The following notes and audio are by Keeley Chorn, co-teacher for Young Women’s Bible Study. Press play on the player below to listen to this message. Or to download to your computer – On a PC right-click “download audio” and select “Save As Target.” On a Mac Ctrl+click “download audio” and choose “Download linked file as.”
Did you know that of the Forbes 100 most powerful women, 3 are supreme court justices (or judges), 9 are the heads of state (or the leaders of their countries), and 4 of them are first ladies (known because they are wives)? Of these 16 powerful women, 8 of them tell us that they are mothers too. We see in our modern world that women have been honored for their gifts and talents and have grown into roles of power and influence.
Last week, we talked about the one of the most helpless of women, Hagar, a slave in a foreign land, who is taken as a 2nd wife to Abram just to produce an heir. In contrast, tonight, we get to talk about two women who were on the opposite spectrum. Deborah was among the powerful elite of Israel during the time of the judges, and Jael proved her valor through a courageous act. We’ll see that even in the ancient world of the Bible, there were women honored for their gifts and talents and who had roles of power and influence in God’s kingdom. We meet Deborah and Jael in Judges 4 and 5.
Deborah was known for her wisdom and discernment in deciding disputes between the Israelites. She was a prophetess, receiving direct words of revelation from God. She was a leader of the entire Israelite nation. Like we saw with Mary 2 weeks ago, she knew her primary role was to follow God, in all the aspects of her life. Like the 16 powerful women of today, Deborah, too, was a judge, a leader of her nation; she also was a wife and a mother.
Jael also stepped into her divinely appointed task at the right time. She, like Deborah, rose to the occasion and was able to deliver the people of God from their oppressors. Through their stories, we’ll see how God sends a redeemer. The Lord rescues his people from themselves by sending a judge to deliver them from the oppressive evil at work in their world.
Context of the Book of Judges in the Whole Bible
Before we jump in, I want to give us a little context on the book of Judges. I want us to see how it fits into God’s overall story of redemption in the Bible. We know that God’s story culminates in the NT with the sending of his own son, to rescue or redeem humanity. We know how the story ends, but sometimes we don’t know how to read and understand these OT stories. So we have to start by seeing them as a part of the larger whole.
The book of Judges comes early on in God’s story. It is after Israel’s time of slavery in Egypt and after God dramatically rescues them through the Red Sea from their oppressors (a story very similar to the one we have tonight). After wandering in the wilderness, they finally were able to enter the Promised Land.
This is where the book of Judges comes in. The Israelites are in the land, but they are still surrounded by their enemies. They don’t yet have a king, and they haven’t been sent Jesus Christ. We’ll see though, that because all of God’s story points forward to Christ, there will be ideas and themes in this story in Judges, that point us to Christ as the ultimate redeemer and leader of his people.
The Circle of Repentance in Judges 4-5
Open your Bibles to Judges 4 and 5. These two chapters tell the story of the only female judge in Israel’s history, really, the only female leader of the people of Israel. Chapter 4 tells the story in narrative form, and Chapter 5 retells the story as a song of praise, written in poetry, praising the Lord for his role in the story. The two chapters complement each other and give us a full picture of what happened during the time of Deborah. I am going to weave the two chapters together tonight where Ch. 5, the song, sheds light on Ch. 4, the narrative.
Stages 1-3: Evil, Oppression, Crying Out. Starting in verse 1, we read:
“After Ehud [the previous judge] 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. The commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth Haggoyim. Because he had nine hundred iron chariots and had cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years, they cried to the Lord for help” (Judges 4:1-3).
We learn that the people of Israel had gotten themselves into this situation because of the evil that they had done, which would include serving the gods of the Canaanites (Judges 5:8). So the Canaanites, Jabin and his commander Sisera, had 900 iron chariots, and they cruelly oppressed the Israelites for 20 years. For 20 years, the people of Israel were abused and oppressed, beaten down both physically and emotionally by this Canaanite king.
