JUDGE AND PROPHETESS DEBORAH
BY BRIAN RIDPATH
When I have previously stood at the lectern it has been to either pray or to bring you news, just like Brian does, of Open Doors’ activities in their support of persecuted Christians around the world.
Today I have the privilege of being able to talk to you about the biblical person of Deborah.
I enjoy reading and I particularly enjoy adventure stories. The story of Deborah is a special kind of adventure – an adventure with God.
I also need a daily read of the bible. We are advised, encouraged and instructed to read at least a part of God’s Word each day in order to get to know God and through the New Testament to get closer to our saviour Jesus Christ. For those who are just starting to read the Bible and do not know where to begin, my first advice is to ask one of us in the church family to help you get started. Do not be afraid to ask. Just like learning to ride a bike, we all had to start with a lot of help.
Those of you who have attended our Bible study group will know that I often try to put myself in the time of the action that we would be reading about and studying, and I ask questions or make suggestions in order to encourage discussion.
Today will be no different and whilst this is not a Bible study as such I plan to put some thoughts as a challenge to you – not to disagree with the Bible but to find out what the message is that we should take in to our mind and into our hearts to discover what it is that God is telling us.
The Bible verses that will appear as I talk are from the English Standard Version (ESV).
Today we are looking at the character of Deborah, Judge, prophetess and counsellor as recorded in the Old Testament in the Book of Judges. To find out more about Deborah we will see that in Chapter 4 of Judges there are some 6 characters who inter-relate with her:
Deborah’s army commander Barak
King Jabin of the Canaanites – his army commander Sisera
Heber, an Israelite who has defected to the Canaanites – his wife Jael
and the sad Sisera’s mother. And of course, God.
We will meet each of these characters as we read through the verses of chapter 4 and a couple of verses of chapter 5. Chapter 5 is written in the form of a psalm – Deborah was also a songwriter and a minstrel.
So, we go to the opening verses of chapter 4 of the Book of Judges.
Biblical Deborah was both a Judge and a prophetess. As a prophetess she heard messages from God and passed them on, By her actions she seems to be truly a woman trusting in God. She trusted God, just as Mrs. Noah had to do when she too had tasks to do for God by assisting her husband in getting the Ark sorted out. Incidentally, Peter’s lesson intrigued me about a name for Mrs Noah and it appears that there is a Jewish suggestion that Mrs Noah’s name was NAAMAH and is referred to in Genesis 4 v 22 as being the sister of JUBALCAIN. We should be careful though of using that name because if an inverted comma is placed between the 2 A’s the name in Jewish means “of the devil”. So I understand.
Deborah also acted as a counsellor and a leader. People would go to her when they needed a dispute settled or about their future actions. Having listened to those enquiring, she would consider the problem and then give advice.
As Peter has said in his messages about the daughters of Eve, in Judaism women are traditionally revered as a mother of life and as being endowed with a deeper sense of understanding than men are. I totally agree with that.
In the Bible, prophecy is gender neutral, being a gift of the Spirit and God uses both men and women to speak on His behalf.
Deborah was empowered by the God’s holy spirit to be both a judge and a prophet at the time when JABIN, the king of Canaan was oppressing Israel. In those positions of Judge and prophet, God had placed Deborah as a key leader in Israel because she was also a warrior.
Deborah trusted God and would have been constantly fighting against Satan.
Deborah spoke out about the deteriorating state of her region of Ephraim and Nephtali where law and order had broken down making it unsafe to travel on the roads. The Israelites in the region harassed and raided the local Canaanites in the villages and on the plain of Tabor.
King Jabin wanted to get rid of these guerrilla attacks and planned to wipe out the Israelite Hillsmen.
READ Chapter 4 v 1-3.
Typical situation for Israel to be in – fall away from God by worshipping idols, then repenting, then crying out to God. It was dark time in Israel’s history.
So, we read of Deborah:
READ Chapter 4 v 4.
The biography of Deborah is very short.
We are told very little about her other than that she was the wife of LAPPIDOTH whose name in Jewish apparently means Flame and fire. Deborah means ‘bee’.
BUT, was she chosen only because there was no good man at that time and she was therefore God’s plan ‘B’?
So this is challenge number 1.
No way Deborah God’s plan ‘B’! God has only plans type ‘A’.
Deborah was already leading Israel.
I repeat – Deborah trusted God, she had faith in God, she believed in God.
A further challenge here is that anyone can be called into service by God, so we too should be prepared for that call at any time
Let us look at the story written about Deborah’s faith in action.
READ Chapter 4 v 5.
In an artist’s impression, we see Deborah holding court under the palm of Deborah between Ranah and Bethel. In the picture she is wearing the breastplate of a priest. Perhaps a misinterpretation by the artist.
Sitting regularly in this place and in this manner may have been a way of safeguarding ‘Old Testament style’ and showing the openness of her deliberations.
Her court was located in a strategically centralised area of country just north of Jerusalem where all tribes had access to her counsel and guidance. Deborah’s leadership was therefore recognised by all Israel.
