The Heroes in Deborah's StoryFebruary 16, 2009, Speaker: Pastor Wilson Tan (Judges 4:1-24) Part of the Judges sermon series, preached at a Bilingual (Mandarin-English, Sunday) service
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Sermon on Judges 4
Judges 4.1-24 is an epic story about how God brought victory to Israel by overthrowing the oppressive Canaanites. The story parallels the Exodus event when God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt and Moses led them across the Reed Sea. Our story today takes place after the death of Ehud, who had previously assassinated the king of Moab and saved Israel. Israel went back to their evil ways and God sold them over to Jabin, the Canaanite king. For the next twenty years, Sisera, commander of the Canaanite army had cruelly oppressed Israel. The Israelites cried out to the Lord for help. And God responded to their cries. The story can be divided into four parts: the call of Barak (vv. 4-10); the defeat of Sisera’s forces (vv. 11-16); the slaying of Sisera (vv. 17-21); the arrival of Barak (v. 22).
Three main heroes in this story are Deborah, Barak and Jael. They are heroic figures not because they possessed any special powers or qualities in them but because they each played a crucial role in Yahweh’s salvation plan. They were fighting against Sisera, commander of the Canaanite army. Jabin, king of Canaan, is also Israel’s enemy. The name “Jabin” may not be his personal name, since Josh 11.1-15 describes Joshua’s victory over another Jabin 200 years earlier. It is a name that denotes kingship of the Canaanites, just like Pharaoh of Eygpt.
Judges 4 and 5 must be studied together, because they are both talking about the same historical event. One is a story, the other a song. I’ll leave the comparison between the two to Pastor Yook Cing to discuss next week.
Let’s briefly compare the two:
The authors of Judges have used two different genres to describe one single historical event: 1) prose (or narrative) in chap 4, while the other, 2) poetry (or poem) in chap 5. A simple way to differentiate the two is calling one a story while the other, a song. Both were based on a common source: the historical victory of the Israelites under the prophetic inspiration of Deborah and the military leadership of Barak over Canaanites. The style of writing differs also. Prose is written in a logical and chronological description of events; while poetry is often impressionistic and abstract, with literary expressions and several hyperboles used. Only one other story in the entire OT do we see another prose and poetic account of the same event, that is Exodus 14-15, which recounts and celebrates the Israelites crossing the Reed Sea.
The purpose of a narrative is to describe and inform, while a poem inspires and celebrates. Note that even though poems may not contain every historical detail, it does not make it fictional or false. Both prose and poem can be used to convey messages of truth. Just in a different way. No one genre is better than another. Each has its own function and purpose. The Bible contains many different genres of text and it is important to understand each text according to its own genre. Both chapters need to be read and study together as they complement and support each other, rather than contradict.
What can we learn from a narrative story like this one, whose main purpose is to describe and inform rather than to prescribe certain truths about our relationship with our God? Without committing a common mistake of preachers to say more than what the text tells us, I would like to share with you three thoughts I have learned from this story. 1) God often acts in partnership with humans, 2) Woman can be used by God to perform strong leadership roles, and lastly 3) God is the true hero of Israel.
1) God often acts in partnership with humans
How does God act in partnership with humans? God does not eliminate Jabin and Sisera independently from the Israelites. God often wants to co-work with humans in carrying out His will. I call this God-Man participation. He calls Deborah as His prophetess and judge. And Deborah, in turn calls Barak to lead an army of ten thousand against Sisera.
Sisera was a proud military man who trusted his iron chariots over Israel’s God. In his arrogance, believing it to be a good strategic position, he placed all his nine hundred iron chariots at the plains of Kishon River. There he waited for Barak to come down from Mount Tabor, planning to ambush his army. This is because Kishon Rover is at the foot of Mount Tabor. At Barak’s advance, the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and army by the sword. And on that day, all of Sisera’s troops died, except for Sisera who escaped on foot to the tent of Jael. How did God rout the Canaanite army?
