God Leads Through Deborah
Judges 4:4–10, 12–16
After participating in this lesson, each student will be able to:
1. Retell the story of Deborah, noting the qualities that made her a model leader.
2. Point out how leadership qualities like Deborah’s can help the church.
Create a personal prayer plan for his or her church’s
How to Say It
Harosheth Haggoyim. Huh-ROE-sheth Hag-GOI-yim.
Daily Bible Readings
Monday, Oct. 2—The God in Whom I Trust (Psalm 91)
Tuesday, Oct. 3—No Need to Fear (Psalm 27:1–6)
Wednesday, Oct. 4—Othniel Judges Israel (Judges 3:7–11)
Thursday, Oct. 5—Courageous Leaders (Hebrews 11:1, 2, 32–34)
Friday, Oct. 6—Deborah Leads the People (Judges 4:1–10)
Saturday, Oct. 7—Success Assured (Judges 4:12–16)
Sunday, Oct. 8—Deborah’s Song of Praise (Judges 5:1–12)
Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. —Judges 4:4
Why Teach this Lesson?
Intelligence. Physical attractiveness. Eloquence. People skills. Character. The secular world looks at many such elements when evaluating someone’s fitness for leadership. Perhaps some personal quality—gender, age, educational background, etc.—may make a person a controversial leadership candidate, either in a secular or a church role.
This uncertainty should lead us to ask which factors God weighs most heavily as he chooses people through whom to work. In today’s lesson we see God’s heart. He is looking for those who listen to him, who are humble and obedient. He is looking for those whose faith is in him and whose concern is for others.
This lesson depicts two leaders who were successful. Each acknowledged and leaned on the other’s strength or expertise, even though one sacrificed personal glory in the process. This is a key element for church leadership today. The best leaders work together in humility and harmony to achieve God’s will for us all.
A. Women in the Old Testament
The Old Testament is treated by some as little more than a book of fantastic children’s stories. To do this is to miss the rich treasury of insights into the lives of men and women who struggled in their relationships with God. Sometimes they are heroically successful, and we learn how they are pleasing to God. At other times they are colossal failures, and we can observe the patience and redemptive nature of God in dealing with them.
The Old Testament is dominated by the lives and exploits of men. Because of this, it is common to overlook the crucial and inspirational roles played by women in the history of Israel. Rarely are women presented as recognized community or national leaders. More often we find them in supporting roles as mothers, sisters, and wives of important men.
Consider Moses, the great man, whose life was influenced by women who functioned in all three of these supporting roles. The name of Moses’ mother was Jochebed (Numbers 26:59). Exodus 2 relates the story of her daring actions to save baby Moses from a death edict. She stood against Egyptian tyranny, and God providentially rewarded her by allowing her to keep her baby and nurse him before turning him over to the Egyptian princess.
Also involved in this incident was Moses’ sister, Miriam. This brave little girl, maybe just five or six years old, hid near her baby brother in the Nile and had the presence of mind to suggest to the princess her mother as a nurse. Later, Miriam played a key leadership role in the exodus. After the destruction of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea, she led the women of Israel in a celebration of singing and dancing (Exodus 15:20, 21). In this passage she is referred to as a prophetess, although we have no record of her prophetic activities. Centuries later, the prophet Micah remembered the leaders of the exodus as three: Moses, Aaron, and Miriam (Micah 6:4).
An often-overlooked woman in the life of Moses is his wife, Zipporah. Exodus 4:24–26 tells a sobering story of a time when God sought to kill Moses. Zipporah saved Moses’ life. She moved to guard her family in a time of crisis. Had she failed to understand the perplexing threat and act decisively, the history of Israel would have been very different.
Many other women can be identified as examples of faith in action in the Old Testament. Today’s lesson is about one of the most famous of them all: the prophetess, judge, and warrior named Deborah.
B. Lesson Background
Last week’s lesson presented the destructive cycle of Israel that is found repeatedly in Judges: apostasy, crisis, repentance, and then deliverance by a judge raised up by God. After the death of the judge, this cycle began again and grew worse with each repetition (Judges 2:19). This week’s lesson examines the story of the judge Deborah.
Many enemies threaten Israel in the book of Judges. The people who pose a threat to the Israel of Deborah’s day are called simply the Canaanites. Genesis presents them as descendants of Canaan, the grandson of Noah. This Canaan was cursed because of an unfortunate incident related in Genesis 9:20–27.
