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Judges chapter 4

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What does Judges chapter 4 mean?

The pattern of Judges repeats, and a new story begins. After the previous judge-deliverer dies, Israel returns to doing evil, including the worship of the gods of Canaan (Judges 2:16–19). The Lord responds by submitting Israel to Jabin, who rules over Canaan. This is a distinct nation-state among the "Canaanites" of the Promised Land in general. Jabin rules from Hazor in the northern part of Israel's prophesied territory. The Canaanite general is Sisera, whose headquarters are to the west in the town Harosheth-hagoyim. Sisera has command over 900 iron chariots—a great technological advantage in that era. This gives him all the power he needs to cruelly oppress the people of Israel (Judges 4:1–3).

Finally, after twenty years, the Israelites cry out to the Lord for help. The Lord responds by speaking through Deborah, a well-known and well-respected prophetess and judge who lives in the hill country of Ephraim. Deborah seems to act very much in accordance with the English term "judge," settling disputes and deciding matters for Israel. She is associated with a Hebrew term meaning "torch," which either refers to the name of her husband or her fiery disposition (Judges 4:4–5).

Directed by the Lord, Deborah summons a man named Barak. Barak lives in Kedesh in the territory of the tribe Naphtali. Deborah's command from God is to recruit "10,000" troops from Naphtali and Zebulun and gather them at Mount Tabor. Ancient literature used the term "ten thousand" much in the same way modern English uses the term "a million," as a poetic way of indicating a vast number. Whether the figure is literal or not, the message is clear: God expects Barak to raise a massive number of soldiers. The Lord will then lure Sisera, with his iron chariots and his army, to meet Barak and his forces by the River Kishon. There the Lord will give Barak and Israel victory over Sisera and Canaan (Judges 4:6–7).

Barak's response is unfortunately timid. He agrees to go only if Deborah will go with him. He might have worried that recruiting troops would be difficult without her. He may also have thought that victory in battle would be more likely if a prophetess was there—despite Deborah already telling him God had promised Israel victory. She agrees to go, but prophesies that Barak will lose the glory of capturing Sisera. Instead, credit for defeating the Canaanite general will go to a woman. Barak and Deborah return to Kedesh and quickly recruit their forces who are prepared to fight the Canaanites. They arrange their army on Mount Tabor, as God has told Barak to do (Judges 4:8–10).

The story pauses, then, to make what at first seems like a random statement. Heber is a Kenite, from the same people group as Moses' father-in-law Jethro (Judges 1:16). Most of these are friendly to Israel, but Heber will later be identified as an ally of Jabin. This information will become important later in the passage (Judges 4:11).

When Sisera learns that Israel has amassed an army, he orders his 900 iron chariots and his soldiers to head into battle at Mount Tabor, approaching from the west. This is an arrogant move: their position on Tabor gives Israel a tactical advantage, so Sisera must be greatly confident that he can easily win. What happens next is easier to understand with details given in the next chapter (Judges 5:21). Rather than stay on the mountain, the army launches forward at a sudden order from Deborah, who speaks for the Lord. It's possible God sent an unexpected flood of the river at that exact moment, swamping the Canaanite chariots, and turning their advantage into a crippling weakness (Judges 4:12–14).

The result is dramatic. As noted with Ehud's victory over the Moabites (Judges 3:29), it is extremely unusual for every single enemy soldier to die in a battle. Yet Israel obliterates the entire Canaanite army, erasing Jabin's military power in a single stroke. Sisera apparently sees the defeat coming, so he runs in the opposite direction as his forces are routed and destroyed (Judges 4:15–16).

Sisera's escape takes him northeast. He eventually comes to the tents of Heber, the man mentioned earlier in the passage. Heber has some unspecified peace agreement with Jabin. Sisera likely expects aid, or at least a place to hide from the Israelites chasing him. Heber's wife, Jael, goes out to meet Sisera and urges him to take refuge in a tent. She covers him with a rug and gives him milk to drink, agreeing to turn away anyone who comes looking for him. This would have been in keeping with ancient middle eastern hospitality, which obligated the host to protect the guest (Judges 4:17–20).

Once Sisera is asleep, however, Jael picks up implements with which a nomadic woman would have been familiar: a hammer and tent peg. The "peg," in this case, would have been a sharp wooden spike about 1 inch, or 25 millimeters, thick. Jael strikes the spike through the soft spot on the side of Sisera's head, driving it through his skull and into the ground. The slaughter is summarized with an almost comical understatement: "so he died" (Judges 4:21).

Jael's motives are not stated. She might have been more loyal to her ancestral allies, Israel, than her husband was. She may have feared Israel's wrath if they caught Sisera hiding in her home. She might also have resented Sisera's oppressive and brutal career (Judges 5:30). For whatever reason, the deed is done. Soon after, Barak and his men approach, looking for the runaway general. Jael shows the corpse, and Deborah's prophecy is fully revealed. A woman—Deborah, for her role in raising and inspiring the army, and Jael for striking down the general—gets credit for the victory (Judges 4:22).

With an entire army slain, Jabin's defeat is merely a matter of time. Israel presses their advantage until Jabin, as well, is destroyed. The final verses of this chapter poetically repeat Jabin's name and title three times, emphasizing the relentless and thorough victory granted by God. Israel is once again freed from oppression (Judges 4:23–24).

The following chapter is in the form of a song—a celebration by Barak and Deborah—which retells the defeat of Sisera and Jabin, including details that help make more sense of their impressive victory (Judges 5). Sadly, the pattern of the era of the judges will continue (Judges 6:1), leading to the introduction of the next rescuer of Israel: Gideon (Judges 6:11).
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