Deborah’s infantry fights a chariot corps
Canaan takes control of Israel1After Ehud died, the people of Israel returned to their bad habit of bad behavior. They did things the LORD said were wrong. 2So, the LORD gave them to one of the Canaanite kings: Jabin. He ruled the Galilean city of Hazor. A general named Sisera commanded Jabin’s army, which was based at Harosheth-Haggoyim. 3Jabin made life miserable for Israel. He was able to do it for 20 years because he had 900 chariots. Eventually, the people of Israel turned to God for help.
The judge is a lady4A prophet named Deborah, wife of Lappidoth, led Israel at the time. 5When people needed help settling disputes, they went to Deborah. She held court sitting under a tree called the Palm of Deborah. This was between the cities of Ramah and Bethel, in the hills of Ephraim’s tribal land.
6Deborah sent a message to a man named Barak, son of Abinoam. Barak lived in the city of Kedesh in Naphtali’s tribal land. Deborah said, “The LORD, Israel’s God, has orders for you: Assemble an army of 10,000 from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun. Take a position on Mount Tabor. 7I’ll lure Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, into bringing his chariots to fight you at Kishon River. Then I’ll turn him over to you.”
Barak takes Deborah to the battle8Barak told Deborah, “I’ll go if you go. But if you don’t, I won’t.”
9Deborah said, “Sure, I’ll go with you. But I’ll tell you this, you’re not going to get a drop of glory. The LORD is going to put Sisera’s fate in the hand of a woman.”
10There in Kedesh, Barak assembled an army of 10,000 from the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. Then he and Deborah led them south to Mount Tabor. 11A Kenite herder named Heber moved far away from his clan—people descended from Hobab, father-in-law of Moses. He made his camp near Kedesh, by a huge tree in Zaanannim.
Sisera’s chariots arrive, armed and armored12Sisera got news that Barak, Abinoam’s son, had taken a position on Mount Tabor. 13So he deployed his entire army, which included 900 iron-armored chariots. They left their base at Harosheth-Haggoyim and went to the Kishon River.
14Deborah told Barak, “It’s time. Today’s the day the LORD is going to give you Sisera. The LORD is already on the move ahead of you.” Barak led his 10,000 men down the slopes of Mount Tabor.
Sisera runs for his life15The LORD stormed Sisera and his army with panic and chaos. Sisera jumped out of his chariot and ran away on foot. 17His army collapsed into a frantic retreat, with soldiers running for their lives back to the base at Harosheth-Haggoyim. Israelites caught them all and killed them all. Israel took no captives and left no survivors. 17Sisera ran until he came to the tent of Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite. Heber’s family was on peaceful terms with King Jabin of Hazor.
Jael tucks in frightened Sisera for a nap18Jael came out of her tent and told Sisera, “Come, commander. It’s safe. Come on inside.” Sisera went into the tent and Jael covered him with a blanket.
19He said, “Please, I’m thirsty. I’d like some water.” Instead, she opened a leather bag of milk and poured him a drink. Then she tucked him in with the blanket. 20He said, “Stand guard out there. If someone shows up and asks if anyone else is here, tell them you’re alone.”
Jael’s hospitality with a hammer21Instead, Jael picked up a tent peg in one hand, a hammer in the other. She snuck into the tent. And she drove the tent peg into his temple, through his head, and into the ground. He had been dead tired. Then he was dead. 22Barak arrived at Jael’s tent later, hunting Sisera. Jael came out of the tent and said, “Come with me. I’ll show you the man you want.” Barak went inside and found Sisera staked to the ground with a tent peg through his temple.
23That’s the day God defeated Canaanite King Jabin. He did it for Israel. 24After that, the Israelites grew stronger and Jabin grew weaker. Eventually, the Israelites killed him.
