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Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament

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JUDGES 4

DEBORAH AND BARAK'S DELIVERANCE OF ISRAEL

IV. DEBORAH and BARAK (Judg. 4--5)

In our text, only Deborah is said to have "judged" Israel, but we have bracketed her name with Barak because in Heb. 11:32 he is listed with other judges such as Gideon and Jephthah. Also, it was Barak, not Deborah, who actually led the army in the battle with Sisera.

LaGard Smith's summary of the situation at the time of this deliverance is as follows:

"One of the areas which Joshua's forces had never been able fully to take over was the plain of Esdraelon (Jezreel) in the north central region of Palestine between Manasseh, Issachar, Zebulun, and Asher. When local Canaanite forces under Jabin and Sisera unite, it falls to a courageous woman named Deborah to take the initiative in repelling the Canaanites. She was able to persuade a cautious general (Barak) to lead the northern tribes to victory. Another woman (Jael) also shared in the glory of the victory when she bravely killed Sisera."F1

For an ingenious, unbelieving account of how "editors," "redactors" and "compilers" have confused this battle with Jabin's army under Sisera vs. the forces led by Barak, with the account in Josh. 11 of another battle with the Canaanites more than a century before the battle reported here, one should read Soggin's Commentary on Judges. Careless commentators are totally in error in such unwarranted conclusions!

Another error is that of understanding the poetic account of the battle here given in the Song of Deborah (Judg. 5) as an account of a different battle from the prose record in Judg. 4. It is true, of course, that these TWO ACCOUNTS, "Bristle with historical and geographical difficulties, most of which would probably quickly fade if precise details were known; and so many details agree that the suggestions pointing to two separate battles must be discounted."F2

The simple Biblical record which has come down to us should be received as the truth. The sacred record is a far superior account of what happened, as contrasted with the "scissors-and-paste" productions of radical critics whose "composite" guesses about ancient events are extremely muddled and contradictory. With regard to the narrative as recorded in the Bible, Cundall correctly observed that, "There are no insoluble difficulties in the narrative as it stands."F3

The old allegations of the radical critics that Judg. 4 and Judg. 5 concern DIFFERENT events have now been fully discredited and rejected. As Dalglish, writing in Beacon Bible Commentary stated it, "There is general agreement that the two chapters have the same engagement in review and that the conflict related in Josh. 11:1-15 was a different event."F4 In this light, we may therefore ask, "What happened?" Barnes explained it. "Subsequently to the events narrated in Josh. 11, Hazor had been rebuilt and had resumed its position as the metropolis of the northern Canaanites. The other cities must also have resumed their independence and restored their fallen dynasties."F5

THE CANAANITE OPPRESSION (Judges 4:1-3)

{"And the children of Israel again did that which was evil in the sight of Jehovah, when Ehud was dead. And Jehovah sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan that reigned in Hazor; the captain of whose host was Sisera, who dwelt in Harosheth of the Gentiles. And the children of Israel cried unto Jehovah: for he had nine hundred chariots of iron; and twenty years he mightily oppressed the children of Israel."}

This paragraph is not "a Deuteronomic framework" imposed upon the historical record; it is a simple, factual statement of how and why the children of Israel needed a deliverer at that particular time.

{"Jabin king of Canaan"} (Judges 4:2). A century earlier, Joshua had defeated "Jabin king of Hazor," who actually headed a coalition of a large number of petty `kings of Canaan' (Josh. 11), but that Jabin was not the same man as the `Jabin' of Judg. 4. We do not know whether or not he was another king bearing the same name, or if `Jabin' was a dynastic designation of all the kings of Hazor. Keil stated that, "The `Jabin' here bore the same name as the earlier Jabin."F6 Davis affirmed that, "The name `Jabin' was probably not a personal name, but a dynastic title.F7 Contrary to Soggin's incredible allegation that, "The title `King of Canaan' never existed, calling it `an absurdity,'"F8 that title is here assigned to Jabin, and here the title has "existed" for more than three millenniums! Joshua's record of that previous encounter with the `King of Canaan' (called in Joshua `the King of Hazor') does NOT contradict what is written here. The Joshua record reveals that Jabin King of Hazor was the chief executive for all of the other `Kings of Canaan' and the commander-in-chief of their united armies. If such an executive was not a `king,' what was he?

