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Women of the Bible

Deborah

Judges 4,5

Lesson audio

The number of women in the Bible who played a leading role in political and military affairs is rather small; and most of them were decidedly evil. Here is the exception.

Preliminaries

Jdg 4:1-24 NASB Then the sons of Israel again did evil in the sight of the LORD, after Ehud died. (2) And the LORD sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; and the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-hagoyim. (3) The sons of Israel cried to the LORD; for he had nine hundred iron chariots, and he oppressed the sons of Israel severely for twenty years. (4) Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. (5) She used to sit under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the sons of Israel came up to her for judgment. (6) 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. (7) 'I will draw out to you Sisera, the commander of Jabin's army, with his chariots and his many troops to the river Kishon, and I will give him into your hand.'" (8) Then Barak said to her, "If you will go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go." (9) She said, "I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the honor shall not be yours on the journey that you are about to take, for the LORD will sell Sisera into the hands of a woman." Then Deborah arose and went with Barak to Kedesh. (10) Barak called Zebulun and Naphtali together to Kedesh, and ten thousand men went up with him; Deborah also went up with him. (11) Now Heber the Kenite had separated himself from the Kenites, from the sons of Hobab the father-in-law of Moses, and had pitched his tent as far away as the oak in Zaanannim, which is near Kedesh. (12) Then they told Sisera that Barak the son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor. (13) Sisera called together all his chariots, nine hundred iron chariots, and all the people who were with him, from Harosheth-hagoyim to the river Kishon. (14) Deborah said to Barak, "Arise! For this is the day in which the LORD has given Sisera into your hands; behold, the LORD has gone out before you." So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with ten thousand men following him. (15) The LORD routed Sisera and all his chariots and all his army with the edge of the sword before Barak; and Sisera alighted from his chariot and fled away on foot. (16) But Barak pursued the chariots and the army as far as Harosheth-hagoyim, and all the army of Sisera fell by the edge of the sword; not even one was left. (17) Now Sisera fled away on foot to the tent of Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite, for there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite. (18) Jael went out to meet Sisera, and said to him, "Turn aside, my master, turn aside to me! Do not be afraid." And he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. (19) He said to her, "Please give me a little water to drink, for I am thirsty." So she opened a bottle of milk and gave him a drink; then she covered him. (20) He said to her, "Stand in the doorway of the tent, and it shall be if anyone comes and inquires of you, and says, 'Is there anyone here?' that you shall say, 'No.'" (21) But Jael, Heber's wife, took a tent peg and seized a hammer in her hand, and went secretly to him and drove the peg into his temple, and it went through into the ground; for he was sound asleep and exhausted. So he died. (22) And behold, as Barak pursued Sisera, Jael came out to meet him and said to him, "Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking." And he entered with her, and behold Sisera was lying dead with the tent peg in his temple. (23) So God subdued on that day Jabin the king of Canaan before the sons of Israel. (24) The hand of the sons of Israel pressed heavier and heavier upon Jabin the king of Canaan, until they had destroyed Jabin the king of Canaan.

How Israel got into this mess

There is a continuing pattern in the book of Judges (and often in other historical books):

  1. Israel turns from God to the idols.
  2. God sends punishment – at the hands of some external enemy. This aspect puzzles some; but God allows no evil out of which He cannot bring a greater good.
  3. The oppressed Israelites cry out to God – and He sends a deliverer.

That’s exactly the case here. (Does anyone recognize 9-11?)

The Call

It’s interesting to note that Deborah probably didn’t intend to go out to battle. It’s likely she figured that Barak, once told by the prophetess that this is what God wants him to do – and that it will mean victory – would have no hesitation. We must remember that Barak hasn’t heard the prophetic voice. Like Gideon some time later, it sounds very unlikely.

Mark Twain once remarked that the difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between “lightning” and “lightning bug.” The word “Barak” means lightning in Hebrew. But this Barak is a lightning bug. He’s not going unless the lady with the voice in her head goes with him. Not surprisingly, she takes this amiss, and announces that victory is sure – and the chief oppressor will die. Die – at a woman’s hands.

