Harry Whittaker
Judges And Ruth

4. Deborah, Barak and Jael (ch. 4)

“And the children of Israel again did evil in the sight of the Lord, when Ehud was dead. And the Lord sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan, that reigned in Hazor; the captain of whose host was Sisera, which dwelt in Harosheth of the Gentiles” (Jud. 4:1,2).

Canaanite oppression

This familiar apostasy of Israel soon brought upon itself due retribution, appropriately enough, from an enemy who had been defeated earlier. Joshua 11 recounts the destruction at the waters of Merom of a Canaanitish confederacy headed by a Jabin, king of Hazor. Modernists speculate that this narrative in Judges is a more detailed account of the same victory, but apart from the mention of Jabin there is no similarity at all.

One generation saw the power of Germany twice rise from the ashes within a few years. So there is no need to marvel that the city destroyed by Joshua (11:11) should become strong enough once again within two or three generations to turn the tables on these Israelitish invaders. Doubtless this oppression by Jabin and Sisera had a strong element of revenge about it.

The coincidence of names presents little difficulty. Jabin means “The Intelligent”, and may be taken to be a dynastic title comparable with Pharaoh, Abimelech, Hiram, and Benhadad.

Again, it has seemed incredible to some that Jabin should be king of the whole of Canaan, but evidently (as in Joshua 11) he was the leader of a confederacy of Canaanitish tribes. This is suggested in Deborah’s Song: “The kings came and fought, then fought the kings of Canaan in Taanach.”

Sisera — the name is said to be Hittite in form — was evidently a leading administrative official in this oppression, comparable to Sennacherib’s Rabshakeh in later days.

This oppression was of cruel intensity, backed by considerable military force, for Sisera “had 900 chariots of iron”. The oppression seems to have taken two forms. Firstly, the organisation of slave labour on a large scale in “Harosheth of the Gentiles” — the name means ‘workmanship’ (s.w. Exod. 31:5), and the place is situated in the middle of what was a great timber district. Apparently, too, press gangs operated, for “in the days of Jael, the highways were unoccupied, and the travellers walked through byways.”

Deliverance by women — why?

But more serious still are the indications that the brunt of this oppression fell upon the women. Only here in all the Old Testament is deliverance wrought by the hand of women — Deborah, “a mother in Israel” (5:7); and Jael, in her own tent. Other details are significant: “Blessed of women shall the wife of Heber the Kenite be, blessed shall she be by women in the tent” (5:24RVm); and the words of Sisera’s mother as she speculates on the reason for the long delay in the return of her son from the battle: “Have they not sped? have they not divided the prey? to every man a damsel or two” (5:30). Most significantly, the word “damsel” here is literally “womb”!

The resolution and venom with which Jael destroyed Sisera would thus be readily accounted for; but there is more to it, even, than that, as will be seen by and by.

Appropriately, then God raised up Deborah of the tribe of Ephraim — or maybe, Issachar (4:5; 5:15). For a time she exercised authority over the people in the remote hill-country of Ephraim where the domination of those chariots of iron was not so readily imposed.

Then began the patient organisation of all save the southernmost tribes, for a concerted rebellion that would free them all, both the men and the women from this grievous yoke of bondage.


The first step was to call Barak of Kedesh-naphtali to rally the tribes of the north whilst Deborah worked through other willing agents in the central region.

Barak’s reaction on being thus commissioned throws an interesting light on his character: “If thou wilt go with me, then I will go: but if thou wilt not go with me, then I will not go” (4:8).

Here is good and sufficient reason for Barak’s inclusion in the list of heroes in Hebrews 11 who wrought “by faith”. By these, his only recorded words (in 5:1 the verb is feminine singular; so the song was Deborah’s in the first instance), he demonstrates his possession of the first of all necessary characteristics of the child of God — utter lack of confidence in himself, but implicit confidence in the leader appointed by God, however ill-judged such a leader might be by the world.

Perhaps if his faith had been stronger he would have led the rebellion without the help of Deborah, secure in the knowledge that since the inspired prophetess had blessed his mission it was bound to prosper.

This would explain the form of Deborah’s reply: “And she said, I will surely go with thee: notwithstanding the journey that thou takest shall not be for thine honour; for the Lord shall sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.”