Judges 5. 21-22 paints a vivid picture of this great battle scene at Kishon River, “The river Kishon swept them away, the age-old river, the river Kishon. March on, my soul; be strong! Then pounded the horses’ hoofs – rearing wildly his mighty steeds.” God opened the floodgates and let the mighty waters sweep away all the iron chariots at the river Kishon. Sisera underestimated the forces of nature. How Sisera wish he had Zhuge Liang as his military advisor? The master strategist believes that, “One cannot be a leader without knowing the workings of heaven and the ways of earth”? What Zhuge Liang believes to be the secret interdependence of the elements working in nature, we believe it to be the sovereign acts of God. God controls nature and everything within and beyond it. The question is whose side are you on? Are you with Yahweh or are you against Him?
At the end of our story, the author makes it clear that it was God who subdued Jabin. All credit goes to Yahweh. But the author further writes also that “the Israelites grew stronger and stronger against Jabin, the Canaanite king, until they destroyed him”. Again, God-Man participation is clearly seen in the concluding verse of our story. God gives victory; it is for Israel to win it. This brings me to my second point.
2) Woman can be used by God to perform strong leadership roles
Ehud’s personality may not be criticized overtly, but his tactics, his assassination of the Moab King has been more than controversial. The moral and spiritual characters of the judges who followed Deborah were not without flaws either: Gideon, Jephthah and Samson were themselves part of the problem. Only Deborah, a prophetess of Yahweh, seems to be the only judge who had no questionable qualities in her leadership. She is also the first and only female judge of Israel. That is quite an achievement! Better than what Hilary could have done.
She performs the judicial role perfectly as she held courts under the Palm of Deborah between Rahmah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites came to her to have their disputes decided. She is a judge of Israel, very much like the judge Samuel making his circuits around the country as judge. Besides being a judge, she is also a prophetess who brought God’s promise to His people.
In the story, Deborah provided three prophecies. First, in v. 6b-7, she tells Barak to take ten thousand men to Mount Tabor. She also lure Sisera with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into Barak’s hands. Second, in v. 9, she prophesized that the Lord will hand Sisera over to a woman instead of Barak because Barak did not want to go without her. That woman was Jael. Her last prophecy appears in v, 14, proclaiming that the Lord has already given Sisera into Barak’s hands. Victory is at hand!
Even though she is a good and prominent judge in history, her name interestingly does not appear in a later list of deliverers of Israel. See 1 Sam 12:9-11 and Heb 11:32.
1 Sam 12:9-11, "But they forgot the LORD their God; so he sold them into the hand of Sisera, the commander of the army of Hazor, and into the hands of the Philistines and the king of Moab, who fought against them. 10 They cried out to the LORD and said, 'We have sinned; we have forsaken the LORD and served the Baals and the Ashtoreths. But now deliver us from the hands of our enemies, and we will serve you.' 11 Then the LORD sent Jerub-Baal, [a] Barak, [b] Jephthah and Samuel, [c] and he delivered you from the hands of your enemies on every side, so that you lived securely.
Heb 11:32, And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets,
Although the list is not meant to be exhaustive, however, Barak’s name appeared in both! This may be due to Israel being a largely male-dominated patriarchal society. Very rarely are stories of strong woman leaders read in such positive light. This does not take away any credit she has done. It simply tells us that her role in this story may not be a military deliverer but simply a prophetess and judge to Israel.
The other woman whom God has used in this story is Jael (‘wild gazelle’ or ‘wild goat’). Like Ehud, her role is also highly controversial. She is the slayer of Sisera! And she killed him in his sleep! She is the wife of Heber the Kenite, who is a descendant of Moses’ brother-in-law. When Sisera was fleeing from Barak after his entire army had been destroyed, he came to the tent of Jael. The Kenites had friendly relations with the Canaanites. But this friendly relation took a nasty turn here. Maybe he did not know that the Kenites were also Israel’s ally. Family is always more dear than friends.
In trying to explain why Heber would tell Sisera that Barak is going to Mount Tabor and why his wife, Jael would so freely invite Sisera into her tent, I am postulating that Deborah might have instructed Heber to work against Sisera. This is speculative and I do not expect everyone to agree with me on this. Heber might have told his wife that Sisera may come to them for assistance. This would explain how effortlessly she managed to lure Sisera into her tent to sleep, especially since her husband was not around. Such an invitation from a lady would neither be appropriate then nor in our times today, unless she already pre-meditated this move to kill Sisera when she had the chance.
