Strong Women, Weak-kneed (Wimpy) Men (Judges 4:1-24)Related Media
Alternate titles: Wonder Woman and the Wimp
Sisera Goes to Jael
Some time ago my good friend, Bill Mathers, and I were sitting beside each other in an elective class taught at Community Bible Chapel. I don’t remember all the details (speaker, subject, etc.), but I do recall that the speaker made a comment that prompted a “pun” to come to my mind. I looked over at Bill and realized that he had thought of exactly the same pun. I was on the brink of sharing it with the entire class when Bill whispered to me, “Better not!” He was speaking to himself and to me, because we both love to engage in exchanging puns. Of course, Bill was right.
You can imagine the temptation I have experienced this past week with a text like ours. The more I studied the text, the more puns just began to flow, prompting a plethora of possible sermon titles. I have to tell you that others have been thinking along the same lines. For example, after I preached this message my friend, Bill Hayden, came to me with yet another suggested title: “What Was Going Through Sisera’s Mind?”
Although our text is a goldmine of possible puns, we are here because it is a text that we must take very seriously. There are a few things that it would be good to know before we get into the text itself, so let’s turn to them first.
Our text is the first of a two-part account of God’s deliverance through Deborah and Barak. Judges 4 is an historical account of God’s deliverance of Israel through Deborah, Barak, and Jael. Judges 5 is a poetic account of this same deliverance. It is poetry that was sung on the day of Israel’s victory over Jabin, the Canaanite king who oppressed the Israelites by means of his commander, Sisera. Both chapters are very skillfully written, and both are necessary for a correct understanding of these events and their significance for the ancient Israelites and for us. Our study of chapter 5 will prove to be the key to a proper understanding of what God was doing for Israel and the implications of this for the readers of this text.
By the way, a two-part account should not come as a surprise to the reader since Judges began with a two-part introduction. We should also recall that there are similar passages in the Bible. After the Israelites safely passed through the Red Sea and the Egyptians are drowned (Exodus 14), we come to the “Song of Moses,” which was sung by the Israelites. Then, too, there is the other “song of Moses” which we find in Deuteronomy 32. This song exalted God, reviewed His gracious works of the past, warned of the consequences of unbelief and disobedience, and exhorted Israel to trust and obey Him.
Unlike the previous chapter, which dealt with Israel’s oppression at the hand of foreign kings, our text deals with Israel’s bondage and oppression at the hands of a Canaanite king, who lives in the land – a king and a people whom the Israelites should have destroyed.
Our text pertains primarily to northern Israel and to the land that the Israelites had not yet possessed by driving out the Canaanites, theoretically due to the strength of the enemy’s military might.
19 The Lord was with the men of Judah. They conquered the hill country, but they could not conquer the people living in the coastal plain, because they had chariots with iron-rimmed wheels (Judges 1:19).
30 The men of Zebulun did not conquer the people living in Kitron and Nahalol. The Canaanites lived among them and were forced to do hard labor. 31 The men of Asher did not conquer the people living in Acco or Sidon, nor did they conquer Ahlab, Aczib, Helbah, Aphek, or Rehob. 32 The people of Asher live among the Canaanites residing in the land because they did not conquer them. 33 The men of Naphtali did not conquer the people living in Beth Shemesh or Beth Anath. They live among the Canaanites residing in the land. The Canaanites living in Beth Shemesh and Beth Anath were forced to do hard labor for them (Judges 1:30-33).
The tribes named in verses 30-33 of Judges 1 (above) – Zebulun, Asher, and Naphtali – were all tribes in the northern portion of Israel. None of them succeeded in totally destroying the Canaanites in their territory, and all were therefore forced to coexist with them. Now, at last, the Israelites will defeat the Canaanites and possess the land to the north, especially the plains. This is critical for a couple of reasons. (1) The plains are the place where the Israelites can practice farming. (2) The main trade and communication routes take advantage of the plains. Thus, to control the plains is to control travel and commerce and communication. As one can see from chapter 5,2 up until now the Israelites weren’t able to travel freely, but were forced to use the “back roads.”
Our text in Judges is the most popular passage for scholarly study. Why would scholars be so attracted to this passage, when they generally shy away from Judges, and especially from the kind of violence which occurred at the hand of Jael? The answer is pretty obvious. Those who are desperate to set aside the clear biblical teaching on the role of women rush here in the hope that they will find a text that validates a feminist agenda. Here, at last, seems to be a text that validates women leading men. I believe that when we interpret this text in its context, we will see that it does just the opposite. Bear with me until we return to this matter.
