The Story: Deborah and Jael

A few weeks ago, we looked at the beginning of Moses’ life and I told you that every heroic act that occurs in the first few chapters of Exodus is committed by a woman. Well, Judges 4 is a similar passage. Two women emerge in this period of Israel’s history: Deborah, the closest thing in the Bible to a female Moses; and Jael, the housewife who saved Israel.

Let’s look at the account of these faithful women and the three lessons we can learn from them.

V1 – After Ehud, the Israelites once again did evil in the sight of the Lord. This is the familiar refrain throughout the book of Judges, a reminder of human nature. Each generation must choose for themselves whom they will serve. As we mentioned in our study of Joshua 24 last week, each generation faces that same question that Joshua posed to the people. “Whom will you serve?”

Israel has made a choice to pursue evil, despite God’s direct command.

But here’s what we need to remember: God reserves the right to make certain choices, too. Israel chooses the way of evil and rebellion. So God turns them over to the hand of Jabin, king of Canaan (v2).

Judges 5 is Deborah’s poetic rendition of the history recorded in ch4. Judges 5:8 says When they chose new gods, war came to the city gates, and not a shield or spear was seen among 40,000 in Israel. This doesn’t happen by accident. Israel had been given God’s Law but they chose to ignore it.

So here is the first lesson we can learn from Judges 4: When you abandon the source of your strength, you’re vulnerable to attack.

God didn’t leave Israel; they left Him. So in Israel’s case, they’re now threatened by Sisera’s army of 900 iron chariots, a fearsome fighting unit back then. Chariots were the ancient equivalents of modern tanks. But we must remember, God never intended for Israel to be plagued by the Canaanite peoples. But through their disobedience to His command to wipe the people out, Israel has cut themselves off from their source of strength, thereby opening themselves up to attack.

This is also the story of Samson. The source of His strength was God and Samson’s obedience to the Nazirite vow not to cut his hair. He tells this to Delilah and it’s his undoing.

But is the same true of us? When we abandon the source of our strength, we immediately become susceptible to attack.

  • When we neglect our time in the Word, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to keep our mind from conforming any longer to the pattern of this world (Rom. 12:1).
  • When you go for long periods of time without praying regularly, it becomes hard to set your minds on things above.
  • I had a friend once who slowly started shutting herself off to every godly influence that was in her life. Began with her church family, friends, even her own family members. It wasn’t long before she found herself in seriously dire straits. I was talking with her through one of these difficult periods, and it was just so obvious to me: when you abandon the source of your spiritual strength, your susceptible to spiritual attack.

This is the situation in Israel at the time. Predictably, the Israelites cry out for deliverance and God raises up Deborah to save the people.

But this can also be a problem, as we’ll see.

God raises up Deborah, a powerhouse figure in the book of Judges. Whereas many of the other judges are represented as deeply flawed individuals, Deborah’s character is impeccable. She is called a prophetess, one of five such women in the OT (Miriam, Huldah, Isaiah’s wife, and Noadiah — the false prophetess — are the others.) A prophetess doesn’t come around very often. There are far more prophets than prophetesses in Israel.

And Deborah functions as more than just a religious leader. She also rules as a civil leader and a judge over the people, deciding cases in Ephraim. When you add all this up, her role sounds a lot like Moses’.

But this dynamic figure can also become something of a crutch, at least for Barak.

And this is the second lesson we learn here: Our strength rests in the Giver, not in the gifts.

Barak receives a command to take 10,000 men of Naphtali and Zebulun to oppose Sisera. But he says something troubling in v8:

If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.

In this moment, Barak wavers, even threatens to blatantly disregard the direct command of God, unless Deborah goes with him. Barak has mis-prioritized the blessing of God. Barak should obey because God has told him to do so. Barak should rally these troops because he refuses to be fearful, trusting instead in the promises God has already made to His people. But instead, he treats Deborah like a rabbit’s foot, a good luck charm.

If you go with me, then I’ll go. His failure is in focusing too much of the gift of God — in this case, Deborah — and not enough on the Giver, the One who has issued this command, the One who promised to give this land to His people in the first place.

And this is a theme that repeats itself in Scripture:

Psalm 20:7 – Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. In later years, Israel would sing this as a wartime Psalm, always wanting to remind themselves that success was not contingent upon their technology or their weaponry; instead, success is directly correlated to faith. Let’s not let the blessings usurp the Blesser.

Barak finally gets it in gear here; routs the Canaanite armies, just as the Lord had said. Judges 5:20-21 tells us that a massive storm blew in and swept away the chariots in the river Kishon. But Barak doesn’t enjoy the glory that comes from catching Sisera. If this were a Hollywood movie, Barak & Sisera would have a final showdown in the movie’s last scene; just when you think Sisera is going to win, Barak shows an incredible dose of strength to steal victory from the jaws of defeat.

But they say truth is stranger than fiction.

Instead of a climactic shootout with Barak, Sisera is done in by a housewife with a carton of milk. And a tent peg and a hammer! You can’t make this stuff up!

Sisera, without his chariot, runs off on foot and he just happens to ring the doorbell of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. Now, Heber is friendly with Jabin, king of Canaan. But the text also tells us that his clan is also distantly related to Moses. So Heber’s allegiance sways toward Israel.

Jael invites Sisera in and offers him sanctuary. With a belly full of milk, Sisera says in v20, “If someone comes by and asks you, ‘Is anyone here?’ say ‘No.’” The Hebrew word for someone is actually “a man”, which makes this even more ironic: Sisera thought that he had to fear a male, but it was a woman who took his life when he least expected it!

Our final lesson is this: No one is insignificant in the eyes of God.

God transforms this stay-at-home-Mom into a mighty warrior; prelude of what He’s going to do with Gideon. The question is: what will He do with you and me? Or better yet, what will we let Him do with us? The decision is ours.

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