Wanted: Women (& Men) of Courage

Deborah and Jael were not feminists, out to smash the patriarchy. What can we learn from the things they did smash, though?

myra.schmidt on May 12, 2024
Wanted: Women (& Men) of Courage
May 12, 2024

Wanted: Women (& Men) of Courage

Passage: Judges 4:1-24
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Today is Mother’s day, and we’re looking at a passage that features two women prominently. I didn’t plan that, but it worked out and I’m glad. I hope that the truths we’ll uncover today are an encouragement to all women here today. And, men, don’t check out because there are some sharp kicks in the pants headed in your direction from this wonderful passage. We all have something to learn from this cast of characters and, most importantly, the God who used them.

The Sin Cycle (vv. 1-3)

So let’s dive in. And we see, right away, that our passage begins with another case of the sin cycle. Ehud dies, and after their eighty years of rest they do what’s evil in the sight of the Lord. And so the Lord gives them over to “Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor” (v. 2). We should notice that the enemies are getting closer. It started with a king from far away. Then it was Moab, across the Jordan. Now it’s guys right within the promised land.

And not just anybody. Jabin, from Hazor, is a name that we’ve heard before, in Joshua 11. He was the ringleader behind a whole coalition of northern kings who came together to fight against Joshua. And he and his city was destroyed (Joshua 11:10-11).

So how is he back, all these years later? Well, there’s some evidence that “Jabin” is a name like “Pharaoh” or “Abimilech”—it’s not a personal name as much as a name that kings within this family would take for themselves. And so this is probably a descendant who tries to arise from the literal ashes to rebuild his forefather’s power. And for twenty years, he’s successful. Why? Because God has sold his people into his hands.

Verse 2 also tells us about the commander of his army, Sisera, who is going to factor into the story later on.

And as the cycle progresses, the people cry out to the Lord for help. And it’s here in verse 3 that we find out about Jabin’s secret weapon—his 900 chariots of iron. Now again, this shouldn’t have been a big deal. Back in Joshua 11 Jabin and his allies had “very many horses and chariots” (Joshua 11:4), and Joshua prevailed over them and burned them all with fire. But without God’s help, chariots are a cruel tool that keep Israel under this oppression for twenty years—two years longer than they were under Eglon.

Deborah & Barak (vv. 4-10)

Now, given the pattern we’ve seen so far, what are we expecting next? Something like “and the Lord raised up for them a deliverer.” That’s the kind of thing what we’ve heard with Othniel and Ehud. But this episode breaks with the pattern, surprising us. We read in verse 4: “Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time” (Judges 4:4).

The first character we’re introduced to here is not whom we expect. It’s a woman, Deborah. And the fact that she is a woman is made very clear. She’s introduced as the wife of Lappidoth, and particularly as a prophetess. This in and of itself is not too unusual. Moses’ sister Miriam was a prophetess (Exodus 15:20). We meet at least three other prophetesses, women who prophesy, in the Old Testament, before we meet Anna and the daughters of Phillip in the New Testament (2 Kings 22:14, Isaiah 8:3, Nehemiah 6:15, Luke 2:36, Acts 21:9).

Most prophets were men, and each of the prophets who wrote the Biblical books were men, but from time to time God revealed His word to women who would relay His messages to His people. In the New Testament, this role seemed to be distinct from the role of elders in authoritatively teaching God’s people. Prophets, be they men or women, would relay a message, and it was up to the rest of the church, under the leadership of the elders, to weigh and interpret that message.

But back here in in the Old Covenant, seeing a woman who prophesies here is not the surprise. The surprise is the next phrase: that she was judging Israel at this time. Verse 5 says, “She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment” (Judges 4:5).

It sounds like Deborah is one of the judges—right there alongside of all of the others like Othniel, Ehud, Gideon, Samson, and Deborah. And that has lead some people to argue that, if Deborah can be a judge, then women can do anything a man can do, including being the pastor of a church.