The hero (or rather heroine) in our text is not Deborah, but Jael. This is a very important point, which is quite emphatically demonstrated by our author and, interestingly, by Deborah, the author of the song in chapter 5. Those who are so eager to make Deborah the heroine are not at all eager to embrace Jael as such. Indeed, they seem to find her an embarrassment. We will not understand our text correctly until we acknowledge Jael as the one who is honored in our text. In this message, I will focus my attention on her, seeking to show why the author speaks of her in such favorable terms, much to the distress of some.
1 The Israelites again did evil in the Lord’s sight after Ehud’s death. 2 The Lord turned them over to King Jabin 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, because Sisera had nine hundred chariots with iron-rimmed wheels, and he cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years (Judges 4:1-3).3
We know that the events which are now described occurred after the death of Ehud, whom we considered in the last chapter. Israel sins once again, following the pattern which the author has already outlined in his introduction.4 And, once again, the sins to which the author refers are evil “in the Lord’s sight” (verse 1). It is very likely that the Israelites did not conceive of their actions as sin, not unlike those in our own time. After all, the Israelites of that day “did what was right in their own eyes.” In such a culture – a culture very similar to our own – something is wrong only if you think it is, and there isn’t much these days which is considered wrong.
As a result of Israel’s sin, God acts consistently with His covenant, disciplining His people with those consequences He had indicated earlier on several occasions:
11 “Watch yourselves carefully! Love the Lord your God! 12 But if you ever turn away and make alliances with these nations that remain near you, and intermarry with them and establish friendly relations with them, 13 know for certain that the Lord our God will no longer drive out these nations from before you. They will trap and ensnare you; they will be a whip that tears your sides and thorns that blind your eyes until you disappear from this good land the Lord your God gave you.”
14 “Look, today I am about to die. You know with all your heart and being that not even one of all the faithful promises the Lord your God made to you is left unfulfilled; every one was realized – not one promise is unfulfilled! 15 But in the same way every faithful promise the Lord your God made to you has been realized, it is just as certain, if you disobey, that the Lord will bring on you every judgment until he destroys you from this good land which the Lord your God gave you. 16 If you violate the covenantal laws of the Lord your God which he commanded you to keep, and follow, worship, and bow down to other gods, the Lord will be very angry with you and you will disappear quickly from the good land which he gave to you” (Joshua 23:11-16).
God sold the Israelites into the hands of Jabin, a Canaanite king who reigned in Hazor, a city located approximately 12 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. It was once a major Canaanite city that was defeated and destroyed (by fire) at the hand of Joshua.5 Later on, the Canaanites returned and rebuilt the city, making it a royal city. Hazor was located in the territory of Naphtali,6 which explains why Barak was commanded to gather troops from Naphtali and Zebulun (verse 6). It also should be noted that “Jabin” is a dynastic title, like “Pharaoh” and “Abimelech.” This explains why the name “Jabin” can occur earlier in Joshua 11 and then again in our text, years later.
Sisera was the commander of Jabin’s military forces, and thus he becomes more prominent in our text. He is said to live in Harosheth Haggoyim, a place whose location is uncertain. (We do know that the word “Haggoyim” means “of the Gentiles,” which is thus translated in some versions.) It appears that he carried out his task with the kind of zeal which justified cruel oppression. The reader should bear this in mind when he or she is tempted to react to the “cruelty and violence” of Jael. And here, once again, we encounter the dreaded iron chariots of the enemy. Sisera’s army had 900 such chariots to employ against the Israelites. I am told that these chariots were used to run down the opponent, and I have little doubt that Sisera had made use of his chariots in this manner on previous occasions. No wonder the Israelites were terrified.7 Sisera had terrorized the Israelites for 20 years, prompting them to finally8 cry out to the Lord for help. For some reason, the author does not say that God “raised up” either Deborah or Barak, or both, yet it seems apparent that He did so.
We should note one more piece of background information which is not found in chapter 4, but is described for us in the song of Deborah in chapter 5:
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, emphasis mine).
