Just as the book of Deuteronomy ends with the death of Moses (Deuteronomy 34) and the book of Joshua begins with the commissioning of Joshua (Joshua 1:1-9), so also the book of Joshua ends with the death of Joshua (Joshua 24:29-31; see also Judges 2:6-10) and the book of Judges begins with Yahweh appointing Judah to go up against the Canaanites (Judges 1:2).
The book of Joshua recounts the faithful leadership of Joshua, the military victories of the Israelites, and the parceling out of land among the Israelite tribes. However, the book of Judges begins by recounting Israel’s failure to obey Yahweh’s command to drive the inhabitants out of the land (chapter 1; 3:1-6) and Israel’s disobedience (2:1-5) and unfaithfulness (2:11-23).
Joshua 2:16-23 depicts a cycle that will be repeated throughout the book of Judges—a cycle of Yahweh’s faithfulness, Israel’s unfaithfulness, the suffering brought about by Israel’s unfaithfulness, and Yahweh’s answering Israel’s pleas for help. It tells of Yahweh raising up judges to deliver Israel from her enemies, but Israel “did not listen even to their judges; for they lusted after other gods and bowed down to them. The Lord would be moved to pity by their groaning because of those who persecuted and oppressed them. But whenever the judge died, they would relapse and deal “more corruptly than their fathers, in following other gods to serve them, and to bow down to them” (2:19).
The judges sometimes decided issues brought in judicial proceedings, but they were primarily rulers and military leaders—deliverers. They were Yahweh’s answer to Israel’s need for leadership during this critical part of Israel’s history.
Deborah, the leading character in our lectionary reading, is a judge.
The lectionary reading cuts off at an unfortunate point—in the middle of the story. The framers of the lectionary obviously did so in the interest of keeping the length of the reading manageable. However, if the preacher plans to do anything significant with this reading, he/she should deal with the whole chapter.
Chapter 4 tells the story in prose, and chapter 5 (The Song of Deborah) tells the same story in poetry.
JUDGES 4:1-3. ISRAEL DID THAT WHICH WAS EVIL
1The children of Israel again did that which was evil in the sight of Yahweh, when Ehud was dead. 2Yahweh sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the captain of whose army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth of the Gentiles. 3The children of Israel cried to Yahweh: for he had nine hundred chariots of iron; and twenty years he mightily oppressed the children of Israel.
“The children of Israel again did that which was evil in the sight of Yahweh, when Ehud was dead“(v. 1). Judges 3:12-30 tells the story of Ehud, an Israelite of the tribe of Benjamin, who delivered Israel from the oppressive rule of Eglon, the king of Moab, a kingdom on the east side (the far side) of the Jordan River. Ehud brought tribute (a substantial offering) to give to Eglon, but came armed with a hidden knife. He persuaded Eglon that he had a secret message from God for Eglon, so Eglon dismissed his courtiers. When Ehud was alone with Eglon, he moved closer, supposedly to give Eglon the message secretly—but then he pulled out his knife and stuck it into Eglon’s fat belly so that the fat of Eglon’s belly closed around the hilt and hid the knife. Ehud then departed, locking the door behind him. Eglon’s servants thought that the king’s silence was due to his taking a nap, so they didn’t discover his body for some time. Ehud then rallied the people of Israel, who took possession of the fords on the Jordan River, trapping ten thousand Moabites who were living in Israel (on the west side of the river). The Israelites then proceeded to kill the ten thousand Moabites and to bring an end to Moab’s oppressive rule. “The land had rest eighty years” (3:30b).
But when things got good, Israel got bad (see 2:11; 3:7, 12). This is the cycle that repeats so often in the book of Judges and the other books of the Deuteronomistic cycle (Deuteronomy thru 2 Kings). While Israel should have celebrated prosperity by honoring the God who made their prosperity possible, they instead “did that which was evil in the sight of Yahweh” (2:11; 3:7, 12, etc.) Their unfaithfulness manifested itself in many ways, but the emphasis in this book is their worshiping Canaanite gods.
“Yahweh sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor“ (v. 2a). In the book of Joshua, there is an account of a King Jabin of Hazor who led a coalition of kings to fight with Israel. However, Yahweh gave their armies into the hands of the Israelites, who soundly defeated them and destroyed the city of Hazor (Joshua 11:1-15). Some scholars think that the two accounts of King Jabin constitute a garbled history, but it is possible that the two Jabins are two different men with the same name. In any event, the central character in our story from the book of Judges is not Jabin, but Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army.
Hazor was located ten miles (15 km) north of the Sea of Galilee. It was an important city, because it was located at a strategic crossroads—controlling access to Israel from Syria.
“the captain of whose army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth of the Gentiles“ (v. 2b). This verse presents Sisera as the commander of King Jabin’s army, but 5:19-20 speaks of Israel fighting the kings (plural) of Canaan. One possibility is that Sisera was the commander of King Jabin’s army, but that he led a coalition of armies against Israel. He lived in Harosheth, a place that is mentioned only here in the Bible. We don’t know its location.