{"Nine hundred chariots of iron"} (Judges 4:3). Israel had no chariots at all, and such a formidable striking force would normally have made the King of Canaan invincible. However, "The mustering of the united tribes of Israel against him under Barak coincided with a storm in which the Kishon, normally a dry river-bed, rapidly became a raging torrent in which the chariotry were engulfed."F9

GOD RAISES UP DEBORAH AND BARAK (Judges 4:4-10)

{"Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, she judged Israel at that time. And she dwelt under the palm-tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill-country of Ephraim: and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment. And she sent and called Barak the son of Abinoam out of Kedesh-naphtali, and said unto him, Hath not Jehovah, the God of Israel, commanded, saying; Go and draw unto mount Tabor, and take with thee ten thousand men of the children of Naphtali and of the children of Zebulun? And I will draw unto thee to the river Kishon, Sisera, the captain of Jabin's army, with his chariots and his multitude; and I will deliver him into thy hand. And Barak said unto her, If thou wilt go with me, then I will go; but if thou wilt not go with me, then I will not go. And she said, I will surely go with thee: notwithstanding; the journey that thou takest shall not be for thine honor; for Jehovah will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman. And Deborah arose and went with Barak to Kedesh. And Barak called together Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh; and there went up ten thousand men at his feet: and Deborah went up with him."}

{"Deborah, a prophetess, judged Israel at that time"} (Judges 4:4). Deborah is clearly the inspired leader of the deliverance that came to Israel in this crisis. Her authority was already recognized in Israel. Note her power to summon Barak, and note his immediate response. Her ability as a prophetess in the truest sense of the word appears in her supernatural prediction that God would deliver Sisera into the hand of a woman, as well as details of where the battle would occur, and of its favorable outcome for Israel.

{"Under the palm-tree ... in Ephraim"} (Judges 4:5). It is astounding that Soggin would affirm `that, "Ephraim was Deborah's tribe,"F10 despite the clear indication in Judg. 5:15 that, "Deborah's own tribe seems to have been Issachar."F11 Soggin apparently assumed that because Deborah's prophetic office was exercised in "the hill-country of Ephraim," that she necessarily belonged to that tribe. The same kind of deduction would have made Jonah a citizen of Nineveh!

{"The palm of Deborah"} (Judges 4:5). "This may be a confused memory of another Deborah, the nurse of Rebekah, who was buried under an oak in the same district of Ephraim at Bethel (Genesis 35:8),"F12 No, the sacred author of Judges, whom we believe to have been Samuel, was not the man with the "confused memory"; it was the author of the Layman's Bible Commentary comment just cited! The tree under which that first Deborah was buried was an oak, and the tree under which this Deborah prophesied was a palm. Both the utility and the species of the trees were different. There is no confusion whatever regarding these in the text!

{"And the children of Israel came up to her for judgment"} (Judges 4:5). "The expression, `came up,' is applied here, as in Deut. 17:8, to the place of justice, as a spiritual height, independently of the fact that the tree was in the hill-country."F13 As Barnes noted, "This verse shows that the `judges' exercised the civil as well as the military functions of rulers."F14 Go, and draw near unto mount Tabor (Judges 4:6). This mountain stands 1,843 feet above sea level."F15 It has a flat surface on top where a town was erected in N.T. times, and its steep sides provided a very secure position for the rallying of Barak's ten thousand men. It has a spectacular appearance overlooking the eastern part of the plain of Esdraelon, and that caused it to be mentioned along with Mount Hermon, despite that mountain's being five times as high as Tabor.

{"The river Kishon"} (Judges 4:7). In normal weather this river is merely a dried up wady, but in the instance of a rain, it becomes a roaring river. Of course, Sisera knew that, and, if it had been the rainy season, he would not have deployed his chariots in such a dangerous location. This indicates that it was certainly an unexpected and untimely rain that turned the battle into the advantage of the Israelites. It was through her gift of prophecy that Deborah knew this and set in motion the events that led to the great victory.

This river heads just west of the great ridge of mountains bordering the area of the Jordan River and flows northwest across the plain of Esdraelon (Jezreel) near the southern foot of Mount Tabor in the east and continuing northwestward to the north of Mount Carmel, where it empties into the Mediterranean near Haifa. "This plain of Esdraelon is one of the great battlefields of history."F16

{"Zebulun and Naphtali"} (Judges 4:6,10). One of the difficulties cited by scholars is the fact that in this chapter only these two tribes are mentioned as participating in the battle, but in Judg. 5 it appears that Ephraim, Benjamin, Machir, and Issachar also participated. "There were two phases of the campaign: (1) the first in which only Naphtali and Zebulun participated, and (2) the second in which all six of the tribes mentioned had a part."F17 In fact, Judg. 4:24 speaks of a conflict that continued "more and more," indicating an extensive war culminating in the permanent removal of the Canaanites as a threat to Israel. The part of that war in which Zebulun and Naphtali were the sole participants was merely the opening campaign of it.