This is very helpful information. It describes conditions in northern Israel under Jabin, before God raised up Deborah and Barak (and Jael). It was hazardous for an Israelite to travel on the main thoroughfares, and so they moved about on the lesser traveled side roads. And rather than settle in villages, the people avoided village life. Villages must have been tempting “spoils” for the cruel Canaanite forces. And on top of this, we are informed that the Israelites were not well armed. “Not a sword or a shield could be found” (5:8). That is not good news if one were contemplating taking on a large army equipped with many swords and iron chariots. Israel’s situation looked hopeless, but God. . . .
Meet Deborah and Barak
4 Now Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was leading [judging]9 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 ten thousand 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 undertaking, for the Lord will turn Sisera over to a woman.” Deborah got up and went with Barak to Kedesh. 10 Barak summoned men from Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh. Ten thousand men followed him; Deborah went up with him as well (Judges 4:4-10).
Deborah is introduced to us first as a prophetess and then as the wife of Lappidoth, a man about whom we know nothing. As indicated above, I do not believe it is accurate to say that Deborah was “leading” Israel as one of the judges like Othniel led. The point made by our author is that she was both a wife and a mother who “judged” in some sense.10 I believe that Deborah “judged” in the same way that Moses and other “judges” (outside the Book of Judges) judged the Israelites.11 They helped people understand and apply God’s law to their particular circumstances. In a day when men were “doing what was right in their own eyes,” it is encouraging to find those who sought to know what was right in God’s eyes.
I think it would be safe to refer to Deborah as a “shade tree prophetess.” Deborah did her judging underneath the “Date Palm Tree of Deborah,” somewhere in the hills between Ramah and Bethel. Her prophetic ministry must almost certainly have been an indictment against the formal religious leadership (namely the priests) in Israel. We know that at this time, the Ark of the Covenant was kept in Bethel.12 The priesthood would have been carrying out their duties there. Deborah’s place of business was some distance away, in a rather remote location. People had to seek her out to obtain judgment.
In her role as a prophetess, Deborah summons Barak and conveys God’s instructions to him. These instructions are not presented as Deborah’s thoughts, not even as her interpretation of God’s revelation, but rather as God’s direct command to Barak. Surely Barak knew (“Is it not true. . .?”) that God was commanding him to lead the Israelites in battle. He was instructed to assemble 10,000 men from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them to Mount Tabor. God promised that He would draw13 Sisera to the Kishon River,14 along with his army and his 900 chariots, where He would give them into Barak’s hands.
Defeating Sisera, with his large and well equipped army (including his 900 chariots), seemed like an impossible task, and indeed it was. God had Barak and his men assemble for battle on Mount Tabor. This “mountain” has an “ice cream cone” shape and is a little over 1800 feet high. It is located northeast of the Esdraelon Plain, roughly half way between Nazareth (6-8 miles to the west) and the Sea of Galilee (approximately 12 miles to the east).
Looking at pictures of Mount Tabor, one can readily understand how Sisera would be “drawn” to the valley at the base of Mount Tabor, and thus to the Kishon River, which runs through that valley. That plain surrounding Mount Tabor was the perfect place to employ his 900 chariots. He could encircle the mountain like he was besieging a city. And whenever any Israelites sought to escape, Sisera’s chariots could easily overtake them and run them down. The army that Barak gathered would look like “easy pickings” to Sisera, and thus he would be drawn there to suppress this uprising.
That Barak would be apprehensive is not too surprising. After all, he was commanded to take on a large, well-armed force with 10,000 poorly equipped men (see 5:8). But mere cowardice isn’t really what we find here. Barak makes his obedience to God’s command contingent upon Deborah’s presence with him when he takes on Sisera and his men. He will do as God commanded if she goes with him; but if she does not accompany Barak, he will not go.
Surely we would have to agree that Barak is not merely seeking to add one more warrior to the 10,000 who will gather with him. No, I believe that Barak’s request is similar to that of Moses when God told him to lead the Israelites to the Promised Land:
1 The Lord said to Moses, “Go up from here, you and the people whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land I promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ 2 I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite. 3 Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go up among you, for you are a stiff-necked people, and I might destroy you on the way.” . . . 15 And Moses said to him, “If your presence does not go with us, do not take us up from here. 16 For how will it be known then that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not by your going with us, so that we will be distinguished, I and your people, from all the people who are on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:1-3, 15-16).
