Judges 4: Deborah and Barak
After the death of Joshua there was an unsettled time for Israel. "There was no king in Israel, and every man did that which was right in his own eyes." (Judges 17:6 and 21:3) This lasted about four hundred and fifty years. (Acts 13:20) The people in one part of the country or another would often neglect the worship of the Lord, and then some enemy would oppress them. The Lord then raised up a deliverer, called a judge, who led them to victory and ruled for a time. These disconnected stories fill the book of judges.
Today we find on our map the beautiful plain of Esdraelon, just above Mount Carmel and the Samaria hills. A stream, the Kishon, winds through the meadow and out to the Mediterranean Sea. At the northeast corner of the plain we find Mount Tabor.
This is Mount Tabor. (Show a photograph of the mountain.) Would you like to go up the mountain? You would find some ruins on the top and a beautiful view. But I would rather go with you today to the top of another mountain, Mount Carmel. From here we can see Mount Tabor and the great green plain that stretches away from its foot, and a stream, the Kishon, winding through the plain. (Pictures of Esdraelon) If you look sharply from Mount Carmel you can see farmers at work in the meadow, and perhaps some carts loaded with hay or grain moving along the road to a town not far away.
Our story is about this meadow and the Kishon and Mount Tabor. If we had been looking then from Mount Carmel, we should have seen an army gathering on Mount Tabor, and in the plain instead of peaceful hay-wagons we should have seen another army with chariots of iron. Chariots were low carts in which soldiers rode, and strong horses drew them and went galloping over the plain. These chariots were the terror of the children of Israel who lived in this part of the land. They belonged to Jabin, king of Hazor, who was the enemy of Israel, and Sisera was the captain. The army on Mount Tabor were children of Israel who had come together to fight with Sisera. Deborah, who was a prophetess, and Barak were calling them together.
Now look! The army is coming down from Mount Tabor, over these very slopes that we see in the picture, and is moving out into the plain. They are meeting with the chariots by the Kishon. The Lord is helping them. The rain has swelled the stream and softened the ground. The chariot wheels sink deep, the horses fall. Sisera jumps from his chariot and runs away to the hills. The enemies are beaten. The children of Israel chase them, and sing a song of rejoicing to the Lord.
Shall we follow Sisera as he ran to save his life? He came to a tent; it belonged to Jael, who he hoped was his friend. She seemed friendly and asked him in. He was thirsty and she gave him milk. But when he fell asleep she took one of the wooden pins that held the tent-cords, and drove it through his temples, and he died. For she was a friend of Israel.
Look at the pictures of Mount Tabor and the Kishon, while we read the story.
After the death of Joshua the children of Israel again and again were unfaithful to the Lord, and now one enemy and now another oppressed them. In our story today the enemy is "Jabin, king of Canaan that reigned at Hazor." The Canaanites were the lowlanders of the Jordan valley and the seashore and the other plains. Hazor was near Lake Merom, above the Sea of Galilee. Jabin's army in command of Sisera was in the great plain of Esdraelon, near Mount Carmel, with nine hundred chariots of iron. There had been a Jabin, king of Hazor, who had chariots and fought with Joshua. (Joshua 11:1-14) But this was another and later Jabin.
To find the plain of Esdraelon on your map, you look along the coast of Palestine and see where Mount Carmel juts out into the sea. Then you follow the ridge of Carmel inland till a great meadow opens to the eastward. This is Esdraelon. The plain is a triangle in shape. The long side is against the hills of Samaria. The north side of the triangle is against the hills of Galilee about Nazareth. The east side is guarded by three mountains: Tabor, Little Hermon, and Gilboa. Right here under Mount Carmel is the narrow valley through which the Kishon finds its way toward the sea. Here was Harosheth, where Sisera and his chariots were stationed to guard the gate and to command the plains to the east and west. This plain of Esdraelon was a rich garden spot in the land. Can you tell by looking at your map, to which tribe of Israel it had been given? You will need to notice also what other tribes were near the plain, when you read of the army that gathered to fight with Sisera, to recover this beautiful garden land. See Judges 4:6; 5:15.
