Today we are looking at Deborah—The Prophetess and Judge. Ehud has passed away, the people once again do evil in the Lord’s eyes. The Lord allows them to be sold into the hands of the King of Canaan who has the powerful general Sisera keeping the Israelites under his thumb. The Israelites cry out to the Lord to save them! The Lord responds by telling Deborah, (who was leading Israel at the time) to call Barak to be the Lord’s general and go up against Sisera and the Lord will give Sisera into his hands. Barak wants Deborah to go up with him, so the Lord still promises that Israel will win, but that the hero will be a woman instead of Barak.
Deborah—The Prophetess and Judge
Last week we reflected on Ehud-the left-handed judge, now he dies, Shamgur shows up and has a great battle against the Philistines, striking down 600 of them with only an ox-goad. Again, the Israelites don’t learn and they turn away from the Lord, worshiping other gods, so the Lord gives them into the hands of Jabin, a king of Canaan, one of the peoples the Israelites were supposed to drive out of the land when God lead them into the Promised Land, but they had never finished the job, getting too comfortable living with them instead. Now Jabin has a mighty general, Sisera with 900 iron chariots under his command, making him one of the most powerful military forces in the world at that time. Jabin and Sisera cruelly oppress Israel. We learn from the next chapter that it was common for them to plunder the Israelites and grab their women and daughters for their men and treat them like things.
Israel’s oppressed for 20 years; the years of oppression are growing longer; Israel doesn’t learn faithfulness well. The Israelites cry out to the Lord for help and the Lord stays faithful to his covenant with them, even though they keep failing God. God does something different this time around; rather than raising up a warrior to deliver his people, God goes to Deborah, a prophetess and judge in the hill country of Ephraim, northeast of Jerusalem in the very heart of Israel. She’s a trusted person in Israel; people come to her to decide their disputes. Deborah sends for Barak and makes him the Lord’s general, chosen by the Lord to go up against the mighty pagan general Sisera. Barak’s told to set up on the high ground on Mount Tabor while the Lord leads Sisera to the river plain of the Kishon River.
Sisera sees the river plain as an ideal place for his chariots with lots of room to maneuver against the Israelites and crush them. Sisera has no clue that he’s actually up against Israel’s God, not simply Barak or Deborah. The Lord has plans for Sisera and tells Barak that he will give Israel’s general the victory. Barak hesitates though, telling Deborah that he will only go if she comes with him and the troops. This isn’t a sign of cowardice; it shows instead that Barak sees the world through the eyes of military leaders of the nations around him. This is so easy to do, seeing the world through the eyes of the society we live in rather than do the hard work of learning to see the world and ourselves through the eyes of Jesus.
Barak wants God’s representative with him when he goes into battle as an assurance of God’s presence, and as an inspiration to the men as they go up against the powerful and cruel and feared general Sisera. Barak’s thinking that if something goes wrong, Deborah can invoke God’s name, just as the pagan prophet Balaam was supposed to do for King Balak while Israel was still wandering in the wilderness before entering into the Promised Land.
Deborah agrees to come with Barak, but lets him know that because he’s hedging his bets with the Lord by asking her to come with him, that the honour of defeating Sisera will now go to a woman. At this point in the story, we’re expecting that woman to be Deborah. As the story of God’s deliverance of his people unfolds, we notice again that God’s not using people we would normally turn to, to save his people. Deborah and Barak and 10,000 fighting men head out to Mount Tabor, God’s chosen battlefield, but the writer of Judges suddenly sticks in a weird detail about a man named Heber the Kenite who sets up his tent in the region where the battle between Barak and Sisera is going to happen. This is a heads up for us the reader to remember, somehow this is going to matter.
Deborah tells Barak, “Go! This is the day the Lord has given Sisera into your hands. Has not the Lord gone ahead of you?” The battle is engaged! Barak attacks from the heights of Mount Tabor, God messes with Sisera’s army and Israel routs the Canaanite army, so much so that Sisera abandons the protection of his powerful chariot of iron and runs away on foot while Barak takes off after him. As Sisera’s running for his life, he comes across the tent of Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite, and we now learn that Heber is in alliance with Jabin, so this is a safe place for Sisera to hide.