The reason that Barak wanted Deborah (a “mother in Israel,” 5:7) to accompany him was because she was a prophetess. I believe Barak was convinced that God would go with him if Deborah accompanied him. In a way, it was good for Barak to want to be assured that God was with him. But in another way it was sad, sad because he had no assurance of God’s presence with him apart from Deborah. Yes, Deborah spoke for the Lord, but he was not content to act on what she said; Barak wanted her with him as well. No Deborah, no battle.
Deborah agreed to accompany Barak, but she made it very clear that this arrangement was not ideal. Indeed, although Barak would win the battle, as promised, he would not get the glory (or honor) for this victory. Instead, the glory would go to “a woman.” No doubt Barak assumed that the “woman” Deborah referred to was herself, but it was not, as our text will soon disclose. It will be Jael who is honored for killing Sisera.
(I know that we must respect the silence of Scripture, but I still have to wonder . . . . What did Deborah’s husband, Lappidoth, think of all this? I can just see her writing him a note and leaving it on the kitchen table: “Gone for a while with Barak. Back in a couple of weeks or so. Don’t forget to feed the kids.” That must have left Lappidoth scratching his head. But then he was married to a prophetess. It is not my impression that this “mother in Israel” was a young mother. She may well have been older.)
A Significant Parenthesis
11 Now Heber the Kenite had moved away from the Kenites, the descendants of Hobab, Moses’ father-in-law. He lived near the great tree in Zaanannim near Kedesh (Judges 4:11).
This verse may seem to supply extraneous information at a time and place where it disrupts the flow of the argument, but reading a little further will show that this is not the case at all. Heber was a Kenite. This means that he was a descendant of Moses’ father-in-law, who accompanied the Israelites into the Promised Land. It also means that he was not an Israelite. Having said this, the Kenites had associated themselves with the Israelites and lived among them:
16 Now the descendants of the Kenite, Moses’ father-in-law, went up with the people of Judah from the City of Date Palm Trees to Arad in the desert of Judah, located in the Negev. They went and lived with the people of Judah (Judges 1:16).
Heber had separated himself from the rest of the Kenites and lived near Kedesh. As we shall soon see, Heber apparently tried to live in Israelite territory and yet maintain peaceful relations with Jabin. In verse 17, we read that Heber had entered into a covenant of peace with Jabin, something God clearly forbade His people to do.15 He was, it is sometimes said, trying to “play both ends against the middle.”
The Defeat of Sisera’s Army
12 When Sisera heard that Barak son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor, 13 he ordered all his chariotry – nine hundred 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 ten thousand 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! (Judges 4:12-16)
When Sisera learned that Barak and his army had assembled at Mount Tabor, he knew it was time to put down this rebellion, and there seemed no better place to do so than there. Mount Tabor was on the upper edge of the Esdraelon Valley or Valley of Jezreel. The valley seemed to afford the perfect place to stage an attack using his 900 chariots. And so they began to converge on Mount Tabor. Through Deborah, God informed Barak that now was the time to attack. At this point in time, this must have looked like a suicide mission, but God had other plans, and thus He assured Barak and those with him that victory over Sisera was certain. The Lord Himself had gone before them.
Barak and his army quickly descended from Mount Tabor in order to engage Sisera and his vastly superior army. Our text informs us that “the LORD routed Sisera, all his chariotry, and all his army with the edge of the sword.” Now, we may wonder how this could happen in light of what we read in chapter 5:
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 5:8).
How could Israel rout such an army with the sword when they were virtually unarmed, at least comparatively? We first need to recall that our text tells us that it was the LORD who routed Sisera and his army, not the Israelites. And beyond this, we need to keep in mind what we are told in the song of Deborah in chapter 5:
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 paths in the heavens 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).
God created confusion among Sisera’s warriors, and He did so by employing the forces of nature. From what we read in chapter 5, we conclude that God may very well have commenced a great thunderstorm. The fury of that storm, particularly the thunder and lightning, would have sent terror and confusion to man and animal. And the waters rushing down from Mount Tabor (and likely other high places) would have created a flash flood that would have virtually immobilized Sisera’s army.
But how could this army “die by the edge of the sword” (verse 16)? Let us consider what we read here in the light of two other biblical texts:
“I will send my terror before you, and I will destroy all the people whom you encounter; I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you” (Exodus 23:27).