“The children of Israel cried to Yahweh“ (v. 3a). The cry of the Israelites for God’s help is a routine part of the cycle mentioned above. When times were good, Israel forgot God, but when times turned sour, Israel turned to God for help.
“for he had nine hundred chariots of iron” (v. 3b). Sisera had nine hundred chariots of iron—an overwhelming force in any contest between Sisera’s army and an army fighting only with foot soldiers. This verse portrays the unevenness of the two armies—Sisera’s army and Israel’s army. Israel obviously hasn’t a fighting chance to defeat such a formidable enemy—except, of course, by the grace of God.
There are parallels between this story and the story of the Exodus. The mention of a great army equipped with chariots reminds us of the Egyptian chariots who threatened Israel at the Red Sea—but were, by the grace of God, soundly defeated (Exodus 14). The Song of Deborah (Judges 5) also reminds us of the Song of Moses, which Moses and the Israelites sang after the Egyptians were defeated (Exodus 15).
“and twenty years he mightily oppressed the children of Israel“ (v. 3c). This is another measure of the overwhelming strength of Sisera’s forces. Israel has been helpless to do anything about their oppression, which lasted twenty years.
JUDGES 4:4-7. DEBORAH JUDGED ISRAEL
4Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, she judged Israel at that time. 5She lived under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim: and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment. 6She sent and called Barak the son of Abinoam out of Kedesh Naphtali, and said to him, “Hasn’t Yahweh, the God of Israel, commanded, ‘Go and draw to Mount Tabor, and take with you ten thousand men of the children of Naphtali and of the children of Zebulun? 7I will draw to you, to the river (Hebrew: nahal) Kishon, Sisera, the captain of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his multitude; and I will deliver him into your hand.'”
“Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, she judged Israel at that time”(v. 4). This verse alerts us to Deborah’s double role. She is both a prophetess (a person who delivers messages from God to the people) and a judge (a settler of disputes, a ruler, a military leader, and a deliverer). Deborah’s name means “honey bee”—and, as we will see, she carries a powerful sting. There are a number of female heroines in the Hebrew Scriptures, but Deborah is the only judge among them.
The Hebrew phrase that is translated “wife of Lappidoth” could also be translated “torches”—perhaps suggesting that Deborah was a fiery woman.
“She lived under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim“ (v. 5a). Bethel is located 12 miles (19 km) north of Jerusalem, and Ramah is located a few miles northwest of Bethel. This is about 75 miles (120 km) south of Hazor, the center of Sisera’s power. Whether Sisera’s depredations would have extended this far south is a question, but seems likely that they did.
“and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment“ (v. 5b). As noted above, a judge could be a settler of disputes, a ruler, a military leader, and/or a deliverer. The context in verses 5-7 makes it clear that the Israelites came to Deborah at this time, not to have her settle a dispute, but that she might deliver them from Sisera’s oppression.
“She sent and called Barak the son of Abinoam out of Kedesh Naphtali“ (v. 6a). Barak means “lightning.” The tribe of Naphtali occupies the territory where Hazor, King Jabin’s capitol, is located. Kedesh is just a few miles north of Hazor. Barak and his fellow Naphtalites would have suffered more than most under the oppression of King Jabin and his army commander, Sisera.
“and said to him, ‘Hasn’t Yahweh, the God of Israel, commanded, “Go and draw to Mount Tabor, and take with you ten thousand men of the children of Naphtali and of the children of Zebulun?”‘”(v. 6b). It isn’t Deborah who calls Barak to marshal an army, but Yahweh. The call is to raise an army of ten thousand soldiers from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun.
Naphtali and Zebulun are two of the far northern tribes of Israel. The most northern tribe is Dan, which has a small territory. Naphtali is the next-most-northern tribe (along with Asher, which runs parallel to Naphtali between Naphtali and the Mediterranean Sea). Hazor, King Jabin’s capitol, is located in the tribal territory of Naphtali. Zebulun is located just south of Naphtali.
It makes a certain amount of sense that God would call Naphtali and Zebulun to deal with Jabin and Sisera, because the far-northern tribes would be more profoundly affected by Sisera’s oppression than tribes located further south. What seems odd is that Yahweh doesn’t involve some of the other tribes in that region, such as Dan, Asher, and Issachar. However, Yahweh often prefers to work with those who are weak rather than those who are strong, so that it will be clear that the victory comes from Yahweh. Therefore he chose young David, who faced a giant with his slingshot—and Gideon, who faced a mighty army with a small band of 300 soldiers. When little David routed the giant Goliath—and Gideon and his little company of soldiers routed the Midianites—there could be no question about the source of their victory. Only Yahweh could make such a thing possible. That could be the reason why Yahweh decides to involve only Naphtali and Zebulun in the coming battle.
