1 And the children of Israel again did evil in the sight of the Lord, when Ehud was dead.I remember when I was taking a class on the Old Testament and we got to this story and the teacher made the observation that it really indicates the wickedness of the people when a woman has to judge Israel (keep in mind it was a patriarchal society). I remember marveling at that.
2 And the Lord sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan, that reigned in Hazor; the captain of whose host was Sisera, which dwelt in Harosheth of the Gentiles.
3 And the children of Israel cried unto the Lord: for he had nine hundred chariots of iron; and twenty years he mightily oppressed the children of Israel.
4 ¶ And Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, she judged Israel at that time.
5 And she dwelt under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Beth-el in mount Ephraim: and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment. (Judges 4:1-5)
However, today I have second thoughts about that assessment and for this reason--an evil society would be likely to denigrate the authority of a prophet-judge, and even more likely to denigrate the authority of a prophetess-judge, saying something like, “Who made you a judge over us?”
Actually, considering how Israel was being oppressed by Jabin and Sisera, they probably couldn’t count on obtaining justice from them in a court of law run by them. Perhaps the male Israelite judges were exterminated by the Canaanites in order to keep the Israelites in subjection. (After all, judges also did double duty as military leaders.) Deborah may have begun judging Israel privately so that some friends and neighbors didn’t have to risk more injustice from Canaanite judges. The word must have gotten around about her fairness and people began to come to her to settle their disputes. Perhaps her femininity was seen as a perfect disguise. What Canaanite would suspect a woman of being the locus of a judiciary? Like Gideon, who had to thresh grain in the winepress to hide it from the Midianites, the Israelites sought justice from a woman.
And maybe Israel would have rejected Deborah as a judge in the beginning of their backsliding and sinful period, but perhaps they had been humbled enough by Canaanite oppression over the process of time that after 20 years they finally wanted righteous judgment, no matter what the source. Coming to a prophetess for judgment would indicate they begun to turn to God and they were starting on the right track.
6 And she sent and called Barak the son of Abinoam out of Kedesh-naphtali, and said unto him, Hath not the Lord God of Israel commanded, saying, Go and draw toward mount Tabor, and take with thee ten thousand men of the children of Naphtali and of the children of Zebulun?I don’t know how many commentators have put down Barak for timidity when he refuses to go up to fight the Canaanites without Deborah at his side. However, I sense that Barak had a far better reason for wanting Deborah with him, and I suspect it stems from her prophetic ability.
7 And I will draw unto thee to the river Kishon Sisera, the captain of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his multitude; and I will deliver him into thine hand.
8 And Barak said unto her, If thou wilt go with me, then I will go: but if thou wilt not go with me, then I will not go. (Judges 4:6-8)
We understand that a prophet is one who is intimately acquainted with the Lord and is strongly committed to keeping the commandments. Keeping the commandments qualifies a person to have the Spirit with them. Prophets realize that they must go where the Spirit leads. If they sense that the Spirit has left, that is their cue to leave too.
I think that Barak wanted Deborah with him to be an indicator of what the Lord wanted. If Deborah would not go with him, that would indicate that the Spirit (and the Lord) did not approve of what he was doing. But if she would go with him, that would indicate that the Spirit did approve and the Lord was with him. He knew that a victory was completely contingent upon keeping the Lord on his side.
And she said, I will surely go with thee: notwithstanding the journey that thou takest shall not be for thine honour; for the Lord shall sell Sisera into the hand of a woman. And Deborah arose, and went with Barak to Kedesh. (Judges 4:9)(This is one of those stories in which women get to have some of the credit, isn’t it?) Just in case Barak had any intention of using this battle for self-aggrandizement, the Lord nips it in the bud. Perhaps it was also a sort of test of his faithfulness to see if he was willing to go through with it knowing beforehand that he had no prospect of honor and glory.
10 ¶ And Barak called Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh; and he went up with ten thousand men at his feet: and Deborah went up with him.In these verses we get a bit of a clue as to how the Lord fought for Israel. The Canaanites were at the river when the Lord sent the signal to attack. We also find out that Sisera’s discomfiture caused him to leave his chariots behind and run away on foot. If chariots were the epitome of mobile fighting in that day, then something must have happened to those chariots to make them not so mobile. Perhaps there was a sudden rainstorm that made the ground so muddy that the chariots all got stuck. That might have been all it took to level the playing field to give the Israelites their chance.
11 Now Heber the Kenite, which was of the children of Hobab the father in law of Moses, had severed himself from the Kenites, and pitched his tent unto the plain of Zaanaim, which is by Kedesh.
12 And they shewed Sisera that Barak the son of Abinoam was gone up to mount Tabor.
13 And Sisera gathered together all his chariots, even nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the people that were with him, from Harosheth of the Gentiles unto the river of Kishon.
14 And Deborah said unto Barak, Up; for this is the day in which the Lord hath delivered Sisera into thine hand: is not the Lord gone out before thee? So Barak went down from mount Tabor, and ten thousand men after him.
15 And the Lord discomfited Sisera, and all his chariots, and all his host, with the edge of the sword before Barak; so that Sisera lighted down off his chariot, and fled away on his feet. (Judges 4:10-15)
16 But Barak pursued after the chariots, and after the host, unto Harosheth of the Gentiles: and all the host of Sisera fell upon the edge of the sword; and there was not a man left.Now, the interesting thing about the end of this story is not just that it was a woman who nailed Sisera. What is even more interesting is that he was assassinated by his allies. Jael was the wife of Heber the Kenite. If you look at verse 11 and 12, you’ll see that Heber the Kenite’s people were the ones who told Sisera that Barak was on the move with an army of men. Heber the Kenite and Sisera were allies, so of course Sisera would flee to Heber for protection when the battle went badly. So why did Jael kill Sisera?
17 Howbeit Sisera fled away on his feet 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 ¶ And Jael went out to meet Sisera, and said unto him, Turn in, my lord, turn in to me; fear not. And when he had turned in unto her into the tent, she covered him with a mantle.
19 And he said unto her, Give me, I pray thee, a little water to drink; for I am thirsty. And she opened a bottle of milk, and gave him drink, and covered him.
20 Again he said unto her, Stand in the door of the tent, and it shall be, when any man doth come and enquire of thee, and say, Is there any man here? that thou shalt say, No.
21 Then Jael Heber’s wife took a nail of the tent, and took an hammer in her hand, and went softly unto him, and smote the nail into his temples, and fastened it into the ground: for he was fast asleep and weary. So he died.
22 And, behold, as Barak pursued Sisera, Jael came out to meet him, and said unto him, Come, and I will shew thee the man whom thou seekest. And when he came into her tent, behold, Sisera lay dead, and the nail was in his temples.
23 So God subdued on that day Jabin the king of Canaan before the children of Israel.
24 And the hand of the children of Israel prospered, and prevailed against Jabin the king of Canaan, until they had destroyed Jabin king of Canaan. (Judges 4:16-24)
I bet that Jael was worried about what the Israelites would do to her and Heber if/when they knew that he had tipped Sisera off. Her family was suddenly in danger, since it was allied with the now losing side. She must have decided that the best way to ensure their survival was to ingratiate them with the Israelites. What better way could there be of doing that than to kill Sisera for them?
Her plan worked, and that is why Jael is considered a heroine, rather than a villainess.
I think the point of this story is that the Lord can save us in ways that we don’t expect.
Something else that occurs to me as a modern application of Israelites seeking for judgment from an unexpected source is that as the world becomes more corrupt, we Latter-day Saints can turn to the priesthood, to the “judges in Israel” to settle disputes and render judgment, and we can encourage others to do so too.