10 As Samuel was offering burnt offerings, the Philistines approached to do battle with Israel. But on that day the Lord thundered loudly against the Philistines. He caused them to panic, and they were defeated by Israel. 11 Then the men of Israel left Mizpah and chased the Philistines, striking them down all the way to an area below Beth Car (1 Samuel 7:10-11)
19 A blacksmith could not be found in all the land of Israel, for the Philistines had said, “This will prevent the Hebrews from making swords and spears.” 20 So all Israel had to go down to the Philistines in order to get their plowshares, cutting instruments, axes, and sickles sharpened. 21 They charged two-thirds of a shekel to sharpen plowshares and cutting instruments, and a third of a shekel to sharpen picks and axes, and to set ox goads. 22 So on the day of the battle no sword or spear was to be found in the hand of anyone in the army that was with Saul and Jonathan. No one but Saul and his son Jonathan had them (1 Samuel 13:19-22).
Saul and all the army that was with him assembled and marched into battle, where they found the Philistines in total panic killing one another with their swords (1 Samuel 14:20).
The battle really is the Lord’s. At times He defeats Israel’s enemies while they merely look on in wonder. Such was the case when God drowned the Egyptian army in the Red Sea. And such was the case when God defeated the Philistines at Mizpah (1 Samuel 7) and later at Michmash (1 Samuel 14). I believe that it was also the case in our text. God used the 10,000 man army that gathered around Barak to lure Sisera into place, where God would employ the forces of nature to destroy them. The Israelites surely fought, but theirs was largely a matter of cleaning up after God did the work.
The chariots at Sisera’s disposal were not an asset, but a liability, which is clearly evident when Sisera abandoned his chariot and fled on foot. Barak pursued Sisera’s men as far as Harosheth Haggoyim, Sisera’s home town (4:2). Surely Barak hoped to find Sisera and have the honor of putting him to death. But God had revealed to him that a woman would get the honor, not him (4:9). Sisera had other plans. He knew that his master, Jabin, had a peace treaty with Heber the Kenite, and so he sought safety at his house.
Sisera’s Dishonorable Death
17 Now Sisera ran away on foot to the tent of Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite, for King Jabin 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, because I’m thirsty.” She opened a goatskin 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 crept 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 went 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 (Judges 4:17-22).
Sisera arrived at Heber’s tent exhausted and desperate. Unfortunately (for Sisera), Heber was not home. (One has to wonder what Heber’s decision would have been had he been forced to decide between Jabin and Israel.) Heber’s wife, Jael, was home however. I’ll bet this nomadic woman would not have been a candidate for the cover of a woman’s magazine. First of all, she was taken by surprise and wasn’t prepared to entertain guests. Indeed, she would not have entertained a man without her husband being home. In my mind’s eye, I see a rather plain woman, simply dressed and tough as a boot. As the women usually were tasked with taking down and setting up the tents, her hands were probably rough and calloused.
There seems to be no hesitation on Jael’s part. She goes out to welcome Sisera, just as he had hoped. She urged him to stop and rest and to not be afraid. Exhausted, he sank to the floor to get some rest, as Jael urged him to do. She covered him with a blanket of some kind, and when he asked her for water, she gave him milk instead. He was getting even more help than he could have hoped for. And so, encouraged to trust her, Sisera asked Jael to keep watch at her door and to deny that anyone was there in her tent, turning them away without discovering him in his weakened state. His mind at rest and his body exhausted, Sisera fell into a deep sleep. Jael had no weapons of warfare, but she did have the tools of her trade: a tent peg and a hammer. Little did she know until now that all those years of driving tent pegs would prepare her for this moment. She crept beside Sisera and with one powerful blow, penetrated his skull and drove the peg through it, and into the ground.
Later, Barak arrives, pursuing Sisera, and likely accompanied by many of his army. Jael likewise went out to greet Barak and to invite him into her tent. There she presented to Sisera the corpse of Israel’s most powerful enemy, still stuck to the ground by Jael’s tent peg. No, the honor of destroying public enemy number one was not Barak’s, but Jael’s. And this, just as Deborah had prophesied.
Israel Finally Gets it Right
23 That day God humiliated King Jabin of Canaan before the Israelites. 24 Israel’s power continued to overwhelm King Jabin of Canaan until they did away with him (Judges 4:23-24).
