Barak may be the most misunderstood hero in the entire Bible. For years, this thoughtful warrior who insured a victory by forgoing personal glory to partner up with God’s anointed spokeswoman Deborah has been dismissed out of hand by simplistic, popular readings of his complex egalitarian story.
The account is a familiar one. Judges 4:4 tells us that Deborah, a prophet, was leading Israel at the time. The distinguished former general secretary of the Association of Evangelicals in Africa, executive director of the Centre for Biblical Transformation, and general editor of the Africa Bible Commentary (ABC), Tokunboh Adeyemo, extols Deborah in the ABC’s section on Judges: “Despite living in a male-dominated culture, she served as head of state, commander-in-chief and chief justice (4:4–5, 5:7). Her achievement should put an end to debates about whether women can provide leadership.” Further, he adds, “In contemporary Africa, gender is still a major issue, particularly as regards political leadership. Yet, Africa already has its first woman president with the election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia. The story of Deborah shows that a woman can be as effective as any male leader, provided she has divine backing, and combine[s] charisma with character, courage with competence, and conviction with commitment.”1 She was by all counts a remarkable leader.
Small wonder, then, that, when the great Deborah receives a command from the Lord for the Israelite warrior Barak to defeat the oppressing Jabin, king of Canaan, by taking out his general Sisera, Barak replies, “If you go, I’ll go” (v. 8). Deborah replies literally, “I will certainly go beside you,” but she warns him that the wreath of glorious victory was not going to adorn his head, but would go to a woman. Barak does not object and leads his force of conscripts from only two tribes, Naphtali and Zebulun, against the technologically superior army of Sisera, spearheaded by nine hundred iron chariots (v. 12). At her order, Barak (“whose name means ‘thunderbolt’”2), having amassed his forces on the vantage point of Mount Tabor, suddenly charges down the mountain right at the enemy. The Lord routs the opposition, as promised, and General Sisera is so terrified he jumps off his chariot and flees on foot (v. 15). This is the worst possible response an adversary can make. Ancient battles are often compared to rather lethal rugby games. Hand-to-hand combat tended to cost far fewer lives than contemporary bullet- and explosion-driven warfare. But, the one action an ancient warrior should never do is throw down arms, expose the back, and run. This is where great slaughter took place. Barak and his soldiers sweep over the enemy and annihilate their oppressors (v. 16). Sisera, as Deborah warned, is not killed or captured by Barak, but executed by Jael, a Kenite (a descendant of Moses’ brother in law, Hobab). Far from sulking with regret, Barak joins Deborah in a victory song full of exultation and praise for God, and Israel has forty years of ensuing peace (ch. 5).
Being born and reared in a fundamentalist church, I was educated to know these Bible stories thoroughly—thoroughly, that is, with a certain hierarchical spin on each one. The account of Barak, I was taught, is an example of what happens when a man relies on a woman to do what he should do, which is to take over as “the man in demand” and bring home the victory. The dynamic equivalent picture I internalized ran something like this: Old Deborah, lumbering up from her comfy seat under the palm tree and leveling a disapproving eye on this reluctant squirt that God had picked out for her general, grunts, “Okay, kid, you don’t rely enough on God—huh? Well, I’ll go, but you won’t bring home the medals. God’s gonna give ’em to a woman—you live with that?” The shaky little Barak whines, “Fine, just so’s we win.” End of story. Such a reading—or one not far from it—is exclusively presented in many study Bibles, including the TNIV study notes, which tell us, “Barak’s timidity (and that of Israel’s other warriors, whom he exemplified) was due to lack of trust in the Lord and was thus rebuked.”3 Interestingly, an alternative explanation is offered in the classic Jamieson, Faussett, and Brown commentary, which no one less than C. H. Spurgeon, the great nineteenth-century preacher, extolled (“It contains so great a variety of information that if a man had no other exposition he would find himself at no great loss if he possessed this and used it diligently. I have of it a very high opinion . . . and I consult it continually and with great interest”4). While noting “the strain” of Deborah’s reply “conveyed a rebuke of his unmanly fears,” it states:
His somewhat singular request to be accompanied by Deborah was not altogether the result of weakness. The Orientals always take what is dearest to the battlefield along with them; they think it makes them fight better. The policy of Barak, then, to have the presence of the prophetess is perfectly intelligible as it would no less stimulate the valor of the troops, than sanction, in the eyes of Israel, the uprising against an oppressor so powerful as Jabin.5
Such a team spirit attitude may explain why the Lord singled out Barak for the task, tested him on whether his resolve was strong enough to forgo the plaudits for the greater prize of a team victory, and, thereby, confirm through his example for all time that God will find the faith in a potential hero and indeed do great things through a willing heart, no matter if that heart is skeptical and does seek assurance (as Gideon’s also did with his fleece requests in the following chapter). Such a deeper reading as I am suggesting also explains what Dr. Adeyemo in the ABC found to be so puzzling, since “Deborah agreed to go with him, but not without pointing out the consequences of his failure to trust God. . . . It is surprising that Barak, not Deborah, is listed among the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11:32.” On the surface, that sounds like an inconsistency in the Bible, doesn’t it? The inspired Deborah rules, you will not get any glory, Barak, and then God gives him glory? How does that compute with the God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever? Apparently, there is more to this story than any of us are accustomed to seeing.
Let’s examine a parallel situation: For years, we in the egalitarian camp have been explaining that we believe the Apostle Paul was consistent between his teaching that women should not speak or lead and his personal practice of partnering with women in ministry and serving with and even under them. We recognize that Scripture is a clear pool with great depths that are not always obvious to the simple wader through the Bible. One steps blithely onto what seems to be a “plain reading” of a simple account and plunges over one’s head into profound significance. It all seemed so initially clear, we misjudged its depth. Such, apparently, is the case of the example of Barak.
How can he be a simple coward, when he leads his army to victory and destroys the oppressing force? How can he be a simple doubter, when he is listed among the limited hallowed exemplars of faith in Hebrews’ list of heroes? Clearly, what we are confronting is an ancient proto-egalitarian: a man who does not mind sharing the glory if it means getting the job done. He may very well be insecure that he can tackle a superior, armed archenemy on his own, no matter what the prophet tells him, but he is secure enough to count the cost and go for the higher goal. And he ends up happy and praiseworthy. To some eyes, Barak may look like an antihero, as he appeared to those kind and patient traditionally hierarchal saints who taught me in my home church. He might be dismissed as a man filled with doubt who could not trust God enough to take on a job by himself. But, maybe, in reality, he was simply a thoughtful, atavistically postmodern man like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, unmoored in time, who looked over the situation and asked himself, “What’s the surest way to get this job done well?” My own father, who was a Renaissance man, good at accomplishing many things, assessed my many limitations and counseled me, “The successful man is not the man who can do everything, but the man who can get everything done.” I can identify with Barak. He got everything done. Maybe he didn’t do it all himself. He was not the sole hero, but he was a hero just the same. Barak sized up the situation, recognized God’s best person—in this case, God’s gifted woman—to inspire the troops with confidence, partnered up with her, and got the job done efficiently. Barak may be the first clear, male proto-CBE-er on record. In the center of one of the lowest and most miserable states of Israel’s sketchy history of obedience (read, mainly disobedience) to God, Barak faces a challenge: Try it yourself and horde the glory, or do it with Deborah and share the glory with women. Barak thinks it over and decides to forego the glory. He wants the victory and is willing to sacrifice personal gain to accomplish the task. Barak is a team man. He insists on God’s anointed woman going into battle with him. He defeats the army and receives the glory for that. Jael defeats the general and receives the glory for that. The end result is that Barak helps leave Israel in better shape than it was when he took on the task of delivering it. And he acquitted his job in Judges far better than did his peers who made a phenomenal mess of their callings, like Samson (in his arrogance), Gideon (in his idolatry), both of whose foolishness precipitated a miserable end to their lives, or Jephthah, whose lethal rashness cost him his beloved daughter. There was not a thoughtful man among the lot of these.
