Updated: Dec 9, 2019
Faith is individual, but it is also shared.
“32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised, who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies.” (Hebrews 11:32-34).
The story of Barak is found in Judges 4 and 5. It cannot be told without a look at two women who played important roles in General Barak’s story. I find it interesting that Barak is the person of faith mentioned in Hebrews 11 rather than the first woman, Deborah, who is a principal player in Barak’s story, and who certainly must have been a woman of faith. But the culture of the time would have may have caused the writer of the letter to be circumspect in what he recorded. Nevertheless, Deborah’s role and her part of the story would have been well-known in Jewish tradition.
After the death of Ehud (and Shamgar who appears very briefly) Israel fell once more into sin and God sent Jabin, the king of Canaan, to oppress them. His army was commanded by Sisera. After twenty years of suffering under Jabin, Israel cried out to God again. Sisera’s army was equipped with nine hundred iron chariots. We can assume—later confirmed in the story of Barak—that aside from the chariots and the men who manned them, Jabin’s army was significant. Israel did not possess the technology that the iron chariots represented. They represented a huge threat to the foot soldiers of the army of Israel. Barak’s strategy when the armies of Israel and Sisera’s army collided will come into play.
A very rare thing was happening in Israel at the time of Barak’s appearance on the stage of history. This rarity, described for us in Judges 4:4-7, concerns Deborah, a woman, was chosen to be judge over Israel.
There are some commentators today who would say that the reference to Deborah as one who judged Israel at the time is incorrect and that it was actually Barak who, as Israel’s deliverer, should be the chief character of the story. And from the Hebrews list it was Barak who is the one whose faith is mentioned rather than Deborah’s. That might be modern machismo at work since the word used in the King James Version “judged” and rendered “was leading” in the NIV is, in its original exactly what it sounds like:
1. to judge, govern, vindicate, punish
i. to act as law-giver or judge or governor (of God, man)
a. to rule, govern, judge
ii. to decide controversy (of God, man)
iii. to execute judgment
a. discriminating (of man)
c. condemning and punishing
d. at theophanic advent for final judgment
i. to enter into controversy, plead, have controversy together
ii. to be judged
C. (Poel) judge, opponent-at-law (participle)
Ellicott comments: “(4) Deborah—The name means “bee,” like the Greek Melissa. The names of Jewish women were often derived from natural objects, as Rachel, “a lamb,” Tamar,” a palm,” &c. It has been sometimes regarded as a title given to her as a prophetess, just as the priestesses of Delphi were called Bees (Pindar, Pyth. iv. 106); and priests were called by the title Malebee (Essēn). But the fact that Rachel’s nurse (Genesis 35:8) had the same name is against this supposition, though Josephus (Antt. v., § 5) accepts it. She had, as Cornelius à Lapide quaintly says, “a sting for foes, and honey for friends.” The pronunciation Debŏrah is now so deeply-rooted in England (possibly from the Vulgate, Debbora) that it would, perhaps, be pedantic to alter it; but properly the “ō” is long נביאה; LXX., Deborra and Debbōra).
A prophetess.—Literally, a woman, a prophetess; like Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Huldah (2Kings 22:14), Noadiah (Nehemiah 6:14), Anna (Luke 2:36), &c. She is the only female judge, or, indeed, female ruler of any kind in Jewish history, except the Phoenician murderess, Athaliah. She is also the only judge to whom the title “prophet” is expressly given. “Prophetess” (like the Latin Vates) implies the possession of poetic as well as of prophetic gifts (Exodus 15:20); and we see her right to such a title, both in her predictions (Judges 4:9), her lofty courage (Judges 5:7), and the splendour of her inspired song (Judges 5). She has modern parallels in the Teutonic prophetesses, Veleda and Alaurinia (Tac., Germ. 8), and Joan of Arc, the “Inspired Maid of Domremi.” Among the Jews prophetesses were the exception; among the ancient Germans they were the rule.
