Sunday, June 3, 2018

Thoughts on Deborah the prophetess in Judges 4

At the time of Deborah, the Israelites were oppressed by Jabin, king of Canaan and his general Sisera, who commanded 900 iron chariots.

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.
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?
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.
9 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 4:4-9)

When we hit this story, we love that Deborah is a prophetess, but it is not very clear to us how.

Recently, however, it hit me that this whole story tells at least one big instance of her prophetic gift at work.

She summons Barak from Kedesh-Naphtali and tells him, “Hath not the Lord God of Israel commanded…?”  This is interesting language. It is as if she is telling him something that she knows he already knows, but in the story it is as if this is the first he’s heard of it (or at least Barak doesn’t say anything about knowing something about it already).  

What Deborah’s language tells us is that Barak had already had promptings or impressions or dreams that the Lord wanted him to save Israel, and that Deborah’s summons was confirming revelation that he really was supposed to do this. The Lord had revealed to her that it was supposed to be Barak.  I don’t know whether the Lord also revealed to her that Barak already knew or whether she just trusted that the fact this had been shown her meant he already knew too. 

But I love that she talks to him with complete assurance that he already knows this stuff. There’s no pussy-footing around the fact they both know. There’s no saying, “So, I had this weird dream. I think you’re supposed to do this.” No, she says, “Hasn’t the Lord said…?”

Also, she knows how many people are supposed to fight alongside Barak—ten thousand—and she knows what tribes they are from—Naphtali and Zebulun—and she knows where they are supposed to gather—Mount Tabor—and she knows how Sisera is going to die—by the hand of a woman. It’s like she’s already seen the battle happen, which very well could have happened in a grand, sweeping vision or prophetic dream.

Later, in v14, once the army is gathered, she also knows the day the battle will happen, and she lets Barak know that too, also with language that assumes he has been shown this too.

When she prophesies that Sisera will be sold into the hands of a woman, the reader tends to think, “Oh, that woman must be Deborah, since she’s going into battle at Barak’s side.” But then we get the surprise that it is Jael who kills Sisera, and by reading about how Jael is associated with Sisera, it becomes clear that Sisera and Jael’s family were actually in some sort of league with each other. So we are treated to the surprise that Sisera was killed by one of his allies, not an enemy. That is not what anyone would have expected, and prophecy is like that. It will tell something that is unexpected.

One of the things this story about Deborah tells me is that calls from prophets don’t come out of the blue. The Lord will give individuals some indication that they are soon to do a work, and then the call from the prophet confirms this revelation. This is how the individual knows he or she is not just making it up, and the response of the individual shows the prophet that the individual has been prepared by the Lord. This is why it is important to have the Spirit with us so that we are open to the revelation God has for us, whether it is how to deal with our challenges or whether it is an upcoming course change we need to be ready for, or a work we are to do.