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Category Archives: Barak

Jael: Perplexing Participant in the Dark Side of History

Map of ancient Palestine/Israel

Map of ancient Palestine/Israel (Photo credit: cod_gabriel)

When the tribes of Israel settled in Canaan, they failed to evict the resident peoples as God had commanded. This failure was a costly mistake. From then on Israel had to deal with the greatest danger posed by the culture of Canaan: idolatry. Inevitably, the religions of Canaan undermined the faith of Israel. In turning away from God, Israel suffered inescapable consequences: the Canaanites oppressed them, nations attacked them, and they fought one another.

Dangerous co-existence

In trying to co-exist with Canaanites, the people of Israel “led dangerous yet simple lives in which warlike pursuits alternated with ordinary peacetime activities.”[1] God sent judges to deliver Israel from their Canaanite enemies, but Israel never returned to God whole-heartedly. Regional judges were unable to unite the people under one authority, so the tribes functioned in a loose confederation. Lacking a central authority, tribes took matters into their own hands. People did what they wanted without the restraining influence of God’s laws (Judges 21:25).

When Deborah ruled in northern Israel, God sent word for Barak to lead an attack on the army of King Jabin and General Sisera. For twenty years Jabin’s kingdom “had harshly oppressed the children of Israel” (Judges 4:3, 6). Because Barak was reluctant to lead the Israelite forces, Deborah prophesied “there will be no glory for you…for the LORD will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (Judges 4:9).

Intervention

From the outset God said He would win the battle. Working through Israel’s forces with the addition of powerful weather, God defeated the Canaanites. Not a man was left in Jabin’s army–except General Sisera. He fled to the tent of Jael, a woman who lived peaceably with the Canaanites. Jael agreed to hide Sisera, and in her tent he slept, exhausted.

 Then Jael, Heber’s wife, took a tent peg and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him (Sisera) and drove the peg into his temple, and it went down into the ground; for he was fast asleep and weary. So he died (Judges 4:21).

English: Jael Shows to Barak, Sisera Lying Dea...

English: Jael Shows to Barak, Sisera Lying Dead, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French, 1836-1902) or followers, gouache on board, 5 1/2 x 9 7/16 in. (14 x 24 cm), at the Jewish Museum, New York (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Victor or Villain?

Somewhere in the story Jael switched alliances and “refused to remain neutral in this crucial conflict.”[2] As a tough, pragmatic Bedouin wife, she sided with Israel. As an ally of Israel, the general was her enemy because he was Israel’s enemy. In a lengthy poem describing the battle (Judges 5:24-27), Deborah praised Jael as most blessed among women for striking the blow that killed Sisera.

Not everyone agrees that she should be remembered with honor. Author Herbert Lockyer severely criticizes Jael with the words murder, revolting cruelty, treachery, foul, reprehensible, executioner. He states, “lacking courage, she dare not attack Sisera fairly.”[3] He adds, “Had Sisera attempted to rape Jael, and in defense of her honor she had killed him, that would have been another matter, but to kill him as an assassin kills a victim was something different.”[4] His most troubling phrase suggests condemnation: “she remains forever censurable for the cruel way she killed Sisera.?[5]

In the book Women of the Bible, Ann Spangler and Jean Syswerda take a light approach in discussing Jael. They avoid the details of Sisera’s death and emphasize that Jael was decisive, courageous, and she seized the opportunity to slay an enemy of God’s people.[6] The authors focus on Jael’s strong qualities that women can apply today. Women learn from Jael’s decisive courage to stand up against their enemies. Courageous women need to stay close to God “in the midst of the fray.”[7]

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary discusses Jael in the setting of despair and disorder that characterized the times. “Between the days of Joshua and Samuel, Israel plummeted to moral and spiritual disaster.”[8] When the tribes came together to fight a common enemy, they believed that their enemy was God’s enemy. “Wicked, murdering leaders deserved to die” [9] and killing them was a way to glorify God.

Becoming a cautious observer of history

That God allowed Jael to kill the general is undeniable. Some Bible commentators question whether He approved of the way she did it. Did He favor, like, support, agree, accept, commend, esteem, endorse, back up, sanction what she did?It’s a bigger question than a tent peg execution. Hers was not the most horrific event that occurred in the time of the Judges.

Whether God approved of the way Sisera was killed, I wouldn’t want to comment. Can the word approve be applied to anything that is unlike God? At times God accomplishes His purposes through sinful humankind.

Readers may differ on how to think about the story, but scholars agree that the three centuries under the Judges was a dark time in history. Deborah, Barak and Jael figured in one of God’s merciful interventions in Israel’s past. Reading their stories reminds me to be a cautious observer of history.—Mary Hendren

 ***

( For more information concerning this time period see the dark period of the Judges.)