The primary city of this particular group of Canaanites was Hazor, a large city located about 10 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. The site of Hazor has been excavated extensively. It is the largest biblical-era site in Israel, covering approximately 200 acres. Archaeologists estimate that ancient Hazor was a city with a population of more than 20,000—very substantial for the time.
The story of Deborah is told twice in Judges. In chapter 4 it is presented in prose form, as if from the hand of a recording historian. In chapter 5 the story is told as a song or in poetic fashion. This is likely the earlier version, for ancient peoples were great storytellers. Their stories were composed in a poetic manner so that they could be more easily learned and remembered.
The triumphal ode of chapter 5 is ascribed to Deborah herself (Judges 5:1). Scholars recognize the Song of Deborah as one of the oldest texts in the Old Testament.
I. Deborah the Judge (Judges 4:4, 5)
A. Prophetess and Wife (v. 4)
4. Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time.
The author introduces Deborah as a wife, prophetess, and judge. With all of these jobs, she must have been as “busy as a bee” and indeed her name means “bee” in Hebrew.
The Old Testament gives the title prophetess, in a godly sense, only to Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), Deborah, and the unnamed wife of Isaiah (Isaiah 8:3). This title is the feminine equivalent of prophet, with no real difference aside from gender.
We usually think of a prophet as one who has divine insight into future events, but this is only part of a prophet’s function. Old Testament prophets are God’s mouthpieces. As such, they are inspired by God to keep Israel on track in religious and moral matters. Deborah, then, is presented as more than a wise judge. She is an inspired judge, used by God to guide the development of the young nation.
Deborah is also presented as a wife. Her husband’s name, Lappidoth, means “torches” or “wicks.” One tradition outside the Bible holds that Lappidoth was responsible for providing the wicks for the sacred lamps of the sanctuary in Shiloh. There is no record that Deborah and Lappidoth had any children.
Visual for Lesson 6
You may wish to post this chart alongside one of the other charts for the quarter.
B. Judge of Israel (v. 5)
5. She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites came to her to have their disputes decided.
Deborah and Lappidoth live in a rural area less than a dozen miles north of Jerusalem. This is in the tribal territory of Ephraim. It is a semi-mountainous region. Deborah uses an outdoor courtroom under a palm tree named after her.
The fact that people come to her to have their disputes decided indicates that Deborah’s judging is akin to what we would call binding arbitration. It is doubtful that she is dealing with criminal cases. Those would have been quickly resolved in the various communities of Israel, usually at the city gate (see Deuteronomy 17:5; 21:19).
More likely, Deborah is an agreed-upon judge for difficult private disputes (more like our civil litigation). The two disputing parties would agree to abide by her decision before it was given, perhaps having been sent by the elders of a village or city. Deborah likely receives a fee for each judgment.
Such a system would have no strict legal basis, because there is no king or government to appoint and validate Deborah’s authority. This makes her judgeship all the more remarkable. Deborah must have a widespread reputation for fairness and wisdom. She would be fulfilling the qualities stated to Moses by his father-in-law, Jethro, for a judge: capable, God-fearing, truthful, and not open to bribery (Exodus 18:21).
She judges the thorniest matters, a role filled by Moses during an earlier period (see Exodus 18:14, 15, 25, 26). The people appreciate this just and impartial judge, because government officials in the ancient world are known for corruption (see Isaiah 1:23).
Honest and Dishonest Judges
A little-known lawyer was sworn in as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice on December 19, 1975. How he got there is an intriguing story.
In 1958 a man by the name of Sherman Skolnick sued a Chicago brokerage firm for allegedly mishandling his life savings. Skolnick lost his case. He also lost his appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court. The experience embittered him against the justice system, and he began a judicial watchdog organization. In 1969 Skolnick accused two state supreme court justices of accepting thousands of dollars’ worth of bank stock in return for deciding a case in favor of a powerful Chicago lawyer.
Media pressure forced the state supreme court to appoint a special commission to investigate. John Paul Stevens became the chief counsel. The meticulous care with which he built his case, combined with his courtroom strategy, brought down two previously respected but now-tainted justices. (Ironically, both had ruled against Skolnick in his case years earlier.) Stevens was exactly the kind of person President Gerald Ford was looking for to restore respect for the federal government after the Watergate scandal of 1974.