The Circle of Repentance Defined
In the book of Judges, there is a common pattern that emerges in each of the stories. Over and over again in the book, we find a circle of repentance with 5 stages that the people go through. There are 5 stages and we see all of them play out in this story. The 5 stages of the circle of repentance in the book of Judges are:
- Israel does evil in the eyes of the Lord; they fall away from God, often beginning to serve the gods of the other people in their land (we see this in 4:1).
- They are oppressed. God sends others to oppress them for their disobedience and seeking their own ways (we see this in 4:2-3).
- They cry out to God for help. The oppression is too much for them to bear, so they turn back to God and cry out to him, usually in a last-ditch effort and act of desperation (it took them 20 years in this case) (we see this in 4:3).
- God raises up a deliverer for them: a judge. The judge is usually a military leader who saves the people (this will be the bulk of the story).
- The fifth and last stage is peace. God gives the people and the land peace and rest for the life of the judge (we won’t see this until the very last verse of the story in 5:31).
But, like I said, it’s a cycle, so it repeats. After a time of peace, the people forget the Lord again, do evil, are oppressed, cry out, then a new judge is raised up to deliver them and give peace, again.
So after turning from God, the Israelites in this day were oppressed. We learn from the next chapter, Judges 5:6-8, what their oppression was like. Look in verse 6, we see that the roads were abandoned and travelers took to winding paths, out-of-the-way, because they were afraid. In verse 7, we see that village life had ceased-there was no social interaction-and inverse 8, that there was not a shield or spear among 40,000 in Israel. Not only were they afraid, and hiding out, but they had no means of protection either. They were completely weak and vulnerable and under the control of Jabin and his powerful chariots.
Stage 4: God Raises Up a Deliverer: Deborah
It’s at this point in the story that we meet Deborah. Look back at Ch. 4, verse 4, we read:
“Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading [or judging] Israel at that time. She held court under the Palm [tree] of Deborah…and the Israelites came to her to have their disputes decided” (Judges 4:4-5).
Deborah was both a prophetess and a judge or leader for the people. The only other judge in Scripture that was also a prophet was Samuel, who we studied last fall. What qualities do you think she would need to fill these roles (prophet, leader, judge, wife, mother- 5:7)? How about: wisdom, discernment, understand hearts of men and women and children, trust in God, balance of many roles, etc.
1. Deborah as Judge
We’re studying a judge in the book of Judges, but what was an ancient judge? Was it someone who held court with a gavel, like in our modern day? Well, there’s an aspect in which Deborah does do this as she settles disputes among the people, but the ancient judge was also a ruler, a rescuer, and deliverer for the people from their enemies. The role went well beyond settling cases of disagreement. What they do is a gift and calling from God; they delivered their people.
2. Deborah as Prophetess
In verse 6, we see God speaking through her, giving his plan of rescue for the Israelites. She sends for Barak, son of Abinoam, saying:
“The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead the way to Mount Tabor. I will lure Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands'” (Judges 4:6-7).
God reveals to her to summon Barak to lead the people out from under the oppressive hand of Jabin. But, we see in his response, a lack of faith in this word from God. In verse 8, he says, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.” Barak wavers. He hears the command of God, but he’s willing to disobey if Deborah doesn’t go with him. His response goes to show that there really wasn’t any male leadership in Israel at that time. Deborah replies in verse 9 that she will go with him, but because of the way he’s responded, she says,“the honor will not be yours, for the LORD will hand Sisera over to a woman.” A woman will be the one to deliver Israel and to give them the peace and rest.
Then verses 9-10 both tell us that “Deborah went with him.” What do you think Deborah would be feeling as she goes into battle with 10,000 men? Maybe: scared, afraid, or trusting in God? What would give her the emotional strength/faith to do this? Maybe the roles she’s already been called to, her past interactions with God, trust in her abilities, having received direct words from God (prophecy), wisdom in deciding disputes, trust God’s word is true…
Yes, so her strength would come from God. In Judges 5:2-3, she praises God, and says that the people willingly volunteered themselves to serve with God, then she sings to the Lord. In5:9, she says her heart is with Israel’s princes and willing volunteers. She gains strength from the people-her community-as well as God. Later we’ll see she has strength in God because she sees him at work in nature…and because she knows the Lord has gone out ahead of them (seeverses 4:14, 5:21, and 5:31).