{"I will deliver him into thy hand"} (Judges 4:7). Note that Deborah's words here are not her own, but the words of the Lord, despite the fact of the customary "Thus saith the Lord" being omitted.

{"If thou wilt go with me, then I will go"} (Judges 4:9). Barak should not be criticized for his reluctance. He was in excellent company. Moses himself was, at first, unwilling to undertake the rescue of Israel from Egypt, and Gideon also considered himself to be the least worthy to undertake his Divine assignment. Barak recognized the great difficulty and danger of his call to deliver Israel, and he needed the assurance that the presence of Deborah would provide.

This verse is included here in order to explain why the residence of Heber and his wife Jael happened to be on Sisera's route of escape when he fled from the defeat at the river Kishon. The Kenites normally occupied the territory south of the land of Judah, but, perhaps, being discouraged by a recent invasion of the Philistines, they are revealed in this verse to have moved northward beyond the tribal lands of Naphtali. In their new home, they had evidently accommodated themselves to the supremacy of the Canaanites and were considered by Sisera to be his friends or allies. As it turned out, however, Jael was passionately devoted to Israel.

{"Now Heber the Kenite had separated himself from the Kenites, even from the children of Hobab the brother-in-law of Moses, and had pitched his tent as far as the oak in Zaanannim, which is by Kedesh."}

{"The oak which is by Kedesh."} According to Judg. 4:9, Kedesh was not far from the area where the battle was fought. However, it was far enough from the battle area that Sisera's flight to the tent of Heber was a sufficient distance to leave him totally exhausted after traversing it. "Apart from this information, and the obvious fact that it lay on Sisera's escape route, there is no certain knowledge of exactly where this place was located."F18

THE OPENING ENGAGEMENT OF THE WAR

{"And they told Sisera that Barak the son of Abinoam was gone up to mount Tabor. And Sisera gathered together all his chariots, even nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the people that were with him, from Harosheth of the Gentiles, unto the river Kidron. And Deborah said unto Barak, Up; for this is the day in which Jehovah hath delivered Sisera into thy hand; is not Jehovah gone out before thee? So Barak went down from mount Tabor, and ten thousand men after him. And Jehovah discomfited Sisera, and all his chariots, and all his host, with the edge of the sword before Barak; and Sisera alighted from his chariot, and fled away on his feet. But Barak pursued after the chariots, and after the host, unto Harosheth of the Gentiles: and all the host of Sisera fell by the edge of the sword; there was not a man left."}

When Sisera learned of the military muster of the Israelites at mount Tabor, he deployed his forces at the river Kishon, where he no doubt supposed that his force of nine hundred chariots of iron would be more than a match for Barak's troops. However, there was a very heavy untimely rain that made a roaring river out of the Kishon and flooded the plains at the foot of mount Tabor (Judg. 4:5:4,19-21). Simultaneously, Barak with his ten thousand men rushed down the steep slopes of Tabor and cut to pieces Sisera's entire force. The chariots of iron were not merely useless, bogged down in the mud; but the charioteers, trapped in their mired vehicles, were an easy prey to Barak's men. Sisera himself, seeing that the engagement was a total disaster, left his chariot and fled away on foot. This astounding debacle that broke the back of Canaanite power could have been nothing other than a Divine intervention upon behalf of the Chosen People. It was God who planned and precipitated the engagement, and it was God who sent the untimely rain. It was God's foreknowledge of that rain and the very time when it would occur that lay behind this remarkable victory!

But there was yet another providential element in the encounter that the Lord had prophesied, namely that God would deliver Sisera into the hand of a WOMAN, and the next paragraph relates how that occurred.

JAEL DESTROYS SISERA (Judges 4:17-22)

{"Howbeit Sisera fled away on his feet to the tent of Heber the Kenite; for there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite. And Jael went out to meet Sisera, and said unto him, Turn in, my lord, turn in to me; fear not. And he turned in unto her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. And he said unto her, Give me, I pray thee, a little water to drink; for I am thirsty. And she opened a bottle of milk; and gave him drink; and covered him. And he said unto her, Stand in the door of the tent, and it shall be when any man shall come and inquire of thee, and say, Is there any man here? that thou shalt say, No. Then Jael, Heber's wife, took a tent-pin, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly unto him, and smote the pin into his temples, and it pierced through into the ground; for he was in a deep sleep; so he swooned and died. And behold as Barak pursued Sisera, Jael came out to meet him, and said unto him, Come, and I will show thee the man whom thou seekest. And he came unto her; and behold Sisera lay dead, and the tent-pin was in his temples."}

{"And she covered him with a rug"} (Judges 4:18). "This should be rendered, `with the coverlet,' such as was always at hand in the nomad tent."F19

{"The tent-pin ... and a hammer"} (Judges 4:21). It is said that the business of pitching and striking the tent was usually assigned to the women among the nomads, and Jael, therefore, would have been quite skilled in the use of this equipment.

