In the Book of Judges, the health of women is the canary in the mine for the health of a culture. When women lead, we all win.
The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died. So the Lord sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly twenty years — Judges 4: 1–3.
Here in the Book of Judges, we see a pattern. Israel “does what is evil in the sight of the Lord.” God then hands the people over to foreign oppressors. When Israel cries out for help, God sends a judge to rescue them. All is gleeful for awhile, but the people quickly forget God’s faithfulness. They return to their old ways, and “do what is evil in the sight of the Lord” yet again. This cycle happened with the first judge, Othniel. It then happened with the next judge Ehud, then another. Three judges have delivered Israel by the time we get to today’s passage.
As we read in verses 1–3 above, the Israelites are up to their same old evil ways. The cycle is repeating yet again. But the stakes are rising.
Sisera has “nine hundred chariots of iron.” No wonder Sisera has oppresssed Israel for more than two decades: their indomitable iron is crushing Israel’s brittle bronze. It would be like using a musket when your enemy has a nuclear arsenal. When will God send a new judge, and who will it be?
At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment — Judges 4: 4–5.
WHEN will God send a new judge? Now. WHO will it be? Deborah the prophet.
But not so fast.
“[Deborah] sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, ‘Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.’” Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” And she said, “I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” Then Deborah got up and went with Barak to Kedesh. Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh; and ten thousand warriors went up behind him; and Deborah went up with him.” — Judges 4: 6–10.
Deborah summons another character into our story: Barak. Deborah tells Barak that God commands him to join the judgment fun. Barak’s response is that he will not go into battle unless Deborah goes with him. Why this response from Barak? It may be that he doubts Deborah is a true prophet. Or he may want her to share in his glory as a military ruler. We are not sure his reason.
Deborah informs Barak that she will “surely go” with him, yet she makes clear that ultimately a woman will defeat Sisera. Is Deborah being earnest or snarky here with Barak? We’re not sure her tone of voice here. Our passage today is a mysterious one.
The mystery remains in other ways: whom will God send to judge Israel? We thought we had one judge, Deborah. We then quickly meet Barak, whom Deborah also commands to lead. The story keeps shifting.
Now Heber the Kenite had separated from the other Kenites, that is, the descendants of Hobab the father-in-law of Moses, and had encamped as far away as Elon-bezaanannim, which is near Kedesh — Judges 4:11.
Yet again, another jump. Verse 11 interjects a completely new character, Heber the Kenite. Who are the Kenites, and where do their loyalties lie? Since they are descendants of the father-in-law of Moses, it’s logical to think they would be allies of Israel.
But scholars also tell us that Kenites were ironsmiths. And WHO had iron at the time? Sisera and the Canaanites. We do not know where Heber’s loyalties lie. We only know that this Kenite is right where a battle is about to break out between Israel and Canaan.
When Sisera was told that Barak son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor, Sisera called out all his chariots, nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the troops who were with him, from Harosheth-ha-goiim to the Wadi Kishon. Then Deborah said to Barak, “Up! For this is the day on which the Lord has given Sisera into your hand. The Lord is indeed going out before you.” So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with ten thousand warriors following him. And the Lord threw Sisera and all his chariots and all his army into a panic before Barak; Sisera got down from his chariot and fled away on foot, while Barak pursued the chariots and the army to Harosheth-ha-goiim. All the army of Sisera fell by the sword; no one was left — Judges 4:12–16.
Barak has conquered Sisera’s entire army except one person: Sisera. Even though God promised Barak to give Sisera into Barak’s hand, Sisera has escaped. What now?
“Now Sisera had fled away on foot to the tent of Jael wife of Heber the Kenite; for there was peace between King Jabin of Hazor and the clan of Heber the Kenite. Jael came out to meet Sisera, and said to him, “Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; have no fear.” So he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. Then he said to her, “Please give me a little water to drink; for I am thirsty.” So she opened a skin of milk and gave him a drink and covered him. He said to her, “Stand at the entrance of the tent, and if anybody comes and asks you, ‘Is anyone here?’ say, ‘No.’” — Judges 4: 17–20.
Sisera doesn’t flee to a powerful castle or secure embassy; he goes to the tent of Jael, Heber the Kenite’s wife. Sisera seeks a safe and hidden place. What does Jael do? She welcomes him into her tent, tucks him into bed by “covering him with a rug,” and gives him milk to lull him to sleep. Like Sisera, we as the readers want to relax. But then Jael grabs a tent peg.
