Judges 4:1-5:31 – Deborah and Barak


Judges 4:1-5:31


Chapter four is a narrative account of the exploits of Deborah and Barak, possibly at Esdraelon, while chapter five, possibly the oldest biblical material we have (1125 B.C.E.), is a poetic version of the same story. Deborah is treated as a prophet.


The story of Deborah and Barak and their defeat of the Canaanites in the north is a twice-told tale, once in prose (Judges 4) and once in poetry (Judges 5). There are differences, though one should not be overly concerned with harmonization. The prose version begins with the first three elements of the recurrent cycle: Israel’s apostasy (v. 1) results in their being handed over to Jabin, king of Canaan (v. 2), who oppressed them for twenty years under Sisera, until the people cried out to God (v. 3). This is a very clear example of the book of Judges’ understanding of Israel’s history. As long as the people obeyed God there was progress toward the consolidation of the promised land. But when they disobeyed, that progress was stopped and Israel was subjected to tyranny.

After following the pattern closely through its first three steps, it is striking that the fourth step, where God raises up a deliverer, is absent. It is true that Deborah (“Bumblebee”), a prophet acting on the word of the Lord, summoned Barak (“Lightning”) to lead an army against the Canaanites at Mount Tabor (vv. 4-7). Barak was afraid and refused to go until Deborah demonstrated her courage and faith by unhesitatingly agreeing to accompany him as they delivered Israel from oppression (vv. 8-10). The expected step of God’s raising up a deliverer, however, is still glaringly absent. We have seen that Judges employs this cyclical pattern as an interpretive key, and that any alteration in the pattern warrants further investigation. A close reading of the rest of the story suggests that this crucial step is omitted to indicate that the true deliverer of Israel is neither Deborah, nor Barak, nor Jael, but God.

The battle, itself, took a decisive turn for Israel when a torrential rainstorm caused the Kishon River to overflow, miring Sisera’s nine hundred iron chariots in the mud as we learn from the poetic version in 5:21. As was the case at the Red Sea and in the fall of Jericho, it is God who defeats the enemy (4:15), a point that Deborah herself also makes clear (4:14).

The role of women is particularly important in these stories. Deborah’s courage and faith in persuading Barak, discerning the activity of God, and stirring others to accept their responsibilities were instrumental in the victory. The prose account closes with the introduction of another heroine (4:17-24). Sisera, realizing he has lost, flees to the tent of Heber (“Ally”) the Kenite for sanctuary. Heber’s wife, Jael (“Wild Goat”), welcomes him, and gives him food and a place to sleep. But instead of guarding the tent, as Sisera has requested, she takes a hammer and drives a tent peg through his temple, killing him and fulfilling Deborah’s earlier prophecy (v. 14).

Readers may rightly question Jael’s actions, as many have done, but this story praises the faith and loyalty with which she responded to a serious situation. Her faith might be contrasted with the lack of fidelity that Israel would soon display as the cycle inevitably repeats.