God’s weaponry

The prophecy is, of course, of Jael’s grim deed, and not of Deborah’s part in the promised deliverance. Shamgar’s ox-goad, and Gideon’s three hundred, and Samson’s jawbone, and David’s pebble, and Paul, the Lord’s earthen vessel (2 Cor. 4:7) whose bodily presence (they said) was weak and speech contemptible — all these were to be matched by an unlooked-for act of emancipation through a poor weak woman threatened with something worse than death.

And Barak was content. He did not seek his own glory.

Careless reading of the narrative is apt to give the impression that this uprising was conceived and executed in a day or two. Yet attention to the details of Deborah’s song, difficult though they may be, reveals a picture of patient organisation of an underground resistance movement, the perfecting of which must have been the work of months. How was it accomplished?

First, “they chose new gods”, i.e., new leaders (e.g., Exod. 21:6; 22:8; 23:20,21; 1 Sam. 2:25; Psa. 82:1,66; John 10:34; etc.). “My heart is toward the governors of Israel, that offered themselves willingly among the people” (5:8,9). Quietly and patiently the minds of the people were prepared for the day of action: “Tell of it, ye that ride on white asses, ye that sit in judgement, and walk by the way.”

A review of military resources showed a complete lack of the sinews of war: “Was there a shield or spear seen among forty thousand in Israel?” The men of Sisera had seen to that! Only the traditional weapons of primitive peoples were left to them. Nevertheless, patiently and surreptitiously the will of the people was prepared for the day when a blow must be struck for freedom. Small groups of people would gather for earnest talk by the wells and in the market-places and at the gates of the towns. There would be constant quiet but impassioned emphasis on the deliverance wrought by God through Ehud the bold, and on themarvels achieved under the leadership of Joshua. Were those glorious days gone for ever? “Because of the voice of the archers in the place of the drawing of water, there shall they rehearse the righteous acts of the Lord, even the righteous acts of his rule in Israel.”

Then came D-day. The call went out for concerted action: “Awake, awake, Deborah: awake, awake, utter a song: arise, Barak, and lead thy captivity captive, thou son of Ahinoam. The people of the Lord came down for me against the mighty” (5:12,13, using RV and RVm).

Mustering of the tribes

A geographical detail calls for examination here. “Barak called Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh” (4:10). If this is the Kedesh usually marked on the maps as Kedesh-naphtali, several difficulties arise. For it means that Barak chose as his rallying place a spot only four miles from Jabin’s capital and quite 40 miles from Mt. Tabor, the centre appointed him by Deborah. The attempt to organise thousands of fighting men so close to the enemy and so far from the centre of action would have been both impossible, and sheer idiocy, if it had been possible.

To all this there is a simple solution. The name Kedesh (= holy place) is one of the commonest in Palestine. At least four others of the same name are known, one of these also being in Naphtali, as the narrative requires (4:6). It is situated on high ground immediately to the southwest of the sea of Galilee, and thus answers also far more appropriately to the name “Kedesh in Galilee in mount Naphtali” (Josh. 20:7) than the other which is fully 20 miles from Galilee. The identification is due to Conder who in his day probably knew the topography of ancient Palestine in greater detail than any of modern times. The maps are almost all of them wrong in making Kedesh-naphtali away to the north; and thereby many a student has been misled. Yet the only reason for the more commonly accepted identification is a heap of ruins in a valley, with the Arabic name Kades. On the other hand, the site proposed by Conder is within a few miles of Mount Tabor and would be eminently suitable as a rendezvous for the northern tribes.

Whilst Barak was mustering his men at a point on the northern edge of the plain of Jezreel, Deborah’s other associates were similarly gathering the central tribes to a point near Megiddo (5:19) on the southern edge of the plain. Evidently the plan was to attempt a pincer movement on the armoured forces of Sisera in the level country (5:19).

The response to the appeals for combined action varied enormously. Ephraim, Zebulun, Naphtali and Issachar were wholehearted in their support. Benjamin, too, influenced doubtless by the inspired and inspiring presence of Deborah on the very borders of his territory, also rallied to the cause.

But what of the others? “Asher sat still at the haven of the sea, and abode by his creeks”, cut off from the rest by the strongholds of the enemy.

Reuben hesitated, and did nothing: “By the watercourses of Reuben there were great resolves of heart. Why satest thou among the sheepfolds? hear the pipings for the flocks? By the watercourses of Reuben there were great searchings of heart.” There was probably good reason for this hesitance too. For on Reuben’s borders were Moab and Ammon, rapacious, relentless foes, ever eager for cattle-rustling and raiding of villages. How could Reuben leave his territory wide open to the enemy! It was faith that was lacking. “He that observeth the wind shall not sow; and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap.”