 ***

[1] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, p. 376

[2] Same source, p. 415

[3] Herbert Lockyer, All the Women of the Bible, p. 71

[4] Same source and page

[5] Same source and page

[6] Spangler and Syswerda, Women of the Bible, p. 115

[7] Same source, p. 121

[8] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 3, p. 376

[9] Same source, p. 380

Deborah: Judge/Deliverer

Wanted: Administrator/Judge for Israel
Duties: Adjudicate disputes, give counsel, defeat Canaanites
Qualifications: Confident, wise, visionary, dedicated
Term limits: 40 years

In the calamitous times of the Judges, ancient Israel did not, of course, post a job description to fill leadership vacancies. In that period of the nation’s history, God Himself provided deliverers to rescue the Israelites from the consequences of moving away from God. God did this because of promises made to Abraham concerning his descendants. God did this because He loved Israel.

Lift your eyes now and look from the place where you are—northward, southward, eastward, and westward; for all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever (Genesis 13:14-15).

But what if God had turned His back on the nation and left it up to Israel to find leader/judges? What if the people had to scour the land for a qualified leader to set things in order and fend off enemies? Would Deborah (or any woman) have been considered for the job?

Her background

Deborah lived in the hill country between Bethel and Ramah with her husband Lapidoth. Not much is known about Lapidoth or if the couple had children, although Deborah refers to herself as “a mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7). The nation had been floundering, “being in a state of anarchy, more or less, and harassed at times by civil war among themselves, and surrounded by enemies who made attempt after attempt to exterminate them” (Halley’s Bible Handbook, 23rd edition, 1962, p. 168). Without the benefit of continual godly leadership, the people did what they thought was in their best interest. If they were given the responsibility of coming up with the right leader, Israel would not likely have looked to a woman, even a mother of Israel. “As the position of women in those days was of a distinctly subordinate character, Deborah’s prominence as a ruler is somewhat remarkable” (All the Women of the Bible, Herbert Lockyer, p. 41).

A few commentators suggest that Deborah became a deliverer of Israel because there weren’t enough good men around or if there were qualified men they weren’t willing to take on the job. The Bible doesn’t support the line of reasoning that Deborah got the job because there were “few good men.” Before God informed Deborah of her role in His plan to rout the Canaanites, she was already holding court and making civil judgments for the people in the hill country. They knew her to be a wise woman who had a connection to God. She was a prophetess and able to “discern the mind and purpose of God” (Lockyer, p. 41). In the time of the judges, leadership may have been mostly bankrupt, but Deborah served because of her loyalty to God.

Public domain

Deborah beneath the palm tree by Tissot (Public Domain)

The Battle

Before the decisive battle recorded in Judges 4, Deborah told Barak that God had selected him to lead Israel’s forces. She informed him of God’s battle strategy (Judges 4:6-7) and twice assured him that the battle was under God’s control (Judges vv. 7, 14). But Barak doubted. He hesitated. He refused to proceed in confidence.

If you will go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go!

In the face of his foot-dragging, Deborah made another prophesy.

I will surely go with you, nevertheless there will be no glory for you in the journey you are taking, for the LORD will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.

Song of Deborah

Judges 4:12-23 describes the battle. With powerful torrents of rain, God swept away Sisera’s charioteers and terrified horses (v.21). Barak’s forces pursued the enemy with the “edge of the sword” (v.16). Of the Canaanite army, not a man was left. And the battle ended as Deborah predicted: General Sisera died by the hand of a woman (Judges 5:24-31).

English: Jael Shows to Barak, Sisera Lying Dea...

English: Jael Shows to Barak, Sisera Lying Dead, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French, 1836-1902) or followers, gouache on board, 5 1/2 x 9 7/16 in. (14 x 24 cm), at the Jewish Museum, New York (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In her song Deborah added an interesting detail. The call to gather troops had gone out to all Israel, but only five tribes responded with warriors: Naphtali, Zebulun, Ephraim, Benjamin and Issachar. For the other tribes–Reuben, Gad, Dan, Asher and eastern Manasseh, Deborah had disdainful remarks. (I’m paraphrasing her words for clarity.) “Why did hang back with the sheep? Why did you refuse to cross the river? Why did linger on your ships? Why did you remain on the shore while the others risked their lives!” (Judges 5:14-18).

The story of Deborah ends with the statement that the land had rest for forty years. Deborah understood the power of righteous leadership and made this wise observation:

When leaders lead in Israel, when the people willingly offer themselves, Bless the LORD!

Deborah sets an admirable example for us in that she saw needs and envisioned herself in their solution. She acknowledged the constraints women faced (her references to the honor given a woman in Sisera’s death) but she didn’t doubt her ability. She had no misgivings about believing God. I wonder if Deborah was one of those blessed persons who naturally live in the present? That natural in-the-present tendency combined with a strong relationship to God made Deborah the leader and deliverer perfectly suited for the time.—Mary Hendren

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