3. Deborah as Commander of the Battle
Next, we move to the scene of the battle in Ch. 4, verses 12-16. Barak’s 10,000 men are to fight the 900 iron chariots of Sisera. While the numbers might seem to be in Israel’s favor, they are still severely outmatched. The riders of the iron chariots had been oppressing them for 20 years, you’ll remember. So, Barak goes, because Deborah is with him. And we see that she’s now taking on a military leadership role as well. In verse 14, we see she’s the one who commands the troops, giving the battle cry to “Go!” The Lord has revealed to her that today is the day they will defeat Sisera. The Lord says that he has gone out before them.While Deborah goes with the troops and with Barak, the Lord has gone out ahead of them.
So Barak’s men charge down the mountain toward Sisera and his chariots, and verse 15 says that “the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots.” Not Barak routed Sisera, but the Lord did. We learn that Sisera abandons his chariot and flees on foot; meanwhile all the other men were killed by the sword (verses 16-17).
4. The Lord as Deliverer
What has happened though, we don’t really get much more information here in Ch. 4? We do know that it’s the Lord’s battle and that he had a hand in it, but how could they beat the iron chariots and why would Sisera abandon his? Ch. 5 gives us more information about the way God wins this battle for them. So look at Ch. 5, the second ½ of verse 4, we see that “the earth shook, the heavens poured, the clouds poured down water. The mountains quaked before the LORD, the One of Sinai, before the LORD, the God of Israel” (Judges 5:4b-5). God sends a storm. The ground would turn to mud, and iron chariots on wheels pulled behind horses aren’t going to get too far. The chariots would get stuck, and Sisera’s power would be rendered ineffective.
Ch. 5, verses 20-21 adds that “From the heavens the stars fought, from their courses they fought against Sisera. The river Kishon swept them away, the age-old river, the river Kishon. March on, my soul; be strong!” says Deborah (Judges 5:20-21). So the rain and the swelling of the river swept away the power of Israel’s oppressors. The Lord routes the army by his mighty hand and his mighty power. The battle was not won by man, but by the Lord. God is the divine warrior who ultimately rescues his people, using the team of Deborah and Barak to help carry out his plan. (Verse 21 tells us that Deborah’s soul gains strength from seeing God working a natural miracle.)
5. Jael as God’s Instrument
But what’s happening with Sisera? Back to Ch. 4, verse 17-22, remember that he escapes; he flees from the battle as the only survivor. On his escape route, exhausted, he comes upon the tent of an ally.
Verse 17 tells us that he comes to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, who had friendly relations with the Canaanite king Jabin. But, verse 11 above tells us that he would be distantly related to the Israelites too, by marriage through Moses. So he would have loyalty to both sides.
In verses 18-21, we learn that Jael, lures Sisera into her tent, telling him not to be afraid. He accepts her hospitality. She covers him and offers him milk to drink, rather than the water he requests. She promises to divert anyone who comes looking for him, but as soon as he falls asleep, she carries out a different plan. She takes a tent peg and a hammer and drives it through his head, killing him instantly.
When Barak comes looking for him, Jael calls out to him, telling him in verse 22, “‘Come, 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.” Jael has just killed a man. What are we to make of Jael’s actions? Is she a hero or a treacherous woman? What would do you think would drive her to do this?? Are we to follow her lead?
- remember that the honor would go to a woman, it was already prophesied
- this is in warfare
- we should not follow her lead… (see below, “ancient warfare vs. modern”)
6. Jael’s Actions Blessed
Let’s look at what this story has to say about Jael’s actions. Ch. 5 sheds more light for us. Look at verse 24 with me:
“Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, most blessed of tent-dwelling women. He asked for water, and she gave him milk; in a bowl fit for nobles she brought him curdled milk. Her hand reached for the tent peg, her right hand for the workman’s hammer. She struck Sisera, she crushed his head, she shattered and pierced his temple. At her feet he sank, he fell; there he lay. At her feet he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell-dead” (Judges 5:24-27).