Now if Deborah was a judge like the other judges, we should note that she’s only one out of twelve. It would not be typical. But if we read carefully, we’ll see a number of differences between Deborah and the other leaders in the book of Judges. We’ve seen the first already—this passage does not say “And the Lord raised up Deborah to deliver Israel.” We never read that the Spirit of the Lord came upon her. It’s never said that she saved or delivered Israel. In the next verses, she delivers a message from God for Barak to raise an army and conquer the enemy. And when the battle is joined, she goes with Barak, but not at the head of the armies.

She says in verse 14 that God is going to deliver the enemy into his hands, not her hands. We don’t hear about her participating in the actual battle. And when future Biblical writers look back on this account, Barak, not Deborah, is listed alongside of the other judges (1 Samuel 12:9-11, Hebrews 11:32)

So it seems best to see Deborah’s role as a judge in the limited sense that people come to her to seek her wisdom and input. In chapter 5, Deborah refers to herself as a “mother in Israel,” and her role here seems very consistent with that of a wise mother whom the people of Israel would come to ask for advice. There are women in my life like that, whose council I value and whose opinion I seek.

And that was Deborah. She was not trying to act like a father, but was serving Israel like a mother, especially so during a time where there doesn’t seem to be that many good fathers around. And when the people cry out to God for help, Deborah is His mouthpiece for selecting the one who will lead their forces in victory.

Verses 6-7: “She sent and summoned Barak the son of Abinoam from Kedesh-naphtali and said to him, ‘Has not the Lord, the God of Israel, commanded you, ‘Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking 10,000 from the people of Naphtali and the people of Zebulun. And I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the river Kishon with his chariots and his troops, and I will give him into your hand’?”” (Judges 4:6–7).

Notice that Deborah communicates God’s answer to the people’s cries, but she herself was not the answer. [Daniel Isaac Block, Judges, Ruth, vol. 6, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), 193–194.] Instead, she calls our Barak, a man whom we know basically nothing about, except that God has called him and promised to give his enemy into his hand.

And Barak is scared. These instructions he got from her aren’t exactly easy to follow. If you’re a smaller force going up against a more powerful established army, and you want to have any advantage, you don’t want them to gather all of their troops and meet you in pitched battle. That’s a great way to get demolished. Instead, you want to catch them by surprise with a night attack, or force them to divide their forces, or something other than this. The instructions given here to Barak seems like pretty bad advice—except that the Lord, the God of Israel commanded it, and promised to give Sisera into his hands.

So, like Abraham going up the mountain with Isaac, Barak should have obeyed. But instead, he stumbles and says to Deborah in verse 8, “If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go’” (Judges 4:8). This is not Barak’s shining moment from two standpoints. As an Israelite, he should be ashamed for putting conditions on obeying the voice of the Lord. “God told me this, but I won’t obey unless you join me.” That’s not how we respond to commands from the Lord.

And second, as a man, to be asking a woman to go into battle with him is just really bad. Super embarrassing. Women did not fight in battles. Jeremiah insults the warrior of Babylon by saying that they have become like women (Jeremiah 51:30). We have become so numbed today by the message of so-called equality and images of women in combat gear that this might not bother us. But it should.

John Piper wrote these words in 2007: “If I were the last man on the planet to think so, I would want the honor of saying no woman should go before me into combat to defend my country. A man who endorses women in combat is not pro-woman; he’s a wimp. He should be ashamed. For most of history, in most cultures, he would have been utterly scorned as a coward to promote such an idea. Part of the meaning of manhood as God created us is the sense of responsibility for the safety and welfare of our women.”1https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/co-ed-combat-and-cultural-cowardice

I agree with John Piper. And I think that Deborah would have agreed with John Piper, because look at what she says to Barak in verse 9: “I will surely go with you. Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman’” (Judges 4:9).

As a compassionate mother, Deborah says that yes, she’ll go with Barak, but warns him that it won’t work out well for him. He won’t get any glory for this, because the Lord is going to give Sisera into a woman’s hands—which, again, would have been a major embarrassment to him. But he’s okay with that, apparently. So Deborah goes with him, back to his hometown Kedesh to begin to rally the troops. Amazingly, 10,000 men were willing to follow, and verse 10 ends with him leading the troops towards their appointment with Sisera at Mount Tabor.

