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Women in the Bible: DEBORAH

Judges: Israel Under the Judges

from Grace Communion International, 

CHAPTER 3:7-11

The story opens with the words, “The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord; they forgot the Lord their God and served the Baals and the Asherahs” (verse 7). It may be hard for us to believe that Israel would substitute the worship of the great God for worship of pagan idols of wood and stone. But before we condemn them, we should remind ourselves that we are guilty of the same sin when we put other activities and priorities before our relationship with God. What are your idols? They may not be made of stone, but to God they are just as sinful.

For their idolatry, God delivered Israel into the hands of Cushan-Rishathaim, king of Aram Naharaim (verse 8). Rishathaim is not found anywhere else in ancient literature, but it means “wicked.” The Israelites served Cushan for eight years. They probably paid tribute to this foreign king in exchange for their security.

When the Israelites repented and cried out to God for help, he raised up Othniel to deliver them. Othniel had a rich spiritual heritage. His uncle was Caleb, a man of unwavering faith in God (Numbers 13:30; 14:24). Othniel was also a brave soldier. In Judges 1:12-13, we read that he volunteered to lead an attack against a fortified city. Othniel’s leadership brought the people back to God and freed them from the oppression of Cushan. Unfortunately, it was not long after Othniel’s death that the Israelites fell back into their sinful ways.

CHAPTER 3:12-30

“Once again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord” (verse 12). This time, God sent Eglon, king of Moab, against Israel. Allied with the Ammonites and the Amalekites, Eglon defeated Israel.

The nomadic tribes of Moab, Ammon and Amalek lived near one another, southeast of Canaan. These tribes were notorious raiders who possessed great military skill. The Moabites were descendants of Moab, the son of Lot’s elder daughter (Genesis 19:37). They posed a constant threat to Israel. Jephthah, one of the later judges, reminded the Ammonites that they and the Moabites had refused to give Israel permission to travel through their land (Judges 11:14-17). When the Israelites were preparing to enter the Promised Land, they were seduced by the Moabite and Midianite women to participate in idolatrous practices (Numbers 25:1-18).

Ehud killing Eglon
“Ehud then approached [Eglon] while he was sitting alone in the upper room of his summer palace and said, ‘I have a message from God for you.’ As the king rose from his seat, Ehud reached with his left hand, drew the sword from his right thigh and plunged it into the king’s belly” (Judges 3:20-21).

After 18 years of Moabite oppression, God raised up Ehud to deliver the Israelites (Judges 3:14-17). The text here contains three seemingly irrelevant details: Ehud is left-handed, his sword is doubled-edged and 18 inches long, and Eglon is very fat. Since biblical narrative is usually sparse in descriptive language, one can assume that these details have relevance in the forthcoming plot. And indeed they do.

Because Ehud was left-handed, he strapped the sword on his right thigh. A movement with his left hand to his right thigh was less likely to be interpreted by Eglon as reaching for a weapon. The sword was short enough to be concealed, yet long enough to do its job. Eglon’s large, cumbersome body made him an easy target for Ehud. After killing Eglon, Ehud led the Israelites to a great victory at Seirah (verses 26-30). Ehud’s courageous faith brought peace to the nation of Israel for 80 years.


After Ehud died, the Israelites again sinned against God, who then gave them “into the hands of Jabin, a king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor” (Judges 4:2). Joshua had defeated an earlier King Jabin, and had burned the city of Hazor to the ground. But the Israelites had failed to expel all the Canaanites from the land, to their later cost. The city of Hazor had been rebuilt by the time of this later Jabin, who oppressed the Israelites for 20 years.

God responded to Israel’s cry for help and used Deborah, a faithful prophetess who was judging Israel at that time, and Barak, her military commander, to deliver the nation. This detailed story is told twice: once in skillfully narrated prose (verses 4-24) and once in a magnificent poem known as The Song of Deborah (Judges 5:1-31). This song resembles another victory hymn, The Song of Moses and Miriam, or The Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1-18).

Deborah told Barak to raise an army and go to Mt. Tabor, for God would give Israel a great victory over the Canaanites. Barak agreed to do so only if Deborah would accompany him. Deborah complied but told Barak that because of his lack of faith in God’s promise of victory, the honor of killing Sisera, who commanded Jabin’s army, would fall not to Barak but to a woman (Judges 4:6-9).

Deborah and Barak summoned the Israelites from Kedesh. Not all the tribes responded (Judges 5:13-18). However, Barak was able to assemble some 10,000 men, chiefly from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun. Sisera countered by gathering his troops in the Kishon basin, relying on his 900 iron chariots to overwhelm Barak’s force.

But God decided the battle in Israel’s favor. He demonstrated his superiority over the Canaanite storm god, Baal, by causing an unexpected thunderstorm to transform the Kishon basin into mud, thus immobilizing the Canaanite chariots. Deborah roused Barak to attack, and he routed Sisera’s army. The Israelites would later sing, “The river Kishon swept them away, the age-old river, the river Kishon” (verse 21).

Sisera had managed to escape the initial onslaught of Barak’s army and fled to the tent of Heber the Kenite, a friend of Jabin. Heber’s wife, Jael, welcomed Sisera and gave him some milk to drink. Sisera, believing he was safe, fell sound asleep. Jael then picked up a tent peg in her left hand and a hammer in her right hand, and drove the peg through Sisera’s temple. This act fulfilled Deborah’s prophecy and immortalized Jael in Hebrew poetry (verses 24-27).

Shamgar, referred to in Judges 3:31 and 5:6, fought around this time against another enemy of Israel — the “Sea Peoples,” a group that included the Philistines. The Israelites eventually gained the upper hand over their enemies, and the land had peace for 40 years (Judges 4:23; 5:31).



Some have tried to understand God’s selection of Deborah by reasoning that he could not find any man suitable for the job, so he was forced to use Deborah.While this reasoning may serve to keep male egos intact, it ignores the testimony of Scripture. God is able to use whoever he wants. He does not appoint leaders by using human criteria.When Samuel considered Eliab a suitable successor to King Saul, God corrected Samuel’s limited perception: “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). Some find it surprising that God used a woman as a judge of Israel. But we should not allow preconceived ideas or prejudices to get in the way of respecting those whom God appoints to lead us. Barak, a man of faith, loyally followed the individual God chose.The account in Judges reveals that Deborah’s personality drew people together. She was also a prophetess and led the people to obey God. God used Deborah to influence Israel to remain faithful long after the battle was over. Leaders inspired by God are concerned with the spiritual well-being of those they are called to serve. Deborah certainly was.



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