Deborah’s story picks up roughly 200 years after Rahab and her family were spared when the Israelites took the city of Jericho. If you are like me, you’ve been a little disturbed when reading in the Old Testament about the times God’s people took a city by force and killed all the people in it. Somehow it doesn’t seem right to us that the Israelis would kill a bunch of people – even the townspeople and not just the city leaders. Has that bothered you before?
When I continue reading through the Old Testament, I begin to notice why all that killing was necessary. It was to eradicate oppressive pagan believers and their beliefs from the land. God did not want His people to become oppressed or led astray. Yet, if He had to choose between the two, He would rather allow them to be oppressed – which would drive them to Him for deliverance – than to be led astray into worshipping false gods.
The Israelites had taken Canaan by storm in Rahab’s lifetime, but not all of the Canaanites had been killed. Fast forward a few generations and the Canaanites were once again ruling the land – and oppressing the Israelites. In Deborah’s era, the Canaanite king was Jabin and his chief warrior was Sisera. Sisera commanded a large Canaanite army that had 900 iron chariots – a sure sign of force. Meanwhile, the tribes of Israel were spread out around the land and not as well armed.
Interestingly, the leader for the nation of Israel at this time was a married woman – Deborah. The text says she was a prophetess (someone who God used to speak to and guide his people). With her wisdom, faith and leadership skills, she had risen to the position of supreme judge of the nation. While women leaders were not unheard of, nor were they forbidden in Israeli society (example, Moses’ sister Miriam), this is the first and only time we see a woman solely at the helm of the whole nation of Israel. I believe Israel as a nation was in a deep leadership vacuum of faith, courage and morals. Deborah boldly stepped up to the plate and God kept His hand upon her.
God planned to deliver His people from the Canaanites’ rule, and Deborah knew it. She called upon General Barak, a Hebrew from the North, and told him that God was commanding him to lead an Israeli army to the area of Mount Tabor, where God himself would lure Sisera’s army and deliver them into Israel’s hands (Judges 4:6-7). Did you catch that? God was commanding him to do this. And God was telling him that He would do the work necessary to ensure victory. Does Barak jump up and down and praise God? No. Barak is still scared, and still doesn’t trust. He says he will only do it if Deborah comes with him. Notice Barak is placing stipulations on his willingness to obey God.
Barak knows that God’s hand is on Deborah and that she hears His voice, so he wants her along as a security blanket. Barak has the command and promise of the LORD and yet he won’t feel safe unless Deborah is with him. Do you have crutches you lean on instead of God?
Deborah replies that she will go with him, but because of his lack of courage and faith, the LORD will actually deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman rather than into Barak’s hands (which would have made him a total hero in the land).
As the story unfolds, Barak gathers a coalition of the willing (not all of the tribes of Israel agreed to join the fight according to the song in chapter 5 which again shows the decline of the nation and their men’s faith) and they head atop Mount Tabor. Sure enough, Sisera and his chariot-riding army head there too. It begins to rain and the heavy iron chariots become stuck in the mud in the valley below the mountain, eliminating that advantage for the Canaanites. The Israelis advance downward and overtake them in sword combat. Sisera, however, manages to escape on foot.
Sisera runs until he comes to the tent of a nomadic couple. The nomadic Kenites had a peaceful agreement with the Canaanites. Nomads weren’t really a military threat to anyone – they just stayed out of the way and did their thing. However, the nomads likely knew that the Israeli army and the Canaanite army were clashing nearby. Sisera stumbles – tired, dirty, bloody and exhausted – to Jael’s tent and she welcomes him in. What a shock this must have been … the ruler of the king’s army is alone, on the run, and looking to hide out in your tent! Jael would've figured the Canaanite army has likely been defeated if Sisera is on the run and hiding.
Jael shows Sisera hospitality, further putting him at ease. And then he instructs her to stand by the door and lie to anyone who might come by looking for him as he lays down to sleep and regain his strength. The Bible is silent on her thoughts at this point – oh how I long for details of what motivated her actions. What she trembling with fear? Was she angry at the Cannanite rulers? Had she heard from the one, true God to do this? Once Sisera was asleep, Jael picks up a tent peg and hammer and – just as she had done so many times before as a nomad – she drives that tent peg with all her might … only this time into a man’s head rather than the ground.
When Barak, who was on Sisera’s trail, arrives on the scene, Jael ushers him inside to see the dead body. Surely at this point Barak realized that God’s word can be trusted. A simple woman, all alone, had killed the mighty warrior Sisera – just as Deborah prophesied.
In commemoration, Deborah and Barak sing a victory song in chapter five. This victory song was composed to give God the glory for the victory and to help the Israelis remember this portion of their history - both leading up to and through this battle. It's not clear who wrote the song, but within it Deborah is called a mother of Israel – kind of like our term “a founding father” – and Jael is praised for her actions and highest blessings are wished upon her. Not bad for a couple of ancient married gals, don’t you think?!
It is sad to see the men in the nation at this period showing little faith in their God or His power. But its great to see Deborah maintaining the faith and being used by God to bring the nation back to Him.
Some thoughts to ponder ...
Which characteristic of Deborah's would you most like to posses - and what would you do if you had that characteristic?
What do you think God wants you to take away from the stories of Deborah, Barak, Sisera and Jael?
Post and share your reactions with us.