“And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (Judges 4:1). This phrase serves as a hinge in the book of Judges, ushering the reader into a new era marked by the heightened rebellion of Israel. Judges reads like a downward spiral. Paul House describes Judges this way: “[Judges] reads like a cycle of sin, repentance, deliverance, and repeated sin but [in reality] amounts to a descent into an ever-deepening moral abyss that threatens the existence of Israel in the land.”1

God’s anger was kindled in response to the people’s rebellion, yet His judgment is always for the purpose of showing His mercy. In this narrative, God continually shows mercy to His people by raising up judges who He will use to save His people from their enemies (Judges 2:18). What a judge is remains ambiguous within the text, but seems to approximate the work of Joshua, a military and religious leader. Thus, a judge is a God-sent deliverer who defends, avenges, punishes, and governs.2

Of the most well-known of these judges is Deborah. The text introduces her reign as judge in its familiar formula: the rebellion of the people, the Lord’s punishment, the people’s cry, and then the introduction of a new judge. Unlike Othniel and Ehud, however, Deborah is introduced as a prophet who is judging Israel (Judges 4:4). Like Moses and Samuel, Deborah not only acts within the jurisdiction of a judge, but she also speaks with the authority of a prophet.3

Deborah summons Barak and speaks a prophetic rebuke from the Lord who has commanded him to take ten thousand Naphtali men to the place where the Lord will hand Sisera into Barak’s hand. As a prophet, Deborah serves as the mouthpiece of the Lord to Barak (Judges 4:6-7). Deborah is unambiguously the judge of Israel, however, equally clear is that it is to be Barak who takes the army to defeat Sisera. Barak responds to God’s command with an ambiguous ultimatum: if Deborah accompanies him, he will go but if she will not, he refuses (Judges 4:8).

It is initially unclear what to make of Barak’s hesitant response, is he showing deference or questioning Deborah’s authority as a prophet or is he (like Gideon after him) questioning that the Lord will accompany him? Deborah unveils the truth of his response in her prophetic accommodation. Barak’s response was at best slow to believe and at worst disbelief in the word of God, which He spoke to Barak through His prophet-judge. Thus, now she will go with him, however, instead of Sisera being given into Barak’s hand (Judges 4:7), the general of Jabin’s army will be delivered into “the hand of a woman,” and will not lead to Barak’s glory (Judges 4:9).

Deborah and Barak summon the people and prepare to overtake Sisera. The author introduces Sisera into the action by stating he “was told that Barak son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor” (Judges 4:12). Sisera, however, is not privy to the presence of the Lord’s prophet-judge. One commentator writes, “Sierra does not understand his opponent. He does not know that Deborah is commanding the action as YHWH’s spokesperson…YHWH is the real general here.”4

This is made even more clear in the graphic yet comical episode that follows. The Lord throws Sisera and his army into a panic when they confront Barak, leading Sisera to run away on foot. He finds himself in the tent of Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite (Judges 4:17). Earlier, the narrator made a brief aside that Heber had separated from the other Kenites (i.e. the descendants of the father-in-law of Moses) and encamped far away (Judges 4:11). This setup is no mere coincidence, but the display of the power of God and the fulfillment of His word spoken through Deborah. Jael invites Sisera to find refuge in her dwelling, and she hides him with a rug. Little does the general know, that the judgment of the Lord lies not outside the tent but within it. As Sisera fears Barak and his army, Jael sides with the Lord, and kills Sisera in a gruesome and off-putting death (Judges 4:21-22). The grotesque nature of her act, however, is situated in the text as an act of obedience, as Deborah and Barak bless Jael in their song of victory (Judges 5:24-27). Thus, Sisera is delivered into the hands of a woman, according to the word of the Lord through Deborah. It is through this woman that “God subdued King Jabin before the Israelites” (Judges 4:23).

Among the more striking features of Judges 4-5 is its silence on the aspects that fascinate modern readers most: Deborah as the only female judge; the relationship between Barak’s obedience and Deborah’s prophetic vocation; and the difficulty of the violence rendered by Jael. There is certainly much to be prayerfully studied in each of these areas, but the text seems primarily concerned with one fact: Deborah serves the living God. Deborah speaks the Word of God to Barak and the people; the Word which is made known through her speech, and comes to pass through God’s intervention. As prophet and judge, Deborah is a striking example of faithfulness, however, like Moses and Samuel her ministry points us not to her merits, but rather to her Lord and God who alone does great wonders (Psalm 136:4).

1. Paul House, Old Testament Theology (Illinois: IVP Academic, 1998), 215.

2. House, Old Testament, 217.

3. Laura A. Smit and Stephen E. Fowl, Judges and Ruth, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Michigan: Brazos Press, 2018), 81.

4. Smith and Fowl, Judges, 77.