The battle with Sisera was won that day, but the war with Jabin was not yet won. The defeat of Sisera and his army was a humiliating defeat for Jabin. He had lost his right hand man and many of his army. The Israelites would continue to pursue and to defeat King Jabin until they “did away with him.” Most other translations say they “destroyed him.” He certainly was completely defeated, but as I read this statement, I conclude that Jabin, like Sisera, is dead. If so, we are not told who accomplished this. It could have been Barak, but whoever it was our author wants the reader to walk away from his account knowing it was Jael who was to get the honor, rather than Barak.
On the one hand, there is a great deal to say from what we have read in chapter 4. On the other hand, I must add that chapter 5 is the “final word” so far as our interpretation and application of chapter 4. Let me conclude, however, with several points of application.
First, I would like to speak to the feminist agenda as it relates to our text. The reason our text is the focus of most scholarly study (so far as the Book of Judges is concerned) is because it appears to be fertile soil for the seeds of feminist interpretation and practice. When the New Testament speaks with great clarity and emphasis on the role of women in the leadership of the home and of the church,16 our text appears to be a great fall-back text. If one does not dig too deeply into the text, it seems to justify women leading men, at least when men fail to lead. This simply is not the case, but I shall wait until chapter 5 to press this point.
I will say that I am greatly distressed by the duplicity of those who reject the clear teaching of Paul on this topic, seeking to justify their rejection of his teaching as irrelevant because the situation he addresses in Corinth (and thus in 1 Corinthians 11 and 14) is unique and not for general application. There was some unique problem in Corinth that required Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians, but this teaching is not normative, not for other churches back then, and certainly not for the church today. I find this most disturbing, given what Paul himself has to say about how general his teaching in 1 Corinthians was meant to be:
16 I encourage you, then, be imitators of me. 17 For this reason, I have sent Timothy to you, who is my dear and faithful son in the Lord. He will remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church (1 Corinthians 4:16-17, emphasis mine).
If anyone intends to quarrel about this, we have no other practice, nor do the churches of God (1 Corinthians 11:16, emphasis mine).
As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak. Rather, let them be in submission, as in fact the law says (1 Corinthians 14:33b-34, emphasis mine).
So feminists would have us set aside Paul’s general (universal) teaching on the ministry of women in the church, alleging that it is exceptional, not general, in spite of Paul’s repeated declarations that it is general. And yet, when we come to the Book of Judges, a book that clearly is exceptional – How many of us would want to teach this as the normal Christian life and practice? – feminists would tell us that Deborah’s alleged leadership is the norm for all time. I find this way of dealing with the Scriptures remarkable and greatly distressing.
Having said this (and having let off a little steam in the process), let me go on to say that Barak and Sisera provide us with examples of those men whose thinking is extreme, on both sides of the issue. Barak places too much emphasis on the importance of Deborah in winning the war with Sisera and Jabin. She did not have to accompany him into battle, as Barak insisted. Her presence was not necessary to guarantee God’s presence and power. Sisera, on the other hand, had too little regard for women, especially Jael. Did he think that the “little woman” was only good for handing out blankets and serving warm milk? Sisera did not give Jael sufficient credit as a worthy opponent, and it cost him his life.
Second, let us all be clear on one thing: the woman who gets the honor in our text is not Deborah, but Jael. Jael is the woman about whom Deborah prophesied. She is the woman whom our text (and chapter 5) praises. It is she who has the courage to contradict the covenant with Jabin made by her husband, Heber. This covenant was contrary to God’s Word (Exodus 23:32). This covenant would have made Jael and her husband Israel’s adversaries. This covenant would have required them to give aid and comfort to the enemies of God and His people. I believe that Jael, much like Abigail (whom we shall find in 1 Samuel 25), took action which endangered her, and which sought the best interest of her husband, all the while giving obedience to God and His Word highest priority.
Jael had every excuse not to act as she did. She was a woman, not a warrior. Engaging the commander of Jabin’s army was not her realm of responsibility. She was not even a Jew, but a Gentile. She was a married woman, whose husband had entered into a covenant of peace with Jabin. Who would possibly expect her to deal with Sisera as she did? She was indeed a woman worthy of honor.
Third, I would like to encourage every Christian by calling your attention to a lesson that is repeatedly taught in the Book of Judges: God uses unlikely people and uncommon means to accomplish His purposes and promises. Who would have thought that Jael would be the hero of our story? I’m sure such a thought never entered the mind of Jael. Sisera was a powerful man, with the support and resources of Jabin. Sisera was a formidable foe. Jael was a woman. Her life must have seemed dull and laborious. How many times had she taken down their tent, only to pitch it somewhere else a few days later? How unimportant she must have thought herself to be – a woman, the wife of a nomad, and not even a Jew. All she could do well was to make beds and blankets, process milk, keep house (tent), and offer a little hospitality. Oh, yes, and she could drive tent pegs – could she do that!