Here Jael is called most blessed of women for her role in killing the commander of the oppressive army. She is the one who literally delivers the people in this story; she is God’s instrument. Back in Ch. 4, verse 23, the writer says that “On that day God subdued Jabin, the Canaanite king.” Jael, a woman and wife, a tent-dweller and foreigner, stepped into the role that God called her to. She was willing to save the people from their enemies and to rescue them when needed. She dealt the decisive blow that saved the people.
7. Ancient Warfare vs. Modern
But what about for us? Are we to follow her example in battle? Do you think that God wants us to be sure and kill our enemy if he ever is passing by our house? The NT would definitely tell us no, this is not God’s way now that he has sent Jesus. By the standards of ancient warfare, though, these two women were both heroes. But today, we don’t fight battles like they did in the OT. Now that we live in the NT times, our enemies are the spiritual forces of darkness.
Ephesians 6:12 reminds us that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Since Christ has come, the battle is different…He has already won, so instead of literal armor, we put on the spiritual armor of God. Yes, we will still see flesh and blood enemies, but we are not to fight them in the same way. We are to use our spiritual weapons and armor.
Stage 5: Peace
At the end of this story, Ch. 5 verse 31, we see the final stage in the circle of repentance, after Sisera died, “then the land had peace forty years.” The circle for this judge was complete. The cycle of Deborah as judge with Jael as her warrior ended with lasting peace for 40 years.
Christ as Ultimate Deliverer and Giver of Peace
Let’s begin to wrap up by looking at what would this story have meant for the original hearers? They would have seen that through Deborah and Jael’s courage and faith, the Lord rescues his people Israel from the trouble they got themselves into by doing evil in his sight. God sends a judge to redeem the people from their oppression and situation. But since it’s a circle of repentance, it happens over and over again; they needed a new judge, each time they got themselves into this circle. The point of this story in Judges is that God intervenes to send someone to help rescue Israel during times of oppression.
For us, we have to look not just at how the original hearers would have taken this story, but how we are to take it now that Christ has come. In the context of the whole Bible, we learn that God is the ultimate one who redeems his people, even as we saw in this story-it was God who routed the army. As we look forward to the NT, we see that Jesus is the redeemer, he is the leader, who finally and ultimately delivers his people from themselves. Deborah and Jael’s story, these two women, point us to Christ’s work. Outside of a saving relationship with Christ, we are weak and poor, oppressed by the spiritual forces of darkness; we are in need of God’s divine intervention. We need Christ as our savior, redeemer, and judge to fight the battles for us, because we have no hope of winning them on our own or of bringing lasting peace on our own. Only he can do it.
Application and Conclusion
What does this mean for you and me? Well, we no longer have to bear the oppressive weight of evil. We don’t have to wait for the redeemer, the deliverer, he’s already been sent. We don’t have to wait for God’s peace; it too has already been sent.
Now yes, we may still today see this same circle of repentance play out in our own lives; we are human after all… We need to be aware of it, but we also need to recognize that we are not left in it. We need to repent when we stray from God and come back to him. The more we grow in our Christian walk, the less we should enter into the depths of this cycle. What I mean is that we shouldn’t move so far out in disobedience that we don’t even acknowledge the Lord anymore. We need to learn to recognize that he has been there, right beside us, all along, and that he has already rescued us from our worst battle with sin and evil.
In conclusion, God’s promise is that he is the one who provides the victory and the one to accomplish it: his son. As women, we need to be willing to step into the roles he has called us and to use the gifts he has given us. We also need to learn to have strength in our faith in God and trust in him to deliver us, from whatever our situation may be.
Questions for Discussion and Application:
- What is an area of your life right now where you feel trapped in the circle of repentance (disobey, feel oppressed, cry out, be delivered, then have peace)? How can you begin to move forward out of this?
- How has God called you to step out as a woman to a role that might be uncomfortable for you? How do these women’s stories help us gain perspective on God in our own lives?