The wife of Lapidoth.—This is probably the meaning of the phrase, although some ancient commentators make it mean “a woman of Lapidoth;” as does Tennyson (Princess), “Like that great dame of Lapidoth.” The phrase closely resembles “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron,” “Huldah the prophetess, wife of Shallum.” The name Lapidoth, which occurs nowhere else, means “flames,” “lamps,” or “splendours;” and Rashi says that she was called “a woman of lamps,” from making the wicks for the lamps of the sanctuary; while others, with equal improbability, interpret it of her shining gifts and of her fiery spirit. The parallels which are adduced to support this view (Isaiah 62:1; Job 41:2; Nahum 2:5) are inadequate; as also is Ecclus. xlviii. 1, “The word of Elias burnt like a torch;” and the Midrash, which says of Phinehas, that “when the Holy Ghost filled him, his countenance glowed like torches” (Cassel). Perhaps there was a fancy that such a prophetess could only be a virgin. The name Lapidoth has a feminine termination, but this does not prove that it may not have been, like Naboth, Shelomith, Koheleth, &c., the name of a man. It is uncertain whether Deborah was of the tribe of Ephraim or Issachar (Judges 5:15; Ewald, ii. 489).
She judged Israel.—We see from the next verse that up to this time her functions had mainly consisted of peaceful arbitration and legal decision (Deuteronomy 17:8).”
Women prophets were rare, but not unheard of.
Exodus 15:20—“Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and the women followed her, with tambourines and dancing.”
2 Kings 22:14—“Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam, Akbor, Shaphan and Asaiah went to speak to the prophet Huldah, who was the wife of Shallum son of Tikvah, the son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe. She lived in Jerusalem, in the New Quarter.”
Isaiah 8:3—“Then I made love to the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son…”
Luke 2:36—“There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage…”
Acts 2:17, 18—“In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.”
Acts 21:8, 9—“Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of Seven. He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied.”
Since the purpose of a judge in the Israel of those times was to physically rescue Israel from her enemies, we can assume that Deborah’s role as judge was more that of an arbitrator, i.e. resolving problems that came up among the Israelites. To rescue Israel in the military sense, her role as a messenger of God would come into play. It does not appear that she was the Joan of Arc of her day as a woman would not normally have been a military leader in the Israel of that time.
The word of the Lord to Barak comes through Deborah. The message is very specific. Barak is from the tribe of Naphtali and Deborah tells him to gather ten thousand men from clans closest to him and known by him and go to Mount Tabor. This mountain would afford Barak high ground and be both defendable and a good place from which to see Sisera and his chariots coming, as well as not a place easily accessible for chariots.
But it is God who will bring Sisera to Barak.
As happens in so many cases we see in this passage the sovereignty of God over even those who do not acknowledge Him: “I will lead Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the River Kishon and give him into your hands.”
Barak’s response to Deborah’s message is given to us in Judges 4:8.
“Barak said to her, ‘If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.’”
Hebrews 11 names Barak as a man of faith and we might think that what is recorded in this verse in Judges is more a test of the messenger than it is a demonstration of a lack of faith on the part of the one receiving the message. Is Barak asking whether Deborah believes herself in the message she has received as one from the Lord, or is she, for whatever reason, delivering a false message to test him? If she doesn’t go, perhaps she doesn’t believe the message or knows it to be false.
Does Barak believe that only the presence of Deborah with him will guarantee that his clansmen will actually respond to his call to arms?
Or does he doubt her message because she is a woman meddling in a military matter and expects his challenge to her to cause her to back off?
The Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Bible Commentary notes this: “8. Barak said unto her, If thou wilt go with me, then I will go—His somewhat singular request to be accompanied by Deborah was not altogether the result of weakness. The Orientals always take what is dearest to the battlefield along with them; they think it makes them fight better. The policy of Barak, then, to have the presence of the prophetess is perfectly intelligible as it would no less stimulate the valor of the troops, than sanction, in the eyes of Israel, the uprising against an oppressor so powerful as Jabin.”