All her life this woman had been doing her simple, mundane tasks, perhaps feeling very insignificant in the scheme of life. And yet God had been preparing her, just as He had used Israel’s years of servitude to prepare them for the rigors of desert life. She had become very skilled with a tent peg and a hammer, but she did not know what difference this could make. If the Book of Judges teaches us anything, it is that our great God uses unlikely instruments to accomplish His purposes. He lifts up those who are lowly (like Jael), and he humbles those who are great (like Sisera).
As a preacher, I have known many people who begrudge the fact that they are not in full-time ministry, that their job does not involve preaching God’s Word and counseling others. They wrongly assume that they are doomed to live out a relatively insignificant existence. If the Book of Judges teaches us anything, it is that God uses lowly, unlikely people to accomplish great things by His power. That is what our Lord did with His disciples, and it is what He will do with us:
When they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and discovered that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized these men had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13).
26 Think about the circumstances of your call, brothers and sisters. Not many were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were born to a privileged position. 27 But God chose what the world thinks foolish to shame the wise, and God chose what the world thinks weak to shame the strong. 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, what is regarded as nothing, to set aside what is regarded as something, 29 so that no one can boast in his presence. 30 He is the reason you have a relationship with Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
1 When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come with superior eloquence or wisdom as I proclaimed the testimony of God. 2 For I decided to be concerned about nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and with much trembling. 4 My conversation and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith would not be based on human wisdom but on the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:26-2:5).
Fourth, I would remind you that this text teaches us that those who choose to identify with God and with His people are blessed of God, while those who oppose God and His people will perish. A humble person (like Jael) who chooses to trust in God and to identify with His people receives God’s blessing, while a great and powerful man like Sisera perishes in shame because he chose to disregard God and to oppress His people. In a day when the nation Israel is hated and opposed by many, it would do us well to consider the implications of our text very carefully.
Finally, I would call your attention to the New Testament and to the gospel that we find proclaimed there. Those who choose to identify with the Lord Jesus Christ are those who will be saved, and those who reject and oppose Him will perish. He came to give His life as a ransom for many, to bear the penalty for sin that we deserve. The ultimate issue is not our identification with Israel (important though that may be), but our identification with Jesus as God’s only means of salvation. He is the ultimate Judge, the ultimate Deliverer. His deliverance is for all eternity because the Lord Jesus rose from the dead and lives forever. He is the One who came to seek and to save those who are lost, due to sin, and we must choose whether or not we will receive God’s gift of salvation in Him. I urge you to consider the gospel of the Lord Jesus and to be saved by trusting in His work on the cross of Calvary.
1 Copyright © 2009 by Robert L. Deffinbaugh. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 5 in the series, The Dark Days of Israel’s Judges, prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on September 13, 2009. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit.
2 See 5:6.
3 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
4 See Judges 2:10-23.
5 See Joshua 11:1-11.
6 Naphtali shared a border with Zebulun.
7 See Judges 1:19.
8 It is interesting to note that it took only 8 years of oppression for the Israelites to first cry out to God (3:8-9) and next it took 18 years of oppression (3:14). Now, it takes 20 years for them to cry out for help. Are they becoming more hardened?
9 “Judging” is the literal translation; “leading” is an interpretive rendering. I do not believe that it would be accurate to say that Deborah was “leading” Israel at this time. She was operating in an out of the way location. She did not lead the armies of Israel; Barak did. She calls herself “a mother in Israel.” Her primary function is as a prophetess and not as a military leader. The task of leading Israel belongs to Barak, as Deborah makes very clear to him.
10 She calls herself “a mother in Israel” in Judges 5:7.
11 See Exodus 18:13-26 and Numbers 11:10-30.
12 See Judges 20:26-28.
13 I’m not sure that I see that God “enticed” Sisera to the Kishon, but it seems that the term “bring” (NET Bible) is not quite strong enough. He was, we might say, irresistibly drawn out to do battle with Sisera.
14 The Kishon River flowed along the plain of Esdraelon not far from the base of Mount Tabor.
15 See Exodus 23:30-33.
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