October 5, 2007

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Biblical women: Story of Deborah and Jael

John F. Fink(Tenth in a series of columns)

The Book of Judges records the exploits of 12 Israelite heroes who exercised authority over the Israelites between the death of Joshua and the time of Eli. During most of this time, the Israelites did not rule all of Palestine.

Deborah, the wife of Lappidoth, was one of those judges. She made it a practice to sit under a palm tree between Bethel and Ramah, a little north of Jerusalem, and there the Israelites came to her for judgment. We’re not told how this woman became a judge in a patriarchal society.

During this period, the Canaanite king, Jabin, ruled Palestine. Sisera was his general.

One day, Deborah summoned Barak, who lived in Kedesh, north of the Sea of Galilee in the region of Naphtali. Deborah ordered Barak to round up 10,000 Naphtalis and Zebulunites, who lived between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean, and ascend Mount Tabor, located near the south end of the Sea of Galilee. Deborah said that she would then lead General Sisera there.

Barak agreed to do it only if Deborah went with him. OK, she said, but then Barak wouldn’t get the glory in the expedition because Sisera would fall into the hands of a woman.

Deborah went back with Barak to Kedesh, where they raised their army and led them up Mount Tabor. When Sisera learned about it, he assembled 900 iron chariots and all of his force at the base of the mountain. Deborah ordered Barak to lead his men down the mountain because “the Lord marches before you.”

He did and the Israelites routed Sisera’s army. Sisera dismounted from his chariot and fled on foot while Barak pursued Sisera’s army. Sisera made his way to the tent of Jael, wife of Heber, a Kenite, since the Kenite family and King Jabin were at peace.

Jael met Sisera and told him to hurry inside the tent, where she covered him with a rug. He asked for water, but Jael opened a jug of milk for him. Sisera told her to stand by the entrance of the tent and tell anyone who came that he wasn’t there. Then he fell asleep.

As soon as she was sure he was asleep, Jael took a tent peg and a large mallet in her hands. She held the peg above Sisera’s head and, with the mallet, drove the peg through his temple down into the ground, killing him instantly.

Soon Barak arrived, searching for Sisera. Jael calmly went out to meet him and showed him the body. Deborah’s prophecy that Sisera would be felled by a woman had come true.

After this episode, Deborah sang a lengthy song, all of Chapter 5. It is considered an excellent example of early Hebrew poetry. It praised the tribes that formed the army against Sisera, and we learn for the first time that it included more than those from Naphtali and Zebulon.

Shortly after that, King Jabin was destroyed and the land was at rest for 40 years. †

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