Interlude - v. 11

Now in terms of the flow of the story, this is one of the moments of highest tension. What’s going to happen? And, as a masterful storyteller, the author of Judges takes a break from the narrative, right at the peak of the tension, to tell us what sounds like a completely irrelevant detail: “Now Heber the Kenite had separated from the Kenites, the descendants of Hobab the father-in-law of Moses, and had pitched his tent as far away as the oak in Zaanannim, which is near Kedesh” (Judges 4:11).

This seems out of place, doesn’t it? “By the way, some people who used to live somewhere else moved near this place.” This isn’t the first time there’s been an interlude about the Kenites. Back in chapter 1, we had a random verse telling us where the Kenites settled. This seems like random details.

But they’re not. The author of judges is a good storyteller. They know what they’re doing. This interlude is important, not just to build tension in the story, but for other reasons that will become clear.

The Battle of the River Kishon — vv. 12-16

But, before we can think about this too much, verse 12 takes us to the preparations of Sisera before the battle. “When Sisera was told that Barak the son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor, Sisera called out all his chariots, 900 chariots of iron, and all the men who were with him, from Harosheth-hagoyim to the river Kishon” (Judges 4:12–13).

The battle-lines are drawn. And this is where Barak’s meagre faith is going to be tested. It’s one thing to prepare to obey the Lord. It’s another to follow through with it. It’s one thing for Abraham to bring his son up the mountain and tie him up. It’s another to actually let the knife fall. It’s one thing for Jesus to come to earth and spend years heading towards the cross, but the drops of sweat don’t come out until the night before the nails are actually going to be pounded through His wrists.

Don’t we all know this? It’s easy to say we’ll obey God, but standing on the edge of actually doing it, that’s when it hits home.

And so it’s here, verse 14, that Barak gets his push from Deborah: “And Deborah said to Barak, ‘Up! For this is the day in which the Lord has given Sisera into your hand. Does not the Lord go out before you?’” (Judges 4:14).

In other words, forget about me. Yahweh the warrior marches before you. And Barak believes. And Barak obeys. “So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with 10,000 men following him. And [Yahweh] routed Sisera and all his chariots and all his army before Barak by the edge of the sword” (Judges 4:14b-15aa).

Yahweh the warrior does the fighting. He routes Sisera and all his army. The swords of Barak and his army do their cutting and thrusting, but the Lord gives the victory.

The General Is Slain - vv. 17-22

But what about Deborah’s prophecy in verse 9? Remember that, because of Barak’s cowardice, she promised that Sisera would be sold into the hands of a woman? Barak is not going to get the pleasure and the glory of killing the enemy commander.

And the way that this prophecy is fulfilled begins to be told to us in some detail starting halfway through verse 15. “And Sisera got down from his chariot and fled away on foot.” Why does he do this? One answer might be that the chariots, formerly such a powerful tool of war, are now being targeted by Barak’s unstoppable enemy. Verse 16 suggests this: “And Barak pursued the chariots and the army to Harosheth-hagoyim, and all the army of Sisera fell by the edge of the sword; not a man was left” (Judges 4:16).

Except for the one man who got away on foot. Verse 17: “But Sisera fled away on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, for there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite” (Judges 4:17).

Now the details of the story start to come together. Now we realize why the author told us about Heber the Kenite who lived near Kedesh. This Kenite man had made peace with Jabin, King of Hazor.

That must have been hard for other people to swallow. The Kenites had seemingly been absorbed into the people of Israel, as their companions and allies. But now they are making peace with the enemy. And all of this matters to the story because when Sisera stops in, this isn’t just a random place he’s seeking refuge. There was probably no place in Israel that would have been a safe refuge for the hated general of Jabin, except the house of Heber.

And so, when Jael the wife of Heber comes out to meet Sisera in verse 18 and says “Turn aside, my lord; turn aside to me; do not be afraid,” and he goes in and she shows him hospitality, none of that would have been surprising to Sisera. When he asks for water, and she gives him milk, when she covers him for warmth or perhaps camouflage, and when he asks her to keep watch at the front of the tent, none of this was a surprise.

