Torah reading: Exodus 13:17-17:16
Haftorah reading: Judges 4:4 – 5:31
Someone has said there are only three kinds of people in the world—those who watch things happen, those who make things happen, and those who scratch their heads and ask, “Hey, what’s happening?” The ability to make things happen is the gift of leadership.
In Judges 4–5, two godly female leaders perform legendary exploits for God. These two are willing to risk life and limb for God’s purposes. They are women of courage. In this account, our author reveals that God intervenes when we act with courageous faith. Chapter 4 focuses on Deborah’s victory (4:1–16), and on Jael’s victory (4:17–24). Chapter 5 is a victory song by Deborah.
After Ehud gutted the “fat calf” Eglon (3:20–22), God gave His people eighty years of peace. This is the longest period of peace recorded in the Book of Judges. But once Ehud dies, the people return to their evil. This verse tells us something about sin. It is difficult to be creative in sin. Mankind simply does the same thing over again.
Today, you may have a stronghold of anger in your life and you express it to vent your frustrations. However, when the dust settles you feel awful inside and you can’t take your words back. Or perhaps it’s gossip or overeating or jealousy. All of these sins follow the cyclical pattern of sin in the Book of Judges. They are repetitious, monotonous, and destructive.
In 4:2–3, Israel’s rebellion requires God to act. “And the LORD sold them [Israel] into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan,who reigned in Hazor; and the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-hagoyim. The sons of Israel cried to the LORD; for he had nine hundred iron chariots, and he oppressed the sons of Israel severely for twenty years.”
God loves His idolatrous people enough to discipline them with idolaters. He lovingly preys on their insecurities by raising up Jabin and Sisera along with their nine hundred iron chariots who rule over Israel for twenty long years.
“Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the sons of Israel came up to her for judgment.”
God raises up a courageous woman named Deborah to be Israel’s judge. Deborah’s name means “honeybee” for she does what most marks a bee. She stings the enemy, and she brings sweet refreshment to her people. Deborah is also called “the wife of Lappidoth,” which means “woman of torches.” This is quite apropos since she will shortly light a fire under Barak and demonstrate true leadership.
Deborah “sent and summoned Barak the son of Abinoam from Kedesh-naphtali, and said to him, ‘Behold, the LORD, the God of Israel, has commanded,‘Go and march to Mount Tabor, and take with you ten thousand men from the sons of Naphtali and from the sons of Zebulun. I will draw out to you Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his many troops to the river Kishon, and I will give him into your hand.’” (4:4-6)
Deborah is not telling Barak anything that he does not already know. She calls Barak to Bethel to remind him of the truth that he already possesses. God has been speaking to Barak. His home was Kedesh-naphtali. “Kedesh” means sanctuary. Evidently there was a holy site there in Naphtali, and there may have been a very small glimmer of truth and light there. In any case, Barak knows the truth. He knows that he should be a man of faith. He knows that God can deliver Israel, but he is impotent, powerless, and afraid to act. Deborah is calling him to go back to what he knows is true, and to act on it.
“Then Barak said to her, ‘If you will go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.’” (4:8) Initially, it seems like Barak is the ultimate coward. It appears that Barak wants Deborah to accompany him so that he can be assured of God’s presence. He also likely wants the prophetess with him so that he can consult with her as he has need. While this sounds somewhat reasonable, the problem is God’s will has already been revealed to Barak, and he is reluctant to act on the command he has received. Though the will of God is clear, Barak puts a condition on obeying God.
It’s all too easy to be passive like Barak when we receive God’s commands. We can often lack faith when God has called us to lead but when we move forward in faith, God will always intervene. He always has a perfect plan for us to follow. In the case of Barak, God chose the leader of His army, the place for the battle, and the plan for His army to follow. God also guaranteed the victory. Similarly, we know that “God’s commandments are God’s enablements” and that we should obey His will in spite of circumstances, feelings, or consequences.
Deborah replies in 4:9–10: “‘I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the honor shall not be yours on the journey that you are about to take, for the LORD will sell Sisera into the hands of a woman.’ Then Deborah arose and went with Barak to Kedesh. Barak called Zebulun and Naphtali together to Kedesh, and ten thousand men went up with him; Deborah also went up with him.” This is a beautiful response from Deborah. She does not ridicule Barak or “call him out” by questioning his manhood. She doesn’t nag, command, or insist. Nor does she attempt to manipulate him. Instead, she merely reminds him of his responsibility before God.
