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Deborah, a faith-inspiring leader

Judges 4:1–7 forms part of the lectionary readings for the twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, which is November 15th. This book describes life in Israel after Joshua’s death (a period around 1210–1051 B.C.).

As the nation was established in Canaan, its days of wandering ended. Many of the covenant promises God made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were being fulfilled.

Chapters 2–5, however, show a tragic cycle of disobedience, oppression, repentance, and deliverance that happened repeatedly throughout the times of the judges. The reason is that Israel forgot its heritage and all that God had done for the nation.

Consequently, the people failed to finish the job of cleansing the land of the Canaanites. Even worse, the Israelites adopted the pagan behavior and idolatry of the Canaanites.

To remind His people about their sacred calling, God permitted pagan nations to oppress Israel so that they would turn back to Him. By allowing them to experience life without His protection, God wanted them to repent and no longer wander away.

During this historical period, God used tribal chiefs called judges to rescue His people from the hand of their oppressors. To a lesser extent, these individuals decided matters of law and justice.

Though some of the judges were corrupt, others were virtuous and honest. These leaders tried to persuade the Israelites to remain faithful to the Lord.

For instance, after experiencing 80 years of peace through the judges, Ehud and Shamgar (3:30–31), the cycle of oppression and deliverance occurred again. Like their predecessors, the next generation of Israelites acted in ways that were abhorrent to the Lord (4:1).

Specifically, God’s people violated the stipulations of the Mosaic covenant, a sacred agreement their ancestors pledged to heed (Josh 24:16–18, 24). Because of their sinfulness, God allowed Jabin, a Canaanite king who ruled in Hazor, to defeat the Israelites and tyrannize them (v. 2).

Joshua 11:1–11 also mentions an earlier, pagan monarch named Jabin who ruled at Hazor. Evidently, “Jabin” was the royal name various dynastic kings took when they ascended the city’s throne.

Hazor was a major urban center and fortification located about 10 miles northwest of the Sea of Galilee. Verses 10–13 indicate that years before, Joshua had burned Hazor to the ground.

The above notwithstanding, when the tribe of Naphtali settled in the area that included Hazor, its people were unable to completely drive out the Canaanites (Judg 1:33).

In turn, the indigenous people became a proverbial thorn in Israel’s side. By the time of Deborah and Barak, the Canaanites apparently had rebuilt Hazor and become powerful enough to oppress Israel.

Sisera was the military commander of Jabin’s army and is more prominent in the Deborah-Barak narrative than Jabin. Sisera was headquartered at Harosheth Haggoyim, which the Septuagint (an ancient Greek translation) renders as “forests of the nations” (4:2).

That said, “Harosheth” translates a Hebrew noun that possibly means “workmanship” and denotes a city known for its engravers, carvers, and other artisans. If these included blacksmiths, they possibly forged some of the iron Sisera used to make the 900 chariots he deployed to tyrannize God’s people (v. 3).

This is the only time during the period of the judges when the enemies of Israel came from within the promised land. If the Israelites had done what God originally commanded—that is, completely expelled the Canaanites—the incident involving Sisera would not have happened.

Moreover, Sisera had the military advantage over the Israelites. First, as stated above, Sisera had hundreds of chariots with iron-rimmed wheels. Second, Sisera used such superior weaponry to reestablish Canaanite power in the northern environs of the promised land.

For 20 years, Sisera remained unchecked in his harsh treatment of the Israelites (v. 3). The covenant community was no match for such an apparently invincible army.

After two grueling decades, the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help. He responded by raising up a woman named Deborah. This was an extraordinary development, given the patriarchal (male-dominated) culture throughout the ancient Near East.

Deborah was the wife of a prominent individual named Lappidoth (v. 4). Little is known about Deborah’s husband.

Deborah was also a prophet. In this role, she received inspired revelations from God and faithfully communicated them to His people. Deborah probably lived in the hill country of Ephraim between Ramah and Bethel (v. 5).

When Deborah led Israel as a judge and prophet, the people came to her to have their disagreements arbitrated. The value they placed on her discernment was appropriate, for she was a woman with great confidence in God.

Not surprisingly, Deborah was concerned for the problems facing her fellow Israelites. This explains why her ethnic peers referred to her as a “mother in Israel” (5:7). This idiomatic expression highlights the protective role godly parents had over their children in that culture.

The particular tree where Deborah regularly settled disputes (a common practice in the ancient Near East) later became known as the “Palm of Deborah” (4:5). The palm tree in Scripture is associated with both prosperity and leadership (Ps 92:12; Isa 9:14).

Deborah is the only leader mentioned in Judges who is also called a “prophet” (4:4) or “prophetess.” She is also one of a select group of women in the Old Testament who are identified by that title. The others include the following individuals: Moses’ sister, Miriam (Exod 15:20); Huldah (2 Kings 22:14); possibly Isaiah’s wife (Isa 8:3); and, Noadiah (Neh 6:14).

