Judges 4 Deborah, Barak, and Jael

Deborah beneath the Palm Tree, James Tissot or followers (1836-1902)

Judges 4 Deborah, Barak, and Jael

The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, after Ehud died. 2 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. 3 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.

4 At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. 5 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. 6 She 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. 7 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.'” 8 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.” 9 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. 10 Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh; and ten thousand warriors went up behind him; and Deborah went up with him.

11 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.

12 When Sisera was told that Barak son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor, 13 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. 14 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. 15 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, 16 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.

17 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. 18 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. 19 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. 20 He said to her, “Stand at the entrance of the tent, and if anybody comes and asks you, ‘Is anyone here?’ say, ‘No.'” 21 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. 22 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.

23 So on that day God subdued King Jabin of Canaan before the Israelites. 24 Then the hand of the Israelites bore harder and harder on King Jabin of Canaan, until they destroyed King Jabin of Canaan.

In the previous chapter we met the first three judges: a model military leader, a trickster assassin, and a foreigner. In the story of Deborah, Barak, and Jael we have all three elements again with the surprising addition that two of the three main protagonists are women. Early in the book of Judges we have seen that women have names and can act on their own to secure their interests as Achsah, daughter of Caleb and wife of the first judge Othniel, does. (1:11-15) As the book of Judges continues women will have less agency and security and only one other woman is named in the book, even though several individual women and groups of women will be important if tragic parts of the story. We also see for the first time when a male character wants some additional guarantee to do their part in God’s deliverance of the people. This episode, like the crossing of the Red Sea, is captured in both narrative form and a poetic lyrical form in the following chapter. In the memory of the people it is a joyous recollection of God’s deliverance from an oppressive and militarily superior foe at the hands of two women and a man.

We are introduced to the two antagonists of the story that the people of northern Israel are cruelly oppressed by: King Jabin of Canaan who rules from Hazor and his general Sisera who lives in Harosheth-ha-goiim. The name King Jabin and the city of Hazor take us back to an earlier story in the book of Joshua where the northern Canaanite kings are rallied by King Jabin of Hazor roughly a century earlier. In this battle against these northern kings Hazor is burned to the ground and King Jabin is put to the sword. (Joshua 11: 1-15) It is possible that Jabin was a royal title, like Pharaoh or Elimelech, and that while he is from the same line that ruled the former city of Hazor he is exercising his power with his general from Harosheth-ha-goiim. Regardless of how we address the identical titles of King Jabin and the vanquished, according to Joshua, city of Hazor the real locus of power is in the military might of the military commander Sisera and his nine-hundred iron chariots. It is through this mobile and seemingly invincible technological advantage in the early iron age that the northern territory of Israel is subjugated and after twenty years calls they call out to their God once again.

In a patriarchal world, which the vast majority of the ancient world was, it may seem unusual for a woman to be a prophetess as well as one who judges the people. Yet, in a situation of oppression where women have relatively few rights they may initially be viewed by the oppressor as harmless and may be able to use their power of social connectedness to maintain the identity of their family and to work for change. A powerful example of this is the nonviolent movement of women in Liberia which began in 2003 and resulted in the ending of Liberia’s civil war. Deborah becomes a figure that helps the Israelites remember who they are and gives them some sense of their story and their calling. Although the action of Deborah judging the people and providing guidance as a woman is unusual in scripture there is no indication that her role was contrary to God’s intentions. She becomes one of the two women in this story who are instrumental in the deliverance of Israel and as the song will say in the next chapter she will become a ‘mother of Israel.’ She is a married woman, but it is she and not her husband, Lappidoth, who becomes one of the vessels in this story. She is the one who is able to understand the will of God in the situation.

The military leader for the Israelites is Barak who is summoned and charged by Deborah to rally a large number from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun. Israel has no standing army at this time and so these ‘ten thousand,’ while numerically superior to the charioteers of Sisera, are not equipped or trained to stand against this type of force. When Barak requires Deborah to go with him it is possible to read this as either Barak’s failure to trust and because of his failure to trust God will deliver the glory that was originally to be his to a woman.[1] But the Hebrew is more ambivalent. It is equally likely that Barak is not negatively judged for wanting the presence of Deborah and that losing some glory to a woman is an exchange he is glad to make for the presence of a prophetess who can discern the movement and will of God. (NIB II:780) Deborah has summoned Barak and goes with him. Now Barak summons the ten thousand from Naphtali and Zebulun and goes to Mount Tabor.

