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Bible Commentaries
Judges 4

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes


C. The third apostasy chs. 4-5

Chapters 4 and 5 are complementary versions of the victory God gave Israel over the Canaanites, first in prose and then in poetry (cf. Exodus 14-15). [Note: Block, Judges . . ., p. 177.] They are two witnesses to God’s greatness and goodness.

Verses 1-3

As long as Ehud lived he kept Israel faithful to God (Judges 4:1). However after he died, God’s people again turned from the Lord. In discipline God allowed the Canaanites in the North to gain strength and dominate the Israelites for 20 years. Hazor, one of the largest cities in the Promised Land, again became the center of Canaanite power in this area (cf. Joshua 11:1; Joshua 11:10). [Note: See Piotr Bienkowski, "The Role of Hazor in the Late Bronze Age," Palestine Exploration Quarterly 119:1 (January-June 1987):50-61.] It stood on the main road connecting Egypt and Mesopo-tamia. Its king was Jabin (the discerning, lit. he will under-stand), perhaps a title or dynastic name rather than a proper name since the king of Hazor that Joshua defeated was also Jabin (Joshua 11:1). [Note: Kenneth Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament, p. 68.] Or the Jabin in Judges could have received his name in honor of the Jabin in Joshua. This titulary has a sarcastic ring, however, since he would learn that Yahweh opposes oppressors of His people.

Jabin’s commander-in-chief, Sisera, lived several miles to the southwest of Hazor in Harosheth-hagoyim (lit. the woodlands of the nations). This may have been a term that described the entire upper Galilee region. [Note: Lewis, p. 39.] This suggests that Canaanite influence was extensive throughout northern Israel at this time. Though the location of Harosheth-hagoyim is uncertain, it seems to have been at the western end of the Jezreel Valley. [Note: Dale W. Manor, "The Topography and Geography of the Jezreel Valley as they Contribute to the Battles of Deborah and Gideon," Near Eastern Archaeology Society Bulletin NS28 (Winter 1987):27; and Leon Wood, A Survey of Israel’s History, p. 216, n. 39. ] "Ephraim" here, as well as in other places (e.g., Judges 3:27), may have originally been a geographical rather than a tribal term (cf. Joshua 20:7). [Note: Gray, p. 255.]

The Canaanites’ 900 iron war chariots gave them complete control of the flatter and dryer portions of this area. The Israelites had to live in the hills. These chariots were state-of-the-art weapons at this time. Compare Pharaoh’s chariots in the Exodus account. Chapter 5 also recalls the Exodus.

Verses 1-24

1. The victory over Jabin and Sisera ch. 4

Verses 4-11

Deborah was one of three prophetesses identified as such in the Old Testament (Judges 4:4), along with Miriam (Exodus 15:20) and Huldah (2 Kings 22:14). Anna (Luke 2:36) and Philip’s four daughters (Acts 21:8-9) were also prophetesses. Deborah was also one of the judges (Judges 4:4). Another translation of "wife of Lappidoth" is "woman of torches." This may be the meaning since she motivated Barak and demonstrated conquering power, which torches symbolize (cf. Judges 5:7; Isaiah 62:1; Daniel 10:6; Zechariah 12:6). [Note: McCann, pp. 51-52.] The account of her life and ministry shows that some of the judges served as civil leaders almost exclusively. [Note: See M. O’Connor, "The Women in the Book of Judges," Hebrew Annual Review 10 (1986):277-93.] Samuel was a similar type of judge, whose military exploits were minor.

"The very looseness of early Israelite social and political organization, along with the requirements of a subsistence economy, probably explains why women could play such a major role in Israelite life, as they clearly do in the book of Judges, especially in chapters 4-5 . . ." [Note: McCann, p. 56.]

Deborah lived in the hill country of Ephraim (Judges 4:5). Her name means "Bee," and she did what often marks a bee. She stung the enemy, and she brought sweet refreshment to her people. However, her name also suggests her prophetic role as she spoke to Barak, since the consonants in her name are the same as those in the Hebrew word translated "speak" and "word." The writer may have referred to her palm tree, another source of sweetness, to contrast it with the oak of Zaanannim under which the compromising Heber worked (Judges 4:11).

