By Dr. Mark Scott
The book of Judges is one of the darker books of the Bible. It covers a time frame from 1370 to 1040 BC. God called several leaders to help Israel during those dark days, but none of them achieved the status that Joshua or Samuel enjoyed (the leaders who bookend this period).
We associate judges with courtrooms. The judges in the book of Judges did fulfill that role by holding court and rendering decisions (Judges 4:5). But the judges also functioned as prophets (v. 4), military leaders (vv. 6, 7), and saviors (3:31). Our text highlights the call of a strong woman named Deborah and a weak-kneed man named Barak.
Sin Makes You Pay & Pray
There are two refrains in Judges. One is, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 19:1a; 21:25). Another is in our text. Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord. Judges traces the ugly cycle of God’s people falling into sin, God allowing them to be punished, the people repenting of their sin, and God rescuing them out of their bondage. This cycle is traced in Judges 2:11-23.
Deborah and Barak are the fourth and fifth judges of the twelve judges mentioned in the Book. They are forced to come to the rescue because God’s people have failed once again. Ehud, the southpaw who stabbed fat King Eglon (Judges 3:12-30), had died. Evidently Shamgar’s judgeship was short-lived (3:31). God punished Israel by allowing Jabin, king of Canaan, and Jabin’s commander Sisera to overrun Israel. This all happened in northern Israel (while Deborah judged Israel farther south). The military might of Sisera was underlined by having nine hundred chariots fitted with iron. This detail is mentioned because in the ancient world the main war machine was soldiers. Whoever had more soldiers almost routinely won the war. Israel was cruelly oppressed (crushed, squeezed, or pressed) for twenty years. So Israel cried to the Lord. Sin makes you pay and pray.
Courage Makes You Act
Deborah is one of the classiest women in the Bible. She was a strong leader (judge, avenger, defender, governor), even though in her humility, her self-perception was that of a simple mother of Israel (Judges 5:7). She is identified as a prophet (technically the feminine “prophetess,” as in the English Standard Version). The Hebrew word means “to bubble forth and speak enthusiastically as if speaking by divine inspiration.” Her husband was named Lappidoth. She presided in court in Ephraim (farther south toward Jerusalem) at a certain palm tree that bore her name. Here she settled disputes. This word is a common one in Hebrew (mishpat). It meant to make judgments, set things right, render sentences, and decide a case. Think a kinder, gentler Judge Judy.
She evidently was troubled by Israel’s oppression by Jabin, so one day while court was in recess, and in obedience to a revelation from God (The Lord . . . commands you), she sent word to Barak, whose name means lightning, to muster the troops from two of the northern tribes (Naphtali and Zebulun) and take ten thousand men to Mount Tabor. (This is the traditional site of the transfiguration of Jesus.) God would lead Sisera’s chariots and troops to the Kishon River so that Barak could capture them. Mountains always provided a position of strength for armies. Whoever controlled the mountain often controlled the battle. Deborah’s courage to speak God’s words and to stand by Barak’s side in battle was remarkable.
Honor Gets Deferred
Was Barak a chicken? If you go with me, I will go. But if you don’t go with me, I won’t go. Barak might have wanted Deborah to go because God was speaking through her. He is, after all, listed in the hall of faith (Hebrews 11:32). But verse 9 makes one wonder about his courage, or lack thereof. For the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman. Why does Deborah underline this femininity?
In the ancient Near East war honor (glory, rank, renown) would more typically go to a man. Deborah’s humility is evident in her remark. But the honor that should have been Barak’s was deferred to and deserved by Deborah. And Sisera was ultimately nailed (in two senses of the word) by another woman, Jael (Judges 4:17-22). Deborah stepped up to the plate, Sisera’s army was defeated, and Jabin’s oppression over Israel was brought to an abrupt halt (vv. 23, 24). Deborah (whose name means “bee”) put the sting on the people of Canaan.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
Based on International Sunday School Lesson, © 2012, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.