Benson comments on Judges 4:8. “If thou wilt go with me, then I will go — No doubt he thought he had great reason for making this resolution, because he might want her advice in doubtful matters, and her authority also, both to raise men and to keep them together in good order, and likewise to inspire them with courage. His offer to go with her shows the truth of his faith, for which he is praised, Hebrews 11:32; but his refusal to go without her shows the weakness of his faith, that he could not trust God’s bare word, as he ought to have done, without the pledge of the presence of his prophetess.”
We don’t know what prompted Barak’s response to the command of the Lord delivered through the prophetess. There are, of course, many suggestions as to what might have been going through his mind. But how Deborah (who read his tone and body language) responded to what Barak said tells us that whatever reasoning is going on in Barak’s head, his faith is not strong.
Deborah’s response in Judges 4:9 tells us that Barak’s reaction to her instructions as given by the Lord was unacceptable. And because of that the honor of ultimate victory would not be his to enjoy.
“’Certainly I will go with you,’ said Deborah. ‘But because of the course you are taking, the honour will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.’”
To be the one who would bring down the most feared general of his time would be an honour above all honours and one that should have fallen to Barak as the leader of the opposing force.
The fact that another woman will be the one to do what Barak would normally have been responsible for doing tells me that Barak’s reluctance to go was connected to the messenger, to the woman, to Deborah.
Ellicott comments: “Of a woman.—To enter into the force of this we must remember the humble and almost down-trodden position of women in the East, so that it could hardly fail to be a humiliation to a great warrior to be told that the chief glory would fall to a woman. He may have supposed that the woman was Deborah herself; but the woman was not the great prophetess, but Jael, the wife of the nomad chief (R. Tanchum, and Jos., Antt. v. 5, § 4). Compare the feeling implied in Judges 9:24.”
The outcome of the battle is summarized in Judges 4:10-16.
Sisera arrived with his men and his iron chariots just as God had ordained it to be. Here perhaps is where Barak demonstrated the faith described for us in Hebrews 11. He must now decide whether to attack or hold his position of advantage on the top of Mount Tabor.
Deborah delivers the message that sparks the decision to believe:
“Go! This is the day the Lord has given Sisera into your hands. Has not the Lord gone ahead of you?”
Matthew Henry writes: “4:10-16. Sisera's confidence was chiefly in his chariots. But if we have ground to hope that God goes before us, we may go on with courage and cheerfulness. Be not dismayed at the difficulties thou meetest with in resisting Satan, in serving God, or suffering for him; for is not the Lord gone before thee? Follow him then fully. Barak went down, though upon the plain the iron chariots would have advantage against him: he quitted the mountain in dependence on the Divine power; for in the Lord alone is the salvation of his people, Jer 3:23. He was not deceived in his confidence. When God goes before us in our spiritual conflicts, we must bestir ourselves; and when, by his grace, he gives us some success against the enemies of our souls, we must improve it by watchfulness and resolution.”
The river, Kishon, seems to play a role in the defeat of Sisera’s army though we are not told how. Deborah and Barak’s “song,” left for us in Judges 5 says: “The river Kishon swept them away, the age-old river, the river Kishon.”
Whether in the confusion of the attack the chariots did a “Pharaoh’s army thing” and got tangled up in the river during the battle, we don’t know.
It might have been supposed by Barak that when Deborah said that “…the Lord will hand Sisera over to a woman” (4:9) that Deborah would be the woman. But Sisera has escaped. And now, in Judges 4:17-24, enters the second woman onto the stage.
Jamieson-Fausset-Brown comment: “17, 18. Sisera fled … to the tent of Jael—According to the usages of nomadic people, the duty of receiving the stranger in the sheik's absence devolves on his wife, and the moment the stranger is admitted into his tent, his claim to be defended or concealed from his pursuers is established.”
Also pertinent to the theme, Gill writes: “Howbeit, Sisera fled away on his feet,.... Got off, and made his escape to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite; before spoken of, Judges 4:11; and he made to that, because he might think himself safer in a tent than in a town; and especially in the tent of a woman, where he might imagine no search would be made; for women of note, in those times, had separate tents, see Genesis 24:67; and the rather he made his escape hither for a reason that follows: for there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite; which Jabin might the more readily come into, because these were not Israelites, nor did they make any claim to the country, and lived only in tents, and attended their flocks, and were a quiet people, and not at all disposed to war; and it might be so ordered by the providence of God, as a rebuke to the Israelites for their sins, when those who were only proselytes kept close to the worship of God, and so enjoyed liberty, peace, and prosperity.”
