When I was about 7 years old, I admired an amazing woman. She utterly defeated every bad guy, giving them stern-but-beautiful looks of reproach while wearing a gorgeous outfit. I loved this hero so much I actually toyed with the idea of changing my name to Lynda to be more like the actress (Lynda Carter) who played her on TV. Since I already had the middle name Lynn, I was halfway there. Wonder Woman and I were practically the same person, I thought!
By contrast, the biblical judge Deborah had no lasso of truth and didn’t wear star-spangled tights, but she is an even more satisfying hero. She was God’s instrument of justice from start to finish. She helped her people overcome evil and oppression and, in the end, Deborah gave all credit for the victory to the Lord.
THE EMPTY THRONE
Deborah lived in Israel around the year 1200 BC. This was the period after the exodus and the leadership of Moses and Joshua, but before the political state led by King Saul, and then David and his descendants. Judges 17:6 and 21:25 tell us, “In those days Israel had no king.” The result, “Everyone did as he saw fit,” was not a happy or healthy one. At first glance, this biblical observation seems like a commentary on the lack of political leadership. It turned out, however, the real problem of the empty throne was in the hearts of the people. They no longer lived with God as the ruler of their lives.
Deborah, who held court under the Palm of Deborah (Judges 4:5), must have had her hands full arbitrating disputes between Israel’s citizens. When people do as they see fit, conflict and crime and sin are bound to arise. God placed Deborah in the position of dispensing justice in the land.
CONQUEST AND CONSEQUENCES
The consequences of Israel’s sin in the time of the judges were both harsh and obvious. Israel continuously rejected God in favor of the false gods of their neighbors. Israel trapped themselves in a cycle of sin: they disobeyed God, God was angered, and so God meted out punishment by means of an enemy nation. In Deborah’s day, the low point in this sin cycle was prosecuted by King Jabin, whose seat of power was the city of Hazor (Judges 4:2).
This oppressive Canaanite kingdom was actually a leftover problem from Joshua’s generation. Prior to the original conquest, God had commanded Israel to completely drive out and destroy all the inhabitants of the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 7:1-2). Instead, in some cases, Israel made peace treaties with those God had commanded them to drive out. In other cases, the tribes of Israel took up residence in parts of their allotted territories but were unable to overcome the enemy in others. The fact that Jabin was still around to afflict Israel was a direct consequence of Israel’s failure to obey God’s command.
The appalling religion of the surviving Canaanites—the cult of Baal—proved to be contagious. Baal was portrayed in his mythology as the storm god who controlled the rain, caused crops to grow, and enabled people to prosper. He was also a fertility god whose ritual worship was filled with sexual excesses, even temple prostitution.
As Baal-worship spread from Canaan to Israel, God was grieved. Perhaps Israel merely wanted the prosperity that came with reliable rainfall in the arid desert region of the Promised Land. Perhaps they enjoyed breaking away from God’s stricter prescription for sexuality. Either way, the failure to stamp out this pagan culture was both the original cause of Israel’s offensive sin and the source of the punishment they received.
A SUPERPOWER USED FOR EVIL
As if a Canaanite king wasn’t villain enough for our hero Deborah, Judges 4 says Jabin had a general named Sisera who commanded an army with 900 iron chariots.
Sisera’s hometown was called Harosheth Haggoyim. In ancient Hebrew, the name meant, “smithy of the nations.” The people of this town were ironworkers. They had the skill of identifying iron ore along with the technology—a specialized furnace—to smelt and work the metal. While their neighbors had weapons of bronze, Harosheth Haggoyim wrought the most advanced weapon of its day. Canaan’s iron chariots were a reason Israel had failed to completely exterminate the Canaanites during Joshua’s campaigns 200 years earlier. Now Jabin and his general Sisera had 900 of them!