The contrast between Deborah and Barak suggests that God raises up a woman to lead Israel because the Israelite men were cowards and declined leadership. Barak, though a gifted warrior, is tainted by his lack of faith and shamed for it. The honor of killing the enemy commander in battle will go to a woman. Who will be the woman who gets the honor?
“‘Arise! For this is the day in which the LORD has given Sisera into your hands; behold, the LORD has gone out before you.’ So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with ten thousand men following him,” Deborah says to Barak. Like an ancient Joan of Arc, Deborah calls the people to battle, leading them out of idolatry and restoring their dignity as God’s chosen ones.
Not once, but twice, Deborah informs Barak that it is the Lord who is going to bring victory. It is not Deborah, Barak, or Israel; it is the Lord who will win this battle! Chapter 5 tells us that at just the right moment, the Lord allowed the Kishon River to flood and completely disable the enemy so that Israel could slay them. Sisera’s legendary iron chariots become mired in the muck and mud. Barak’s infantry charges down from Mount Tabor and absolutely destroys the Canaanites.
The battle plan God had given Barak made little sense, militarily speaking. Chariots were very effective on the plains, but they were of little or no value in the mountains. God ordered Barak to muster his troops on Mount Tabor, and then to lead them down from the mountain and onto the plains. This is precisely where the chariots had the advantage and could do the most damage. The Canaanites depended upon their nine hundred chariots. The Israelites chose to trust in God’s promise. Throughout the Book of Judges, God uses weak and foolish people and methods. God intervenes when we act with courageous faith.
In chapter 4: 17-24, Barak’s fearfulness is contrasted with Jael’s faithfulness.
“Now Sisera fled away on foot to the tent of Yael the wife of Heber the Kenite, for there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite.” 4:11
In 4:18, “Yael went out to meet Sisera, and said to him, ‘Turn aside, my master, turn aside to me! Do not be afraid.’ And he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. He said to her, ‘Please give me a little water to drink, for I am thirsty.’ So she opened a bottle of milk and gave him a drink; then she covered him.” Yael offers Sisera hospitality. She invites him into her tent and tells him not to fear. Like Deborah, the mother of Israel, Yael treats Sisera like a little boy. She covers him with a rug, gives him milk to drink, and tucks him into bed because he has had a long, hard day.
Before he drifts off to sleep, Sisera says to Jael, “‘Stand in the doorway of the tent, and it shall be if anyone comes and inquires of you, and says, ‘Is there anyone here?’ that you shall say, ‘No.’ But Yael, Heber’s wife, took a tent peg and seized a hammer in her hand, and went secretly to him and drove the peg into his temple,and it went through into the ground; for he was sound asleep and exhausted. So he died. And behold, as Barak pursued Sisera, Yael came out to meet him and said to him, ‘Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.’ And he entered with her, and behold Sisera was lying dead with the tent peg in his temple.” This lady is a courageous warrior! By the standards of ancient warfare, she is a hero. She decisively and courageously helped God’s people at a critical moment in history. The glory did, indeed, go to a woman and not to Barak.
The defeat of Sisera and his army was a turning point in history because it put the Israelites on the offensive and the Canaanites on the defensive. This victory not only eliminated some of Jabin’s top warriors, but it deprived him of his greatest weapons—his nine hundred iron-rimmed chariots. The spoils of this victory would also have provided armor and weapons for many Israelite soldiers. God brought all this to pass through the obedience of two women.
God intervenes when we act with courageous faith.
Perhaps you are facing a decision at this time; or some type of challenge to your faith. Perhaps an ‘enemy’ is harassing you, be it financial pressure, illness or an emotional trial. The message of this week’s Haftorah is clear: Courageous faith is the path to victory. To do as David did and say ‘I will bless the LORD at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth’, is the first step: acknowledging your faith and dependence on God. The second step is being humble enough to receive advice and support from others in your time of need. A faithful friend is a gift from God. As Deborah did for Barak, they will do for you.