What Jael does when Sisera first approached her family’s camp is so at odds with what she does later. He asked for water and she gave him milk. Bible scholars generally agree that this was meant to induce sleep. She covered him to further encourage him to sleep.
Benson comments: “Jdg 4:18-19. Jael said unto him, Turn in, my lord — If Jael now intended to betray and deliver him to Barak, or otherwise to injure him, her addressing him in this manner was dissimulation and treachery, and is not to be excused. But it is highly probable that she had now no other intention toward him, in inviting him into her tent, than merely to afford him that shelter and protection which he sought of her, and such relief and refreshment as she would have afforded to any weary and distressed Israelite. Accordingly she covered him with a mantle, that he might take rest in sleep, and when he asked for a little water to drink, because he was thirsty, she opened a bottle of milk and gave him drink. In what she did afterward she seems to have been actuated by a divine impulse or suggestion, of which she had beforehand neither thought nor conception. God, it must be remembered, had foretold by the prophetess, not only before the battle, but before the enterprise to shake off the yoke of Jabin was undertaken, that he would deliver Sisera “into the hand of a woman,” Jdg 4:9. This method then, God, who is wise in all his ways, and holy in all his works, took to accomplish this prediction. He brought Sisera to Jael’s tent, disposed her mind to invite him in, and when he lay sunk in sleep, powerfully suggested to her mind what before was the very reverse of all her thoughts, namely, to take his life, and that in a way so very singular and unprecedented, that one can hardly suppose she would ever have thought of it, had not God put it into her mind, and impelled her to it. Bishop Patrick justly observes, “she might as well have let Sisera lie in his profound sleep till Barak took him, if she had not felt a divine power moving her to this, that the prophecy of Deborah might be fulfilled.” Dr. Waterland is of the same opinion. “It can scarce be doubted,” says he, “but that Jael had a divine direction or impulse to stir her up to this action. The enterprise was exceeding bold and hazardous, above the courage of her sex, and the resolution she took very extraordinary, and so it has the marks and tokens of its being from the extraordinary hand of God.” Certainly, as Dr. Dodd remarks, “nothing but this authority from God could warrant such a fact, which seemed a breach of hospitality, and to be attended with several other crimes; but was not so when God, the Lord of all men’s lives, ordered her to execute his sentence upon Sisera. In this view all is clear and right, and no objectors will be able to prove there was any treachery in it: for she ought to obey God rather than man; and all obligations to man cease, when brought in competition with our higher obligations toward God.” And that this is the true view of the action appears still more evident from the celebration of it by Deborah the prophetess, in a hymn or song of solemn praise and thanksgiving offered to God on the occasion of it: see Jdg 5:24-27. In Dr. Leland’s answer to Christianity as Old as the Creation, p. 2, and in Saurin’s 11th Discourse, vol. 3, the reader will find a more complete justification of this affair.”
Obviously Sisera and Jael would act in the manner of the pagans that they were, but the main point of the story is that Deborah told Barak that his actions would mean that the ultimate victory—the end of Sisera—would not be a trophy attributed to him.
When Barak arrives, Sisera is dead, delivered into Barak’s hands by Jael just as Deborah had prophesied (what Deborah refers to as an “honour” in 4:9). Read Judges 5:24-27. In this song sung by both Deborah and Barak (Judges 5:1), Jael is called “blessed.”
