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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Judges 4

Deborah and Barak (4:1-5:31)

In these chapters we have two accounts of the last struggle between the Israelites and the inhabitants of Canaan itself, the Canaanites. The rest of the Book of Judges is concerned with foreign invaders, the Moabites, the Edomites, and the Ammonites from across the Jordan, and the Philistines from the coastal belt of the Mediterranean Sea.

Here the story of the oppression by the Canaanites under Jabin is given in two forms — a prose account in chapter 4 and a poetic description in the Song of Deborah in chapter 5. The song is generally agreed to be very early, probably contemporary with the events and giving an eyewitness account of them. The prose story is later, but it fills in some details lacking from the poetic description, although it also presents some problems. The problems presented in these accounts have to be faced by any intelligent Bible student. According to Judges 4 the oppressor is Jabin, king of Canaan, who reigns in Hazor, and who may be identified with the Canaanite king of Hazor against whom Joshua fought, as recorded in Joshua 11. Sisera is the captain of Jabin’s host and dwells in Harosheth-ha-goiim. In Judges 5, Jabin is not mentioned and Sisera is the oppressor, leader of a strong Canaanite federation, and himself of kingly status. Some contend that Judges 5, as a contemporary record, gives the true picture in which Canaanite opposition to the invading Israelites is led by Sisera, king of Harosheth, and that the name of Jabin occurs in Judges 4 through the mixing of this story with the story of the subduing of Jabin already recorded in Joshua 11. On the other hand, Jabin as a Canaanite kinglet may well have been a member of the confederation, but whereas Judges 4 appears to elevate his position, Judges 5 does not mention him, making it clear that the real leader of the oppression was Sisera.

The scene of the oppression appears to have been in northern Canaan, centering in the fertile plain of Esdraelon. The invading Israelites had so far been confined to the’ hills, but this rich plain offered a great attraction for them, and its Canaanite cities made a last attempt to subdue them. In the plain there were fortified cities like Taanach and Megiddo. Moreover, Sisera was helped by the petty jealousies and disunity among the Israelite tribes themselves. As a consequence the Hebrew peoples were held back and oppressed for twenty years (Judges 4:3). We note that Sisera had a large mobile army of iron chariots, nine hundred in number (Judges 4:3), a reminder that the Iron Age had begun, and that the Israelites still had something to learn from the Canaanites about the new methods of warfare; they were joining issue with a highly efficient war machine.

The deliverance came at the hands of two remarkable people — Deborah the prophetess, and Barak, the man of war. The charismatic nature of the judgeship is immediately evident in the case of Deborah, the prophetess. Her sex is a reminder that even in the early days, the Spirit of the Lord was not confined to the male sex. The prophets were essentially charismatic personalities on whom the Spirit of the Lord descended, and who, at this time, were often whipped into an ecstatic state in which they gave utterance to inspired words. As in the days of the early Christian Church, so also in early Israel, the presence of the Spirit of God in a man was associated with abnormal emotional and physical characteristics. On the other hand, the personalities of Moses and his successors, the great literary prophets from the eighth century B.C. onwards, are reminders that moral discernment and spiritual insight were still more fundamentally a sign that the Spirit of God was pervading a man’s being. The behavior of Deborah indicates that these moral and spiritual qualities were present beneath the ecstatic and emotional overtones of her experience. Under her inspired command, Barak became the commander who led the Israelites to victory in battle.

Verses 1-9

The Prose Account: The Oppression of Jabin and the Leadership of Deborah (4:1-9)

The period of oppression came upon the Israelites because they did evil in the sight of the Lord. What this phrase covers seems to be indicated in 5:8 — there was a religious defection on the part of Israel, who chose new gods. Believing in the living God who had delivered them from the hands of the Egyptians, covenanted with them on Sinai’s height, fought their battles for them, and brought them into their promised heritage, they, a pastoral people, now found themselves in an agricultural community where a war leader and wilderness guide was not so important as a guarantor of the fertility of the soil. Such guarantors were ready to hand — Baal, the fertility god of the Canaanites, and Astarte, his queen consort. There was every temptation for the Israelites to desert the living God and adopt the beliefs and practices of the Canaanites among whom they dwelt, whose sexual fertility rites and pagan orgies formed a strange and yet seductive contrast to the rigid "puritanism" and strong moralism of the wilderness religion.

The judgment of God descended. We note that this judgment is worked out within the process of history itself. The Canaanites, bent on driving out this troublesome people who were stealing their land, turned on the invaders who had been attracted by their religion, and proceeded to oppress them. But they were instruments in God’s hand, serving not their objective but God’s. History moves under God’s control.

So here, God raised a savior, a judge, and the judge was a woman, a reminder that women can exercise prophetic and creative leadership in God’s plan. We note that Deborah seems to have exercised some of the functions of a judge in our modern sense. The people went to her for adjudication and advice. Actually this is of one piece with her prophetic function. Careful research has shown that the legal structure of the first five books of our Bible grew in a variety of ways around a Mosaic nucleus. There were, first of all, customs and rulings of past generations which came to have an authoritative status. Such laws were administered by the priests, who conserved the past and applied it to the present. At the same time, fresh precedents were continually being created by the elders who sat at the gate and sought to meet new situations, and by the prophets who in oracular consultations sought to give the mind and will of God on some specific issue. Deborah appears to have functioned in this case not only as a prophetess but also in a way akin to the elders dispensing justice at the gate. The reference to the palm of Deborah may be a confused memory of another Deborah, the nurse of Rebecca, who was buried under an oak in the same district of Mount Ephraim at Bethel (see Genesis 35:8).

