Deborah and Jael – “Into the Hand of a Woman”

Sermon preached on Judges 4-5 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 9/29/2013 in Novato, CA.

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Judges 4-5

Deborah and Jael – “Into the Hand of a Woman”

As we continue our sermon miniseries today on key women of the Bible, we continue our marching through redemptive history. Last week we had reached the time of the conquest. Led by Joshua, we saw Israel beginning to conquer the heathen nations in the Promised Land. That’s where we met Rahab who defected from the pagan city of Jericho to align herself and her faith with the people of God. Now we move onto the next generation past the time of the conquest. The people had settled into the land of Promise and in many ways were victorious in that effort. However, Judges chapter 1 mentioned that they had not been faithful to fully drive out the inhabitants of the land. Instead for some they even made peace treaties when God had told them not to. So, God allowed these to become thorns in their side, according to Judges 2:3. And so in our sermon miniseries, we come to this era of the Judges. This is the time when the people had taken control of the Promised Land, but not completely. They did not yet have any kings, but instead during this time, there were judges, and God would occasionally raise up such judges to help them when the remaining heathens in the land afflicted them. Deborah was one of these judges, and she is the primary women we will consider today. Also, we see in this story another women, Jael. She is also highlighted here and we will consider her in part today as well.

So, let’s begin by making sure we understand the times. In the book of Judges, you see a repeated pattern or cycle. The people of God turn from God and engage in some widespread evil. God in turn chastises them by allowing them to become oppressed and enslaved by some of these remaining heathen peoples in the area. The people then realize their sin, and cry out to God for help. God then raises up one of these judges to lead the people in some kind of military victory. As you study the book of judges, there seems to be a general downward spiral in all of this. Things seem to be getting worse and worse, in general. This book goes on to explain that a lot of this was due to a lack in leadership — there was no king to the lead the people, and even the many judges tended to show various weaknesses or limitations.

So when we get to the time in Judges where Deborah is highlighted as the judge, we see the typical story and cycle. In chapter 4, verse 1, the previous judge Ehud dies. What then happens again? The people of God fall back into the same pattern of wickedness. This was typical at that time since there was no regular king to lead the people in righteousness. When a judge would die, it was typical that in that vacuum of leadership, the people would backslide into sin and wickedness again. That’s what we see here at the start of chapter 4, and it’s so typical for the time of the judges. The people’s evil caused God to sell them into the hand of Jabin, king of the Canaanites, verse 2. The people were harshly oppressed it says for twenty years, verses 2-3. And so, what do the people do? Well, verse 3 says they cry out to God. Note here, by the way, the reference to Jabin’s 900 hundred chariots of iron. Chariots back then were kind of like what tanks are to a modern army. This doesn’t even account for Jabin’s vast amount of solidiers, described as a multitude in verse 7. The point is that these Canaanites were able to oppress these Israelites because they had a formidable professional army.

Well, then, we learn in verse 4, that there was a woman named Deborah. And we are told that this woman was a prophetess, who was also judging the people of Israel at that time. Now, we noted with Miriam two weeks ago, that there are the occasional women who were prophets, “prophetesses” as we see here. Not that common, but there are a few. But this is the only women described in the Bible as a judge. That is definitely out-of-the-ordinary. As we’ll see, it does seem to speak to the times. Her judging, here, by the way, seems to be the most official sense of the word — someone who hears disputes among the people and judges between those people. That’s what we see her doing in verse 5. That was something that would have helped curb the evil being done by the people. In the song in chapter 5, we also see Deborah described herself also as a mother in Israel. The sense you get there is that Israel is acting like children that needed a mother to raise them. And so Deborah is described as a prophetess, judge, and mother for the people.