I mean, it’s kind of a surprise to see Sisera, the powerful general, hiding out under a rug in a woman’s tent. This is not a good look for him. But for Jael, she’s doing what she’s supposed to. People in the Middle East have always recognized their duty to show generosity and protection to those who come to them for hospitality—and especially here, when formal peace existed between these two houses. Jael is bound by multiple levels of responsibility to take care of this man.

And that’s why verse 21 comes out of the clear blue sky: “But Jael the wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand. Then she went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple until it went down into the ground while he was lying fast asleep from weariness. So he died” (Judges 4:21).

Wow, wow, wow. Nobody would have seen this coming. Jael was no warrior, but as a member of a nomadic, tent-dwelling people, she has a hammer and peg around and she knows a thing or two about how to use them. And there lies Sisera, pinned to the ground. “So,” verse 21 finishes up, “he died.” Yes, he certainly did.

Was this okay for her to do? Some people might wonder if it was wrong for her to break a treaty her husband had made, not to mention all the rules of hospitality in that culture. But on the other hand, you could argue that she had a stronger responsibility to Israel and Israel’s God, and this opportunity to rid Israel of its oppressor was greater than her obligations to her husband and her guest. She was doing what any courageous and enterprising woman would have done when they had a chance to take out the key leader of the enemy forces.

And if you struggle with the idea of killing a man under your care in his sleep, just imagine you lived 80 years ago and Adolf Hitler was asleep on your floor. Do you think you’d do what Jael did?

But I think there’s even more here. Twice in the book of Judges we read about a woman killing an evil man. And both times it involves traumatic injury to his head. Is that a coincidence? I don’t think so. “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel’” (Genesis 3:15).

The role of a woman in crushing the head of an evil man is a small echo of this most ancient prophecy, and a small preview of when the offspring of the woman will crush the serpent’s head. It’s interesting that in chapter 5, which Jordan will preach on next week, Deborah and Barak sing “Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, of tent-dwelling women most blessed” (Judges 5:24). That’s language that sounds a lot like Elizabeth’s words to Mary in the first chapter of Luke, further reinforcing this idea that Jael’s victory over Sisera is one more example of the ancient warfare between the offspring of the serpent and the offspring of the woman, and a preview of the victory of Jesus, the son of Mary, over Satan.

Meaning that Jael’s victory over Sisera was twice-prophesied. First back in Genesis 3, and then again by Deborah earlier in this chapter. And Barak no doubt remembered that prophecy when, in verse 22, he finds his enemy already vanquished by the hands of a woman. “And behold, as Barak was pursuing Sisera, Jael went out to meet him and said to him, ‘Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.’ So he went in to her tent, and there lay Sisera dead, with the tent peg in his temple” (Judges 4:22).

The Victory of God - v. 23-24

Barak did not get the glory for conquering the enemy general. That goes to Jael. But the ultimate glory for all of this goes to God, as verse 23 shows us: “So on that day God subdued Jabin the king of Canaan before the people of Israel. And the hand of the people of Israel pressed harder and harder against Jabin the king of Canaan, until they destroyed Jabin king of Canaan” (Judges 4:23–24).h

God is the warrior who saved His people. Not because they deserved it, not because these people were such great heroes, but because He is faithful to His covenant. And he used a group of ordinary, weak people to accomplish his work. Barak lead the armies, despite his cowardice. And Jael killed the military kingpin using whatever tools she had at hand. But in these bloody and messy stories, we once again see echoes of the bloody cross, where even the wickedness of men was used by God to win the final victory over sin and death and free His people from slavery forever.

Wanted: Courageous Men and Women

Now, we could conclude this message right there. That’s the big idea here—that we should marvel at the covenant-keeping God who saves. And we don’t want to loose sight of this.

But I think it might be worth it for us to step back, review a few things we’re seen, and consider what lessons this passage might teach us specifically as men and women. Or, if you’re younger, as future men and future women. After all, the role of women is one of the very unique elements in this passage.