Barak apparently was a well-known military leader in Israel at this time. He lived in far north Israel in Kadesh of Naphtali (Judges 4:6), which was fairly close to Hazor. It stood at the southwest corner of the Sea of Chinnereth. [Note: Yohanan Aharoni, Land of the Bible, p. 204.] Some scholars favor a Kadesh north of Lake Huleh. Barak’s name means "Lightning," which he proved to be in his battle against the Canaanites.

As a prophetess Deborah sent orders to Barak to assemble 10,000 soldiers, or possibly 10 units of soldiers, at Mt. Tabor southwest of the Sea of Chinnereth (Galilee). Note that God’s command to Barak was clear. He was to "Go" (Heb. masak, lit. to draw along) with his recruits and wait at the mountain. God said He would draw Sisera out to come against Barak. Barak was then to move west against Sisera’s forces at the Kishon River just north of the Carmel mountain range, which stood on the south side of the Jezreel Valley.

"RSV rightly renders torrent (Hebrew nahal), the Kishon in its upper course being indeed a seasonal wadi, which, however, rises quickly and strongly in its lower course, swollen by flash floods from the slopes of Carmel and the hills of Lower Galilee as they converge upon it near Harosheth." [Note: Gray, p. 278.]

On this occasion Israel’s forces were very numerous. They had perhaps a 10 to one advantage over the Canaanites. Gideon’s later battle with the Midianites would be the opposite with Israel’s forces in the minority. God promised to give the Canaanites into Barak’s hand (Judges 4:7).

Barak’s refusal to go on this mission without Deborah raises questions. He may have been afraid to go into battle without Deborah’s comforting company. Probably he wanted to have this prophetess with him so he could obtain God’s guidance through her if he needed to do so. A third explanation follows.

". . . his mistrust of his own strength was such that he felt too weak to carry out the command of God. He wanted divine enthusiasm for the conflict, and this the presence of the prophetess was to infuse into both Barak and the army that was to be gathered around him." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, p. 303.]

Whatever his motivation may have been, he put a condition on obeying God. The will of God was clear. He even had God’s promise of victory. Nevertheless he refused to obey unless Deborah accompanied him. Barak would defeat the Canaanites, but a woman would get the credit for defeating the commander, Sisera. This was Barak’s punishment for putting a condition on his obedience to God (Judges 4:9). Barak probably assumed that the prediction in Judges 4:9 referred to Deborah, but, as things turned out, Jael the Kenite received the glory that might have been his. Even though Barak had faith (Hebrews 11:32), his faith was not as strong as it should have been.

Apparently some of the Kenites, the descendants of Hobab, Moses’ brother-in-law, had moved north to continue their semi-nomadic life in the northern part of western Manasseh. Hobab was probably Moses’ brother-in-law (NIV) rather than his father-in-law (AV, NASB; cf. Numbers 10:29). The consonants of the Hebrew words translated "father-in-law" and "brother-in-law" are the same (i.e., htn). Only the vowels, which later scribes supplied, are different (hoten being "father-in-law" and hatan being "brother-in-law").

Most of the Kenites lived in southern Judah. Heber’s family was able to maintain good relations with both the Canaanites and the Israelites (Judges 4:17). Heber’s name means "Ally" and reflects his alliance with the Canaanites. "Kenite" means "smith" as in "blacksmith." Heber seems to have been plying his trade under the oak of Zaanannim. Was he one of the blacksmiths responsible for keeping the Canaanites’ 900 iron chariots in good repair? Oak trees were often the sites of pagan Canaanite worship. Had he set up shop at the cultic shrine of Baal in his area? If so, he contrasts sharply with Deborah, who carried out her work of revealing the words of God and ruling His people under a palm tree (Judges 4:5). Here was a descendant of Moses’ family who may have been fraternizing with the very people Moses had commanded the Israelites to exterminate!

