Deborah, Barak, Jael, and Sisera
I love the stories in the Book of Judges. When I was a child, they were like superhero stories in the comics. The heroes had ordinary identities, and then when God empowered them, they did amazing things to set their people free. I think I missed many of the nuances of the stories—Samson’s sexual wanderings, for example. To me, the good guys beat the bad guys, and often with derring-do and flair. Simplifying history to one people’s viewpoint suited me fine. Now I think about context and culture, and understanding how God works in history is more complicated. Nonetheless, among my favorites was and is this story of Deborah and Barak going to war and Jael pounding a tent peg through the head of General Sisera. We can see that the heroes of Israel include women, one of them a woman living outside Israel whose husband was friends with the enemy.
The Story with Comments
In the Book of Judges, God’s people Israel repeatedly cycle through idolatry, domination by non-Israelites, armed resistance and victory, freedom, peace, and repeat. During one of these cycles, Deborah is the prophet and a judge. Right off, I like the female prophet. She is wise and hears directly from God, and her people respect her and listen to her. What’s not to like?
One day she hears from God that it is time to rebel against King Jabin, a Canaanite, even though King Jabin has the latest in military technology, the iron chariot, and he has nine hundred of them. The Israelites have farm implements and swords. Deborah sends for Barak (which means “Lightning Bolt” for the superhero fans) and tells him, “God commands you to take 10,000 soldiers and fight against General Sisera of King Jabin’s army by the Kishon River. God promises you will win.”
Let me preface Barak’s response with these verses from Hebrews 11: “And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight” (verses 32-34, NRSV). I notice that the two women in Barak’s story are not mentioned. And I wonder why Barak is there rather than Deborah, who was the actual judge.
If I look to the story in Judges 4, I find that Barak was, in fact, a man of faith, and that one aspect of that faithfulness was his recognition of Deborah’s spiritual authority. He said to her, “I will go to this battle if you go with me, but I will not go if you don’t.” So Deborah (the story says this twice) went up to the battle with Barak. She told him when the time was right to attack, and she celebrated with him in song after the victory.
After he insists she accompany him, Deborah tells Barak that, at the end, a woman will have the fame for killing Sisera. This will be particularly shameful for Sisera (c.f. The Jewish Study Bible, 519n.). Though some think this will be embarrassing also for Barak, he seems to be ok with it.
In the battle, the army of King Jabin panics and confusion reigns. The story attributes this directly to the intervention of God. General Sisera dismounts from his chariot and runs away on foot. In his absence, his army is slaughtered.
The story teaches us first that Deborah was right: it was the time to strike for freedom, and Barak was the right person to lead the troops. She did speak God’s truth to Barak: the Israelites destroyed a well-equipped army. Let’s pause and think about this for a bit. Israel (a patriarchy) and Barak (a male warrior) respected the word of God from Deborah (a woman), and the result for Israel was peace and freedom for forty years.
The story teaches us second that Barak was right: it was a good idea to bring Deborah to the battle. She had an eye for timing and the gift of inspiring the troops. Barak showed good judgment even though he might lose face. Winning the battle was more crucial than being the hero.
Meanwhile, there is Jael, a stay-at-tent wife. She is neither a prophet nor a judge. She may not even be an Israelite. Her husband’s clan is at peace with King Jabin, despite a sort of in-law relationship to Moses and Israel. Sisera has no fear that she is any danger to him. She sees him running, recognizes him, invites him into her tent, gives him milk to drink, and covers him with a blanket. He tells her, with no reason to expect anything but strict obedience, “Stand at the door of the tent, and if anyone asks you if someone is here, you say ‘No.’”
Jael takes a hammer and a tent peg and crushes the peg through the temple of Sisera. Whoa! What a swing she must have had! Imagine if she had fumbled and he had awakened to find her with peg and hammer in hand.
When Barak shows up in pursuit of Sisera, Jael meets him and says, “I have something here that will interest you.”
Motivation is not explored much in the Book of Judges. People just do what they do, and we have to imagine why they did it. Why did Jael kill Sisera? This question cannot be answered from the story. What we know is that with a mighty swing of her hammer, she drove a tent peg through a man’s head into the ground beneath. And as a result, the Victory Song of Deborah and Barak includes Jael and blesses her as a hero for the Israelites.
The Victory Song
The victory song of Deborah and Barak (Judges 5) celebrates the victory of the weak over the strong, the victory of the oppressed over the oppressor. This is a common theme in the whole Bible. The song also lists the allies of God in this work, the enemies of God, and those who stood aside and watched. It rehearses the assassination of Sisera with poetic flair that includes his waiting mother. Here’s a summary.
Bless the Lord for those who offer themselves willingly to God. All nature reverences the Lord.
When Israel worshiped new gods, they lost wars and were disarmed. The peasants fled the countryside and the main roads were deserted. Then Deborah arose as a mother in Israel.
My heart goes out to the leaders of Israel who offered themselves willingly. Bless the Lord. Tell of the triumphs of God and his peasants. Down to the gates marched the people of the Lord.
Awake, Deborah! Awake and sing! Arise, Barak, lead away your captives. The remnants of the nobles marched against the oppressor. Ephraim, Benjamin, Zebulun, Issachar, Naphtali came to fight. Where were the others? Why did they stay at home? Curse those who did not come to help the Lord against the mighty. Even the stars in their courses fought against Sisera, and the Kishon River swept the enemy away.
Oh, my soul, you have trampled on the strong.
You are most blessed of women, Jael, most blessed of tent-dwelling women. He asked for water, and she brought him milk in a bowl. She put her hand to the tent peg and her right hand to the hammer; she struck Sisera a blow, crushed his head, shattered and pierced his temple. He sank, he fell, he lay still at her feet; at her feet he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell dead.
His mother waited for him, watched through the window for him, but Sisera was late. “Are they not dividing the spoil, dividing up the young girls, the embroidered cloths, the scarves I will wear around my neck?”
So perish all your enemies, O Lord! But may those who love you rise like the sun and share the sun’s strength.
I looked up the word for blessed in Strong’s Concordance online. It is pronounced “barack,” short “a” like in cat; Barak’s name is pronounced “barock”; I think a little punning is going on. Certainly, Sisera was struck down decisively, almost as if struck by lightning. And also certainly, Barak shared in the blessing of freedom and peace.
Most intriguingly, the blessing for Jael resembles the announcement to Mary in Luke 1. “Hail, highly favored one, the Lord is with you. You are blessed among women.” And Mary offers herself willingly to God, like the warriors of Israel. Mary’s song, like Deborah’s, gives thanks to God for singling her out for great things, for showing mercy to those who reverence him. She praises his strength that scatters the proud, brings down the powerful, and lifts up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty. She recalls that God has remembered mercy and helped Israel according to the ancient promises to Abraham.
We learn from these two songs and the story of Deborah that it is blessed to offer ourselves willingly to God, like Deborah and Mary; that our doing so places us on the side of those who reverence God, who are humble and lowly. We learn that we need to show up to help God against the mighty, in order to fill the hungry with good things and see justice done. And sometimes, we need to take decisive action. A part of the mystery of God’s work in history is that it almost entirely carried out by human beings—all human beings. We need to be listening and willing to obey.
Berlin, Adele, and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds. The Jewish Study Bible. Jewish Publication Society, Tanakh Translation. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.