In contrast, Barak was a very thoughtful man. He would fit in well today as a model of teamwork in the contemporary church. Unlike some among us, he does not push himself forward. Instead, he is meek and mild (when not in battle), a humble man, like Christ himself. I see him in action as a forerunner of a Christian man. His humility and others-oriented selflessness protects him from the cataclysmic sins of a David or a Solomon. His glory is not centered on worldly plaudits and praises. Instead, his glory is given to God in song. And, in the last analysis, he is extolled in the New Testament as one “who through faith conquered kingdoms . . . whose weakness was turned to strength, and who became powerful and routed foreign armies” (Heb. 11:33–34). And he did all this in a relationship of accountability, working closely with other faithful believers, staying faithful himself, without misstep, to the end.
As Barak was a faithful believing Old Covenant male, this issue celebrates believing Old Covenant females. Timothy Erdel of Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana, opens with his appreciation of the Book of Ruth. L. Daniel Hawk of Ashland Seminary then gives us a reassessment of Hagar and Leah as women trying to work out their own faith and human relationships in contexts of duress. Bible teacher Christine Cos gives us an in-depth, insightful analysis of Sarah’s place in the Hebrews 11 Faith Hall of Fame. Megan DeFranza of Marquette University examines the paradigm of the Proverbs 31 woman and reveals to us why this archetype should be regarded as a woman of strength. Our poet, Lucy Lincoln, responding to a Simchat Torah celebration she attended, meditates on the legacy of Old Covenant women. And our issue ends with Bridget Jack Jeffries’s assessment of the NIV Bible’s new revision and Mae Elise Cannon’s review of Curtiss DeYoung’s Coming Together in the Twenty-First Century.
The astute Old Testament scholar R. K. Harrison used to study ancient cultures that preserved older, traditional ways in order to find a means by which contemporary Christians could culturally bridge to biblical times. Our picture on the cover and the one gracing this editorial are intended to help us do that. They were taken by an unknown photographer (perhaps a missionary?). To me, they show the dual-natured, if uneasy, coexistence of the ancient with the modern in the Near East. I found them in an obscure box of family photos after my parents’ deaths. Since I know my folks never traveled to Israel, but were great supporters of missions in the middle years of the 1900s and often had furloughing missionaries stay for protracted times in our home (and, to muddle the issue of origin further, my father was a collector of all things esoteric), just when and where and by whom these were taken is lost. By the cars and the dress, I would guess they were done in the late 1920s to early 1930s. But, I hope,
to you, as to me, they provide a bridge toward Old Covenant times.
As to Deborah, Barak, Ruth, Leah, Hagar, Sarai, Jael, and all the others who people the Bible and this issue, God’s gifting and calling come to each believer today and catch us enmeshed in the often problematic, but to each of us unique, context of the intersection of our spiritual and emotional psyches and our life situations. As some of these did, we may not respond initially as faithful or even particularly kind or pleasant people. We may meet God’s call with fear, selfishness, anger, impatience, or contention—but God knows our hearts. The test of our faith is what we do next: whether we let God shape us into the person God saw we could be and become a hero for God, worthy to be listed in God’s hall of faithful leaders. If it’s not how we started, but how we finish, that counts, then each of us should take stock of our present gifts and our present sense of God’s calling. What has God prepared us to do? What has God set in our hearts to achieve for God’s reign? With whom can we work to bring about God’s plans for us? And how can we leave this world a better and more peaceful place than it was because we said yes to God’s commission for us? May God guide each of us as we seek these answers out.
P.S.—It is with sadness and gratitude that we remember one of CBE’s founders, the wise and faithful Roger Nicole, who recently crossed the threshold into the presence of the Lord Jesus. His legacy will live on for many years among those he educated, encouraged, and mentored. We at CBE will miss him deeply.
- Tokunboh Adeyemo, ed., Africa Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2006), 300–01.
- Adeyemo, Africa Bible Commentary, 300.
- Adeyemo, Africa Bible Commentary, 343.
- Herbert Lockyer, “A Word about This New Edition,” in Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1961), 3.
- Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, Commentary, 187.