As indicated above, a prophet’s main duty was to be God’s spokesperson, namely, to transmit His messages to the covenant community. The prophet believed that heralding God’s declarations could bring about needed ethical change in dire situations.

As part of her role as a judge and prophet, Deborah summoned a combat leader named Barak, the son of Abinoam. Barak was from Kedesh, a town located in the uplands of eastern Galilee in the territory belonging to the tribe of Naphtali (Judg 4:6).

In Deborah’s message to Barak, she said that the “Lord, the God of Israel,” ordered Barak to take 10,000 warriors from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun and march them to Mount Tabor. This limestone peak (located in the northwest corner of the Valley of Jezreel) is steep and symmetrical in shape, with a rounded top that rises about 1,886 feet above sea level. In ancient times, fig, oak, and olive trees covered the sides of the mountain.

Judges 5 tells us that combatants from other tribes also assembled for the battle: men from Ephraim, Benjamin, Makir (perhaps the western half of Manasseh), and Issachar (vv. 13-15, 18). However, warriors from the tribes of Reuben, Gad, Dan, and Asher refused to participate in the fighting and were later rebuked for their obstinacy (vv. 15-17).

We can imagine the dread that must have gripped Barak as he considered the divine summons related through Deborah. After all, by any assessment, the opposing forces were more powerful.

In fact, from a human perspective, the Canaanite foe was the clear favorite in a battle against the Israelites. However, the all-powerful Lord would defend His people and enable them to gain a decisive victory over their oppressors.

God promised Barak that He would draw Sisera, with his powerful chariots and formidable troops, to the Kishon River (4:7). The Lord would enable Barak and the Israelites to defeat Sisera and his Canaanite hordes. As noted further below, this eventually happened when God allowed the low-lying areas of the Jezreel Valley to flood after a downpour of rain, along with the overflow of the Kishon River (5:21).

Despite the Lord’s assurance of victory, Barak initially refused to lead the way to Mount Tabor, that is, unless Deborah accompanied the military commander (4:8). One possibility is that Barak’s timidity was a sign of cowardice.

A more likely option is that Barak needed greater assurance than the promise of God could give. In this case, Barak hoped Deborah’s presence as a prophet (and trustworthy communicator of God’s oracles) would ensure success and enable the combat leader to have closer contact with the Lord for the important task.

Deborah did not allow the deliverance of Israel to be hindered by Barak’s lack of confidence. Though Deborah pledged to go with Barak, he would not receive the honor for the death of Sisera.

Instead, the credit would go to a woman (v. 9), who turned out to be Jael (vv. 21-22). For a soldier living in the Fertile Crescent during the second and first millenniums BC, to have a woman take the honor from Barak would be considered a disgrace.

This ironic turn of events would serve as an embarrassing rebuke for Barak’s lack of trust. Yet, despite his reluctance, Barak did obey the Lord when Deborah accompanied Barak to Kedesh.

Barak is mentioned in Hebrews 11:32 because of his faith in leading his army against Israel’s foes. It was at Kedesh that Barak called together warriors from the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. Next, 10,000 combatants, along with Deborah, marched with Barak to the slopes of Mount Tabor (Judg 4:9-10).

Verse 11 introduces Heber because it was his wife, Jael, who would kill Sisera, as Deborah prophesied (vv. 18–21). Jael’s motive for killing Sisera is not mentioned in the text.

One option is that Jael resented her husband’s friendship with Israel’s enemy. A second possibility is that Jael was an Israelite who still sided with her ethnic peers.

It seems that it was Heber and some others of his clan who told the Canaanites that Barak and his troops had established a camp at Mount Tabor (v. 12). Based on this military intelligence, Sisera decided to relocate his forces from Harosheth Haggoyim to the Kishon River (v. 13).

The river runs along a wide, shallow bed that passes through the Valley of Jezreel. During heavy rainstorms, the river quickly overflows and causes the soil in the valley to become miry. This occurrence worked to the Israelites’ advantage by bogging down the Canaanite chariots.

Sisera’s decision to muster his troops and chariots placed his vehicles in the Valley of Jezreel (vv. 12-13). There these powerful weapons of war could freely maneuver and attack the disadvantaged Israelite troops at will.

Yet, in fact, the proximity of Sisera’s chariots to the river would contribute to his undoing. The military commander stepped right into the trap God had prepared.

On a human level, Barak’s hastily gathered army had no chance against the Canaanite hordes spread out like a sea of locusts across the Valley of Jezreel. Yet, at the opportune time, Deborah took the initiative when she directed Barak to lead his troops in battle against Sisera. Deborah assured the Israelite general that the Lord had already given him the victory.

