Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Deborah: The Prophetess Who Fought for God

   Prior to the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel, the people were led by a series of judges, including Gideon and Samson.  One of those judges was a young woman named Deborah who was a prophetess as well as a judge. The Israelites had once again done what was evil in God’s sight and He gave them into the hands of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in the city of Hazor.  Jabin’s chief army commander was Sisera.  Due to his large army, the people cried out to God for help, for Jabin had oppressed them for twenty years.
    At that time, Deborah, a prophetess and wife of Lappidoth, was a judge in Israel.  The people came to her for guidance, so she sent for Barak from Kedesh.  She said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you. Go and take up a position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulon.  I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and troops, and I will give him into your hands.”  Barak said, “If you go, I will go; however, if you do not go, I will not go!”  She assures him that she would go; however, the glory would not be his because the Lord would hand Sisera over to a woman. Then they got up and headed to Kedesh. Barak did as Deborah had commanded.  He brought ten thousand men from tribes of Naphtali and Zebulon and when up to Mount Tabor with Deborah.
   She also sent Heber the Kenite north of Kedesh to keep watch for Sisera’s troops.  The Kenites were descendants of Hobab, the father-in-law of Moses.
    When Sisera was told that Barak was heading to Mount Tabor, he took his nine hundred iron chariots and all of his troops and headed to the Wadi Kishon. Then Deborah said to Barak, “Up! For this is the day on which the Lord has given Sisera into your hands.  The Lord is indeed going out before you.”  Barak went down from Mount Tabor with his ten thousand troops following him.  The Lord threw Sisera and all his troops and chariots into a panic before Barak.  Sisera got off his chariot and fled away on foot while Barak pursued his army.  The entire army of Sisera was killed by the sword, not one man was left.
   Sisera ran from the battlefield and came to the tent of Jael, wife of Heber. There was no tension between Heber and King Jabin, so Sisera believed that he would be safe there.  Jael came out of the tent and said, “Turn aside, my lord, come into my tent, and have no fear.”  He entered the tent and she covered him with a rug.  Then he said to her, “Please give me some water, for I am thirsty. Also, stand by the tent entrance and if anyone comes by asking, ‘Is there anyone here?’ say no.”  However, Jael took a tent peg and a hammer in her hand.  While Sisera was resting, she went very softly to him and drove the peg into his temple until it went into the ground.  Barak came to the tent pursuing Sisera.  She said, “Come and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.” So he went inside the tent, and there was Sisera lying dead, with the tent peg in his temple. 
   On that day, God subdued King Jabin of Canaan before the Israelites.  The Israelites were now emboldened by this victory and pursued King Jabin until they finally destroyed him.
   The story does not tell us Jael’s motive for killing Sisera. Whatever her reasons, the Israelites celebrated her as a national heroine, who together with Deborah had saved them from their mortal enemies. They also relished the irony of the situation: Sisera the mighty general fell not into Barak's hands, but Jael's.
  There are extraordinary similarities between the stories of Jael and the young boy David, when he killed the giant Goliath. Both of them
·         were physically weak and smaller than their opponent
·         employed unusual weapons
·         used their wits rather than orthodox military methods
·         exacted bloody slaughter on their enemies, David hacking off the head of Goliath and Jael piercing Sisera’s skull.
   The story of Jael had a political motive. It ridiculed the Canaanite enemy and boosted the morale of the embattled Israelite tribes. Death at the hands of a lone woman was a particularly shameful way for a warrior general to die. 
   To drive the point home, no pun intended, there was an element of sexual derision in the story: male sexual symbols such as the hammer and nails were used, but by a woman against a man. This ridiculed the virility of Sisera. In the ancient world, open jubilation at the defeat and humiliation of an enemy was a way of releasing pent-up fear.
   The story showed that a seemingly invincible enemy could in fact be defeated, if the Israelites put their complete faith in Yahweh.
   Apart from Deborah, the Judges were hardly role models for the Israelites. Jephthah sacrificed his daughter, Samson murdered his first wife, Gideon promoted the worship of fertility gods, etc. Deborah stands out from them for her wisdom, courage and faith in God. She had authority rather than power, and people respected her for the qualities she had, rather than for her military might or physical strength. 1
  While Deborah and Barak are never mentioned, Psalm 83, verses 9 and 10, recounts the story of this battle.  The psalm is a prayer for judgment against the foes of Israel and recounts a number of battles where God defeated Israel’s enemies.  Verses 9 and 10 state:
Do to them as you did to Midian, as to Sisera and Jabin at the Wadi Kishon, who were destroyed at  Endor, who became dung for the ground.

                                                             End Notes

1)    “Deborah and Jael”

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