Wednesday Meditation: “Not By Might…” (Judges 4-5)

21 Apr

The following meditation was presented on Wednesday night at FBC Benbrook on April 21, 2010

The first judge whose story is told in detail catches the reader by surprise. Deborah is the only female judge named in the book of Judges. Moreover, she is one of the few woman in biblical history who had a major, God given leadership role.[1] While females like Jezebel played influential roles in Israel’s history (see 1 Kings 16.29), she is definitely not an example of a person who was placed in leadership by God. On the other hand, Deborah is one of the shining lights during the dark period of the judges. She is one of the few characters that we will meet in Judges who seems to be above reproach, at least in the account before us.

Deborah is also the only judge who was in a leadership role prior to being used by God to deliver Israel. She was already “leading” Israel at the time. For some reason, the NIV translates this word as “leading,” but it is the same word used the describe the activity of the judges in Judges 2.18-19. In other words, Deborah was already serving Israel as a judge before the story of chapter four begins.

Furthermore, she is the only figure in the story of the judges, other than the vague reference to a prophet in chapter six, who is designated a prophet. A prophet, according to 2 Peter, is one who speaks for God as they are carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1.21). She is one of only three women in the Old Testament who are identified as prophets: Miriam, the sister of Moses (Exodus 15.20), Huldah, the prophetess who was well know during the reign and reforms of Josiah (2 Kings 22.14-20), and Deborah. From the New Testament, we could add Anna, the woman who met the infant Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2.36) and the four daughters of Philip (Acts 21.8-9).

If we put these two descriptions together, we see that Deborah was hearing cases and rendering judgments with prophetic insight. She was definitely settling disputes among the people of Israel, but we are not told how much of a role she might have had as a political or military leader.

As a prophetic leader, she speaks the words of God to Barak. We are not told much about Barak, but it seems safe to assume that he was a military leader of some sort. The word of the Lord is quite clear,

The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead the way to Mount Tabor. 7I will lure Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands. (Judges 4.6-7 NIV)

It is always hard for us to grasp the situation of Old Testament stories because we don’t know place names and it is hard for us to put things into perspective.

For instance, the Kishon River means nothing to us. But, there are two facts about the Kison River that we need to know. First, it was located not very far from the headquarters of Sisera’s army. Deborah was telling Barak to confront Sisera head on. Second, the river bed of the Kishon River would have been dried up since it was not during the rainy season. The plan was to lure the army of Sisera into the dry river bed, in the open plains, very close to his center of power.

The silliness of this becomes clear when we remember that Sisera had 900 iron chariots (Judges 4.3). Whether this is a large number of not, it is most likely that Israel had a grand total of zero iron chariots. Jabin had oppressed Israel for 20 years, and to keep the supremacy of warfare, it is entirely possible that he kept the Israelites from developing the ability to forge iron. This is exactly what the Philistines did when they conquered Israel many years later:

19Not a blacksmith could be found in the whole land of Israel, because the Philistines had said, “Otherwise the Hebrews will make swords or spears!” 20So all Israel went down to the Philistines to have their plowshares, mattocks, axes and sickles sharpened. 21The price was two thirds of a shekel for sharpening plowshares and mattocks, and a third of a shekel for sharpening forks and axes and for repointing goads. (1 Samuel 13.19-21 NIV)

What this means is that Barak was to gather his 10,000 men in a dry river bed to face an army with 900 iron chariots. How long would it take for Barak’s men to be taken out by the superior technology? If we need a visual image, think of the First Gulf War where the American army routed Iraq in a matter of days with almost no loss of life. In short, Deborah’s plans seem foolish.

But Barak is on board with one condition: he wants Deborah to go with him. We are not told why he wants Deborah to go with him. It might be that he wants her influence and power to support the mission. It might be that he is asking her to put her money where her mouth is. Sure, I will march my men out to be sitting ducks on the dry river bed if you are on the front lines, too. Whether it was a sign of doubt or a request that seemed wise to him, Deborah does not respond favorably to his request. According to the NIV, the reason is the “way you are going about this” (Judges 4.9), but that might not be a good translation. Most other translations render it as the NRSV, “I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the honor shall not be yours on the journey that you are about to take,” or “the road on which you are going” (NRSV). The NIV takes the phrase to be describing the manner in which he made the request but the other translations take the phrase to describe the battle that lay before him.

But, it does seem to be clear that Barak’s request displays a lack of faith, at some juncture, which is the reason that Deborah tells Barak that he will get no glory for his role in the battle to come but that Sisera will be handed over to a woman. The reader is left to assume that the woman Deborah has in mind is herself, but the story takes a different turn. We read this story from a much different culture, so I am sure it is hard for us to take in how much this would have offended Barak’s honor. On the other hand, since Deborah had been leading Israel for some time, it might not have offended him for a woman to get the honor. The import of the prophecy may be no more than “God will hand Sisera over to another person.”

When Sisera was told that 10,000 soldiers were waiting for him on the killing fields of the Kishon River, he gathered all of his chariots, his entire arsenal, to meet Barak. Deborah told Barak, “This is the day” and sent him forward. What happened next might slip by the casual reader, but it is no less miraculous. First, the text tells us that the Lord “routed” Sisera. We should not miss the importance of this word. It is the same word that is used to describe what happened when Pharoah’s army tried to follow the Israelites during the crossing of the Red Sea. When the chariots were in the river bed, the Lord through them into confusion, and then the waters of the Red Sea washed over them (Exodus 14.24). But even more, this is the same promise given to Israel before they ever got to the Promised Land,

I will send my terror ahead of you and throw into confusion every nation you encounter. I will make all your enemies turn their backs and run. (Exodus 23.27)

And this is exactly what happened on the dry river bed of the Kishon River. The soldiers driving the 900 iron chariots were thrown into confusion.

