“Does Not the Lord Go Out Before You?”

This concludes thoughts began in last week’s article. I have written both articles for a class that I am taking on the Hebrew text of the Book of Judges.

As we saw last week, the “heroes” of Judges 4 are anything but. Deborah’s activity smacks of cult activity, most likely Asherah worship. Barak neglects his God-given gifts of leadership, allowing Deborah to take charge. Jael seduces Sisera before assassinating him (we should also point out that there’s no evidence in Judges 4 that Jael even knows the God of Israel; one can just as well see her decision to assassinate Sisera as a purely political move meant to endear her husband’s house with the victorious Israelites).

So how do these three become the heroes of this part of the story? That’s really two questions. First, why is it that we can perceive them as heroes, even though they are not? Second, how are they able to deliver Israel out of the hand of Jabin?

The answer to the first question lies in Judges 5, the Song of Deborah and Barak. It begins, “That the leaders took the lead in Israel, that the people offered themselves willingly, bless the Lord!” The exact meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain here; compare the KJV, which reads, “Praise ye the Lord for the avenging of Israel, when the people willingly offered themselves.” The Hebrew reads something like, “In the loosing of the long locks in Israel, in the free offering of the people, bless the Lord.” It is surmised that the “loosing of the long locks” refers to a battle ritual, hence the ESV’s “That the leaders took the lead in Israel.” The parallel in verse 9, “My heart goes out to the commanders of Israel who offered themselves willingly among the people,” supports this rendering.

If it is the case that Deborah and Barak begin their song of praise by rejoicing at “the leaders taking the lead in Israel,” it is our signal that something is amiss with this song. Compare Judges 5.2, 9 to what we read about Barak in Judges 4.6, 8. The Lord had already commanded Barak to go out, but he did not. Deborah admonished him to go out, but he would not. “The leaders taking the lead,” indeed! Barak has been retconned.

Barak is not the only one. We learned in Judges 4.10 that Barak called up 10,000 men from Zebulon and Naphtali. The Song praises them in 5.18, but it also praises Ephraim, Benjamin, and Issachar in vv 14-15. Where were they in Judges 4? They have been retconned in. Likewise in v 19, on the heels of recounting those who came from Israel, we read, “The kings came, they fought; then fought the kings of Canaan.” We know the king of Canaan, Jabin, but who are these other kings? There is no king in Israel (Judges 17.6). Indeed, most of the nation of Israel is made to look good in the Song. We hear of the people offering themselves willingly (5.2), of the righteous triumphs of the Lord’s villagers in Israel (5.11), of the noble people of the Lord (5.13), all of which we know is complete nonsense. Judges 2.11-23 gives us the general sense of Israel’s behavior during this time; see especially the end of 2.19, “They did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways.” Judges 4.1 tells us specifically in this case that Israel has done evil in the sight of the Lord. The Song is open about Israel’s idolatry: “When new gods were chosen…” (5.8). We read of no repentance at any point in this story. All of Israel’s righteousness and nobility has been retconned in.

The second question is answered both in the Song and in the text of Judges 4. We read that “the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and all his army” (4.15). Likewise, “So on that day God subdued Jabin the king of Canaan before the people of Israel” (4.23). The Song, for all its retconning, at least gives the Lord His due. “Lord, when you went out from Seir, when you marched from the region of Erin, the earth trembled and the heavens dropped, yes the clouds dropped water” (5.4).

So it is the Lord who allows Deborah, Barak, and Jael places of honor in His victory. There is little evidence of voluntary righteousness in any of their actions. It is the Lord who grants them honor. In doing this, the Lord gives the story its greatest retcon of all. Consider what we read in Heb 11.32: “And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets.” Barak? How does Barak get to be on that list? The answer is God’s grace, as we see in the text of Judges.

The message should encourage us. If such louts as these can be called men of faith, then so can you and I. Ultimately, that’s the point of faith, and that’s the lesson of the Book of Judges: “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom 9.16).