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Deborah was the wife of Lappidoth, but he was a nonentity and we hear no more about him. She had many gifts and roles. First she was a prophetess. She was by no means the only woman prophet. We hear also of Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14) and in New Testament times Anna (Luke 2:36).
But Deborah was also a judge, indeed the only one of the judges who is actually described as exercising judicial functions. “It was her custom,” we are told, “to sit beneath the Palm Tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephrahim, and the Israelites went up to her for justice.” This arcadian scene recalls Moses as judge, and evidently when this book of the Bible was edited, over two hundred years later, the tree was still in existence, and revered, and known by her name. Her evident repute and prestige as a judge reveals that she was learned, knowing all the regulations later described, not only in the Pentateuch but in Deuteronomy and Numbers, and much case law too. People came to her because her rulings were respected and took effect. When Sisera’s terrifying force of iron chariots threatened the settled land, “the Israelites cried out for help” but they turned to Deborah for advice and decisions. Her ruling was prompt. She could decide, from her wisdom, the nature of the campaign to be fought against Sisera, and the general strategy. But, being a woman (and probably an old one), it was unbecoming for her to direct detailed, tactical operations on the battlefield. For that a professional soldier was needed. “So she sent for Barak, son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali,” and issued to him God’s commands, she acting as prophetic spokeswoman for the Deity: “Go and recruit ten thousand men from Naphtali and Zebulun, and bring them with you to Mount Tabor. I will entice Sisera to the torrent of Koshon with all his chariots and his horse, and there I will deliver them into your hands.”
General Barak’s willingness to obey Deborah’s summons testifies to her authority, and he accepted her plan moreover. But the reply with which he qualified his submission is still more telling:
“If you go with me [into battle], I will go. but if you will not go, neither will I.” That was blunt: her morale-boosting presence on the battlefield was essential to victory, in his view. And he, as battle commander, needed her physical reassurance, and advice on tactics too. So it had been with Moses. She assented with a grim feminist note: “Certainly I will go with you, but this action will bring you no glory, because the Lord will leave Sisera to fall into the hands of a woman.”
So Deborah went with Barak at the head of his ten thousand men. When Sisera heard of Barak’s movement, he took his entire force to the bottom of Mount Tabor. That was exactly what Deborah had hoped for. Torrential rains, pouring down the slopes, had turned the plain below Mount Tabor into a quagmire. She woke the sleeping Barak: “‘Up! This day the Lord gives Sisera into your hands! Already the Lord has gone out to battle before you.’ By this
she meant the rain.” So Barak came charging down from Mount Tabor with ten thousand infantry at his back. Sisera’s huge force of chariots became useless in the rapidly forming marsh, sticking
in the mud. Their spearmen had to dismount, and were picked off one by one. They tried to flee, but the Israelite foot soldiers pursued them, and killed all.
Sisera too abandoned his bogged-down chariot and “fled on foot.” It is always a poignant moment when the commander of a powerful and triumphant cavalry force miscalculates, sees his squadrons distintegrate and suddenly finds himself alone, without even a horse. Some hours elapsed, and many weary miles. The proud commander, now muddy, frightened and exhausted, came across a group of tents of a tribe he believed friendly to King Jabin. He approached a woman’s tent, for safety, and Jael came out to meet him and said: “Come in here, my lord, come in do not be afraid.” He went in, and she covered him with a rug. It was, of course, against all etiquette for a man, especially a fugitive, to violate the sanctity of a woman’s tent. And Sisera, in his distress, went on to commit two further breaches of social laws. He asked for refreshment without waiting for an invitation. He said to Jael: “Give me some water to drink I am thirsty.” So she opened a skin full of milk, gave him a drink, and covered him up again. Thus emboldened, he tried to take charge of the woman. He said to her: “Stand at the tent entrance, and if anybody comes and asks if someone is here, say No.”
This was too much. Jael, whose husband was Heber the Kenite (another nonentity), affronted and angered, waited till Sisera was asleep, then “took a tent-peg, picked up a mallet, crept up to him and drove the peg into his skull as he slept. His brains oozed out into the ground, his limbs twitched, and he died.”
In due course Barak arrived in pursuit, and Jael went out to him and said, “Come, I will show you the man you are looking for.” Barak went in, found the wretched corpse, and remembered Deborah’s prophecy.