But Jael wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground — he was lying fast asleep from weariness — and he died. Then, as Barak came in pursuit of Sisera, Jael went out to meet him, and said to him, “Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.” So he went into her tent; and there was Sisera lying dead, with the tent peg in his temple — Judges 4:21–22.
Why did Jael kill Sisera? Was it because she felt a secret loyalty to the God of Israel? Or was it because she knew Sisera’s army had been defeated, and wanted to save her own life when Barak came knocking? We aren’t sure. Perhaps it is both.
Barak does indeed come knocking, and Jael shows him the impaled corpse of Sisera. Chapter 4 ends by telling us that Canaan’s King is eventually destroyed. Here is our happily ever after! At least for now.
What does this strange mystery thriller mean for us today? Firstly, we need to recognize how this story does NOT apply to us. Jesus taught us a new way to relate to people that was completely nonviolent. The old law was eye for an eye, but Jesus tells us in Matthew chapter 5 to turn the other cheek. We therefore must maintain a safe distance from the violence in this story.
Though we can’t take up the murderous tent peg and chariots of today’s heroes, we can nonetheless take up their wisdom. We learn that in times of chaos and upheaval, we should not be lulled to sleep like King Sisera. We instead need to keep watch. When it comes to the ways of God, we can certainly expect the unexpected.
Jael wisely read the writing on the wall when war broke out in her town of Kedesh. I doubt she could have predicted that Sisera would run into her tent that day. Yet we see her acting calm and confident even in a dangerous situation. She was prepared, and she was ready.
In addition to keeping watch, Judges 4 also teaches that the health of women is a canary in the mine for the health of a culture. The Book of Judges features 19 women, which is the largest number of female characters in any book of the Bible! Sadly, the status of women in Judges deteriorates quickly, just as the status of Israel does. At the beginning of the book, women like Deborah and Jael are strong. The women of Judges at first have names.
By the end of the book, however, women become victims of brutal violence, have lost their agency, and are stripped into anonymity. It’s no coincidence that as Israel treats its women more and more harshly, Israel falls into deeper chaos and civil war. The health and well-being of women in any community provides a barometer for the health of a community as a whole.
Why is it crucial, in the book of Judges as well as for us, to defend the status of women? As Deborah teaches us, when we promote women to leadership, then everyone wins. Deborah models healthy leadership by inviting others to join her.
Deborah doesn’t take all of the honor for herself. She seeks out Barak, and tells him of God’s calling on his own life. Was this because Deborah physically could not lead the military campaign, and needed Barak? Or was it simply because God had chosen Barak for this task? We don’t know, but it ultimately doesn’t matter. What matters is that Deborah recognized what was her responsibility, and what was for someone else. Deborah was secure enough in her own calling to know that shared glory is better glory.
How interesting that out of all the judges in the Bible, only Deborah has a song named after her. The “song of Deborah,” which is a poem in Judges chapter 5 that retells the story we just read, is considered some of the oldest and most powerful poetry in the Bible. Perhaps the people of Israel praised Deborah in song because she was willing to recognize the gifts and callings of others.
So does this mean that women get all of the credit? Is Deborah the true hero of this story, or Jael? What about Barak?
So on that day God subdued King Jabin of Canaan before the Israelites — Judges 4:23.
At the end of the day, WHO subdued the Canaanite King? Not Deborah, Barak, or Jael, but God. With one exception, the only time that the noun “judge” is used in the book of Judges is to describe the Lord. Though the people praise Deborah for her astute leadership, we learn that God alone is the perfect judge. All other human judges should take note.
If we truly follow God’s call on our life, then God will get the glory. When the miracles happen and the seemingly impossible transpires before our eyes, wise leaders give God credit where divine credit is due. Yet God loves us enough to invite us to join in the fun, too.
God not only invites us to share in the story, but also teaches us how we can woo others to lead with us. Our Trinitarian God, who is three persons in perfect relationship, teaches us how to model healthy leadership just like Deborah, Barak, and Jael.
Where do you see God at work today? Like Jael, will you prepare yourself? Like Deborah, will you acknowledge how God is working in someone else’s life? Like Barak, will you listen when someone else speaks God’s words to you? In these times of upheaval and chaos, stay woke. If we remember God’s previous faithfulness, then we can all share in the victory when God brings it.