Ephraim had equal cause for doubt, for in their very midst were ancient implacable Amorite foes. Nevertheless, “out of Ephraim came down they whose root is in Amalek” (cp. 12:15). The Ephraimites mustered manfully for the only occasion in all the nation’s history in which they appear in a good light.

“Gilead abode beyond Jordan.” The Manassites there would surely come to the aid of their fellow-tribesmen. But no! The deep cleft of Jordan made the distance seem great, and so whilst there was doubtless much sympathy, there was no practical help.

“And Dan, why did he remain in ships?” There was little excuse here, surely, for the coastal plain gave Dan easy access to the centre of operations. Yet maybe the growing strength of the Philistines coming in from Crete was sufficient deterrent to the furnishing of active support. Once again it was faith that was lacking. “He that is not for us is against us.”

However, in spite of these discouragements through internal weakness, the faithful tribes mustered — ten thousand with Barak and Deborah, moving south to Tabor, and thirty thousand near Megiddo, led by “the princes of Issachar”.

Heber — friend or secret agent?

But there is another figure, separate and distinct from all the rest, near that excited gathering in Kedesh. The Kenites from the time of Moses had been in close alliance with Israel. They were a race of wanderers, rarely settling anywhere for long. Very probably they were the tool and weapon makers of their time, for the name Kenite means “smith”, and is to be linked with Tubal-cain (Gen. 4:22,24) the first Krupp.

Heber the Kenite had travelled far afield beyond the terrain usually frequented by his tribe, either because of or with a view to alliance with Jabin and his henchmen. The narrative is emphatic that not only was their peace between Jabin and Heber (4:17), but also an intimate friendship existed with Sisera. The details of Sisera’s flight require such a conclusion, for “Sisera fled the tent of Jael”, as though he sought sanctuary there of set purpose and not be accident. Further, Jael recognised him immediately and spoke as one not unknown by him. “Turn in, my lord, turn in to me”, and this he was glad to do without hesitation.

The strange rapprochement between this Kenite and Israel’s hated oppressor calls for explanation. It may be that he was being employed by Sisera in the manufacture of weapons and of armour for his chariots. But the juxtaposition of two verses suggests something further. Immediately after the mention of Heber come the words: “And they told Sisera that Barak the son of Abinoam was gone up to mount Tabor.” It seems to hint that the news of Barak’s uprising came to Sisera from Heber. In other words, Heber may have been acting as spy and fifth columnist for Sisera whilst outwardly maintaining the traditional friendship with Israel.


So the battle was joined. As Sisera’s army with its hundreds of chariots came along the plain of Jezreel, Deborah gave the word for advance against them. Barak’s reason for requiring Deborah to accompany him was this: “For I know not the day in which the Lord prospers the angel with me” (LXX). The words of Deborah seem to make reference to this: “Up, for this is the day in which the Lord hath delivered Sisera into thine hand: is not the Lord gone out before thee?” This last phrase might mean “Do not I know that the Lord has gone out before thee?” but far more likely it signifies: “Canst thou not see that the Lord has gone out before thee?”, as though appealing to some visible sign that there was no mistaking.

What the sign was can be inferred from the details in Deborah’s song. “Lord, when thou wentest out of Seir, when thou marchest out of the field of Edom, and the heavens dropped, the clouds also dropped water” (5:4); i.e., the crossing of Jordan had been marked by earthquake and storm. The presence of the Lord, then, had been signified by these phenomena of nature. There could be little point in alluding to the fact, except to draw attention to similar happenings during Barak’s triumph. Such theophany through storm and tempest is not infrequent in Scripture. It was the same at the Red Sea (Exod. 15:8,10 and Psa. 77:15-20, especially v. 18) and in the conquest of Canaan (Deut. 9:3); it was the same more than once in David’s experience (2 Sam. 5:20; Psa. 18:6-15); it was the same also when the angel of the Lord went forth and smote Sennacherib’s army (Isa. 30:30-33); and it will be the same yet again when the Lord for the last time brings deliverance to Zion (Zech. 14:3; Psa. 83:13-15; Matt. 24:30).

Consequently Deborah’s words would, in effect, mean this: ‘See the black storm clouds gathering over the plain. Now is your opportunity. Here is a clear sign that the angel of the Lord is delivering the enemy into your hand.’ “They fought from heaven; the stars in their courses fought against Sisera” (5:20).