That being said, Deborah doesn’t appear to be your typical judge for the Book of Judges, and I think for good reason. Normally, God would raise up the judge in this book to particularly lead the people in military victory over the enemy. Of course, the Bible doesn’t see that as something appropriate for a woman — to be a military commander. So, look at how God uses Deborah then instead. He gives Deborah a prophetic word to take to Barak. Look at verse 6. God was calling Barak to stand up and lead the people in military victory over these Canaanites. That was the typical role of the judge in the book of Judges. They were a judge who then rose up and led the people in military victory. That was not really something for Deborah to do. Instead, God has Deborah bring the word of the Lord to Barak for him to do this duty. She urges this man to takes 10,000 sons (not sons and daughters) of Israel into battle. Now in the grand scheme of this story, Barak does end up serving in that kind of role, of a military leader, like many other judges in this book. We see that acknowledged even in the book of Hebrews, where in Hebrews 11:32, Barak’s faith is commended right alongside other judges at that time, namely, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson. And yet though he’s put alongside those judges, he’s not actually called a judge here in Judges 4 and 5. He looks kind of like one, but he doesn’t quite live up to the standard. That’s surely because of a lack in his faith and how he lives it out.

Just look at how he responds to the word of the Lord through Deborah. When God calls him to go and take ten thousand men up against Jabin’s army led by the evil Sisera, notice what he says. He tells Deborah, that if she goes with him, then he’ll go up to battle. Now to be fair, the book of Hebrews commends Barak’s faith. There is some element of faith here, for sure. He is willing to find the courage to go into this battle, but only if Deborah goes with. What is so special about Deborah? Well, obviously she was a prophetess. God was with her. So, he must have figured this was like a way of finding some tangible way for God to go with him. It almost sounds holy, because it’s similar to the language that Moses had told God at Mount Sinai, that Moses would only go up leading the people if God would go with them. But of course, on the other hand, Barak is not explicitly demanding God to go with them, he’s demanding Deborah to go. It disregards the word of God and adds a rather earthly condition of Barak’s choosing in order to obey God. It may have been different if he had said, if God will go with me then I’ll go, but that’s actually what God already promised through the prophetic word of Deborah.

Well, we see in the text that Barak’s response is less than ideal, because of how Deborah responds. She agrees to go with him, but now the promise of God is changed in light of his partial obedience. If Barak had gone, Deborah prophesied in verse 7 that God would give Sisera into his hand. Since Barak is asking Deborah to go with him, Deborah says the glory of the victory will now not be his, and in fact God would not deliver Sisera into his hand, but into the hand of the woman, verse 9. The NIV does a good job of interpreting the sense of Deborah’s words here in verse 9. The NIV reads, “‘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.'” And so the NKJV says rather plainly, “in the journey you are taking,” but the NIV explains this saying, “in the way you are going about this.” In other words, the NIV seems to connect that Barak will lose the honor in this victory over Sisera because of the way he just want about accepting the mission, requiring Deborah to go with him. Dare I put it like this: Because he required a woman to go with him to battle, he would not get the credit for the victory over Sisera, but a woman would get the credit instead. Now at first glance we might think this means that Deborah would get the credit. Certainly, there is some truth to that. But this is actually another prophecy by Deborah. It’s predicting how a woman will put Sisera to death. That’s fulfilled when Jael kills Sisera at the end of the battle.

So, Barak ends up calling out an army of 10,000 sons of Israel. That’s supposed to strike us as small, by the way, compared to Sisera’s army of 900 hundred chariots and a multitude of soldiers. Part of the contrast here too is supposed to be seen that it’s only two tribes that are listed in verse 6 as helping to form this army, Zebulun and Napthali. In the song in chapter 5, this contrast is brought out that so many tribes did not rise up to help in this. Tribes that were farther away geographically, who probably weren’t feeling the effects of Jabin, did not see fit to come to the aid of Barak and these tribes. The tribes east of the Jordan are especially highlighted as not helping, in Deborah’s song. This certainly goes against the principle found in Numbers 32 which said that those tribes east of the Jordan were to help the tribes west of the Jordan in subduing their enemies in the Promised Land. In a similar vein, in verse 8 of the song in chapter 5, there is mentioned how there wasn’t a sword or spear seen among 40,000 in Israel. The sense is that so many more could have been gathered for this army, but so many of Israel didn’t want to get involved. Didn’t want to come rise up, and take courage, and fight to come the aid of their oppressed brethren.