{"So he swooned and died"} (Judges 4:21). This could not possibly be an acceptable translation of what is said here. "Swooning," that is, "fainting," is not exactly what happens to a man with a tent-pin driven through his temples! The New Revised Standard Version renders this clause simply" " -- and he died."

"Evidently, the Canaanites had not oppressed the nomadic Kenites who had moved into their territory from the south, and, since the Kenites had not taken part in the muster of Israel's forces at Mount Tabor, Sisera, from these facts, had reason to believe that he would be SAFE, if he reached the tent of Heber."F20

Speaking of the morality of this action on Jael's part, what can be said? The falsehood, treachery, deception and cold-blooded murder appearing in this event can only be denounced as sinful, and yet there were surely mitigating circumstances. We can admire Jael's courage, her love of the people of God, and her audacious action in taking the life of their chief enemy. It is nowhere indicated in the Bible that God approved of Jael's behavior in this episode. The prophecy that something like this would surely happen cannot be interpreted as God's approval of how it happened. Still, in the next chapter, Deborah referred to Jael as "blessed"; and Jael herself appeared to be quite happy with her achievement as she showed Sisera's body to Barak.

We are not given any account of how Barak must have reacted to what Jael showed him. In ancient times, it was considered the ultimate dishonor for a brave warrior to be slain by a WOMAN. Barak must have recalled the words of Deborah that prophesied the very thing that he encountered in the tent of Heber the Kenite.

THE CONCLUSION OF THE CANAANITE WAR (Judges 4:23-24)

{"So God subdued on that day Jabin the king of Canaan before the children of Israel. And the hand of the children of Israel prevailed more and more against Jabin the king of Canaan, until they had destroyed Jabin king of Canaan."}

These verses are a summary of the extensive war against the Canaanites which ensued following the tremendous victory detailed in this chapter. How long the war lasted, we are not told, but the words, "more and more ... until," etc. indicate that far more was involved than this single victory. The following chapter reveals that six of the tribes of Israel were involved in the conflict instead of merely the two mentioned in Judg. 4. Besides that, the Canaanite threat to Israel is no more mentioned in the Word of God, a result that simply could not have followed merely a single battle along the river Kishon, impressive as that victory surely was. "What is meant in this chapter is that Barak's great victory was the beginning of successful resistance to Jabin, by which Israel recovered their independence, and finally broke the Canaanite power."F21


Footnotes for Judges 4
1: The Narrated Bible by LaGard Smith, p. 349.
2: The New Layman's Bible Commentary, p. 346.
3: The Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Vol. 7, p. 81.
4: Beacon Bible Commentary, Vol. 2, 403.
5: Albert Barnes, Notes on Bible Books, Judges, p. 423.
6: C. F. Keil in Keil-Delitzsch Commentaries, Old Testament, Vol. 2-A, p. 391.
7: John J. Davis, Conquest and Crisis, p. 109.
8: J. A. Soggin's Commentary on Judges, p. 62f.
9: The New Bible Commentary, Revised, p. 261.
10: J. A. Soggin, op. cit., p. 74.
11: J. R. Dummelow's Commentary, p. 162.
12: Layman's Bible Commentary, Vol. 6, p. 25.
13: C. F. Keil in Keil-Delitzsch Commentaries, op. cit., p. 301.
14: Albert Barnes, Notes on Bible Books, op. cit., p. 424.
15: The New Bible Dictionary, p. 1235.
16: J. R. Dummelow's Commentary, p. 162.
17: The Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Vol. 7, p. 83. Heber the Kenite and His Wife Jael (Judg. 4:11)
18: Ibid, p. 86.
19: The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 3-C, p. 39.
20: Wycliffe Bible Commentary, Old Testament, Judges, p. 242.
21: Albert Barnes, Notes on Bible Books, op. cit., p. 426.

Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Judges 4". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". <http://classic.studylight.org/com/bcc/view.cgi?book=jud&chapter=004>. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.  

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