The priests, whose job it was to go between God and his people, are conspicuously absent from this story. So how could the people hear from God? Again, Deborah saved the day. In addition to being Israel’s judge, Deborah also was called “prophet” (Judges 4:4). Although many judges in Israel’s history earned the moniker only after God empowered them to defeat Israel’s enemy, God, it seems, had been communicating through Deborah even before the battle was at hand. His people had endured 20 years of cruelty under Jabin, and God at last “relented because of their groaning under those who oppressed and afflicted them” (Judges 2:18). It was time for the cycle of Israel’s history to take a turn toward redemption. God sent word through his prophet Deborah:
She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor. I will lead 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).
God had commanded, but Barak hesitated. Barak told Deborah, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go” (Judges 4:8).
There are several ways to interpret Barak’s response. On the one hand, he seemed afraid to obey God’s command. He surely was thinking of the enemy’s 900 iron chariots. On the other hand, Deborah was an experienced leader of her people. Further, she was God’s prophet. Can we really fault him for wanting Deborah to go to the battle with him? His desire for her presence with him on the battlefield could be viewed as his desire for God’s presence.
At any rate, Barak’s record definitely was dinged because of his seeming lack of faith. Deborah agreed to go with him but stipulated, “Because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman” (Judges 4:9).
They proceeded to the battle. Deborah gave the command to advance saying, “Go! This is the day the Lord has given Sisera into your hands” (Judges 4:14).
Deborah herself wrote and sang the stirring Song of Deborah, which beautifully recounted the battle in Judges 5. The song provides a few more details about how the Lord brought victory just as Deborah had prophesied. It also aids in our understanding of God’s battle plan of leading the enemy to the Kishon River. Deborah sang of a downpour of rain from Seir in Edom:
When you, Lord, went out from Seir, when you marched from the land of Edom, the earth shook, the heavens poured, the clouds poured down water. The mountains quaked before the Lord, the One of Sinai, before the Lord, the God of Israel (Judges 5:4-5).
Who would have expected a rainstorm coming up from a desert? The iron chariots were mired in the mud of the flooded river and Sisera’s army was washed away. Oh, the irony of a group of Baal-worshippers done in by an untimely (and highly unlikely) cloudburst!
Kings came, they fought, the kings of Canaan fought. At Taanach, by the waters of Megiddo, they took no plunder of silver. 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 (Judges 5:19-21).
Deborah’s poem shines a light on another hero of the battle: Jael. When Sisera’s army was defeated at the river, he fled on foot. First Jael lured him, unsuspecting, into her tent. Then, instead of giving him refreshing water, she gave him something of a sleep aid—curdled milk. And while Sisera slept, she hammered a tent peg through his skull. Deborah the poet chanted masterfully as she told how Jael neatly dispatched the general:
At her feet he sank, he fell; there he lay. At her feet he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell—dead (Judges 5:27).
Deborah’s song closed out this historical retelling, and then there were 40 years of peace (Judges 5:31). Deborah truly was an amazing woman. Her complete confidence in God made her a strong leader for her people. Judges 5 indicates there was no fight in God’s people until Deborah rose up. She encouraged and inspired them.
Deborah’s help was essential for others to overcome oppression; help which she fearlessly gave. Barak needed her help to face Sisera’s iron chariots. Her country needed her help to finally clean up the unconquered Canaanites.
And importantly, Deborah gave credit where it was due. She showed that God’s proper place is as King of his people. It’s hard for us to imagine how a people who, only a few generations earlier, had seen God come through for them in the huge, miraculous rescues of the exodus were still able to reject and disobey him. But they did. Deborah’s actions, her rhetorical nod to “the Lord, the One of Sinai” (Judges 5:5), and the fact that God did indeed rescue his people from the oppression all show God resuming his proper authority as King of his people.
Today, we don’t have that kind of direct, miraculous witness that ancient Israel enjoyed, but we do have the more complete picture of God’s love for us through his Word. We have the hindsight of seeing God’s plan fulfilled through Jesus. We have the blessing of the Holy Spirit to aid us in our faith. Let’s heed Deborah’s encouragement at the end of Judges 5 to remember that God is continually able to defeat the enemies of his people, and that all who love him can “be like the sun when it rises in its strength” (Judges 5:31).