Throughout history, Deborah is often held up as a patriarchy-smashing icon of feminism, as proof that women can and should do everything a man can do. Deborah often comes up in discussions about women pastors. Sure, when the Apostle Paul was talking about the church he said that  women were not permitted to “teach or to exercise authority over a man” (1 Timothy 2:12). “But what about Deborah?” some people say, as if we

That’s not really an argument. Nobody says the same thing about Ehud, from last week. “Ya, I know 1 Peter 2 says to honour the emperor, but what about Ehud?” We understand that the account of Ehud killing Eglon is telling us what happened during a really messy time in history, but it’s not telling us what we should be doing today.

The worst part of trying to make Deborah look like a modern-day feminist might be that we miss out on the good examples that Deborah and Jael are of courageous women. They were women who knew they were women and weren’t trying to be men. But acting in alignment with their God-given nature as women, they conducted themselves with wisdom and courage. And they are not alone. The Bible is full of courageous women.

Like we just saw in 1 Peter, this courage might take the form of obeying God’s command to submit to your husband without fear (1 Peter 3:1-6). Or this courage might take the form of Ruth, who followed her mother-in-law to a strange land and showed steadfast love to someone who didn’t owe her anything. It might look like Abigail, going out to David to stop him from making a mistake he’d always regret. It might look like Esther, setting her face to go into the king, saying “if I perish, I perish.” It might look like Phoebe, a wealthy deaconess who supported the ministry of Paul and probably carried his letter across dangerous roads to the Romans. It might look like Pricilla, who, with her husband Aquila, risked her neck for the sake of the gospel again and again.

It might look like any of the untold legions of women who have courageously served the Lord through the ages as missionaries and martyrs and mothers, as speakers of wisdom and doers of good and servants of God and His people.

Women, who, by being excellent at what is good and innocent of evil, have participated in God’s work of crushing Satan underfoot no less than Jael with her hammer and peg (Romans 16:19).

It’s mother’s day today, isn’t it? Moms, would you agree you need wisdom and courage? To raise your children for Jesus in a world that wants to push them into its twisted mold,. To keep going when you feel so tired and when your pile of mistakes seems to block the light and the future feels so unknown and scary. To develop into the kind of woman that speaks the truth without fear, whom others—men and women—seek out to hear your wisdom.

Women, girls, of any age—you don’t need children of your own to be, or to become, a “mother in Israel” who is known for her wise, Bible-soaked council. Who courageously speaks the truth. Who uses whatever tools she’s been given to serve God in whatever circumstances she finds herselves in. The specifics of Deborah and Jael’s stories are not here for you to repeat. But in whatever time you find yourself in, you can follow in their footsteps by immersing yourselves in the word of God, submitting to it wholeheartedly, and courageously saying “here I am, use me” to your Father day by day.

And, of course, this passage is also a reminder of our need for courageous men. Men, God has called you in His word to lead and protect and provide. It’s in your nature to get in between danger and the women around you, and fight for them, if that’s what it takes to keep them safe.

And this takes courage. You’ll need to step up. If you don’t step up, odds are there’s a woman more courageous than you who will. But, just like Barak, that won’t look great for you. Because that’s not how God designed things to operate.

So, husbands and fathers, you know the instructions God has given you with your children and your wife. But all men, wherever you are, do you look around and say “what needs to be done? How can I help?” In your life, with your friends, at your work, here in the church. Do you just assume that other people are going to do what needs to be done, like the road painters who spray the yellow line right over the roadkill? Or do you say “I can do that. Let me do what I can to help.”

The story of Deborah and Barak and Jael shows us again that God doesn’t need superheroes to accomplish His work. He can do a lot with ordinary, weak, fearful, even sinful people. Because at the end of the day it’s His power that matters.

This is not about looking inside of yourself to try and stir up whatever it is that you need. “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant,” as Paul wrote 2 Corinthians 3:5–6.

Where might you need courage to follow Him even this week? Would you fix your eyes on Him today and seek from Him all that you need?

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