Judges: A Mother in Israel
Faith in God, Maternal Guidance to Israel.
Text: Judges 4:1-24
Audio: Judges: A Mother in Israel
Speaker: Pastor Paul McPheeters
"Today is Mothers’ Day, and in the Book of Judges today we come to meet a woman named Deborah, whom God raised up to be a Judge, and whom the Bible calls in 5:7, 'a mother in Israel.'
Her story is a lengthy one which is told in two distinct parts. The first part is found in Judges chapter 4, and is written in prose. The second part is found in chapter 5, and it retells her story in poetry, in a song that was sung to recount the exploits of Deborah and of her right-hand man, Barak, who commanded Israel’s army at the time.
We are going to spend two weeks on the judgeship of Deborah, looking at each of these parts of her story in turn. First the prose, then the poetry.
So turn with me today to Judges chapter 4:1-24, and meet Deborah, who in her day was a 'mother' to her nation of Israel.
Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, now that Ehud was dead. So the Lord sold them into the hands of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. Sisera, the commander of his army, was based in Harosheth Haggoyim. Because he had nine hundred chariots fitted with iron and had cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years, they cried to the Lord for help. Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided. She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor. I will lead Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.’” Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.” “Certainly I will go with you,” said Deborah. “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.” So Deborah went with Barak to Kedesh. 10 There Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali, and ten thousand men went up under his command. Deborah also went up with him. Now Heber the Kenite had left the other Kenites, the descendants of Hobab, Moses’ brother-in-law, and pitched his tent by the great tree in Zaanannim near Kedesh. When they told Sisera that Barak son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor, Sisera summoned from Harosheth Haggoyim to the Kishon River all his men and his nine hundred chariots fitted with iron. Then Deborah said to Barak, “Go! This is the day the Lord has given Sisera into your hands. Has not the Lord gone ahead of you?” So Barak went down Mount Tabor, with ten thousand men following him. At Barak’s advance, the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and army by the sword, and Sisera got down from his chariot and fled on foot. Barak pursued the chariots and army as far as Harosheth Haggoyim, and all Sisera’s troops fell by the sword; not a man was left. Sisera, meanwhile, fled on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, because there was an alliance between Jabin king of Hazor and the family of Heber the Kenite. Jael went out to meet Sisera and said to him, “Come, my lord, come right in. Don’t be afraid.” So he entered her tent, and she covered him with a blanket. “I’m thirsty,” he said. “Please give me some water.” She opened a skin of milk, gave him a drink, and covered him up. “Stand in the doorway of the tent,” he told her. “If someone comes by and asks you, ‘Is anyone in there?’ say ‘No.’” But Jael, Heber’s wife, picked up a tent peg and a hammer and went quietly to him while he lay fast asleep, exhausted. She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died. Just then Barak came by in pursuit of Sisera, and Jael went out to meet him. “Come,” she said, “I will show you the man you’re looking for.” So he went in with her, and there lay Sisera with the tent peg through his temple—dead. On that day God subdued Jabin king of Canaan before the Israelites. 24 And the hand of the Israelites pressed harder and harder against Jabin king of Canaan until they destroyed him.
Last Sunday I spoke to you about a 'pattern and a principle' that are found throughout the Book of Judges. The pattern is that the people of God continually turned away from God and did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord. The Lord would then give them over to the power of their enemies who would defeat them in battle and rule over them. The Israelites would then repent and cry out to God for help. God would then raise up for them a deliverer, a Judge, who would be anointed by God to lead them to victory over their oppressors. Then there would be an era of peace and prosperity until the judge died, and the cycle would start all over again.
That’s the pattern of the Book of Judges, and if we are honest, it is a pattern in life we are all too familiar with ourselves.
The 'principle' we spoke of last week, is that when God raises up a deliverer for his people then and now, he regularly chooses an unlikely candidate. God is constantly in the habit, as the Apostle Paul says in I Corinthians 1:27, of 'choosing the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and the weak things of the world to shame the strong, and the lowly things of the world and the despised things and the things that are not, to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before Him.'
So today it is no surprise that our passage begins with the words of the pattern: 'After Ehud died, the Israelites once again did evil in the eyes of the Lord, so the Lord sold them into the hands of Jabin, a King of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor…He cruelly oppressed the Israelites for 20 years until they cried out to the Lord for help.'
And it ought to be no surprise that the person God raises up to be a Judge and deliverer for his people is another unlikely candidate for the position of leadership in Israel. And this time that unlikely candidate is unlikely because she is a woman. It was highly unusual for a woman to be in a position of leadership and authority in the ancient world.