Verses 12-16

When word reached Sisera that Barak had mustered Israelite troops at Mt. Tabor, he moved east across the Jezreel Valley with his 900 iron chariots and warriors to engage Barak.

Structurally Judges 4:14 is the center of a chiasm. The chiastic structure of this chapter focuses the reader’s attention on Yahweh as Israel’s deliverer (cf. Judges 4:15; Exodus 15:3; 1 Samuel 8:20; 2 Samuel 5:24). This is the writer’s main point in the story. It is also one of the main emphases in the Song of Deborah in chapter 5.

A The sons of Israel are oppressed (Judges 4:1-3).

B Deborah, the prophetess, is featured (Judges 4:4-9).

C Barak and Sisera call out (Judges 4:10-13).

D Yahweh is Israel’s warrior (Judges 4:14 a).

C’ Barak and Sisera go down (Judges 4:14-16).

B’ Jael, wife of Heber, is featured (Judges 4:17-22).

A’ Jabin, king of Canaan, is subdued (Judges 4:23-24). [Note: Davis, p. 71.]

Barak was not afraid to engage the enemy now. Commenting on Judges 4:14, one expositor wrote the following.

"The most important characteristic of a Christian leader, in whatever area of life, is a dynamic, bold faith in God." [Note: Inrig, p. 63.]

Evidently God sent an unseasonable thunderstorm that mired Sisera’s chariots in the softened valley soil (cf. Judges 5:4-5; Judges 5:20-21). The main battle apparently took place near Taanach near the south central portion of the valley (Judges 5:19). The Israelites destroyed the whole Canaanite army that participated in this encounter (Judges 4:16).

This loss was a double disappointment for the Canaanites. Not only did they lose control of the lowlands that their chariots had dominated, but their god had failed them. The Canaanites believed Baal controlled storms and rode upon the clouds.

"He is uniformly depicted as wielding a club in one hand and a stylized spear in the other, representing thunder and lightning respectively." [Note: Cundall and Morris, p. 87.]

Instead of Baal striking his enemies as lightning, Barak ("Lightning") had struck the enemies of Yahweh. Yet it was really the Lord (Judges 4:15) who overwhelmed Sisera and his forces. Barak pursued the fleeing Canaanites west.

Verses 17-22

However Sisera, the Canaanite commander, fled east to save his skin. He sought refuge in the tent of "Ally" Heber. Little did he realize that even though Heber’s sentiments apparently favored the Canaanites, his wife Jael was a loyal worshipper of Yahweh. She was no compromiser, as her husband seems to have been. That Heber had established very friendly relations with the Canaanites seems clear since Sisera felt perfectly safe in Heber’s tent as he hid from the pursuing Israelites.

It is interesting that Jael commanded the Canaanite commander to "Turn aside" (Judges 4:18), as Deborah had commanded the Israelite commander to "March to Mt. Tabor" (Judges 4:6). God was using two women to lead His people to victory on this occasion.

One writer suggested the following translation of the last part of Judges 4:18 and Judges 4:19. Instead of "she covered him with a rug. He said to her . . . then she covered him," she divided the Hebrew words differently. She came up with "she overwhelmed him with perfume. He grew faint and said to her . . . then [she] closed it [the container of milk] again." [Note: Elizabeth Wilkinson, "The Hapax Legomenon of Judges IV 18," Vetus Testamentum 33:4 (October 1983):512-13.] While this translation is provocative and possible, the problems with the traditional rendering are minimal and do not require this change.

Sisera "had systematically violated every covenant of the code governing the actions of host and guest." [Note: Victor H. Matthews, "Hospitality and Hostility in Judges 4," Biblical Theology Bulletin 21 (Spring 1992):18.] Sisera should have gone directly to Heber, the head of the household, not to his wife’s tent. This violation of hospitality customs would have alerted Jael that something was amiss. Furthermore Sisera should not have accepted Jael’s offer of hospitality, but when he did, this doubtless indicated to Jael again that his intentions were not right. Sisera proceeded to make two requests of his host. He requested something to drink and that Jael would stand guard at the door of the tent, evidently to lie about his presence, which would have endangered her safety. Good guests did not make requests of their hosts in that culture nor did they put them in danger. So Sisera was asking for trouble.