As you read the story of the battle you must look forward into chapter 5 and read what Deborah and Barak sang in their song of victory. See verses 19-22. There was a storm that helped them, making the meadow land soft and raising the river to a flood. They felt that the Lord and heaven were with them. Compare the hail that helped Joshua to gain a victory. (Joshua 10:11)
Who were the Kenites, and where did they live? If you read Num. 10:29-32 and Judges 1:16, you can answer the first question. They made their home in Judah, in the southern part of the land. They still were living there at a later time than our story. (1 Sam. 15:6) But our chapter explains how Heber the Kenite had separated from the rest of his people and had pitched his tent on the high land west of the Sea of Galilee. These Kenites were near neighbors of Jabin in his home at Hazor, and of Barak in his home at Kedesh. They were at peace with Jabin, but wished well to their old friends the children of Israel.
Was Jael's action right or wrong? Perhaps we cannot say, without knowing more than we do of her and of the times in which she lived. It is important to us, because the Lord has made it a part of this grand parable of victory over evil.
Please draw for me today a map of the plain of Esdraelon. Also write this list of names, and tell in a few words what part each has in the story: Jabin, Sisera, Harosheth, Deborah, Barak, Tabor, Kishon, Jael.
The period of the judges, from Joshua to Samuel, represents an unsettled state like that which comes between the days when we obey as children and the days when a strong, mature kingdom is established. To this time belong some grand experiences of the Lord's saving power, as now one noble impulse and now another is awakened to keep us faithful. It is because these stories of the judges in their inner meaning describe our own experiences and the experiences of the Lord in His life on earth that they interest and stir us so deeply.
What particular kind of conflict and victory is represented by this battle with Sisera and his horses and chariots? The Canaanites represent evil which we have indeed contended with before, but which has again gained power over us when we have grown careless and forgotten the Lord. The horses and chariots of Jabin's army are especially mentioned, as they were also in the army of the earlier Jabin. (Joshua 11:1-4) What do they represent? Horses, the noblest animals of travel and labor, represent in a good sense the love and power for the noblest mental labor, which is spiritual thought and understanding. Chariots or wagons, things constructed by people to make the power of horses more effective, represent formulas of thought or doctrines which help the mind in its reasoning. Find examples of the use of horses and chariots in a good sense in the Word, for instance, the horses and chariots of fire with Elijah and Elisha. (2 Kings 3:11 and 6:17) The horses and chariots of Pharaoh and the iron chariots of the Canaanites fighting against Israel are the natural reasonings which evil uses to crush the conscience and spiritual life. (R. 298; E. 355; W. H. 1-5) The falsity that sweeps away, as with a flood, those who admit it to their minds, is also represented by the swollen Kishon. (E. 518; R. 409) Read the song of Deborah and Barak in Judges 5 in connection with the story.
Think now of the forces which are summoned to oppose this evil and its reasonings. Deborah's palm means trust in the saving power of the Lord. Remember the palms and hosannas in John 12:12-13 and Rev. 7:9-10. Naphtali, Barak's tribe, means strife, truth fighting in the soul. (E. 439, 445, 447) Is there a meaning in the gathering of the army in the mountain, descending upon the enemy in the plain? Does heaven fight for us in our battle?
The meaning of Jael and her help. Her people the Kenites were the shepherd people with whom Moses found a home when he fled from Egypt. (Exod. 2:15-22) Apparently they helped the children of Israel on their journey to Canaan and shared their fortunes. (Num. 10:29-32) They represent a simple love of truth which welcomes teaching from the Lord, and is helpful to a spiritual life. In its simplicity it may live at peace with falsity, but at heart it is on the side of the spiritual life. (A. 6773, 6827, 7015)