In verse 4, when we are first introduced to her, we are told that Deborah was a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, and that she was 'leading' or 'judging' Israel at this time.
My friends, that’s a remarkable statement. For a woman to be the acknowledge and official leader of a nation, or a tribe, or a clan, or a family was extraordinary. Not that there weren’t plenty of strong and gifted women who exerted a powerful influence on their family, clan, tribe, and nation, but not many of them were ever actually seated in the official position of power.
This is what makes Deborah all the more noteworthy in the Bible. She is also called 'prophetess,' and you know what, Deborah is the only judge in the Book of Judges who is called a prophet of God. And that is actually the very first word that is used to describe her in verse 4. She was known and acknowledged by the people of God to be God’s spokesperson to the nation at this time. And we are told that people came from all over the nation of Israel, asking for her to speak God’s word and wisdom to them in their disputes and difficulties.
She actually 'held court' it says under a special tree that was known as 'The Palm of Deborah.' You see, this is an acknowledged position she has, and an acknowledged authority attributed to her. And it wasn’t that she was elected to this position or given this authority by popular consent. That never would have happened to a woman in that day.
What the people of Israel acknowledged was that God had called and anointed her to be a Judge in Israel, and God had called and anointed her to be His spokeswoman, and her authority came from God. She was a prophetess of Yahweh. This is why she was leading and judging Israel at this time, and seems to have been for a number of years before this particular part of her story in Judges takes place.
So what we see here in Judges 4, is that Deborah is judging Israel during a 20 year time period in which Israel is subjected to the oppressive domination of a Canaanite king named Jabin. And Jabin is ruling from a northern city called Hazor, which was up in what would in Jesus’ day be known as Galilee of the Gentiles. And Jabin was a powerful king who had amassed an enormous army which boasted of 900 iron chariots. He seems to have subdued many of the lesser kings and peoples of Canaan to the south including the Israelites.
And for a number of years, Deborah had helped her people endure Jabin’s oppressive regime by speaking God’s word to them; by handling their disputes, by guiding them in the ways of faith and trust during this difficult period of subjection to an enemy king.
But as we come in on Deborah today, it seems that the time had come when God spoke to Deborah and told her that He was about to overthrow the power of King Jabin, and his powerful General Sisera, and their 900 iron chariots.
God tells Deborah to send for Barak, the son of Abinoam of Israelite tribe of Naphtali, whose allotted inheritance in Israel was in the north, the very region all around the City of Hazor, from which King Jabin ruled.
So Deborah sends for Barak and tells him that Yahweh, the God of Israel, has commanded him to take 10,000 men and to Mt. Tabor, in order to lure General Sisera and his troops and chariots down into the river valley at the base of Mt. Tabor, along the Kishon River. Deborah tells Barak to do this because God was going to give Jabin’s commanding general Sisera and his troops into the Israelites’ hands.
Now then there is this interesting interchange between Barak and Deborah the meaning of which is much debated.
Barak says to Deborah, 'If you go with me, I will go, but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.' And Deborah says in response, 'Very well, I will go with you. 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.'
And the question that is much debated about this exchange, is whether Barak’s words to Deborah are words of cowardice or words of faith; and whether Deborah’s words back to Barak are words of scolding because of his cowardice, or words of simple prophecy informing him of what will happen on this course that God has laid out for them.
On the surface, it seems like Barak is being cowardly in telling Deborah that if she doesn’t go with him into battle then he doesn’t want to go. Does he need her to hold his hand? And it seems like she is telling him that if he is going to rely on a woman to fight the battle with him, then the honor of the battle will go to her and not to him.
But I believe a closer reading of the story reveals that this is not what either one of them are saying to each other.
What we need to realize is the respect that Deborah is being accorded here as the Judge and Prophetess of God in Israel at this time. Barak is not saying to Deborah, 'I need YOU to go with me or I won’t go.' He is saying, '"Deborah, are God’s chosen spokesperson for us as a people, and I will need GOD to be with me in this battle to lead and guide me. I need you to come with me as God’s spokesperson and help make sure I hear what God wants me to do so that I can do it.'"
Barak is showing himself to be a man of faith, who wants to hear from God and walk in God’s ways. And he wants God’s prophet to be by his side so he conducts the battle in the way God wants him to.
My friends, this is what the rest of the story shows us. Barak is not cowardly at all. He was not at all reluctant to muster the 10,000 men and go to Mt. Tabor, or to bravely fight the ensuing battle. Barak’s name in Hebrew means 'thunderbolt,' and he will descend from Mt. Tabor on King Jabin’s troops just like a thunderbolt. In fact, in the NT, in chapter 11 the Book of Hebrews, which is kind of Hall of Fame for heroes of the Bible, Barak is listed as one of the heroes of Israel. He is not remembered as a coward who was reluctant to fight and needed Deborah to hold his hand. No, he is remembered as a man of devout faith who trusted in God and did what God asked him to do, and led in a battle that overcame 900 iron chariots.