"Sisera is a famous military commander (Judges 4:2-3), and since conquering male heroes generally had their way with women (see Judges 5:30), and since Sisera had violated hospitality customs by entering Jael’s tent, Jael may very well have feared that she was going to be raped. Instead, in what some commentators describe as a reverse rape, it is Sisera who ’gets nailed’ by Jael-literally, by Jael’s use of the hammer and tent peg, and perhaps figuratively as well, a possibility captured by the sexual connotation of the contemporary idiom used above." [Note: McCann, pp. 54-55.]

Jael probably gave Sisera milk [buttermilk? Heb. hem’ah] instead of water (Judges 4:19) because milk was a better drink and would have assured Sisera of Jael’s good will toward him. Furthermore she may have intended that it would induce sleep in him. Wine has the opposite effect, at least in moderation.

"It was probably a kind of yogurt or curdled milk (Judges 5:25)-a drink called leben, which is still commonly used by the Arabs." [Note: Wolf, p. 407.]

Jael’s name means "Mountain Goat." Interestingly she did two things we associate with mountain goats. She proved to be a tough creature, and she produced milk.

Note the vulnerability and dependence of Sisera in Judges 4:19 and his blind self-confidence in Judges 4:20. He thought he was safe and in control, but he was in mortal danger, about to die, and he did not even suspect it. Such is often the case with people, especially the enemies of God’s people (cf. Proverbs 16:18).

Even though Jael was God’s instrument of delivering Sisera into the Israelites’ hands, some scholars have criticized her methods. [Note: E.g., Keil and Delitzsch, p. 306. ] Compare Rahab’s lie and Ehud’s strategy. Oriental hospitality required Jael to protect her guest. Instead she treacherously assassinated him. Yet in the light of Sisera’s violation of hospitality customs it seems that Jael’s act was self-defense. Moreover, this was war, and holy war at that. What she did shows her commitment to do God’s will, namely, destroying the inhabitants of the land (cf. Deuteronomy 31:1-8; Deuteronomy 32; Joshua 1:1-9). [Note: Wood, Distressing Days . . ., pp. 198-99.] I believe that is the reason Deborah honored her in the poem that follows in chapter 5.

"Jael’s actions . . . contain conscious misuse of this [hospitality] ritual to lure Sisera to his death. However, Sisera is more culpable than Jael in his systematic violation of every step in the customary [hospitality] ritual. He brought shame on himself and on the household of Heber by disregarding the proper roles of guest and host. It is the contention of this writer that a conscious effort has been made on the part of the writers/editors of this material to use the strictures of the hospitality code to further heighten the literary character of the story. Each violation provides further assurance to the audience that violence, when it comes, as it surely must, is justified." [Note: Matthews, p. 20. This article provides much help in understanding the hospitality customs of the ancient Near East, some of which continue to the present day.]

"Her dexterity with the tent peg (RSV) and hammer, or wooden mallet, is explained by the fact that the erection and taking down of tents was the work of a woman." [Note: Cundall and Morris, p. 89.]

To die by the hand of a woman was a disgrace in the ancient Near East (cf. Judges 9:54). Jael reminds me of a charmed snake. Sisera thought he had her under his control, but at the crucial moment she struck him fatally. He died of a splitting headache!

Judges 4:22 is amusing. Somehow Barak had gotten on Sisera’s trail and finally found his way to Heber’s tent at the east end of the valley. As Deborah had commanded Barak to "Go" (Judges 4:6), now Jael commanded him to "Come." They used the same Hebrew word in addressing him on both occasions. The man who should have taken the initiative in attacking Israel’s enemy years earlier now got another order from a woman.