Hazor was a half day’s walk north of the Sea of Galilee, roughly 10 miles (16 km). It’s unknown where Harosheth-Haggoyim was. One common guess is that the chariot corps was positioned to fight in the sprawling flat fields of Jezreel Valley. So, they may have stationed themselves somewhere on the edge of the valley and elevated enough to give them a good view of anything coming at them or passing by. The stretch between Megiddo and Taanach is one possibility.
Kedesh was a town near Jabin’s capital city of Hazor, about a two-hour walk—less than 10 miles (16 km) away.
Mount Tabor is a smoothly rounded hill sitting alone and surrounded by a plain. It looks a bit like the ground grew a breast. It’s not too steep for soldiers to climb. But it’s no place for chariots. So, it was a great position for infantry to defend against an invasion force of 900 iron-armored chariots.
The Kishon River drains the Jezreel Valley into the Mediterranean Sea, north of the city of Haifa. The river runs about 40 miles (70 km) long and up to roughly 20 yards/meters wide. It’s swampy in some places.
From a military point of view, this didn’t look like a good battle plan. Israel had foot soldiers. Sisera commanded what amounted to an ancient version of about seven Panzer battalions of tanks. In the flat fields of Jezreel Valley, those 900 chariots could stampede across that farmland and roll over Barak’s flesh and blood infantry like speed bumps. Many battles have been found in this valley. French General Napoleon once declared it the perfect battlefield.
Barak may have thought Deborah was talking about herself getting the glory. Maybe even Deborah thought that. But there’s another woman who enters the story, Jael. She and Deborah both get credit for putting Sisera out of Israel’s misery (4:21).
Location of Zaanannim is unknown. At this point in the story, it’s also a mystery why the writer included this note that doesn’t seem to fit. The answer comes in 4:17 and following. See also 1:16 for another note about these Kenites that Heber left behind.
Warm milk is a sedative. It’s loaded with tryptophan—a sleep-inducing amino acid. It also plays a role in producing melatonin, a hormone released in darkness, which makes people feel sleepy at night. Milk also contains melatonin. Goat’s milk, perhaps the kind Jael served Sisera, contains even more tryptophan than cow’s milk.
Barak sounds like a chicken’s chicken of a general. He wouldn’t go into battle without Deborah. Was he still living with his mother and sleeping in until noon? We wonder. This is the patriarchal age when men were men and everyone else was pitifully less. Why put Deborah in harm’s way?
For Barak’s chicken-hearted ways, Deborah said, “You’re not going to get a drop of glory. The LORD is going to put Sisera’s fate in the hand of a woman” (Judges 4:9). After reading the story and the song of celebration in Judges 5, who would you guess is that woman? There are two contenders.
When you hear Deborah’s story, what do you think marks her as a leader?
React to the battlefield. Why do you think Deborah put her men on Mount Tabor? And why would Sisera run his chariot corps beside the Kishon River?
Jael was part of a nomadic tribe that seemed to have been living in peace with Israel and King Jabin. Certainly, Sisera felt safe in her camp. What would have been the safest thing she could have done when Sisera came calling? What do you think would have provoked her to have been so inhospitable?
Deborah seemed like a strong woman. My goodness: a prophet, a judge, a military commander with more bravery than her general. Do you personally know any women like that? If so, tell us what they’re like and what makes them so strong and confident. TV characters and actors don’t qualify.
There was a lot of killing going on back then. A lot going on today. Soldiers killing each other and killing citizens and getting killed by citizens. Imagine the poorest excuse of a human being you can thing of. It might be a national leader or your next-door neighbor. You find them asleep in a pup in your yard beside an empty bottle of vodka. You see a leftover tent peg and a hammer. And Jesus standing nearby. As you pick up the hammer and tent peg, what advice does Jesus give you? Pick one or write your own script.
- —“Keep your thumb tucked in.”
—“Treat others like you’d want to be treated.”
—“Let the one who hasn’t sinned strike the first blow.”
—“It’s better for one person to die than many.”
- —“Keep your thumb tucked in.”