As family, Jael would have enough reason to help Israel end their twenty years of cruel oppression under the hands of Sisera. In just one verse, v. 21 describes the killing of Sisera in brutal detail. Jael, intentionally identified as Heber’s wife, takes a tent peg and a mallet, sneaks up to Sisera and drives it through his skull, pinning his head to the ground. She is indeed a very brave and ruthless woman. After killing Sisera, she even left his dead body there waiting for Barak to arrive before showing it to him, as if, Sisera was a trophy. Despite her brutal murder, Jael holds the honor of victory and has been called in Judges 5. 24 as the “Most blessed of women” and the “Most blessed of tent-dwelling women”.
Jael is praised not because she is a murderer and a liar but because she played a crucial role in killing the one man who has been cruelly oppressing Israel for twenty years. In our story, both Deborah and Jael have been used by God mightily in strong leadership roles.
3) God is the true hero of Israel
Who are the heroes in our story? Was it Deborah who called Barak to lead the army against Sisera? Or was it Barak who led ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun against Sisera’s iron chariots? Or was it Jael who drove the tent peg into Sisera’s temple?
Indeed, all three of them are heroes in their own rights. All of them had played a crucial role in God’s salvation plan: Deborah as prophetess, Barak as military commander, and Jael as the slayer. But the true hero of this story is still, Yahweh.
He is the master and creator of all nature and beyond. When Israel sinned and did evil in the eyes of the Lord, they cried to God for help. He hears their cries and responds positively. God is the one who raises up spiritual and military leaders in their greatest times of need. He raised up Debroah as His prophetess and judge and spiritual leader of Israel, and Barak as military commander. God leads Israel through various judges and leaders in their history. He participates fully in the affairs of Israel. He is the one who brings victory to Israel. He sent the waters to sweep away all the iron chariots and routed Sisera and all his chariots and army by the sword.
If we have difficulties in remembering all the messages from the Book of Judges, let it be that we remember this last point. Of all the heroes of faith in Judges, God is the ultimate super-hero of all the stories. God is the true hero of Israel. In the words of Daniel Block, “He is the chief Operator, pulling strings, raising generals, deploying armies, dictating strategy, and effecting victory. In the end both narrative and song celebrate the saving work of Yahweh.” This is a story about God, who is the real hero.
Application and Conclusion
Sometimes as Christians, we struggle with what we must do and what God is going to do in our lives. How do we tell them apart? From the story today, I learn that as humans and believers, when we are sure that God has a specific plan for us, we only need to obey Him. We do our best in our most human capacity and limitations, and God will do the rest. If we are tasked to lead an army against God’s enemies, we just need to obey him. We do what we humans, can do. God will do what only God can do. As a prophet, we can prophesize; as a military commander, we can lead an army; as a student, we study hard; as parents, we bring up our children in the ways of our Lord; as Christians, we live like Christ lived.
If we reflect deeper beneath each of these stories, we would clearly see how this God-Man participation pans out throughout the Bible. God saved Israel from slavery in Egypt; Moses led them across the Reed Sea. Jesus calls twelve disciples into ministry; they performed miracles in the name of the Lord. The Spirit equips us to edify the Church and to make disciples across the nations. God wants to partner with us in every way. Sometimes, it is easy to miss out on this important truth. Salvation clearly belongs to our Lord and it is His and His alone to fulfill. But what I am saying is that we can all be part of this work in evangelism and mission. We are called to be and make disciples of all nations and it is our human responsibility to share the gospel with those around us. But it is God who touches, and converts those who hear His gospel.
Sometimes, it is helpful to ask how God is working in our lives. God is always working, never stopped; the question is whether we are sensitive to his leading. How can we be better partners to establishing God’s Kingdom here on earth? As modern women of today, how can God use us mightily for His purpose? I hope that the story of Deborah reminds us that God is always the true hero in our lives, yesterday, today and tomorrow.