But we should not miss the second part of the story. The story of Deborah is told much like the other prophetess of the Old Testament. After Israel crossed the Red Sea, Moses sang a song to the Lord, and then Miriam followed his song by taking a tambourine in her hand and leading all of the women in dancing while singing, “Sing to the Lord for he is highly exalted; the horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea” (Exodus 15.20-21 NIV). The same thing happens in the story before us. When it was all over, Deborah and Barak sang a song, and that song is recorded in Judges 5. In many ways, it is the poetic retelling of the narrative of chapter 4, but it does give a few important details that the narrative leaves off. For instance, the poem tells us that “not a shield or spear was seen among 40,000 in Israel” (Judges 5.8). It also gives more details about what happened on the dry river bed of the Kishon River when the Lord threw Sisera’s army into confusion.,

O LORD, when you went out from Seir, when you marched from the land of Edom,

the earth shook, the heavens poured, the clouds poured down water. (Judges 5.4)

From the heavens the stars fought, from their courses they fought against Sisera.

The river Kishon swept them away, the age-old river, the river Kishon.

March on, my soul; be strong! (Judges 5.21)

The picture we are given is that what happened on the Kidron River river bed resembled the Red Sea in more ways than one. Not only did the Lord throw them into confusion, but also he flooded the dry ground with water. As the waters of the Kishon River mysteriously rose in the dry season, the iron chariots were no longer a technological advantage. In fact, the soldiers on the 900 chariots were now outnumbered 5 to 1![2]

In the chaos, Sisera was able to flee on foot to the village of a friendly tribe. Jael, of whom we know almost nothing about, sought out Sisera and invited him into her tent. She gave him milk, though he asked for only water, which surely convinced Sisera that he was in friendly hands. She put him to sleep, covering him up with a blanket. But Jael put a tent peg through the temple of the general. When Barak was searching for Sisera, Jael went out to meet him to let Barak know of the deceased soldier in her tent. Jael joins the line of people like Rahab who sided unexpectedly with the people of God.


What can we say about the story of Deborah? The story of Deborah is unique among the stories of the judges for several reasons. First, the typical formula for all of the stories is found in chapter 2. The people worshiped other gods and the Lord handed them over to raiders who plundered them. Then, the people cried out, and the Lord raises up a judge who saved them out of the hands of these raiders (see Judges 2.12-17). The Lord raised up for them a deliver, Othniel (Judges 3.9). The Lord gave them a deliverer, Ehud (Judges 3.15). Even Shamgar gets the epithet: he too saved Israel (Judges 3.31). But never in the Deborah story are we told that she is the deliverer raised up by God to save the from the hands of these raiders. We assume it because her story is told among the other judges. We assume it because she is functioning as a judge in Israel. We assume it because she is a prophetess. But it is never stated in her story as clearly as it is stated in the story of Gideon (see Judges 6.14) or the rest. Is this just a narrative blunder, or is it an essential part of the story?

In fact, it is not clear who the hero of the story really is? Deborah is the prophetess who directs Barak, but she had not been able to deliver Israel during the time she had been serving as a judge. After reading about Othniel and Ehud and Shamgar, we would expect Barak to be the deliverer, but he almost seems to be more of an observer of the war than a leader. In the narrative, he keeps showing up late to the battle scene. Perhaps the hero is Jael, after all, she does all the heavy lifting, but her story is so confusing that we don’t even know what her motive might have been, if any. She departs from the narrative as quickly as she arrives. While she kills Sisera, it is Barak that actually leads the people to destroy Jabin. Or is it?

It might be the intentional goal of the story-teller to lead us to the conclusion that the hero of the story is not Deborah, nor Barak, and not even Jael. The hero of the story is the Lord himself. As the summary statement at the end of chapter four reads,

23On that day God subdued Jabin, the Canaanite king, before the Israelites. 24And the hand of the Israelites grew stronger and stronger against Jabin, the Canaanite king, until they destroyed him. (Judges 4.23-24 NIV)

Perhaps the point of the storyteller is that God is the one who delivers Israel. He might use a judge, or he might not. He can use nature. He can use an unknown women with a tent peg in her hand. Israel was to learn to put their hopes in the Lord as the One who saves.

And that point is echoed in the negative in the narrative itself. Sisera put his entire confidence in his military superiority and his technological advancement. And yet, when the hand of God moves, military might and technological advantages mean absolutely nothing. How important it is for us to remember the words of Psalm 33,

8Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the people of the world revere him.

9For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.

10The LORD foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples.

11But the plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.

12Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, the people he chose for his inheritance.

13From heaven the LORD looks down and sees all mankind;

14from his dwelling place he watches all who live on earth—

15he who forms the hearts of all, who considers everything they do.

16No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength.

17A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save.

18But the eyes of the LORD are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love,

19to deliver them from death and keep them alive in famine.

20We wait in hope for the LORD; he is our help and our shield.

21In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name.

22May your unfailing love rest upon us, O LORD, even as we put our hope in you. (Psalm 33.8-22 NIV)

[1] Gary Inrig (Hearts of Iron, Feet of Clay, 63) makes the claim that Deborah is the only woman in biblical history who has a major, God-given leadership role. While this may be a true statement, the clarifiers of “major” and “leadership” make the statement debatable. For instance, Priscilla played a major part in the story of Acts, but was it “major” and was it an official position of leadership?

[2] If we assume two soldiers for each of the 900 chariots, then 1800 soldiers would have faced off with 10,000 Israelites, making the ratio 5.5 to 1.

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Posted by on April 21, 2010 in Uncategorized


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