In the middle of the narrative we have the introduction of the family of Heber the Kenite whose wife, Jael, will play a crucial role in the conclusion of the narrative. The Kenites were introduced earlier Judges 1:16 who had allied themselves with Judah and Simeon in their conquest of Southern Israel. Now we have an individual Kenite family group which has come into Northern Israel’s territory and made peace with the Canaanites in that region. Dennis T. Olson mentions the association of the Kenites with the descendants of Cain who in Genesis 4:22 are skilled in bronze and iron working and conjectures that Heber may be a craftsman responsible for building or helping maintain the iron chariot forces of these Canaanites, (NIB II:780-781) but while this is a plausible conjecture it still only a conjecture. What we can say in in the narrative Heber the Kenite has negotiated a peace for his clan with the military power of the area.

Picture of Mount Tabor in 2011, Attribution צילם: אלי זהבי, כפר תבור shared under creative commons 2.5

Barak and his ten thousand fighters from Naphtali and Zebulun and Sisera and with his 900 chariots and all his troops come together at the Wadi Kishon. The book of Judges narrates the battle of the Wadi Kishon from a theological perspective: the LORD has gone out to fight before the fighters of Israel and delivers this technologically superior force into their hands. The narrative also hints at how the technological advantage of the iron chariots is overcome. Terrain can play a critical role in ground combat and particular for armored forces. In modern warfare tanks which can be nearly invincible in the plains or desert become vulnerable in urban areas, forests, and swampy terrain. In ancient warfare iron chariots would be particularly vulnerable in areas where their wheels become mired in soft mud or uneven terrain. In a wadi, which is a stream bed or ravine which is dry except during rainy seasons, the recent presence of water can make the heavy chariot a liability like Pharoah’s chariots mired in the Red Sea which prevent their escape from the returning waters during the escape of the Israelites from Egypt. The presence of water is explicitly mentioned in the song in the next chapter.  Sisera is explicitly mentioned as abandoning his chariot and retreating on foot away from the Israelite horde descending upon them from Mount Tabor.

Sisera flees toward the tent of Heber the Kenite, presuming that it will be a safe space and he is greeted by Jael, Heber’s wife. Jael provides shelter and hides the fleeing general and the imagery for Jael’s action towards Sisera are initially described in a very maternal manner. Yet the language swiftly turns from maternal to violent once the general has been tucked under the blanket and given milk like a child, now his temple is penetrated in a stealthy strike which drive a stake through his head. Once again deception is involved in the elimination of a threat to Israel, and now Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite is the trickster like Ehud. Jael is definitely not an Israelite like Shamgur son of Anath at the end of the previous chapter. With the expectation of hospitality once you bring someone under your tent her actions are at best morally ambiguous and yet they are critical to a story that is a part of God’s action to end the oppression of God’s people. It is a story of reversals where a seemingly invincible commander is reduced to a child and eventually is killed not in combat but hiding under a rug by a woman. Sisera had instructed Jael to answer the question, “Is a man here”[2] and before Jael reduces him to a corpse he already tells her to claim there is ‘no man’ in here. Jael then goes to Barak and shows him ‘the man’ he is seeking is already a corpse.

Once the leadership of Sisera and the threat of the nine hundred chariots are removed the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun are able to continue their occupation of their territory. King Jabin without Sisera is no longer able to maintain control, these Israelites experience a time of expansion and peace, and God works through a prophetess, a man who can rally the tribes, and a foreign woman. Somehow all three fulfill the role of a judge. Story and morality in the bible can seem complicated, especially when you are looking at the experience of the oppressed. Tricksters often appear in the literature of the oppressed and when they triumph over the powerful they not only defeat them, but they humiliate them. This tale with all its moral ambiguity where Jael violates the expectations of hospitality probably functioned for the Israelites like the Brer Rabbit stories functioned for slaves in America.[3] Perhaps the primary point of the story is the humiliation of the powerful and not the morality of the trickster and perhaps the book of Judges helps us to accept the action of God through people who share different values, beliefs, and morality than we might.

[1] Hence the NIV translation of verse 9 “Very well,” Deborah said, “I will go with you. But because of the way you are going about this, the honor will not be yours, for the LORD will hand Sisera over to a woman.”

[2] The NRSV translates the Hebrew hayes poh ‘is as “is anyone here?” but this reflects the NRSV pattern of using inclusive language. The typical use of the pronoun here is for a man.

[3] See for example the treatment of the trickster in James C. Scott’s Domination and the Arts of Resistance (Scott 1990, 162-166)

4 thoughts on “Judges 4 Deborah, Barak, and Jael

  1. Pingback: Judges 5 The Song of Deborah and Barak | Sign of the Rose

  2. Pingback: Judges 13 The Birth and Calling of Samson | Sign of the Rose

  3. Pingback: Judges 16 Samson, Delilah and a Crashing End | Sign of the Rose

  4. Pingback: The Book of Judges | Sign of the Rose

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