By Laura McKillip Wood
I’m going to start out by being really honest. I’m interested in Deborah from the book of Judges because she was a woman. The Bible has its share of females, but Deborah stands out because her role differs from many of the women of her time. God used her in unexpected ways to bring about victory and protection for his people during an uncertain period in their history, and he used her to open the door for another interesting woman to aid in the victory.
In a time when women were seen as property by many, a time when a woman’s place was in the home, caring for the men in the family, a time when keeping house and cooking took every moment of a woman’s day, Deborah, for some unknown reason, became a prophetess and a judge. From what we see in Judges 4, this wasn’t a case of her wrestling a powerful position away from a man. She was a prophetess, which means God spoke to his people through her at a time when they did not have another way to hear from him. She was the only judge who was also referred to as a prophet or prophetess—a role that gives her even more credibility and authority. God chose a woman to represent him to his people. He chose a woman to be the intermediary between him and his chosen ones. That’s a hefty responsibility, and from what we see in Judges, Deborah handled it well.
Judges took place in the unusual, somewhat topsy-turvy time when the Hebrew people had escaped slavery in Egypt, had wandered in the desert for 40 years, and had finally conquered enough of the inhabitants of the promised land to settle down. In a time when they wanted a safe life, they did not have much leadership to unite them. Instead of giving them a king, God raised up judges to help the people settle disputes and govern themselves. However, they still faced marauding Canaanite invaders periodically, and they still got complacent and spent quite a bit of time doing “what was right in their own eyes” instead of paying much attention to God and what he wanted from them.
Enter Deborah. Her name could mean “bee,” but it could also be translated “flames.” Either of those translations tells me she wasn’t a shrinking violet. We don’t know much about her. We don’t know how she became a prophetess and judge, and we don’t know whether she had children. She may have been a young mother with toddlers hanging on her robe as she listened to the people’s complaints, or she may have had grown children already raising families of their own. Maybe she had no children, and God used her childless state to his advantage. We do know that she had a husband. The author mentions him in passing.
At some point in her work as a judge, Deborah received a word from the Lord that she should tell the military leader, Barak, to gather his army and fight their most recent enemy, Sisera the Canaanite. Sisera had something the Israelites did not—900 iron chariots under his control. That doesn’t sound like much in today’s world of high-tech military equipment, but at that time it meant that Sisera’s army was a force to be reckoned with. To a group of men on foot with spears and swords, an iron chariot seemed impenetrable.
When he heard God’s Word for him, Barak said something remarkable to Deborah. Big, brave, military leader that he must have been, Barak said, “Ummm, I’ll go if you go with me. If you don’t, forget it. I’m out” (my paraphrase). At that point, I imagine Deborah sighing. What must have run through her head when he said that? You have got to be kidding me, comes to my mind just reading it. Whatever she thought, she only said she’d go, “But 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).
Barak’s response may have indicated reluctance to battle Sisera or a desire to keep God’s blessing on his army by bringing God’s spokesperson with him. But he assembled his forces and did as Deborah told him. He went to Mount Tabor, where his men would have an advantage. Iron chariots don’t fare well on mountainsides.
Sisera’s men in their chariots lined up on the plains in front of the mountain. This plain had a river running through it. In the hot summer, the river dwindled to a stream, but in the spring when storms came up quickly and violently, the river swelled and flooded, creating a muddy mess that even in modern times enabled Napoleon to win a battle against a Turkish army. This may have happened when Deborah gave the go-ahead for Barak to charge onto the plains and battle the chariot army. In the miry mess, the charioteers abandoned their rides and fought on foot. Essentially, this meant the Canaanite army ran away from the Hebrews, who killed every last one of them that day—except one.
The Hebrews killed all the army but Sisera. The commander escaped and ran away, heading home to safety. He made his way to the camp of Heber the Kenite, who had a wife named Jael. The Kenites had been allies with the Israelites, but Heber was an ironworker who had moved north, away from his people and toward the Canaanite Sisera, who just happened to need quite a few ironworkers to create and maintain his chariots of iron. Commentators suspect that Heber had betrayed the Hebrews by working for their enemy and may have even informed Sisera of their plans.
Since he knew that Heber worked for him, Sisera approached the Kenite’s wife and asked her for asylum. Jael welcomed him into her tent, breaking social norms that said a man who was not her husband never entered a woman’s tent. She promised Sisera she would watch over him while he rested. She even gave him some milk to restore his strength. When Sisera fell into a deep sleep, Jael grabbed the nearest thing to a weapon available, a tent peg and hammer, and nailed his head to the ground through his temple.
Talk about unexpected! Jael not only fulfilled Deborah’s prophecy that the honor for the battle would go to a woman, but she did it with strength and not a little ingenuity. When it was all said and done, she stepped outside her tent in time to see Barak passing by, looking for Sisera. She led him straight to the dead man.
When the battle ended and the bad guy was dead, Deborah proved that she had it together. She had just returned from directing the battle. She probably would have liked a nice long bath, but instead she and Barak did something unlike anything I’ve heard of modern political and military leaders doing together—they sang a song. This song, found in Judges 5, celebrates the victory over Sisera and victories over the Canaanites in general. These types of poems were common in that time, and this one is probably the oldest of its type. Deborah, the prophetess and judge, also composed poetry and sang. She was the first Renaissance Woman!
More than just a fascinating story, Deborah’s life provides some important points for us to consider. She used the gifts and opportunities that God sent her way and powerfully contributed to the advancement of God’s plan on earth. She did not shirk her responsibility when she faced reluctance from Israel’s military leader. Sure of what God had told her, Deborah persisted in doing his work. Not only that, but she opened the door for another woman of God to make a bold move that resulted in the death of the enemy.
We do not have to respond to the negative voices around us that say we’re stepping out of our expected roles. We do not have to feel discouraged by people who need encouragement to do God’s work. While I hope none of us ever needs to bolster a military leader or murder one with a tent peg, I do hope that when we face obstacles in our lives we listen to the Word of God and move forward in boldness!
Laura McKillip Wood is a freelance writer in Papillion, Nebraska (lauramckillipwood.com).