Deborah Judges 4 and 5
Few Bible characters had as varied a ministry as did Deborah whose name translated means “Honey-Bee,”
The period of the judges was very simple. The people of Israel were called to be a holy nation and to worship only Jehovah. That was not always the case. When everything was going well the people forgot about God. They began to stray from Him and quickly got further and further away. In time God was completely ignored and in place of worshipping Him they set up idols. God loved them too much to allow that to continue so He used a foreign power to bring them back to Himself. (All were foreign except in the case of Deborah where the enemy was actually a coalition of Canaanite leaders.) The scenario was always the same. Israel would get desperate and plead with God to forgive them. They would promise to be true to Him if He would rescue them. God would send a judge to set them free. All would go well for a short time and then the cycle would start all over again. It seems so easy to ignore God when all is going well but as soon as there is a tragedy everyone calls on the nation to pray.
Deborah is the 4th person to hold the position of a judge who saved Israel from a foe. The enemy in the time of Deborah was a coalition of Canaanite kings under the leadership of Jabin whose head of the army was one called Sisera. God gives us in His Word two accounts of the activities of Deborah, one in Judges 4 and a second in Judges 5. The dual account follows an often-used literary form in Hebrew whereby one account is given in narrative form, which is chapter 4 and a second account in poetic form which is chapter 5. The two are basically the same although there are some details in each that are unique to that form. For example, in the narrative or story form we read in 4:3 that Sisera had 900 iron chariots and cruelly oppressed the nation for 20 years. In 5:6, 7 we read that the oppression had totally disrupted normal life in Israel. The people were afraid to travel anywhere for fear of being robbed. Village life had all but ceased since the people were afraid to gather for any length of time, especially at the wells where the social interaction normally took place. It was a terrible time brought on by their sinfulness.
Someone having 900 chariots was extremely powerful. Israel had none so it is no wonder that the people were helpless to defend themselves and forced to pay tribute to Jabin the Canaanite ruler.
As for Deborah herself, she is described in 4:4 as a prophetess, a wife, and the leader of Israel who held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel. First, she is called a prophetess. A prophet was primarily one who declared God’s message to the people. A priest represented the people to God and a prophet represented God to the people. Being a prophet did not necessarily mean one foretold the future although some did. Too many today assume that prophecy and prophet are synonymous. Foretelling the future was not a required part of a prophet’s ministry and was in fact a distant second to the ministry of declaring God’s message to the people.
Secondly, Deborah is described as a judge. The function of a judge in those days was to sit in court and make decisions on issues in which the parties who came to her could not agree. They were largely domestic or business-related issues along with those related to property and things like that, although most anything could come up. A good judge had a combination of knowledge of God’s law on any issues that fell under that such as the inheritance laws and just plain common sense for matters that someone need help understanding. Much of what a judge did would fall today under the category of counseling or what would go to a small claims court. It undoubtedly was in this capacity that Deborah became so concerned about the oppression of the people, although as a godly woman called of God to declare His truth she certainly would have known not only of the oppression but the sin that had caused it.
Finally, Deborah was a housewife. This is an important issue since it is mentioned not only in Judges 4:4 but in 5:7 as a mother in Israel. This designation is intended to show that she is a wife and mother and therefore part of the community. It is important to note that in general she was an ordinary person through whom God worked. This whole story is about ordinary people, even one who was afraid to trust God, and how God used them to bring down one who thought he was mighty and untouchable. Read I Corinthians 1:27.
The story moves quickly. Deborah received a message from God that He had heard the pleas of His people and He would give them victory over the oppressive coalition. Deborah went to Barak and told him to get together an army of 10,000 and go to Mt. Tabor. While he did that God would see to it that Sisera would lead his army and chariots into the valley below that mount. God would give them victory. Judges 4:10 tells us which tribes the soldiers came from while Judges 5 lists not only where the soldiers came from but in verses 15 and following it lists the tribes that refused to send men for the army. An important lesson, Christianity is not a spectator sport in which some are charged to serve while others are permitted to sit it out. God knows not only who serves Him but who merely goes through the motions.
Barak’s answer in 4:8 is interesting. He said, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.” In Israelite history the presence of the prophet seemed to ensure victory whereas his absence had meant defeat. (See Numbers 10:35 and Numbers 14:44). Barak lacked faith to trust God alone. Deborah agreed but said that, as a result of that, God would give the honor of killing Sisera to a woman. Bottom line, God’s will will be done because He has decreed it but the blessings will only go to those willing to be used. Verse 10 tells us that Barak gathered the 10,000 and went to Mt. Tabor.
Verse 12 picks up the story. Sisera heard of the calling of troops and headed to Mt. Tabor to defeat this uprising. This should have been an easy task given his military strength, but he did not count on God. Sisera led his army into the valley as God said he would. Flowing east to west through that valley was a river that ultimately emptied into the Mediterranean Sea. During the rainy season, this river flooded much of the valley but during the dry season was simply a small stream that enabled lots of farming along its banks. It was obviously the dry season for there was no way Sisera would take those chariots into that valley in the rains. Verses 15 and 16 of chapter 4 only tell us that the army of Barak routed the army of Sisera but in chapter 5:4 we discover that God opened the heavens and the clouds poured down water. With the rains came the mud and the powerful chariots that the army of Sisera depended upon were useless. (There is a lesson here we should think about. How many things like Sisera’s chariots do we hear people tell us we can depend upon to protect us, care for us and guarantee us success when in fact before God they are helpless. Without Him nothing can provide for us or protect us.)
Verse 17 tells us that Sisera escaped and fled to a Bedouin tent of one Jael. She invited him in and pretended to be friendly. She provided him with a place to sleep but also a drink. Sisera was exhausted so he asked Jael to stand guard over the tent and lie if anyone came. Bedouin culture was very protective of anyone in one’s tent and as long as one remained in the tent of a Bedouin, he was usually safe. Jael went against culture to do what for some reason she believed was right. It is a constant challenge to us as Christians to make sure the Bible evaluates culture rather than the other way around.
Sisera fell asleep. Read Judges 4:21. Verse 22 tells us that when Barak arrived at her tent, she invited him in and showed him the dead Sisera. He lost the honor of killing this enemy of Israel because he would not trust God to use him. Read Judges 5:24.
Read Judges 5:29-30 for a look at the home life of Sisera’s mother.
There was peace in the land according to Judges 5:31 for 40 years.
Chapter 5 repeats in poetical form the events of chapter 4. It is important not merely because it fills in details of the whole story but because this poem is filled with imagery of praise to God for the victory that He had given. Every aspect of the victory was God’s. That should always be our attitude when God uses us in any way.
The story of Deborah reminds us that God will always provide for His work when He calls us to it. The story also reminds us that God most often used ordinary folk like us to reach the world for Jesus, to confront evil, and to display His love to a hurting world in practical ways. Deborah was not unusual. Her God was and that is what always makes the difference.