Jamieson-Fausset-Brown write: “21. Then Jael took a nail of the tent—most probably one of the pins with which the tent ropes are fastened to the ground. Escape was almost impossible for Sisera. But the taking of his life by the hand of Jael was murder. It was a direct violation of all the notions of honor and friendship that are usually held sacred among pastoral people, and for which it is impossible to conceive a woman in Jael's circumstances to have had any motive, except that of gaining favor with the victors. Though predicted by Deborah [Jud 4:9], it was the result of divine foreknowledge only—not the divine appointment or sanction; and though it is praised in the song [Jud 5:24-27], the eulogy must be considered as pronounced not on the moral character of the woman and her deed, but on the public benefits which, in the overruling providence of God, would flow from it.”
On the same subject the Pulpit Commentary notes: “Verse 21. - Then Jael, etc. Sisera, having taken every precaution, had lain him down to rest; not, like David, trusting to the Lord to make him dwell in safety, but confiding in Jael's friendship and his own crafty directions. But no sooner had he fallen into a deep sleep, than the crafty and courageous woman, into whose hands Sisera was to be sold, took a tent pin and the heavy hammer with which they drove the pin into the ground, and with a desperate blow forced it through his temples, and pinned him to the ground. Without a struggle, he swooned and died. Instead of and fastened it into the ground, it is better to translate, that it (the pin) came down to the ground. It is the same word as is translated lighted Joshua 15:18. In the last clause put the full-stop after asleep, and read, So he swooned and died. It is impossible for us to view Jael's act in the same light as her contemporaries did, on account of its treachery and cruelty; but we can admire her faith in the God of Israel, her love for the people of God, and her marvellous courage and strength of mind in carrying out her purpose, and make allowance for the age in which she lived.”
Obviously there are differences of opinion about Jael and her motivation in killing Sisera. The truth is we don’t know why Jael did what she did. What we do know is that Deborah’s prophetic message came true (which is the mark of a prophet of God) and that both she and Barak supported each other in the task that God had given them of rescuing Israel from her enemies.
Some commentators simply dismiss Jael’s actions as that of a pagan who didn’t know any better but her presence in the song that both Barak and Deborah sang after the victory implies that whatever her motivation was, Barak and Deborah (and supposedly God Himself) were happy with the results!
“Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, most blessed of tent-dwelling women….”
Though initially Barak had his doubts, when the ultimate decision had to be made, he acted in faith. And in the end, Barak gave glory to God for the victory that Israel enjoyed at the defeat of Sisera and the army of Jabin.
“When the princes of Israel take the lead, when the people willingly offer themselves—praise the Lord! Hear this, you kings! Listen you rulers! I will sing to the Lord I will sing; I will make music to the Lord, the God of Israel. O Lord, when you went out from Seir, when you marched from the land of Edom, the earth shook, the heavens poured, the clouds poured down water. The mountains quaked before the Lord, the One of Sinai, before the Lord, the God of Israel.”
There is a corporate sense to faith. Yes, each of us needs to exercise the faith that the Lord gives us. But we need to allow God to use us as His instruments to strengthen the faith of others and in turn be humble enough to allow others to strengthen our faith.
Hebrews 3:13—“But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today’, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.”
Titus 1:9—“He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.”
2 Timothy 4:2—”…preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.”
1 Thessalonians 5:14—“And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone.”
1 Thessalonians 5:11—“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.”
Colossians 4:8—“I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he [Tychicus] may encourage your hearts.”
2 Corinthians 13:11—“Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.”
Romans 12:6, 8—“If your gift…is to encourage, then give encouragement…”
Acts 15:32—“Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers.”
A Deborah needs a Barak. A Barak needs a Deborah. And it appears they both sometimes need a Jael.
CONVERSATIONS AND CONSIDERATIONS
1. How have others served to strengthen your faith?
2. What does the situation in Israel at the time of Deborah and Barak teach you about gender roles?
3. Partnerships are important. What does 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 teach us about maintaining partnerships? Why would this be important?
4. How do you imagine the patnership between Deborah and Barak served to encourage the rest of Israel?
5. The list of verses on encouragement describe a number of different scenarios when encouragement can be given. Describe how you have given or received encouragement when being part of several of these scenarios.
6. Report on how you are doing in strengthening your relationship with God as a vital part of your faith journey.
 Judges 4:14
 Judges 5:21
 Judges 5:24
 Judges 5:1-5