Deborah was such a judge: careful and honest in her judgments. The common people of every nation are blessed when people of impeccable reputation, practical wisdom, and honest judgment control the judicial system. —C. R. B.
II. Deborah the Organizer (Judges 4:6–10)
A. Recruiting General Barak (v. 6a)
6a. She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali
As a leader of the people, Deborah’s role extends beyond maintaining an outdoor courtroom. She recognizes a crisis among her people and summons a man who can do what she cannot: lead an army into battle. This man is Barak, from the city of Kedesh (meaning “sanctuary”). Kedesh is located about 5 miles north of Hazor. Although in the tribal territory of Naphtali, Kedesh is one of the six cities of refuge controlled by the Levites (Numbers 35; see Joshua 20:7).
The crisis is a state of Canaanite banditry. That had caused trade caravans to disappear and farming villages to be abandoned (Judges 5:6, 7).
B. Planning a Strategy (vv. 6b, 7)
6b, 7.… and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead the way to Mount Tabor. I will lure Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.’ ”
Barak is instructed to gather a large army to Mount Tabor, which rises about 1,500 feet above the surrounding countryside. It is located in the northeast end of Israel’s central Plain of Esdraelon. The army is primarily drawn from the northern tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun; Judges 5:14, 15 tells us that there are also present men from Benjamin, Issachar, and Makir (a subtribe of Manasseh).
The enemy army has gathered under the leadership of Sisera, the military expert of King Jabin. Jabin rules from Hazor in the northern Galilean area. Hazor is reckoned as the great city of the Canaanites (compare Joshua 11:10). Although Joshua had defeated and burned the city, it was not conquered. By the time of Deborah, the Canaanites had rebuilt it. Deborah determines the strategy of the coming battle, choosing to engage Sisera on the banks of the Kishon River, to the east of Mount Tabor.
C. Traveling with the Troops (vv. 8–10)
8–10. Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.”
“Very well,” Deborah said, “I will go with you. But because of the way you are going about this, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will hand Sisera over to a woman.” So Deborah went with Barak to Kedesh, where he summoned Zebulun and Naphtali. Ten thousand men followed him, and Deborah also went with him.
Barak may be the most able military leader in Israel, but he recognizes the value of having Deborah accompany him. Deborah warns him that this will divert the glory of victory from himself to her.
The result will be that the mighty chariot army of Sisera suffers defeat at the hand of a woman. The biggest disgrace in being defeated by a woman is the fact that women are not participants in the armies of the ancient world. Thus Sisera will lose to a nonmilitary adversary. This will also diminish the recognition of Barak’s victory.
III. Deborah the Warrior (Judges 4:12–16)
A. Powerful Enemy (vv. 12, 13)
12, 13. When they told Sisera that Barak son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor, Sisera gathered together his nine hundred iron chariots and all the men with him, from Harosheth Haggoyim to the Kishon River.
We now begin to understand the daunting challenge, for Sisera’s army is known to have 900 armored chariots. These are the most fearsome battle machines of the ancient world (see Judges 4:3). The author paints an imposing picture: the Canaanite forces are spread for several miles across the broad Plain of Esdraelon. Sisera’s army is vulnerable, however, because of its dependence upon this chariot force.
B. Confidence in God’s Presence (v. 14)
14. Then Deborah said to Barak, “Go! This is the day the Lord has given Sisera into your hands. Has not the Lord gone ahead of you?” So Barak went down Mount Tabor, followed by ten thousand men.
The faith and determination of Deborah shine brightly here. She announces that this is the day—the day of victory! Deborah understands that God is willing to fight on the side of Israel, and, therefore, “safety is of the Lord” (Proverbs 21:31). With this great blessing of assurance, Barak and his men rush down Mount Tabor to meet the Canaanites in battle.
Thoughts into Action
Matthew Nagle is a quadriplegic. He made history in June 2004 when surgeons implanted a silicon wafer into his brain. The wafer, known as BrainGate, is one-sixth of an inch square and has 100 electrodes that extend one-sixteenth of an inch into Nagle’s brain. When he thinks about moving his arm, the brain signals are sent to another device on the outside of his head. From there an electronic message is sent to a computer that translates it into code that enables a machine to do things such as change the TV channel or perform simple tasks on Nagle’s computer.
