No Heroes, These Three
This week and next week will feature articles that I have written for a class that I am taking on the Hebrew text of the Book of Judges. Both articles will consider the story of Deborah, Barak, and Jael in Jdg 4-5.
The Book of Judges is a book of heroic stories about men and women who are not heroes. Some, like Ehud and Jael, are crafty and underhanded. Others, like Samson and Jephthah, are brash and stupid. All of them belong to a wicked and idolatrous nation, the sons of Israel.
One effect of this is to make the God of Israel the only true hero of the book. He alone is unequivocally good. He alone has the strength to deliver Israel from the hands of his oppressors. The story of Deborah, Barak, and Jael concludes, “So on that day God subdued Jabin the king of Canaan before the people of Israel.” It is God who subdues, not Deborah, Barak, or Jael.
The sons of Israel are rotten, and God is the true hero of the Book of Judges. The book works out both of these facts in subversive ways. Sometimes the subversion is darkly humorous, like when Ehud tells Eglon, “I have something from God for you.” Eglon probably thinks it’s an oracle; in reality, it’s Ehud’s sword. Sometimes the subversion is shocking, as in the story of Deborah, Barak, and Jael. On the surface, they present the oracles of God, lead armies, and strike down the heathen general, Sisera. But the text hints that, beneath the surface, these three are far from model servants of God. Thus, at its most subversive, the text shows us how God allows three shady characters to share in His heroism.
Let us consider our three “heroes.”
The most obvious shadow is cast over Barak. The text makes him the butt of some irony. His name means “lightning,” but he drags his feet through the entire story. He’s the one we would naturally expect to deliver Israel, but he is neither judge nor deliverer. In fact, Barak is almost entirely passive. He is, at best, an accessory.
Though Barak strikes us as timid and oblivious, the text suggests that he’s anything but. Deborah’s first words to him are, “Has not the Lord, the God of Israel, commanded you...?” Far from being oblivious, Barak knew exactly what he was to do, and he didn’t need Deborah to tell it to him. When it came down to it, Barak was competent to call out 10,000 men from Zebulon and Naphthali. And, when it came down to it, Barak marched forward with those men to fight 900 chariots and the rest of Sisera’s army. In total, Barak is more than equipped to lead the fight—but he fails to.
So we turn to Deborah. Right at the outset, the text treats her differently than it has the previous judges, Othniel, Ehud, and Shamgar. Those three were warlords, deliverers; up to this point in the book, that is all we have seen the word “judge” to mean (see esp. 3.10). Deborah is the first judge that we actually see judging Israel in the sense that we use the word. Additionally, the book told us that God “raised up” Othniel, Ehud, and Shamgar. With Deborah, there is no such notice of God’s appointment. The text thus invites us to question her legitimacy.
The text casts an even greater shadow over Deborah when we consider where she is and what she is doing. She sits beneath a tree, and Israel goes up to her in the hill country. These are horrible associations in the Hebrew Scriptures, for we read about Israel’s harlotry there: “They set up for themselves pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree” (2 Kgs 17.10; cf. Jer 3.6; 17.1-2; Ezk 6.13). The pagans likewise consulted oracles in high places and near sacred groves. Thus, our first image of Deborah is suggestive of a cult priestess. Considering that the idolaters of Israel tried to worship God alongside their idols, our doubts about Deborah should remain even after she invokes the name of the Lord in her first address to Barak.
The text likewise casts a shadow over Jael. We are given a natural reason for Sisera to flee to the tent of Heber the Kenite: Heber is treatied with King Jabin. But Jael does not greet Sisera as a treatied hostess. Instead, she stands at the door of her tent and propositions Sisera to “turn aside to me, my lord.” We are not given to think that Jael did anything inappropriate with Sisera, but the invitation and the ensuing scene are suggestive (indeed, were you to walk in on Jael alone with Sisera, you would think that you had walked in on something, and Sisera likely thought that he was going to get something; cf. 5.28-30). To put it delicately, Jael—a married woman—put her charms to use in disarming Sisera.
This sets the stage for next week’s article, where we will consider what the Lord accomplishes through the hands of these unlikely people. Though today’s message is likely dismaying (no one likes to consider a hero’s faults), we will see how God, in His mercy, sanctifies them—and us.