can. Barak’s reticence to lead and his insistence that Deborah go with him are portrayed as weakness on his part, for which he is rebuked. That a woman gets the glory is to be viewed as a divine rebuke, not a compliment.

I believe our text informs us that Deborah did have a leadership role at this point in Israel’s history. This is not portrayed as a good thing, to be imitated by women later in history. Barak is portrayed as a man of weakness, whose faith God strengthens. Deborah did lead, but only within certain limits. Deborah led, but in such a way as to promote male leadership, and thus to keep herself in a subordinate role. Deborah did not seek a prominent leadership role, and in fact she actively sought to avoid it. She made it clear that God had designated Barak as the leader, and that God was commanding him to lead.

Deborah did play a crucial leadership role in our text, but note the outcome of her leadership. From 4:23-24, we learn that this battle was a turning point in the relationship between Israel and the Canaanites, who dominated the Israelites for 20 years. In the “song of deliverance” in chapter 5 (verse 2), we see that because of Deborah’s ministry, the leaders assumed their leadership roles, and the workers followed them (not her). Deborah did not seek to overturn the way leadership was supposed to function, but affirmed it. Because of her ministry, God’s designated leaders did lead, and followers actively followed by volunteering for service. That is the way it is supposed to work. That is the way it did work when Deborah played out her role in Israel’s history.

Barak became the leader he was supposed to be, thanks in large part to the role that Deborah played. I would suggest that more often than not, when a man becomes the kind of leader that God wants him to be, there is a “Deborah” somewhere nearby, perhaps out of the spotlight, but very much standing behind the man, encouraging him and strengthening his faith in God. Many of the great deeds of faith performed by men find their roots in the godly actions and prayers of a woman—a wife, a mother, a daughter, a prayer warrior. I have often thought that whatever success I have ever experienced in my ministry was more related to the prayers of my wife than to my faithfulness or skills in ministry. Would that there were more Deborahs today.

Let me mention one last thing as I close. In those dark days of the judges, the leaders shrunk back, and there were few who were willing to follow. The bottom line was that there seemed to be no one to fight the enemy, the Canaanites. Through the ministry of this great woman, Deborah, leaders and followers emerged, and the battle was fought and won. Today, it is very little different than in Deborah’s day. There is a great deal that needs to be done in the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. There are Sunday School classes to be taught, new believers to be discipled, evangelism to be carried out, and on and on the needs go. And yet today there are all too few willing to step forward and assume leadership positions. And there are even fewer people who are willing to follow. In our church, as in most others, there are jobs that need to be done, and not enough people willing to do them. What has God called you to do? Has He called you to serve? Then volunteer, and be a supportive follower. Do what needs to be done! Are you called to lead? Then do it, trusting in God to work through your weakness in a way that makes you strong.


47 These were second generation Israelites—the first generation, which experienced the exodus from Egypt, died in the wilderness.

48 It is not until much later that David will make Jerusalem the center for Israel’s worship.

49 I believe it is obvious that Deborah wrote this song, without the help of Barak. She was the prophetess, the one who could produce inspired writing. And while we are told (5:1) that both Deborah and Barak sang this song, it would seem from 5:12 that it was Deborah who wrote it. His job was the warfare, hers the writing.

50 One might easily conclude that because 10,000 Israelites were mustered for battle (4:6, 10), a similar number was sent to oppose them. This need not be the case. Sisera could have sent a much larger army, intending to quickly and decisively wipe out any further Israelite opposition. He could also have sent a smaller army, confident that by the use of his best soldiers and his 900 chariots the battle would be an easy one to win.

51 I am not suggesting here that there were only nine prophetesses in Old and New Testament times. Surely there were more than this, just as there were probably more prophets than those identified in the Bible. But when comparing the number of prophetesses to the number of prophets we find in the Bible, prophetesses are rare.

Related Topics: Character Study