The battle

Thus there came about a mighty victory in the plain of Megiddo, which has not been without its parallels in later history, the most recent being when, in 1917, General Allenby gained a great victory over the Turks in somewhat similar circumstances.

The storm apparently turned the whole plain into a morass, so that the fear-inspired chariots of iron became only a military liability. Hopelessly bogged down, they became worse than useless against the determined, lightly-armed footmen under Barak. “Then did the horse hoofs stamp by reason of the pransings, the pransings of their strong ones.” The words call up a vivid picture of horses plunging and struggling, of drivers using the whip furiously as they cursed in their impotence.

Yet it should not be assumed that it was merely the good fortune of the natural circumstances which brought Barak victory. That this storm came by Divine Providence cannot be doubted. But in addition to that, there is the plain statement: “The Lord discomfited Sisera, and all his chariots, and all his host, with the edge of the sword before Barak.” Sisera had a considerable army besides his chariots, and without the angel of the Lord Israel could still have been overcome.

The Canaanitish forces were caught between the two armies of Israelites “in Taanach by the waters of Megiddo”. Completely routed there, the mass of fugitives fled in hopeless disorder back towards their headquarters at Harosheth. In all other directions were hostile Israelites. Near Harosheth is the main ford of the river Kishon at a point where it passes through a gap between the northern hills and the mount Carmel massif. The crossing of this ford — normally a trivial matter — was made formidable almost to the point of impossibility by the swollen state of the Kishon, now a roaring torrent after the storm. “The river Kishon swept them away.”

The flight of Sisera

Meantime Sisera had become cut off from the main body of his forces. Abandoning his useless chariot stuck in the mud, he took to his heels and fled for safety to the high ground to the south.

To imagine Sisera as fleeing on foot to the tents of Heber pitched at Kadesh near Galilee is to introduce an interpretation in the last degree improbable. Would a man fleeing for sanctuary from his enemies in battle decide on a place twenty or more miles away, and in a direction that would take him right into the arms of one of the enemy contingents?

It is far more likely that when Barak’s army mustered and moved south, Heber also struck his tents and moved in the same direction. If he were not only Sisera’s friend but also his spy, this would be the obvious thing to do. So there is nothing intrinsically improbable about Heber’s tents being now pitched only a mile or two from the scene of battle.

Sisera’s flight took him through or hard by a hamlet called Meroz, the inhabitants of which recognised him as one of the foe but who through fear or indifference did nothing to impede or capture him. “Curse ye Meroz, said the angel of the Lord, curse ye bitterly the inhabitants thereof; because they came not to the help of the Lord, to the help of the Lord against the mighty” (5:23).

That curse was no histrionic gesture but a terribly grim reality, for Meroz is now unidentifiable. Nor is there other mention of it in Scripture. It has been blotted out of the Book of Life.

By contrast, “blessed of women shall Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite be.” Sisera drew near, caked with sweat and mud, aching and weary from fight and flight. Heber was away from his encampment, probably watching the battle. But Jael recognised Sisera as a one-time honoured guest and hence as one to whom help and hospitality were now due. “Turn in, my lord, turn in to me; fear not.” There was no hypocrisy in the invitation. And Sisera gladly accepted.

Jael in danger

He threw himself down on the floor of the tent and rested. By and by Jael covered him with a rug, and would have gone. But the woman in her loneliness and comeliness attracted him and he made excuse to detain her. “He asked for water, and she gave him milk; she brought forth butter in a lordly dish.”

Again she covered him with the rug, but still he detained her with another excuse: “Stand in the door of the tent, and it shall be, when any man doth come and inquire of thee, and say, Is there any man here? that thou shalt say, No” (4:20).

But this was only the beginning of the attention. Very soon Jael realised the precarious nature of her plight, undefended in the presence of this villain. All at once it was evident that he was set on taking advantage of her loneliness. So, frantically wrenching herself free from his clutches, she snatched up a hammer — one of her husband’s tools — and swung it wildly as he came at her. The blow went home and he tottered drunkenly, then crumpled up and lay still. “At her feet he bowed, he fell, he lay down: at her feet he bowed, he fell: where he bowed, there he fell down dead” (5:27).