Whilst Deborah’s court was centralised, it is easy to forget that Israel is not like the county of Kent almost flat and no high hills or mountains.
To travel to see her on any matter could have taken several days of foot slog.
Seeing that Israel needed deliverance from this oppression by Jabin of over 20 years, Deborah appointed as her war Commander a man called Barak. In Jewish, Barak can mean ‘lightening’.
READ Chapter 4 v 6-7.
These are very specific instructions from God.
Barak’s response in v8 causes a lot of reaction by readers accusing him of being a coward hiding behind a woman’s skirt:
Another challenge for us: how do we see this reaction by Barak?
READ Chapter 4 v 8.
So here we see the hesitation.
Jabin had of course been faced up to before by the Israelites. His commander was Sisera – a man highly feared with some 900 iron chariots and a well-trained army.
Maybe the hesitation made by Barak is a common mistake. By respecting her anointing by the Holy Spirit and her placement by God for such a time as this, Barak has told Deborah that he would not go into battle without her also being present because he doubts God’s ability to use him when distanced from her leadership.
For Barak it was not enough to hear God’s destiny over his life – “I will give Sisera into your hands”. Barak also needed God’s spokesperson to be there maybe idolising her as a good luck charm. A huge lack of faith in God to start with, but he overcame his fears and stepped out in faith!
READ Chapter 4 v 9 and 10
It is thought that Barak is of the tribe of Levites, and therefore a priest, from the northern city of Kedesh where he goes to, to call up an army. There is no mention of contingencies when fighting the cutting-edge iron chariots of Sisera. This will be a great test for Barak. An army general ought to think of the odds against him, and the safety of his soldiers. After all, the Israelites had nothing like the power and skill like Sisera’s soldiers. They had been left behind in the development of comparable weapons. The skilled army of Joshua’s days had disappeared. Ehud’s army had killed 10,000 of the Moabites’s strongest and most able-bodied warriors in order to control the Jordan but after that there was 80 years of peace so there was no need for a skilled Israelite army – just guerrilla fighters.
So, Barak gets a rebuke from Judge Deborah.
“OK” says Deborah, “but the honour of the victory will not be given to you, instead it will go to a woman.” You will note that she does not say ‘if there is a victory’ – she says THE victory.
Because Barak had more faith in God’s spokesperson over God’s prophetic word, God modified Barak’s destiny. God is in charge. He is always in charge.
Despite our human criticism, Barak appears in the Hall of Faith that is listed in Hebrews 11 v 32.
So Barak is remembered eventually with some honour.
So now we come to what Winston Churchill might have called ‘The main event’ – the overthrow of Sisera. God gave the battle into the hands of Barak but the life of Sisera the commander of the enemy goes to a woman as prophesied by Deborah.
READ Chapter 4 v 11
This verse seems unimportant, but it is very important as we will see when we get to verse 17. We are told here that a man called Heber has defected from the Israelites to the Canaanites and is therefore a supporter of King Jabin.
READ Chapter 4 v 12-16.
What a victory by God – Barak had a much smaller army than Sisera, his men were largely untrained and he didn’t have the fire power of the chariots.
Deborah was able to inspire him though. The Israelites were great at guerrilla warfare and she was obviously counting on the weather. Why should the weather be of importance? God had made Deborah wait until the time of year when there would be heavy downfalls of rain creating a lot of mud. Heavy iron chariots find it difficult to move in mud, just like Hitler found out about his tanks in Russia in the second world war.
The Canaanites ought to have won the battle easily, but they did not because of God’s hand in bringing the tremendous downpour making the 900 chariots useless in the mud.
So to the closing episode.
READ Chapter 4 v 17 – 19
You remember verse 11? In these verses, Sisera fleeing from the battlefield believing that he is going into a safe and friendly place inhabited by Kenites with whom he has a peace agreement.
READ Chapter 4 v 20 – 21
How wrong Sisera is. Jael has other plans than for Sisera’s safety. Why?
Apparently Jael, whose name means goat does not approve of her husband’s move away from God. When she recognises Sisera she courageously deceives this enemy of the Lord into coming into her tent where she offers him milk (maybe goat’s milk??) and then she slays him.
READ Chapter 4 v 22 – 24
Barak shortly follows to the Kenite’s tents where Jael comes out to meet him and to show him her handiwork – an honour that Deborah had prophesied that would not be his. Under Judge Ehud, we are told that deception and killing are not unlawful in times of war.
In the Psalm of Deborah (and Barak), the prophetess of God, commends Jael. Others have condemned Jael for disobeying her husband but her story illustrates where the lines of matrimonial submission are to be drawn. A wife is to submit to and honour her husband, but when there are times of crises and real choosing are required, she must side with God.
READ Chapter 5 v 24 – 27
These verses in the psalm of Deborah and Barak tell of Jael’s actions leading to Sisera’s death.
Verses 28 to 29 tell of the woe of Sisera’s mother when he takes a long time to come home. Which he will not, of course – at least alive.
Verse 31 is a praise to God for the success of the day in the defeat of Sisera.