We can get an idea of Barak’s reluctance when we remember that the Israelites are at rather a disadvantage:

  • The have no access to iron weapons (a problem that persisted into David’s reign). Their enemy is technologically superior.
  • The Israelites live in the hills; the Canaanites in the valleys. The valleys give them the ability to use those iron chariots to good advantage. Also, because the valleys are more fertile, the Canaanites can live in fortified cities, with larger populations. The Israelites are obliged to be herders.
  • The Israelites have been paying taxes (tribute) which goes to fund a standing army for their oppressors. This means that Sisera commands a professional army. The Israelites are just a bunch of guys.

Worse, Barak doesn’t get the support of all the tribes of Israel, or even all the tribes in the immediate area.

The victory

It is useful to have a map of the area with the relevant movements:

map

Things start to go wrong for the Canaanites almost immediately. The Bible mentions the rain; Josephus[1] tells us that the storm was severe, including hail as well as rain. The wind blew this into the faces of the Canaanites, but it hit the Israelites on the back. Barak has carefully chosen his position. His forces are on Mount Tabor, which is a relatively steep mount:

Mt. Tabor

Barak has chosen a good defensive position, one in which chariots will have some difficulty, especially in flanking maneuvers. Sisera evidently attacks first, and when the attack bogs down, the Israelites counterattack. By this time mud is everywhere and the chariots are just about useless. Worse for them, the Kishon river is now flooding – this blocks their crossing, bunches up the army, and quickly creates a panic retreat along the river. Napoleon argued that a river along the lines of your advance is much more dangerous than one athwart it. Here’s an example.

Sisera, seeing everyone head west, goes east. He figures that he can find a hiding place with the people of Heber the Kenite. This clan is on good terms with the Canaanites; they are allowed to farm the Jordan valley, which brought prosperity. This was a serious error in judgment on his part.

One is minded to ask: is Jael sinning by pegging him to the ground? Deborah leads Israel, but most women stay at home with the kids. It sounds to our modern ears as some sort of violation of the Geneva convention, but remember that in this time the winners slaughtered the losers and took all the good looking women with them.

Deborah: Her character and office

Judge

We know a few things about the office of judge in this time:

  • The office was held for life (helps with impartiality) but it was not hereditary.
  • Judgment was made according to the Law of Moses.
  • For difficult cases, the judge was allowed to consult the Urim and Thummim.

That last is rather obscure. The phrase means “light and perfection”; it was part of the High Priests garment. Other than that, we have no idea how they worked.

Prophetess

It appears that being a prophet was not particularly reserved for men. The function at this time is that of receiving a message from God; there seems to be no requirement of the miraculous. It’s not a particularly well organized profession. It’s not until the time of Samuel that there are “schools of the prophets” to teach them the Law of Moses, so that they’d recognize the truth when they heard it. That’s the danger of prophecy today; anyone can claim to be a prophet. With disastrous results.

“A mother in Israel”

(The phrase occurs in chapter 5, which we will read shortly.)

The description Deborah uses of herself is found only one other time in Scripture, where it is applied to a town.[2] It’s something of a taunt, here – as if to say that the big, brave, macho Barak had to have a woman along to give him confidence. The phrase itself is something which is modestly self-praising; remember that this is a day when women were highly valued in the role of mother. The phrase gained some popularity in the 19th century as a title of honor for a Christian woman. Deborah, it seems, gets to toot her own horn a little.

Deborah, The Poet

Before we read her victory poem, it would be well to remember that there are reasons for such poetry:

  • It serves as part of the oral tradition of the society. Paper is expensive, memorizing poetry can be done by your kids.
  • Poetry is much more likely to catch the emotional mood and feelings of the event.
  • Hebrew poetry is easy to translate, because it rhymes in thought.

Here’s the poem:

Jdg 5:1-31 NASB Then Deborah and Barak the son of Abinoam sang on that day, saying, (2) "That the leaders led in Israel, That the people volunteered, Bless the LORD! (3) "Hear, O kings; give ear, O rulers! I--to the LORD, I will sing, I will sing praise to the LORD, the God of Israel. (4) "LORD, when You went out from Seir, When You marched from the field of Edom, The earth quaked, the heavens also dripped, Even the clouds dripped water. (5) "The mountains quaked at the presence of the LORD, This Sinai, at the presence of the LORD, the God of Israel. (6) "In the days of Shamgar the son of Anath, In the days of Jael, the highways were deserted, And travelers went by roundabout ways. (7) "The peasantry ceased, they ceased in Israel, Until I, Deborah, arose, Until I arose, a mother in Israel. (8) "New gods were chosen; Then war was in the gates. Not a shield or a spear was seen Among forty thousand in Israel. (9) "My heart goes out to the commanders of Israel, The volunteers among the people; Bless the LORD! (10) "You who ride on white donkeys, You who sit on rich carpets, And you who travel on the road--sing! (11) "At the sound of those who divide flocks among the watering places, There they shall recount the righteous deeds of the LORD, The righteous deeds for His peasantry in Israel. Then the people of the LORD went down to the gates. (12) "Awake, awake, Deborah; Awake, awake, sing a song! Arise, Barak, and take away your captives, O son of Abinoam. (13) "Then survivors came down to the nobles; The people of the LORD came down to me as warriors. (14) "From Ephraim those whose root is in Amalek came down, Following you, Benjamin, with your peoples; From Machir commanders came down, And from Zebulun those who wield the staff of office. (15) "And the princes of Issachar were with Deborah; As was Issachar, so was Barak; Into the valley they rushed at his heels; Among the divisions of Reuben There were great resolves of heart. (16) "Why did you sit among the sheepfolds, To hear the piping for the flocks? Among the divisions of Reuben There were great searchings of heart. (17) "Gilead remained across the Jordan; And why did Dan stay in ships? Asher sat at the seashore, And remained by its landings. (18) "Zebulun was a people who despised their lives even to death, And Naphtali also, on the high places of the field. (19) "The kings came and fought; Then fought the kings of Canaan At Taanach near the waters of Megiddo; They took no plunder in silver. (20) "The stars fought from heaven, From their courses they fought against Sisera. (21) "The torrent of Kishon swept them away, The ancient torrent, the torrent Kishon. O my soul, march on with strength. (22) "Then the horses' hoofs beat From the dashing, the dashing of his valiant steeds. (23) 'Curse Meroz,' said the angel of the LORD, 'Utterly curse its inhabitants; Because they did not come to the help of the LORD, To the help of the LORD against the warriors.' (24) "Most blessed of women is Jael, The wife of Heber the Kenite; Most blessed is she of women in the tent. (25) "He asked for water and she gave him milk; In a magnificent bowl she brought him curds. (26) "She reached out her hand for the tent peg, And her right hand for the workmen's hammer. Then she struck Sisera, she smashed his head; And she shattered and pierced his temple. (27) "Between her feet he bowed, he fell, he lay; Between her feet he bowed, he fell; Where he bowed, there he fell dead. (28) "Out of the window she looked and lamented, The mother of Sisera through the lattice, 'Why does his chariot delay in coming? Why do the hoofbeats of his chariots tarry?' (29) "Her wise princesses would answer her, Indeed she repeats her words to herself, (30) 'Are they not finding, are they not dividing the spoil? A maiden, two maidens for every warrior; To Sisera a spoil of dyed work, A spoil of dyed work embroidered, Dyed work of double embroidery on the neck of the spoiler?' (31) "Thus let all Your enemies perish, O LORD; But let those who love Him be like the rising of the sun in its might." And the land was undisturbed for forty years.

The Poem

The poem itself is broken down into 8 major themes:

  1. It begins with thanksgiving to God – that alone is a lesson.
  2. Then Deborah reminds her hearers of the glory of God, the great things he has done.
  3. Contrasting that, she now declares the sin of the Israelites – a form of confession, if you will.
  4. She compares that with the present joy – happy days are here again.
  5. It is now that things seem a bit spiteful. She chastises some tribes, and a particular village named Mezor, for their unwillingness to join in the battle. This, of course, increases the glory of those who did participate.
  6. We then have a brief account of the defeat of the kings.
  7. In particular, she praises Jael for her part in the victory.
  8. And just in case it’s not clear, the poem ends by gloating over the agony of heart that must have hit Sisera’s mother.

This poses many of the same problems seen in the vengeful Psalms. But please note: you sure know how she feels about this victory!

For us

There are a few things we might learn here:

  • God often chooses what the world calls weakness to display his strength. In a time where the highest aspiration of most women was “mother,” God saved Israel by this woman. The object lesson could not be missed.
  • Deborah’s poem – and others like it – have the effect of strengthening the faith of those who know them. Poetry is easy to memorize and quick to come to mind. (Think of some of the old hymns you know).
  • Courage, as ever, is the foundation of victory.


[1] Antiquities of the Jews, Book 5, Chapter 5

[2] 2nd Samuel 20:19

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