Verses 23-24

This victory broke the back of Canaanite domination at this period in Israel’s history. The Israelites continued to put pressure on the Canaanites until they finally destroyed Jabin and his kingdom. This may have taken several years. [Note: For a very helpful exposition of this chapter with emphasis on its chiastic literary structure, see John H. Stek, "The Bee and the Mountain Goat: A Literary Reading of Judges 4," in A Tribute to Gleason Archer, pp. 53-86.] The Canaanites never oppressed Israel again militarily, as far as Scripture records, but their religion continued to ensnare God’s people (cf. the Moabites’ and Midianites’ two strategies in Numbers).

"If up to now the author of the book of Judges tended to tell of saviors that were raised up, from this war on it is clear that the human heroes are only a background for highlighting the divine salvation." [Note: Yairah Amit, "Judges 4 : Its Contents and Form," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 39 (October 1987):99.]

This is certainly the most important lesson this chapter teaches. However, this story also warns us about putting conditions on our obedience to God. If we do this, God may use someone else, and we will not achieve all we could for His glory. God honored Barak, but he has forever remained in Deborah’s shadow. He defeated the Canaanites, but he failed to defeat their leader.

God uses women in key roles in His work. There are at least 22 individuals or groups of women in Judges , , 10 of these have speaking parts. They are Achsah (Judges 1:11-15); Deborah (chs. 4-5); Jael (Judges 4:17-23; Judges 5:4-27); the mother of Sisera (Judges 5:28); her "wisest princesses" (Judges 5:29-30); Gideon’s concubine, the mother of Abimelech (Judges 8:31; Judges 9:1-3); "a certain woman" (Judges 9:53) who kills Abimelech; Jephthah’s mother (Judges 11:1); Gilead’s wife (Judges 11:2-3); Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11:34-40); the companions of Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11:37-38); "the daughters of Israel" (Judges 11:40); Samson’s mother, the wife of Manoah (Judges 13:2-25); Samson’s "wife" from Timnah (Judges 14:1 to Judges 15:8); the prostitute whom Samson visited in Gaza (Judges 16:1-3); Delilah (Judges 16:4-22); the women of the Philistines (Judges 16:27); Micah’s mother (Judges 17:1-6); the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19:1-30); the virgin daughter of the Levite’s host at Gibeah (Judges 19:24); the 400 young virgins of Jabesh-gilead (Judges 21:12); and the young women of Shiloh (Judges 21:21). Remember also the women who ministered to Jesus, Priscilla, Phoebe, and Dorcas, as well as others.

Women could prophesy in the meetings of the early church (1 Corinthians 11:5). Just because He has excluded women from the authoritative leadership of churches as elders (1 Timothy 2:12) does not mean they can do nothing. This limitation has led some to conclude that there are more divine restrictions on the ministry of women in the New Testament than there were in the Old. However the opposite is true. Women could not be priests under the Mosaic Covenant, but they are priests under the New Covenant (1 Peter 2:9; Revelation 1:6). God has excluded men from some ministries too, such as being mothers. This is one of the greatest and most influential ministries any human being can have. "The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world." [Note: William Ross Wallace, John o’ London’s Treasure Trove. Cited in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, p. 557.] Normally God chose to use men as prophets both in Old Testament times and in the early church. However in both periods He occasionally selected women for this ministry. If it were not for the ministry of women, God’s work throughout history would have suffered greatly. Think of Amy Carmichael, Fanny Crosby, Wetherill Johnson, Elisabeth Elliot, Isobel Kuhn, and countless others, who have advanced and blessed the church.

This chapter also teaches us that God will use unusual people with unusual equipment if they desire to do His will (cf. Ehud and Shamgar). Jael used what she had at hand to serve Him. Through a "Bee" and a "Mountain Goat," two women of faith and courage, God restored peace to the land of milk and honey. [Note: Stek, pp. 75, 78.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Judges 4". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/judges-4.html. 2012.
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