Judges 4:1-7 is a unique passage for several reasons: First, it is the only passage from the book of Judges in all three years of the Revised Common Lectionary. Second, it tells the beginning of the story of Deborah, the only woman judge of the nation of Israel (that we know of). Finally, while God is clearly present throughout this story, God is shown as primarily working through the actions of ordinary people–namely, Deborah, Barak, and Jael.
If preaching on this passage, it would be helpful to set up the context of Judges for your congregation. Like we see in other places throughout the Old Testament, the main pattern of the book of Judges is the cyclical nature of Israel’s disobedience followed by God’s deliverance.
Following the death of Joshua (Judges 2:8), the people of God quickly found themselves directionless in the absence of their military commander and spiritual leader. Because of this, they turned to the gods of their Canaanite neighbors, defiantly rejecting the first two commandments that God issued the people of Israel: “You shall have no other gods before me,” and “You shall not make for yourself an idol” (Exodus 20:3-4). Because they chose to break their covenant with the Lord, God allowed the chosen people of Israel to fall into their enemies’ hands. Yet, over time, their groans and cries reach God’s ears, and the Lord compassionately delivers them from their oppressors by raising up judges to rescue them.
This basic pattern repeats itself again and again throughout Judges: the people assert their own will and are met with severe consequences for their actions; yet, with unfailing love, God intervenes again and again. Each episode is like a “mini-exodus,” and God’s faithfulness is continually revealed, despite Israel’s disobedience.
At the beginning of the passage for this week, we find that once again, following the death of their previous judge Ehud, the Israelites have done “what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (4:1) Because of this, God allowed them to be sold into slavery to a foreign power, King Jabin of Canaan, who “oppressed the Israelites cruelly twenty years” (4:3).
However, we are quickly introduced to Deborah. She is described as a wife, a prophet, and judge (4:4). She was obviously held in high regard by her fellow Israelites, because they would come to her to settle their disputes (4:5). Additionally, she must have had great favor in the eyes of the Lord too, as she was given a special word from God to give to Barak (4:6). After summoning Barak before her, Deborah lays out the plan he was to follow in order to defeat Sisera, the general of King Jabin’s army.
From the lectionary passage alone, that is all the information we are given on Deborah, and the reading abruptly ends before her story really gets started. Because of this, you will probably want to cover the rest of the chapter in your preaching. Her story goes on to tell the tale of an epic battle and ends with defeat of the enemy through an unlikely hero.
After Barak is given his instructions for battle through Deborah, his response is unusual: “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go” (4:8). It is unclear why he makes this odd request of Deborah. Perhaps he was testing the veracity of her command. In other words, he was saying, “All right, Deborah. If this word is truly from the Lord, then come with me to prove it.” But another possibility is that Barak respected Deborah’s leadership and guidance so much that he wouldn’t go into battle without having her by his side.
Deborah agrees to accompany Barak, but leaves him with this prophetic word: “The road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (4:9). With this statement, readers are led to believe that Deborah herself will be this woman that ultimately defeats the enemy general.
In verses 10-14, Barak and Deborah prepare to battle Sisera and his army. With ten thousand soldiers behind them, Deborah and Barak swiftly defeat Sisera’s army (4:15-16). Sisera himself, however, manages to escape on foot.
At this point, our unusual hero enters the story: the non-Israelite woman Jael, wife of one of Jabin’s allies, Heber the Kenite. Sisera ends up at the entrance of Jael’s tent, and begs for her protection (4:17). Initially, Jael seems to comply with his request by providing him a drink and hiding him under a rug in her tent (4:18-20). But perhaps fearing for her own safety (military generals of that time were known to “have their way” with foreign women) or anticipating the Israelites’ retribution against anyone harboring their enemy, she takes matters into her own hands. After Sisera is sound asleep, she drives a tent peg into his head and promptly kills him (4:21).
Through her audacity and resourcefulness, Jael emerges as the surprise hero of the story. She is greatly commended for her act of courage, being praised by Deborah as “most blessed of all women” (5:24). In this twist-ending, Jael becomes the woman about whom Deborah had prophesied, and the ultimate victory of God’s people was delivered through her hand.
One of the greatest strengths of this passage is that it shows leaders working in co-mutuality with one another. In the battle against Sisera, there is no lone hero or rescuer. Instead, Deborah and Barak worked together to lead the Israelite army to a military victory, and then they were assisted by Jael through her assassination of Sisera. This unlikely trio creates a beautiful picture of how ministers and servants of the Lord should work together to accomplish Kingdom-work. Indeed, some have pointed out that there is no single judge in this story, but instead a “trinity” of three people working together.
Another key takeaway from Judges 4 is that the fulfillment of God’s plans came to pass through the use of ordinary humans. God was ultimately the one to deliver the Israelites, but it was done through the actions of Deborah, Barak, and Jael. Each had to respond to the Lord’s calling on their lives: Deborah, by speaking the words that paved the way for Barak’s military victory; Barak, by obeying God’s command to raise an army and go against King Jabin’s chariots; and Jael, by risking her own life to kill Sisera. This reminder that God primarily works through willing and obedient people correlates nicely with the Gospel reading for the week in Matthew 25:14-30. In the Parable of the Talents, we learn that God gives us the raw materials to work with–intelligence, skills, and abilities–and expects us to use these resources to accomplish God’s will. In the story of Deborah, Barak, and Jael, God equipped each person with the necessary courage, strength, and foresight to complete their tasks and then allowed them to be used to rescue the Israelites from their oppressors.
Finally, this passage seems to indicate that Deborah’s role as a judge and prophet –even as a woman–was a non-issue for the Israelites. Barak has no trouble deferring to her leadership; rather, he will not go into battle unless she is by his side. Indeed, he celebrates her as “a Mother in Israel” (5:7) who arose at just the right time. He is content to allow the women Deborah and Jael to have the honor of this defeat. While Deborah provides a powerful biblical role model for female leaders in the church today, Barak provides an equally commendable role model for our male colleagues in ministry as they seek to support their their female counterparts. It seems that an implicit lesson in this passage is the uncontroversial normality of women in leadership. Perhaps our churches could benefit from Deborah’s story as they seek to affirm and empower women in ministry at all levels of church leadership.
 Judges 2:16-19 summarizes this cycle aptly, and sets up the premise for the rest of the book.