And yet, nonetheless, God would give Barak and his army from two tribes of Israel the victory. In verse 15, the LORD is seen as the real strength for God’s people, as we would expect. It says the God routed Sisera before Barak. And interestingly, they abandon their chariots and flee on foot. A big point of this passage has been that this formidable army has this powerful fleet of chariots. But they have to abandon them. Why? Well, this is flushed out in the song in the next chapter. Chapter 5, verses 21-22 talk of the fight against Sisera coming from heavens (think the sky), and then describes them being washed away. It describes the chaos to the horses that came from this. There are a few other elements in the poem that suggest a similar imagery. Basically, it seems like there was some kind of storm or something that came up that washed out these chariots. Maybe they got stuck in the mud and had to be abandoned. Whatever exactly happened, their advantage became a disadvantage, and they had to abandon them and flee. Barak’s men strike them all dead with the sword, though we are told that their commander Sisera escaped.

That is then when Jael shines. In a rather gruesome deception, she acts like she’ll offer Sisera refuge while he hides from Barak’s army. By the way, note that Jael was not an Israelite, but a Kenite. Her husband, Heber, was at peace with Jabin, so Sisera must have assumed their house would be safe. He probably didn’t know that Jael and Heber were related by marriage to Moses, per verse 11. And so Jael feigns to give Sisera refuge, but kills him in his sleep. Barak shows up on the scene too late, so to speak, and in verse 22, Jael takes Barak to see the slain Sisera. Deborah’s prophecy was true – a woman got the glory for vanquishing Sisera. Again, I would submit to you that this is out-of-the-ordinary as well. And yet at the end of the day, all of this leads to peace — 40 years of peace, per the end of chapter 5. God worked in these unexpected ways to raise up the leadership needed to bring salvation for Israel from these Canaanite foes.

Well, as we assess this story, a question that tends to come up is this: Is this the Bible affirming that women should hold official office in his church. In other words, there’s the debate in more recent times presented by certain evangelical feminists that the historic, and I would also add Biblical, practice of men being the leaders in the church and in their family is not Biblical. The story of Deborah is often offered by such proponents say of women’s ordination as a biblical proof text for such. Well, I thought it necessary to comment briefly on that here, and especially because I think it helps us understand this passage better. You see, the Bible is clear when it teaches elsewhere that men are called to be leaders, and that positions like pastor and elder in the church are to be reserved for qualified men. Passages like 1 Timothy 2:11-13 are just one of several example of such in the Bible. Those clear teachings should inform a passage like this. But even more so, there is nothing in this passage that advocates a women ordinarily serving in a role of leadership and authority over men. In fact, this passage would suggest the opposite.

I mentioned that the judges in the book of Judges tend to display some weakness or limitation in them. Well, there really isn’t anything negative stated about Deborah. But, the thing that really stands out about here is that she’s a woman. She’s not the kind of leader that Israel needed in terms of someone who could go out to war and bring the people military victory. She is used by God as a mother figure when you have a nation of spiritual children. She’s used by God to call Barak to lead. She even takes initiative and shows courage in doing that. But really, that is something Barak should have done. And it seems the whole point here is that once Deborah urged him to step up and lead, that he didn’t quite do this. That he ends up a bit shamed in the whole situation because he didn’t be the man of courage in the Lord that he should have been. And so the sense you get here is that we are a bit surprised to find a woman judge who has to step up and urge Barak to do what he should have done. And even then Barak waffles and looks for Deborah to help him lead, and then he’s shamed by the fact that the victory would go to a woman, Jael.

Add to this all the tribes that wouldn’t send soldiers out. Realize, these are the sons of Israel, not the daughters, that are supposed to be doing this. They were supposed to take up courage and go out and fight. But the sense you get is a lack of leadership. Where are all the men? Where are all the leaders who should be leading and showing courage and heart and leading by trusting in God to deliver them? It seems that Deborah and Jael are doing what the men should have stepped up to do. Yes, in their actions, the men do get up and act too in this. But clearly Deborah and Jael show an initiative and courage and boldness that you would have normally expected to see from someone like Barak and the other sons of Israel. That they did not, is yet another sign of the times. This is another sign of the time of the judges. This was an era of lacking leadership. That’s why the book ends with repeated statements that the problem was there was no king in Israel. Not that there was no king or queen. No, that there was no king. They needed leadership — especially for the men to be leaders. To lead in victory over the enemies. And to lead in putting away wickedness and keeping God’s covenant laws. And time and again we see God especially calling that to be a role for men to fill among God’s people.

