Author: Ron Graham

History of Israel

Deborah’s Adventures
—And her leadership qualities

Time ~ 4. Conquest of Canaan
Span ~ 170 years
Books ~ Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1Samuel
Figures ~ Joshua, Samuel
Begins with ~ Entry into promised Land across Jordan

In the time of the Conquest of Canaan, the Israelites were ruled from time to time, and in various places, by judges. First we will look at the time of the six judges after Joshua, and later the other six judges who led up to the time of Samuel. Deborah was the fourth judge to rule Israel. This lesson is about her.

The "sons of Israel yet again did evil in the sight of the Lord... and the Lord sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan... and the commander of his army was Sisera... he had nine hundred iron chariots, and he oppressed the sons of Israel severely for twenty years" (Judges 4:1-3). Here enters "Deborah a prophetess" who "was judging Israel at that time" (Judges 4:4-5). Judges 4 tells her story, and Judges 5 her song.

1 Deborah the Diplomat

Since people came to her for judgments in their disputes, we can safely assume that Deborah was a reasonable and diplomatic person highly skilled in negotiation. However, her dealings with Barak prove it.

Deborah appointed Barak as the commander of her army against Sisera. The way she went about this was direct yet diplomatic. She "sent and summoned Barak" (Judges 4:6). But instead of giving him a direct order she used the customary form of respect and deference to a superior —a rhetorical question.

You never told a superior anything. Rather, you asked a question with the information in it, as though your superior already knew it. So Deborah says to Barak, "Has not the Lord commanded...?" (Judges 4:6-7). Deborah was the superior, not Barak. Yet she spoke to him as though he were the authority. This saved Barak from having to obey without comment. It gave him the opportunity to have input.

Barak responded with a genuine acknowledgement of Deborah's superiority and his admiration for her. He placed himself squarely under her leadership in going to battle against Sisera. "I will go if you'll go with me, but if you won't go, nor will I." (Judges 4:8). Barak was saying that he'd command the ten thousand if she would command him.

Deborah responded to this with humour: "Sure, I'll go with you, but now you won't get the glory. The Lord will sell Sisera into the hands of a woman!" (Judges 4:9). Probably Barak was happy to forgo honour in favour of Deborah, especially when it would multiply Sisera's embarrassment.

2 Deborah the Daredevil

When Barak made his plea to Deborah for her comradeship in battle, she seemed to jump at the chance. And so, when "Barak called [men from the tribes of ] Zebulun and Naphtali together to Kedesh, and ten thousand men went up with him, Deborah also went up with him." (Judges 4:10).

She could have stayed home and prayed for Barak and his army. That would have been noble, but not brave. She went out to command the commander and his army. She was a daredevil, but her daring was in faith not foolhardiness. "Arise!" she cried, "The Lord has delivered Sisera into your hands! The Lord has gone out before you!" (Judges 4:14). And her faith was not unfounded, for the "the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and his entire army at the edge of the sword before Barak" (Judges 4:14-16).

There was another daredevil in this event, Jael the wife of Keber. Keber had “warned” Sisera that Barak was forming for battle, but he made no mention of the fact that God was going to destroy his chariots and army. Now the rout has happened, and Sisera, the only survivor, flees to Keber's house. He is met by Jael who ushers him into the house and hides him under a blanket. She pretends to be hospitable, and he asks her to stand guard while he sleeps. Instead, she drives a tent peg through his head and into the ground. Jael then goes out to meet Barak who is pursuing Sisera and shows him his prey already suitably dead (Judges 4:11-12, Judges 4:17-22, Judges 5:24-27).

3 Deborah the Deliverer

Deborah sings her victory song with Barak. First she gives praise to the Lord (Judges 5:3). Later she acknowledges the commanders and their armies (Judges 5:9,12). She also praises Jael (Judges 5:24-26). But she also honestly acknowledges herself in a special way: "Village life ceased, ceased in Israel, until I, Deborah, arose, until I arose a mother in Israel" (Judges 5:7).

Deborah's description of herself as "a mother in Israel" shows her understanding of her leadership. She did not aspire to be a queen. Queens lead their subjects from a throne. Deborah led hers beneath a palm tree. She led them as a mother leads her children, and arguably mothers are greater leaders than queens. We think of motherhood as something beautiful and benign. But mothers will protect their children, and risk death and wreak death to do so. This did Deborah in the power of the Lord. This "mother in Israel" delivered her “children” from the hand of the opressor by her faith, courage, intelligence, and strength.