Those acquainted with Bible idiom will observe the literal translation in the margin: ‘between her feet’, and will recall the significance that this has in other places. The savage resentment and apparently barbarous ferocity behind Jael’s next action are thus more readily understood. Sisera was only stunned. At any moment he might come round. In frenzy and panic she took an iron tent-peg, and drove it with desperate force through his temple (see Notes on this). So distraught was she, that long after his brain was pierced she went on hammering, hammering, and only came to herself when the tent-peg was driven well into the hard ground beneath. “So he died!”

Recovering somewhat her composure Jael was about the leave the tent when she heard approaching footsteps. She recognised Barak at a glance. “Come, and I will show thee the man whom thou seekest.”

Thus the Lord “sold Sisera into the hand of a woman”.

Differences in the record

It is an exciting story whichever way it is read. The foregoing reconstruction of the death of Sisera calls for further comment. Its justification is the double narrative of Judges 4 and 5. Chapter 4 sets out only a very brief factual account of that momentous day. Deborah’s song in ch. 5 covers the same ground in poetic form, giving in more detail certain aspects of the struggle for freedom.

The two accounts of the death of Sisera are not easily harmonised.

The view commonly held and based entirely on the narrative of ch. 4 (AV) is that Jael first lulled Sisera into a heavy sleep by means of the draught of buttermilk (is buttermilk really narcotic?); then she approached on tiptoe and drove the tent-peg through his head as he lay on the ground.

There are difficulties galore about this view of the story. In the first place what man (not to say, what woman) could achieve the degree of success with hammer and tent-peg which Jael had? For the first, all-important blow would have to be delivered with the nail held in mid-air and not resting firmly and securely on the place it was to enter.

Then, too, what is to be done with such details in ch. 5 as these?” “At her feet he bowed, he fell, he lay: at her feet he bowed, he fell”; and “with the hammer she smote Sisera”, as well as the details mentioned earlier which led generations of Jewish scholars to infer that Jael was provoked to this violence by the violence that was attempted against her.

This Jewish interpretation, confidently accepted here, is certainly far more in keeping with woman’s nature than the alternative which represents Jael as cold-bloodedly inviting Sisera into her tent with the express intention of hammering a nail through his temples.

Many of those who have sought to maintain the usual interpretation have been driven by this difficulty into supposing that Jael’s blood-curdling deed was the direct result of divine inspiration and direction. But this is pure invention. The narrative shows no sign whatever of this.

On the other hand, if the RV of 4:21 be accepted, there is nothing which conflicts with the reconstruction just offered: “She 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.” If the “deep sleep” be taken to be the unconsciousness after the first blow from the hammer (cp. “so he swooned”), the accounts are harmonised.

The only alternatives are either to agree that the two chapters are inconsistent (which God forbid), or to write off the song of Deborah as being so poetic that it has no sense in it.


When Ehud was dead. It is a tribute to his character that declension came in again only after his death: 2:18,19.
Sold them, as though they were unprofitable servants.

Sisera, Marosheth. It is distinctly remarkable, and mysterious, that these names come together in Ezra 2:52,53.
Nine hundred chariots. This seems to be a very big number, but in an inscription about a victory at Megiddo (B.C. 1468) over an Asiatic coalition, Thothmes III claims to have taken 924 chariots as part of the plunder.
Deborah....prophetess: This name means: ‘the woman of the Word’. The mistaken meaning “bee” derives from the idea of an insect which talks as it goes.
I will draw unto thee; i.e., the Lord (v. 6) would do this.
Ten thousand in the northern army, and 30,000 in the southern army; 5:8.
To the tent. So he knew where it was, although lately moved from Zaanaim (v. 11).
Milk. Was the Rechabite tradition already established among the Kenites?
Tent-pin (RV), of iron, says Josephus. His correct inference, no doubt, from Heber being a Kenite smith.

Softly. The Hebrew text has an asterisk against the word, implying that there is something strange about it. A change of one letter (which does not alter the pronunciation) turns it into: “on fire” or “in a frenzy”.

For he was fast asleep and weary. This is a translation dictated by the translator’s mental concept of what actually happened. Instead: he was cast into a deep sleep (s.w. Dan. 8:18; 10:9; Psa. 76:6), and he fainted (s.w. 8:15; Isa. 40:28-31; LXX: was darkened, i.e., knocked unconscious), and he died. This reading now fits all the other details.
Lay dead. Literally: fallen, dead; LXX: cast down (i.e., not lying down when he was first smitten).

Next Next Next