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Deborah the Judge and Jael the Just

On June 22, 2016

Deborah, the prophet, was a judge of Israel.

That sentence needs to stand alone, because it seems we’re unable to take the Bible at its word on Deborah’s position as judge.

Christians who struggle to believe that God would intentionally appoint a woman to lead often argue that Deborah was chosen because no man stepped up to fill the role of judge. But the text does not support this. Some suggest that God appointed Deborah to shame the men of Israel. The text does not support this claim either.

Deborah, the prophet, was a judge of Israel. Let’s allow that to sink in.

She held court under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramal and Bethel in Mount Ephraim. Israelites came from all over the country so she could rule on their cases. Deborah was also given the title of prophet, an acknowledgement that God directly inspired her just ruling in the Israelite community.

Barak was a general in the Hebrew army, and notably, Deborah’s subordinate. Deborah sent word to Barak that he was to lead 10,000 men from the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali toward Mount Tabor. God promised victory over Sisera and yet, Barak hesitated. He would only go into battle with Deborah by his side.

Deborah agreed to go with him but informed Barak that his military prowess would not deliver the ultimate victory—Sisera would be delivered into the hands of a woman.

The text does not say that Barak would have earned glory for the battle if he hadn’t insisted Deborah go with him. The text does not say that Deborah didn’t want to go into battle with Barak. The text also does not indicate that Deborah would be given the honor of taking down Sisera. Another woman, Jael, had that honor.

Enter Heber, husband of Jael. Heber, a descendant of Moses’ father-in-law, had settled near the City of Refuge. Heber lived in peace with the Canaanite leader, Jabin, an ally of Sisera and enemy of Israel.

When Sisera heard that Barak was leading the Israelites against him, he called together 900 iron chariots and all of the people with him to crush the 10,000 Israelites.

Deborah told Barak that the day of his victory had come! During the battle, Sisera’s chariot became stuck in the mud. He fled on foot, leaving his troops to fend for themselves. Barak pursued the rest of the army.

Sisera ran to Heber’s camp because he clearly believed that a friend of his ally, Jabin, would protect him. Instead, he encountered Heber’s wife, Jael, who sympathized with the Israelites. And this is where the story gets interesting.

Some accountings say that Sisera asked Jael to hide him in her tent. The text does not support this. 

The text tells us that Jael went out to meet Sisera and invited him into her tent. In Judges 4:18, she says to him, “Turn aside, my master, turn aside to me! Do not be afraid.”

As with other nomadic communities, the tent belonged to the woman. Significantly, Jael invited Sisera into her own tent—not her husband’s home. Turn aside “to me” and let me protect you in my chamber. Sisera did not seem to hesitate; Scripture tells us that he went in.

Once inside, he asked for water to drink. Instead of giving Sisera water to quench the thirst of battle, Jael offered him milk.

A short list of foods considered aphrodisiacs in the ancient Jewish world and today includes: cheese, mustard, apples, figs, nuts, grapes, salmon, red wine, olive oil, honey, pomegranates, eggs, oats, and milk. Milk. Jael offered Sisera an aphrodisiac. From this, we might speculate that she intentionally put him at ease.

Turn aside to me. Come into my tent. Lay down. Let me give you an aphrodisiac to drink.

Sisera likely thought himself safe in the tent of Jael, possibly because of her husband’s position or because she offered him an aphrodisiac. He may have even assumed that she was propositioning him, and she may have deliberately implied that she was. Whatever the reason, we can safely infer that his guard was down. Perhaps Jael offered him a blanket and he allowed the fatigue of battle to sweep over him.

Sisera told Jael to guard the door of her tent and hide him from anyone who came looking. Confident that he was in the hands of someone seeking his safety and possibly more, he drifted to sleep.

Jael secured a tent peg and a hammer, quietly approached him as he slept, and drove the tent peg into his head, killing him.

This is where Barak found him. "And behold, as Barak pursued Sisera, Jael came out to meet him and said to him, 'Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.' And he entered with her, and behold Sisera was lying dead with the tent peg in his temple" (Judges 4:22).

Living where she did, Jael recognized the persecution of the Israelites by the Canaanites.

Jael chose to deliver justice to the Israelites. She held their oppressor accountable for what he had done and delivered a verdict that loudly proclaimed that she was on the side of Israel.

Just as Deborah had prophesied, the Lord sold Sisera into the hands of a woman. It was she who delivered justice.

Jael is a wonderful example of a woman who exercised her agency, doing what she believed was right according to her own knowledge and discernment. Her choice was clearly in opposition to her husband’s stance. But despite her husband’s treaty with the Canaanite king, Jael acted according to her own convictions. And not only did Jael make a choice that opposed her husband, but she imposed that choice, altering the course of history for both the Canaanites and the Israelites.

Some Christians would have us believe that women were minor players in the biblical narrative, serving as placeholders until male leaders stepped up. But God never indicates a preference for male action over female action. Both Deborah and Jael subverted cultural expectations for women, flexing their authority to make difficult choices and overcome obstacles. These women were major players in God’s plan for the world. They were women to be reckoned with.


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