“So may all your enemies perish, O Lord! But may they who love You be like the sun when it rises in its strength” (Jdg. 5:31).Women were not generally leaders in patriarchal Israel. But her sex did not disqualify Deborah, whose spiritual gifts were acknowledged by God’s people.
Deborah, the prophetess—leader of Israel, told a hesitant Barak to raise an army (4:1–11). The Israelite victory (vv. 12–24) is celebrated in one of the most beautiful of ancient poems, Deborah’s song (5:1–31).
Understanding the Text
Deborah is identified as a prophetess. God used her as His spokesman, communicating special messages to His people. The text also says she was “leading [judging] Israel at that time.” This was very unusual in a society that emphasized male leadership and female subordination. The text also says that Deborah served as a sort of supreme court and settled disputes that could not be decided locally. Any one of these roles would set off any individual as special, male or female. Possession of all three roles indicates that Deborah was a truly unusual woman, with great personal and spiritual gifts. Deborah reminds us that society’s stereotypes need not hold for God’s people. God’s choice of Deborah shows that He is free to work through any human being. That choice reminds us that a person’s sex does not automatically qualify or disqualify him or her for significant ministry. Barak. Barak himself is a fascinating study. Barak was hesitant and fearful, unwilling to face the enemy unless Deborah accompanied his army (4:8). This was despite the fact that Deborah had promised Barak victory in God’s name. Dependence on God is desirable. Dependence on human beings, even those who may represent God, is not. Barak’s mistake was to trust God to act only through Deborah, rather than trust God directly. We can appreciate and honor our spiritual leaders; but we must not exalt them to the extent that Barak exalted Deborah. “Jabin, a king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor” Jdg. 4:1–11. Hazor had been destroyed by Joshua. But the strategic site was rebuilt, and a new Jabin (probably a dynastic name) controlled the lowlands and “cruelly oppressed” Israel. That oppression is described in 5:6–10. The Israelites feared to travel by roads, abandoned many villages, and lacked weapons. On the other hand, the Canaanites, under their skilled commander, Sisera, had 900 iron chariots. A look at a map shows that the oppression affected only the northernmost of Israel’s tribes, notably Naphtali and Zebulun. Deborah’s location in Ephraim’s highlands suggests that she was not directly affected. We don’t need to be directly affected by suffering to become involved. Paul says of the body of Christ, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Cor. 12:26). “Sisera gathered together his nine hundred iron chariots and all the men . . . to the Kishon River” Jdg. 4:11–16. In the dry season the Esdraelon Valley through which the Kishon trickled was ideal for chariot warfare: flat and hard, with room to maneuver. However, when wet, the valley turned to muck, making chariots a liability. While Judges 4:15 simply says that “the Lord routed Sisera” and that “Sisera abandoned his chariot and fled on foot,” Deborah’s song explains. She describes how “the heavens poured, the clouds poured down water” (5:4). Baal, worshiped by the Canaanites, was originally a god of thunder and thunderstorms. Here the Lord turns the storm against the worshipers of the storm god and uses rain to neutralize their military advantage! The victory over the Canaanites was a divine judgment on the religion of the Canaanites as well as on their treatment of God’s people. “Please give me some water” Jdg. 4:17–23. Sisera’s request for water may suggest more than thirst. Among nomadic peoples even the most deadly of enemies who was given food or drink came under the protection of his host. In the absence of her husband, Jael acted as hostess. She gave Sisera the drink he requested and hid him in her tent. She then violated custom and with a single blow drove a sharpened tent peg through his forehead. We shouldn’t be surprised at Jael’s strength. Among nomadic Middle Eastern people women pitch the tents, so the tent peg and mallet would have been familiar tools. Despite her violation of hospitality, Deborah blessed Jael. Unlike others, Jael came forward “to help the Lord, to help the Lord against the mighty” (5:23). There are times when Christians too need to step forward, even when an act of conscience goes against community standards. Civil disobedience during the ’60s—the civil rights movement—was one such time. I suspect that picketing abortion clinics in the ’90s is another time when Christians need to be willing to come forward to “help the Lord against the mighty.” “Through the window” Jdg. 5:28–31. The imagery and irony of this brief passage has led to its recognition as perhaps the most brilliant of all ancient poems. “They destroyed him” Jdg. 4:24. The victory over Sisera’s army drained the strength of the Canaanites. The war wasn’t over. But that battle was the turning point. The text says that after the battle the Israelites grew stronger, and finally they destroyed the Canaanite king and his kingdom. Judges 5:31 adds, “Then the land had peace for forty years.” Some Christians believe that turning to Jesus solves all problems automatically. I’ve known one or two alcoholics who claimed that after their conversions they never wanted to touch another drop. But I’ve known many more who report that they have to struggle daily against the urge to take just one drink. The victory over Sisera reminds us that we do have to battle the things in life that oppress us. We have to take a stand and claim the victory. But the first battle in which the enemy suffers a crushing defeat may well be a prelude to years of struggle. We, like the Israelites, need to grow stronger and stronger, and to recognize that it may take a long time to “destroy him.”
Staying by the Campfire (Jdg. 5)
Deborah’s song is a victory shout. It vibrates with excitement and praise. It overflows with joy and enthusiasm. And no wonder. The battle with Sisera was the turning point for a whole generation. Twenty years of oppression were transformed into 40 years of peace. Deborah and Barak led an army of men whose proudest claim in years to come would be, “I was there, at the river Kishon.” No wonder the victory poem is so electric, so vibrant and filled with joy. Except for a few verses in the middle. Verses that describe the tribes who failed to answer the call to battle the Canaanites. The men of Ephraim came. The tribes of Zebulun and Issachar were there. But where was Reuben? Where were Gilead and Dan and Asher when “the people of Zebulun risked their very lives”? “In the districts of Reuben,” Deborah says, “there was much searching of heart. Why did you stay among the campfires to hear the whistling for the flocks?” (vv. 16–18) Why, when opportunity came to make history, did these people stay home, absorbed in the ordinary tasks of daily life? Sitting around the campfire. Caring for the sheep. As though nothing special were happening just over the mountain, where their brothers risked their very lives. There’s really no answer to that question. Was it a lack of vision? A failure to see the opportunity? Was it a lack of caring, a failure to be moved by the suffering of others? Whatever the reason, these members of God’s household failed to sense that the critical moment had arrived. They failed to act. And God won the victory without them. And what a lesson for us today. God will win His victories with whoever volunteers. But how sad it would be for us if we were to stay by our campfire while history was made.
What opportunity is too great for you to miss today?