And in that light, Deborah’s words back to Barak do not need to be heard as scolding. She says, 'Certainly I will go with you. But I want you to know that at the end of the day today, neither you nor I will be the one to get the supreme honor of killing Sisera, the commanding general of the enemy troops. That honor will go to another woman.'
And that’s what happens. It is a woman named Jael, who at the end of the battle will do the honor of killing Sisera. And this isn’t meant to diminish the heroism of Barak, nor does it exalt Deborah in some way over Barak. It’s simply that Jael, another woman in Israel, will also play a significant part.
You see, Deborah’s words to Barak when he asks her to go with him are simply the first way in which God’s prophetess starts telling God’s commanding general what God says is going to happen. And then they go off together to do what God commanded them to do.
And here’s what happens. Barak does summon troops from his own tribe of Naphtali and the neighboring tribe of Zebulun, and they do assemble at Mt. Tabor as the Lord commanded. And the word of this gathering of troops does lure Jabin and Sisera and their troops and chariots down into the Kishon Valley. Now next week, when we read the song of Deborah and Barak in chapter 5, we will talk more about how this battle actually played out. But in this prose version we simply get the bare bones of the story. That Barak led his troops down off the mountain and into the valley and the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and soldiers. And Sisera himself abandoned his chariot and fled on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, because, it says, 'there were friendly relations between Jabin King of Hazor and the clan of Heber the Kenite.'
Now the text also told us back in verse 11, that Heber the Kenite was a descendant of Moses’ brother in law. And if you remember, Moses’ in-laws were not Israelites, but they were God-fearing and God-worshipping people who were loyal allies of Moses and the Israelites. In fact, the name 'Heber' means 'ally' in Hebrew.
So the question is, why is Heber the Kenite having friendly relations at this point with King Jabin of Hazor, who is Israel’s enemy? Well, the Kenite’s seem to have been known as a clan of metalworkers. And it would make sense, that they had found in King Jabin a lucrative source of income. They may well have been the ones who constructed those 900 chariots of iron. This may explain why Sisera knows exactly where Heber the Kenite and his wife live, and why he flees there for protection.
But Jael, Heber’s wife, has an Israelite name. In fact, Jael means 'Yahweh is God.' And she, in surprising fashion, shows that she is no true ally of Jabin and his commanding General Sisera. She shows that her true loyalty is to the God of Israel and her own people of Israel. She allows Sisera to come into her tent, and even treats him in her own motherly fashion to a glass of milk and a nap after his long day of battle. But in not so motherly fashion, when he is asleep, she takes a tent peg and drives it into his temple and kills him right there in her tent.
And though this goes against all the laws of hospitality in her day, she sees it as an integral part of the battle that her people were in the midst of with Sisera and his troops. From her perspective, the battle was not over and he was not a guest in her home. She saw him as an enemy combatant whom the Lord had given right into her hands. So she, too, became a war hero in the eyes of Israel that day, just as Deborah had prophesied to Barak at the outset.
So what does a story like this in the Book of Judges have to tell us on Mothers’ Day all these years later?
Well, it might seem like the story of Deborah is not much of a Mothers’ Day kind of story. No flowers and chocolates and warm cozy feelings for dear old Mom in this text.
But I want us to pay attention to what it meant for a woman like Deborah to be a 'mother to Israel' in her day. It was highly unusual for a woman to be found in a position of authority in the Old Testament world. But God raises up the lowly to nullify the high and mighty.
And that’s what God did through Deborah in her day. King Jabin and General Sisera and their 900 iron chariots were the high and mighty in Deborah’s generation. They were the ones lording it over God’s people and oppressing them.
So God raised up a woman to be a mother in Israel, and she emboldened her people to live faithfully in a difficult period of their history. First she became known as a person who knew God’s heart and God’s mind, and could speak God’s word in a trustworthy way as a prophet. Then she was entrusted to judge and bring discernment and wisdom to help settle her people’s disputes. Then when the time came, God called her speak His word to Barak, and together they stepped out in faith to do what God had commanded. And they then saw God take on their way-more-powerful enemy, and win.
My friends, Deborah’s life and leadership was about being faithful to God, and nurturing that same kind of faith in others. She truly was a 'mother to Israel' in her day, and a godly leader of her people.
And it’s the great legacy of a great woman of the Bible on Mothers’ Day. And it’s a great legacy.
Let us pray."