Mount Tabor is located about 10 miles (16 km) west of the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee—near the place where the territories of Naphtali, Zebulun, and Issachar meet. It isn’t very tall—only 1843 feet (562 meters)—but it rises from a low plain, so it is quite prominent. Soldiers on its slopes would have a commanding view of the entire area, and would be difficult to dislodge. Yahweh (through Deborah) commands Barak to assemble his troops at Mount Tabor.
“I will draw to you, to the river (nahal) Kishon, Sisera, the captain of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his multitude; and I will deliver him into your hand” (v. 7). A wadi is a stream bed that is usually dry, but would fill with water in the rainy season. The word nahal is usually translated river or brook or stream. The trench through which the Kishon runs is about 20 feet (6 meters) deep. It “quickly fills in times of heavy rain, making the soft soil of the plain on either side marshy and miry. Apparently mire caused by a heavy storm hampered the movement of Sisera’s cavalry and chariots and led to his downfall (Jgs. 5:20f)” (Buehler). The Kishon brook runs near Mount Tabor and empties into the Mediterranean Sea near Mount Carmel, a few miles northwest of Mount Tabor.
Yahweh promises to draw out Sisera and his army—including the 900 iron chariots—to the Wadi Kishon. That is where the decisive battle will take place, and Yahweh promises Barak that Yahweh will deliver Sisera and his army into Barak’s hand.
JUDGES 4:8-24. NOT IN THE LECTIONARY READING
While these verses are not in the lectionary reading, they are essential to the story.
When Deborah tells Barak to take ten thousand soldiers to Mount Tabor, Barak replies, “If you will go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go” (v. 8). This sounds as if he is a coward who would like to hide behind a woman’s skirts, but that might not be the case. For Barak, Deborah represents the presence of Yahweh, and his request reflects his desire that Yahweh be fully present with him and his army as he prepares for battle with Sisera and his iron chariots. Another consideration is that Barak doesn’t show any sign of weakness when dealing with Sisera’s army.
However, Deborah replies, “I will surely go with you: nevertheless, the journey that you take shall not be for your honor; for Yahweh will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (v. 9). While it sounds as if Deborah believes that she will receive the glory that would have belonged to Barak, we will see later that the woman who gets credit for killing Sisera is Jael, not Deborah (vv. 17-23).
When Sisera hears that Barak has assembled an army at Mount Tabor, he calls out his soldiers and his iron chariots and takes them to the Kishon brook. Deborah calls Barak to battle, and Barak takes his soldiers to meet Sisera’s army (v. 14). “Yahweh confused Sisera, and all his chariots, and all his army, with the edge of the sword before Barak; and Sisera alighted from his chariot, and fled away on his feet. But Barak pursued after the chariots, and after the army, to Harosheth of the Gentiles: and all the army of Sisera fell by the edge of the sword; there was not a man left” (vv. 15-16).
But that is not the end of Sisera, but just the beginning of the end. Sisera flees “to the tent of Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite; for there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite” (v. 17). Jael greeted Sisera, feigning hospitality (vv. 18-19). He asked her to stand guard at the entrance of the tent (v. 20).
However, once Sisera was asleep, Jael “took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him, and struck the pin into his temples, and it pierced through into the ground; for he was in a deep sleep; so he swooned and died” (v. 21). When Barak came, looking for Sisera, Jael took him into her tent and showed him Sisera’s body (v. 22).
“So God subdued on that day Jabin the king of Canaan before the children of Israel. The hand of the children of Israel prevailed more and more against Jabin the king of Canaan, until they had destroyed Jabin king of Canaan” (vv. 23-24).
Much has been written about the rules of hospitality and Jael’s failure to honor those rules. In any event, it was Yahweh, not Jael, who delivered the Israelites from Jabin and Sisera (v. 23). Jael was only an instrument of that deliverance. The book of Judges makes no mention of her violation of hospitality norms. There is nothing to suggest that it regards her actions as treachery.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Daniel I. Block, New American Commentary: Judges, Ruth, Vol. 6 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999)
Brensinger, Terry L., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Judges (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1987)
Buehler, W.W., “Kishon,” in Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume Three: K-P – Revised (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986)
Butler, Trent C., Word Biblical Commentary: Judges (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000)
Brown, Cheryl A., in Harris, J. Gordon, Brown, Cheryl A., and Moore, Michael S., New International Biblical Commentary: Joshua, Judges, Ruth (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2000)
Cundall, Arthur E., in Cundall, Arthur E., & Morris, Leon, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Judges and Ruth, Vol. 7 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1968).
Jackman, David, The Preacher’s Commentary: Judges/Ruth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2002)
Keck, Leander E., The New Interpreter’s Bible: Numbers – 2 Samuel (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998)
McCann, J. Clinton, Interpretation: Judges (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002)
McCann, J. Clinton, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Newsome, James D., in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Niditch, Susan, Old Testament Library: Judges (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Copyright 2011, Richard Niell Donovan