The Israelites’ divine Warrior had gone ahead of them as their heavenly general. In turn, Barak was bolstered by Deborah’s words. Accordingly, Barak gave up his advantageous position on the slopes of Mount Tabor and descended with his 10,000 troops to face the dreaded chariots in the Valley of Jezreel (v. 14).

As the two armies clashed, it wasn’t the Canaanite hordes who prevailed, despite their superior weaponry. Rather, it was the Israelites who were successful.

The biblical writer, however, was careful to credit the victory to the Lord (v. 15). Just as Deborah prophesied, God really had gone ahead of the Israelite combatants.

As noted earlier, according to 5:21, the Lord sent a torrent of rain that flooded the Kishon River and soaked the Valley of Jezreel. The muddy soil made it virtually impossible for Sisera’s chariots to maneuver, thereby taking away the advantage of these otherwise powerful weapons.

Perhaps this is why the Canaanite commander and the rest of his troops abandoned their chariots and tried to escape on foot from the scene of the battle. It may also be that the presence of rain convinced the enemy that the Lord was fighting for Israel.

The turn of events was out of the control of Barak and Deborah. Without this rain (that is, without the divine Warrior’s help), the Israelite general would have lost the battle. From this observation we see that sometimes God fulfills His promises in such a way that His people must acknowledge their powerlessness over certain incidents.

As the Canaanites abandoned their chariots and fled from the scene of battle, 4:16 states that Barak and his troops chased the army of Sisera westward all the way to Harosheth Haggoyim, the enemy’s base of operation. God gave Barak’s soldiers the ability to conquer the foe using only their swords, leaving no survivors.

These enemies of Israel had been aggressive and relentless in their pursuit of power. Israel’s foes did not honor the Lord.

Through the valiant efforts of Deborah and Barak (not to mention the heroic act of Jael, who ended Sisera’s life; 4:17–22), God soundly defeated Jabin, the Canaanite king, in the sight of the Israelites (v. 23). From the start, the divine Warrior sovereignly worked through the course of events to bring about His will. Admittedly, the actions of His people also played a key part in His plan to subdue Jabin and free the Israelites from his cruel oppression.

Key ideas to contemplate

Any study of noteworthy persons in the Old Testament should be understood as examples from history that God included in His written Word to encourage us to pursue uprightness (1 Cor 10:6). Today’s passage concerns the account of how a prophet named Deborah helped a general named Barak lead God’s people to military victory.

In 1976, a Christian vocal group called the Heritage Singers performed a song that contained the following refrain: “God said it. And I believe it. And that settles it for me.” The statement soon became a popular slogan that numerous drivers made a point of displaying on the bumpers of their vehicles as an expression of their faith.

The declaration is incredibly bold! And certainly, if these Christians were living up to that claim, they had to be well-practiced when forming the “V” for victory sign. Why? It’s because genuine faith brings about real triumph in the lives of God’s children.

The historical account involving Deborah and Barak clarifies the role of faith in winning the battle. Even today, faith must still characterize our lives as believers, not just on bumper stickers. Faith enables us to experience spiritual victory in the big and small battles God wants us to face.

As Judges 4:3 reveals, the tribes of Israel had suffered 20 years of harassment and oppression. A sense of hopelessness pervaded the covenant community. Only Deborah seemed to stand as a leader with faith.

Deborah was respected for her wisdom, which came from her trust and knowledge of the Lord. When others despaired over the situation, this great prophet relied on God and proved to be a wise leader. God used Deborah’s single-minded devotion to rescue her Israelite peers.

This spokesperson for God, who truly knew the Lord, was the foremost personality for her people at that time of crisis. Here we see that God chooses regenerate women, as well as men, to carry out His plans, and that the woman or man who trusts in the Lord will be the true leader.

Deborah was able to convince the demoralized general, Barak, to rise and rally the fighters in Israel. Deborah’s faith even inspired the fainthearted. From this we recognize that the person with trust in God is empowered to stand up to the most negative and disbelieving doubters.

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Dan T. Lioy

Professor Dan Lioy (PhD, North-West University) holds several faculty appointments. He is the Senior Research Manager at South African Theological Seminary (in South Africa). Also, he is a professor of biblical theology at the Institute of Lutheran Theology (in South Dakota). Moreover, he is a dissertation advisor in the Leadership and Global Perspectives DMIN program at Portland Seminary (part of George Fox University in Oregon). Finally, he is a professor in the School of Continuing Theological Studies at North-West University (in South Africa). Professor Lioy is active in local church ministry, being dual rostered with the Evangelical Church Alliance and the North American Lutheran Church. He is widely published, including a number of academic monographs, peer-reviewed journal articles, and church resource products.

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