Jael goes out to meet Sisera, and being such a powerful and feared general, Jael would know who this battle-weary soldier is. She invites him into her tent. This is a key point in this story as Sisera believes he is now in a place of safety, out of sight of those chasing him. Jael covers him with a blanket and gives him milk to drink after he mentions that he’s thirsty. Jael is following all the customs and expectations of hospitality at that time. As a person needing help and sanctuary, and especially since Jabin, her husband is an ally of Sisera and Jabin, Jael’s responsibility is to protect and defend the general. Sisera trusts in Jael.
Now the story takes an unexpected twist. Sisera commands Jael to “Stand in the doorway of the tent. If someone comes by and asks you ‘Is anyone there?’ say ‘No.’” Sisera now goes into a deep sleep due to the exhaustion and stress of the battle and running for his life, now combined with the warm milk, sending him into an exhausted slumber. As Jael waits by the doorway of her tent, she keeps an eye on Sisera and once she’s convinced that he's truly asleep, she takes a tent peg and a hammer, kneels by Sisera’s head, and then pounds the tent peg into his temple, pinning him to the ground and killing him. This is the deepest of betrayals, this is murder, and it shames Sisera who dies at the hand of a woman while asleep without any opportunity to defend himself. The great and terrifying general is killed by a woman with a tent peg and hammer, there’s no honour here. Sisera was so confident in his power, in his chariots fitted with iron, with the might of his armies and his reputation, and then the Lord uses a woman to strike him down.
The next chapter is Deborah’s song of victory, giving God all the glory and honour of the victory. Where God is hardly mentioned in chapter 4, in chapter 5 God gets the victory, glory, and honour; the God of Israel is the God who rules the stars and all of nature as Sisera discovers when God sends rain and floods to thwart the power of his chariots, making them useless and giving God’s people the victory. Israel has chosen new gods, but they only bring slavery and oppression until the God of Israel, the God of Sinai, reveals his power and his enemies perish before him. Deborah sings about receiving God’s blessings through following him, from listening to his voice, from putting ourselves at his service. Jael, a foreigner and woman, is praised and blessed as the defeater of Sisera in spite of how she kills Sisera. We don’t know if Jael is a follower of God, while she is blessed for killing Israel’s threat, does this condone her actions as Sisera was not her enemy, however God does use her actions to deliver his people from his cruelty and oppression.
But Deborah’s song also curses those in Israel who stay at home rather than listen to the call to stand up against the enemies of the Lord. In many ways this is a warning to the people of Israel, and us, to not put our trust in the things and people that the nations place their trust in. The Lord wins and uses the unexpected to accomplish his purposes. The Lord has won, the honour of the victory goes to a foreign woman, Jael, rather than Barak, Israel’s general, or even to Deborah, the Lord’s prophetess, just as Deborah had told Barak. The Lord gives Israel victory over Jabin, destroying him.
Deborah reveals to us who God is; he’s God over all creation, there are no enemies that can defeat him, God wins. When we walk away from the Lord to follow other gods, we’re reminded that God is a God of justice and he does punish sin. We are called to return to following Jesus, we are called to obedience and loving God above everything else in our lives. But God is also a God of mercy as we see when God sends Jesus to draw us back to him and to take the punishment of our sin on himself, as Paul tells the Athenians, “For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” It’s because of God’s mercy that we turn to God asking, “Who do you want us to be as your children, how do you want us to live.” God remains faithful to his people and the covenants and promises he’s given to send a saviour to defeat those gods and deliver us from their power over us; power God gives them for a time to cause us to turn back to him.
We experience God’s grace in Jesus, where we’re offered new life and the presence of the Holy Spirit to give us the strength to stand up against Satan and the other gods that keep trying to tempt us away from Jesus. New life looks like walking in Jesus’ way, a path where the Holy Spirit shapes us to become who God has created us to be; witnesses to the world bringing the good news of Jesus.