It’s like what Moses told Joshua in Deuteronomy 31:6 when he was taking over as leader of the people. Moses knew that Joshua was going to have to lead the people in military battle. So Moses told him, “Be strong and of good courage, do not fear nor be afraid of them; for the LORD your God, He is the One who goes with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you.” That is what the people needed in Deborah’s day. For the men of Israel to be strong and of good courage. With Deborah’s promptings, many of them did finally step up. And God gave them the victory, though to their dishonor, Jael, a woman, got the biggest glory in taking out Sisera.

Well, saints of God, in the face of a church that too often lacks leadership, see again the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Remember the picture of Christ seen in Revelation 19. There he is pictured as a rider on a white horse, riding off into battle. Revelation 19:11 says he judges and makes war. He goes forth bearing the wrath of God as a sword against all the unbelieving among the nations. This is our mighty warrior king who leads and judges righteously. He is strong and courageous and does not shrink from leading.

Now, yes, Christ’s victory like that is something particularly reserved for the end. Yet this doesn’t mean he is not powerfully engaged even now in a way that reflects our place in redemptive history. In the old covenant, the Lord was fighting physically here in Judges 4 against his enemies. It was a physical battle to reflect the types and shadows of the old covenant. But now, we as Christ’s church, fight a spiritual battle. But it is still a battle. And we still have Christ leading the way. That’s why we are called in Ephesians 6 to be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. That’s told to us in the context of the spiritual warfare we are involved in. And this is a battle we know well. Because we are those who have already been conquered by Christ. The beauty of this spiritual battle right now, is that one way he conquers his enemies is by converting them to loyal subjects. That’s us. As we believe in the gospel, and look to repent of our sins and follow Christ in faith, we are saved. Saved by grace through faith. And now we follow him as our head and chief judge and leader and king.

In conclusion then, I’d like to appeal to both the men and the women here separately. To the men, I urge you all, be leaders. Be Christ-like leaders in your homes and in your church and in your community. We will suffer, if the men will not rise up and be leaders. And you don’t have to be an ordained officer in the church to provide leadership. Show courage, take initiative, take a stand for Christ, bring others along with you. Lead in prayer. Lead in studying the Scriptures. Lead with humility. Lead with love. And make sure you do not lead out of pride, or arrogance. Don’t lead harshly. And very important: don’t lead ignorantly. If you are going to lead, then you need to be leading with wisdom and knowledge. That will mean you will need to know those times and areas where you are not equipped to lead and you will have to be silent. But then endeavor to grow so that next time you can rise to the challenge.

As for the women. The encouragement of this passage is that God can and does use women in amazing ways and in varying circumstances. Yes, the Bible does restrict certain positions of leadership for men, but this does not mean that you won’t have many wonderful, meaningful, and vibrant ways to serve the Lord. Don’t be like Barak and say I can only serve the Lord based on my own added conditions. No, seek
out the ways God has especially gifted you, and look at the needs that are present in the church, and look to use those gifts in accordance with God’s will. God highly values you and has amazing plans to use you. You will surely have ways in which you too exercise even courage and initiative and I would even say leadership. One of the best ways you can do that, is to encourage the men around you to be leaders, as Deborah did here with Barak. But look to do that with grace and humility, of course. And so seek out the ways God will use you. You will be blessed in the process, and so will we all.

And for both the men and women today, I close with this thought: In the Old Testament warfare that we see here today, it’s the sons that were called to take up the arms, given its physical nature. But in the New Testament the church’s warfare is not physical, but spiritual. That means there are frontline jobs for both men and women. Find your role, and do it with all your heart! There is a battle before us, and each and every Christian has a role. Let us not be like some of those tribes of Israel that didn’t join the fight during their day. Let us instead follow our leader and Lord into battle. Look to be used by him in whatever he requires of you. And find your strength in him for this battle: Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Amen.

Copyright © 2013 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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