The history of mankind is largely the history of warfare. Few nations go for long periods of time without bloodshed and violence. If there is not internal unrest and civil war, there is the threat of foreign conflict. When the children of Israel entered the land of Canaan, they entered as the aggressors. They had come to conquer the land, under a Divine mandate. God was determined to judge the Canaanites. He would drive them from the land and give it to another people of His own choosing.
Had the children of Israel stayed close to Jehovah, and obeyed His voice, they would have taken the land quickly, and lived in relative peace. But Israel was constantly doing evil in the sight of the Lord.
They violated the Sabbath, married the heathen woman of Canaan, entered into political treaties, and they let down their guard.
Instead of conquering and transforming Canaanite culture, the Israelites were transformed by it. As a result, they found themselves enslaved to the very ones they should have been the masters of. If Israel would not lead the way to righteousness, the nation would learn something about Divine discipline. Israel would be enslaved as often as necessary to produce repentance.
In Judges 4, the scene opens on the third period of servitude, under the Canaanite, which lasted twenty years (Judg. 4:1-2). The First Servitude took place under a man named Chusham, and lasted for eight years. A warrior named Othniel delivered Israel from the period of bondage.
Then came the Second Servitude under Eglon, king of Moab, which lasted for eighteen years. Ehud arose to deliver Israel by killing Eglon. For sixty years there was peace in the land beyond the Jordan, till the Midianites appeared.
Now, Israel was in trouble again. The Lord had delivered the nation into the hand of Jabin, king of Canaan, that reigned in Hazor. It must be kept in mind that there were many kings in Canaan, for the land was filled with tribal kings.
As Israel had twelve tribes, independent of each other, so the various tribes of Canaan were independent of each other. The conflicts that arose came over border disputes, water rights, personal grudges, political disputes, acts of restoration, and the desire to take by force what others had.
In the absence of a centralized government, Israel had no standing army to defend itself. Instead, each tribe had to find willing warriors. Each tribe would fight its battles alone, and thus became enslaved, or remain free. However, at times, when a common enemy was found, and a capable leader emerged, the tribes would unite. Not until the days of Saul did the nation seriously move towards unity, but they came close in the time of Deborah. The facts surrounding Deborah are simple, and straightforward.
First, Deborah was a prophetess Judges 4:4. “And Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, she judged Israel at that time.” In Scripture, a prophet or prophetess had a two-fold function. They could, on occasion, foretell the future as Deborah did in Judges 4:9. “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.”
While that function was the most spectacular part of their ministry, they also had the ability to simply tell forth the will of the Lord. They had a high ethical standard of righteousness, and knew instinctively what was right and what was wrong. There was a tremendous measure of discernment present to see through a situation to its conclusion.
Second, Deborah was the wife of Lapidoth. Unfortunately, we do not know anything about this person. Some Bible scholars suggest the name refers to a place, meaning Deborah was from Lapidoth.
Third, Deborah was a judge of Israel. The word for judge, “shophetim,” means “to discern,” “to regulate,” “to direct.” How she rose to such great prominence is not indicated in Scripture, but she was obviously very wise because the leaders of Israel sought out her counsel. In more recent years, the world has known wise women. In Israel there was Golda Mier, and in England there was Margaret Thatcher. In America we have any number of women who serve as majors, governors, congresswomen, and senators.
Fourth, Deborah was a natural leader of others. Using her political authority to command, Deborah sent for a man named Barak to come and lead the nation of Israel into battle. Deborah needed a capable military general. She thought Barak was the right person for the moment. She would give him guidance.
Barak was to mobilize his troops from the two tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun. Ten thousand soldiers would be enough to defeat the host of Sisera, general of the Canaanite army under the king named Jabin. In addition to his own foot soldiers, Sisera had 900 chariots with iron scythes on the wheels. But that did not matter. Nor did it matter that each chariot was manned by trained orders armed with long ranged bows. Deborah had heaven’s assurance that everything would be all right.
“And she [Deborah] 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” (Judges 4:6-7). Sometimes the confidence of a person will inspire others to great deeds, sometimes it will not.
While Deborah was confident that a small, token force of 10,000 soldiers could defeat a superior, well-trained army, Barak was not sure. He was determined to make no move without a measure of reassurances. “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 4:8). For Barak, the reassurances he sought was in the personal presence of the prophetess. It is one thing to send others into battle; it is far different to go into battle yourself. If Deborah is willing to risk her life, then Barak will be encouraged.
Fifth, the Bible says that Deborah was a determined lady of great personal courage. She went up with Barak. Judges 4:10 “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 this way, the stage began to be set for a major battle near the plains of Esdraelon (Armageddon).
At first, it seemed that the forces of Sisera had the strategic advantage. Not only did Sisera have the larger army, but also the movements of the army of Israel were revealed to him by a man named Heber, the Kenite, a descendent of Hobab, and the father-in-law of Moses. Judges 4:11-12 “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.” If betrayal by a friend is treacherous, so much more does a family member make betrayal infamous.
Why Heber showed Sisera the movement of Israel is not given, but even that was part of God’s divine plan. God is sovereign over the report of spies. By the time Sisera’s forces found the army of Israel, Barak had stationed most of his soldiers on the fortress of Mount Tabor, which guarded the northern entrance to the Plain of Esdraelon.
Meanwhile, Deborah had taken a small detachment of troops to act as a decoy. They lured Sisera’s army to the valley of the Kishon River. The signal was given, and suddenly the full force of the army of Israel swept down from the hill and attacked Sisera’s men. A general panic ensued in the opposing army. Horses panicked, and could not be controlled. They ran into the mud along the Kishon River and got stuck. Then, a torrential flood swept many of the soldiers of Canaan away. Meanwhile, the Israeli army continued to cut down the foot soldiers that tried to flee. Only Sisera managed to escape.
Fleeing into the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber, Sisera cowered under cover. Thirsty from his ordeal, Sisera drank milk offered to him by Jael. Then Jael covered him up, and when he fell asleep, Jael killed him. The mother-in-law of Moses killed one of Israel’s greatest enemies.
While the tent spike was still in the head of Sisera, Barak arrived. Jael went out to meet him. She wanted to show him her bloody work. Judges 4:21-22 “Then Jael Heber’s wife took a nail of the tent, and took a 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. 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.” In this extraordinary way, God subdued, “on that day Jabin, the king of Canaan before the children of Israel” (Judges 4:23).
When Deborah heard the news of the death of Sisera, and the destruction of the opposing army, her heart rejoiced, and she composed a song and sang it before the people of Israel.
A brief summary of the beautiful ode reveals that it is religious and political. The Lord is thanked and honored for the military victory, and deliverance of Israel from Canaanitish bondage and oppression.
In addition, the story of past Israeli history is retold, then the battle and the death of Sisera are restated. Generations to come would learn of the day of Divine deliverance. Multitudes would be inspired to have faith in God against overwhelming odds. That is what Deborah wanted to happen, and that is what has happened. Many years after, even the church salutes Deborah, recognizing her greatness, and the Church can pray that others will be as wise as this woman—though not as violent.