The device is far from perfect. Scientists had to figure out the signals Nagle’s brain sends before the computer could be programmed. Because brain patterns are always changing, the device has to be “retuned” every time Nagle uses it. Still, the technology enables him to turn his thoughts into action and gives him some control over his life that he has been missing.
Deborah’s role in Israel’s victory started with her being in touch with the will of God, hearing the message God gave her for Israel’s good, and using her wisdom and strength of character to turn God’s thoughts into human action. Not all of us have Deborah’s gifts, and, like Nagle’s machine, we don’t respond perfectly to “divine input.” But when we are “properly tuned,” we each have the ability to use what God has given us to turn his thoughts into action. —C. R. B.
C. Victory with God’s Power (vv. 15, 16)
15, 16. At Barak’s advance, the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and army by the sword, and Sisera abandoned his chariot and fled on foot. But Barak pursued the chariots and army as far as Harosheth Haggoyim. All the troops of Sisera fell by the sword; not a man was left.
Despite Sisera’s superior technology, Barak’s army is able to defeat the enemy. There is both an earthly and a heavenly reason. First, the mighty chariots become bogged down in the sandy soil in and around the Kishon River, rendering them ineffective (Judges 5:21). Judges 5:20 may indicate that this was made worse by a providential downpour of rain.
Second, the superior forces of Sisera were routed. This is a panic sent from God himself. The deep fear that follows causes Sisera’s troops to flee chaotically. God is fighting on Israel’s behalf. This is the opposite of the periods in Judges where God withdrew his blessing and fought against Israel (Judges 2:15).
The victory is complete, for not a man is left. Sisera himself is reduced to fleeing on foot. He will die at the hand of another woman: Jael, the wife of Heber. She will drive a tent stake through sleeping Sisera’s head (Judges 4:21).
A. Faithful Women Today
Are there lessons for the church in this Old Testament story? Is Deborah a model for women today? These are good questions, and there are thorny problems of interpretation regarding the role of women in church leadership (see 1 Timothy 2:12). Perhaps, however, this story can give us at least partial insight into how God views these issues.
First, we see that God is not opposed to using women to help his people. Deborah enjoyed God’s blessings in her work as a righteous judge, in her voice as a prophetess, and in her planning as a military strategist. The judges of Israel are overwhelmingly male but not exclusively.
Second, we see that capable women can earn the respect of the people of God. It would be fascinating to learn exactly how Deborah developed her reputation as a judge, but we meet her after this had been accomplished. Undoubtedly, this did not happen overnight. It probably took many years of consistent excellence as a judge for Deborah to achieve her position of authority.
Third, we should understand that it is unnecessary for men to deny women credit for effective service. Barak was warned that his need for Deborah’s presence would result in her receiving the people’s acclaim for the great victory over the Canaanites. Barak didn’t seem to have a problem with this. The wisest players are those who sometimes step aside to let someone else carry the ball and hear the roar of the crowd.
B. Overcoming Leadership Conflicts
Why are some churches in constant turmoil? Why is growth sporadic or absent altogether? These are complex issues, and there is no single answer that fits every situation. However, many churches fail to grow and thrive because of conflicts among the leaders. Here are three lessons from the story of Deborah that can help us.
First, egos need to be checked at the church door. Judges 4 and 5 paint a beautiful picture of two cooperating leaders, each recognizing the abilities of the other. Churches that are controlled by isolated, inflexible leaders will have problems. Congregations led by win-at-all-costs personalities will suffer. Some qualities that make a person successful in the business world may become destructive in church leadership.
Second, good leadership decisions have the welfare of the people sharply in focus. Neither Deborah nor Barak are presented as bloodthirsty warriors itching for glory. They pursue the terrible option of war because the people must be freed from oppression. When making leadership decisions, we should ask ourselves, “Why am I doing this? Am I choosing this course because it is most comfortable for me? Am I making a choice that is best for the long-term health of the church?”
Third, leadership success ultimately is determined by God. Deborah knew that the battle would be won because God was fighting for Israel. All church leaders should be accountable to God and open to his leading. The church is not a private little empire for any leader. Whatever leadership roles we are given, we should approach our ministries with the desire to serve people and to serve God.
Underwood, J., Nickelson, R. L., & Underwood, J. 2005. New International Version Standard Lesson Commentary : 2006-2007 . Standard Publishing: Cincinnati