The book of Judges is an awkward book – perhaps the bloodiest in the Jewish scriptures. One of its most gruesome episodes concludes this story of Deborah and Barak – Jael and the tent peg.
Judges is a translation of a Hebrew word that comes from a root that means judge – hence ‘Judges’. It is clear though that the book’s judges weren’t judges in our sense of the word. Deborah is the only one of them who seems to have settled cases. Mostly they seem to be a maverick assortment of charismatic figures who emerged from time to time to rescue the people of various tribal areas from those who oppressed them.
Sometimes these figures were deeply flawed. Samson is a case in point. A man with tremendous talent but little discipline, who acts like a lout and finally squanders his talent because of his attachment to a beautiful woman who is only too happy to betray him. At the end of his story there is a suggestion that he achieved more through his death than he did during his life.
פטשׁ (sh f t) means judge, but there is an archaic sense of the word that means govern. The word, ‘governor’ or ‘leader’ does seem to describe more what these people did than ‘judge’.
Although the final form of the book of Judges implies that the judges had influence over most ofIsrael, a closer reading suggests that this is probably not the case. The conflict that Barak and Deborah are called to take part in was something that just affected the northern region of Tribal Israel. Hazor, the Canaanite king’s base, was north ofGalilee. Those, whom Barak summons to help him, come from two of the northern tribes- Naphtali and Zebulun. These were most likely the tribes that had borne the brunt of this particular Canaanite oppression. The battle they take part in is also fought in the north on the plain of Jezreel.
Sisera had the greater military force ( the same army that had terrorised the north and kept it under thumb for many years) and he had the equivalent to tanks in the military currency of the day – 900 iron chariots. The gathered force that Barak led against him was made up of lightly armed infantry; some of the force probably carried farm implements as weapons.
The land they did battle on was the flood plain of theKishonRiver. It was a place that was subject to flooding and was often boggy in the wet season. But in the dry (which was when armies went to war) it would have been considered a battlefield well suited to chariot warfare.
So there was a good reason why Barak wasn’t bursting with enthusiasm when Deborah gave him God’s marching orders. He had been summoned 50 miles south to Deborah’s base in the Ephraim hills, for her to tell him that God wanted him to do something that was (from a military point of view) foolhardy. She was expecting him now to trudge 50 miles back north and do it. Well if she was going to ask him to put his and his people’s lives on the line, then he was going to demand that she put her life on the line too.
‘I will go if you go with me,’ he says, ‘but if you don’t come with me, I’m not going.’
A betting person would have put their money on the Canaanites – it was a dead cert. win.
There are two tellings of the story in the book of Judges. In chapter four there is a prose version and in chapter five a version set as a victory song, sung by Deborah and Barak. The song is thought to be one of the oldest bits of poetry in the Jewish scriptures. It is only through the song that we find out the physical reason why Sisera suffered such a big defeat.
In the prose version Deborah announces to Barak that it is time to attack. ‘Today the Lord will help you to defeat Sisera. In fact the Lord has already gone on ahead to fight for you.’
Here is what the song says….
Canaanite kings fought us at Taanach,
By the stream near Meggido-
But they could not rob us of our silver,
From the pathways in the sky
The skies fought Sisera
And his soldiers were swept away
By the ancient Kishon river. Judges 5: 19-21. C.E.V.
It seems that an unseasonal rainstorm brought the streams up and caused a flood. Sisera’s heavy chariots and horses would have got mired in mud and they would have been worse than useless. The lighter armed force of Barak was much more mobile than Sisera’s army. Sisera’s army was thrown into confusion and Barak’s force was able to press home their unexpected advantage. The victory was so complete that even the enemy commander, Sisera, did not survive the day. He fell victim to a woman with a spare tent peg.
At its core this story celebrates a salvation. God has stepped in through a couple of leaders, and the people ofIsraelare free of their oppressors once again. It’s a story that reminds me of the great Jewish salvation story- the Exodus, in particular the crossing of theRed Sea. Interestingly victory songs are sung after both events and a prominent woman leads the singing. In both cases what happened can be explained as a natural phenomenon- the miracle is in the timing.
The stories of Judges are a hotchpotch, gathered from different places. They hang together because they are joined in a very patterned way.
The people of Israel forgot the Lord their God; they sinned against him and worshipped the idols of Baal and Asherah. So the Lord became angry with Israel and let King Cushan Rishathaim of Mesopotamia conquer them… then the Israelites called out to the Lord and he sent a man to free them. Judges3:7-9, GNB.
The people of Israel sinned against the Lord again. Because of this the Lord made King Eglon of Moab stronger than Israel…. The Israelites were subject to Eglon for 18 years . Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord, and he sent a man to free them. Judges 3:12
And from the beginning of our passage…
The people of Israel sinned against the Lord again. So the Lord let them be conquered by Jabin, a Canaanite king who ruled in the city of Hazor. …He ruled the people of Israel with cruelty and violence for 20 years. Then the people of Israel cried out to the Lord for help.
You get the picture.
We may not particularly agree with the editor’s conclusions. They may seem a bit too neat and tidy. But we do need to recognise that by and large these brutal, vivid stories from the book of Judges do celebrate salvation and rescue from oppressive awful situations, and they attribute that salvation to God.
The past year has been a brutal, chaotic year for planet Earth. – The civil wars across the Middle East and the continuing turmoil, the gruesome celebrations after the execution of Gaddafi that were played many more times that we wanted them to be, across our TV screens in our own peculiar western form of gloat… The frequent reports of western soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan… Our knowledge that for every western soldier killed there has been many, many more civilians in those countries who have been killed our maimed… The captain of the English rugby team who has had his international career brought to a premature end because of loutish behaviour off the field.
The stories of the book of Judges have an almost contemporary ring.
I wonder whether in the traumatised, conflicted parts of the world these stories might be more solid beacons of hope than the tidy, sanitised salvation stories that we would prefer them to be.