The people came to Deborah to seek for oracular guidance from God. Through his prophetess the Lord commanded Barak to assemble an Israelite army at Mount Tabor, about twelve miles from Megiddo at the northeast of the Plain of Esdraelon. This was a strategic center for commencing a campaign. To meet the Israelites on this prominent hill, Sisera had to cross the plain and ford the Brook Kishon. This was a dried-up wadi in summertime, but with the winter rains it became a raging torrent (see 5:21). Deborah’s prophecy appears to be particularly concerned with this latter issue, since the destruction of Sisera’s army is associated with the brook, and the Song of Deborah records that the natural elements under God aided in the triumph (Judges 5:20-21). Deborah was persuaded to accompany the army, to encourage the leader and his men, and she prophesied that the ultimate triumph would not depend upon Barak but upon the feat of a woman. The sequel makes it clear that the reference is to Jael and not to Deborah herself.

We note that the only Israelites recorded as participating in the conflict are the men of Naphtali and Zebulun (vs. 6). The poem of chapter 5 adds several tribes to the list and is the more valuable source here.

Verses 10-16

The Prose Account: The Battle of Kishon (4:10-16)

Barak gathered an army of ten thousand men together at Kedesh, and Sisera assembled his chariots and warriors, summoning them from the extent of the Great Plain. The two armies came to battle at the foot of Mount Tabor. According to Josephus a storm helped in Sisera’s defeat, and, as suggested above, this may certainly have caused the flood in the Brook Kishon mentioned in 5:21. This thesis seems to be supported by the declaration of Deborah that the stars in their courses, the forces of nature, fought against Sisera (Judges 5:20). Further, Deborah’s own words, "Does not the Lord go out before you?" (Judges 4:14), might suggest a ’gathering storm, since the manifestations of the Lord on Sinai, and in the Old Testament time generally, are often associated with storm phenomena. In these scientific days such an idea might be called in question. Yet the scientist no longer speaks of deterministic causation, preferring rather to limit his task to describing the regularities of nature and offering, as a scientist, no attempted explanation of the deeps that may be present beneath the phenomena that he studies. As Christians we believe that God is the Creator and Sustainer of the natural order. His control over the forces of our world is something which the scientist as scientist can neither confirm nor deny. Such an affirmation belongs to the insight of faith. The atheist and naturalist may deny it, but the man who believes that "what is seen was made out of things which do not appear" (Hebrews 11:3) is still free to affirm it. It is a striking fact that in these early days, God was thought of as a warrior God, coming to the assistance of his people through the phenomena of nature. The Canaanite god, Baal, was also a storm god and, in the thought of the contestants, the struggle may have been a contending of the deities as well as of the armed hosts. The triumph of the Lord through the storm threw the Canaanites into dismay. In their rout, they were pursued, harried, and slaughtered by Barak, while their leader, Sisera, fled on foot. This triumph confirmed Israel’s wilderness faith and demonstrated the might and power of the Covenant God who had already manifested his love to his people.

We note the incidental reference to Heber the Kenite in verse 11. The Kenites were a nomadic tribe closely akin to Israel, and some were actually included as constituent members of the tribe of Judah. Heber is mentioned because of the part played subsequently by his wife Jael. The fact that he had separated himself from his people is mentioned to explain how a Kenite, who normally would live with his people at the southern boundary of Judah on the edge of the desert, was to be found in northern Palestine.

Verses 17-24

The Prose Account: The Death of Sisera (4:17-24)

Sisera found refuge in the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. Her seeming kindness reassured him. He turned aside into her tent, partook of refreshment, and lay down to sleep covered by her with a rug. Once asleep, Sisera became her victim and died at her hands. The mode of his death is interesting, since the instruments of it, a tent pin and a hammer, are reminders that among the Bedouins it was woman’s task to pitch the tent. The Bedouin hospitality beguiled Sisera into trustfulness; moreover, he was apparently ignorant of how closely the Kenite clan in general, and Heber in particular, had become bound in with Israel. Thus Deborah’s prophetic prediction was fulfilled and victory was assured to Barak and his forces.

The ethics of this deed raises some real issues for the Christian conscience. Can good ever be accomplished by treachery and deceit? We have to remember the ruthlessness of the time, but it is noteworthy that not even the editor can describe this as a divinely inspired deed. It certainly stands condemned in the light of the Christian revelation. The fact that Deborah prophetically declared this outcome does not mean that the seal of God was on it. Let us say that Sisera’s sin brought its own reward and that Jael’s act was of one piece with that sinful involvement in which the Canaanite leader had been caught up. Jael’s deceit and treachery became instruments of the divine justice as demonstrations of the truth that sin brings about its own destruction.

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Judges 4". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/judges-4.html.