Tales of the Unexpected: Beware of the women!

(Judges 4 & 5)

Deborah is unique among the judges – the only woman. She is also unusual (although not unique) in being a prophetess: God’s mouthpiece in her generation. She is therefore a key person in our understanding of the role of women amongst God’s people.

I’ve heard it said that the only reason God appointed a woman as a judge was that there were no suitable men. I don’t accept that, actually; Gideon and Samson were hardly ‘suitable’ for the role of judge (one was a coward and the other a psychopath), yet God chose them and used them very effectively. There must have been some other reason, and I think (although obviously I am reading between the lines here) that it was because of the way in which the Canaanites were dominating the Israelites at that time. Sisera, the Canaanite general, evidently had an efficient network of spies: he was very quickly informed of Barak’s movements (Judges 4:12), and took rapid steps to crush the imminent rebellion (verse 13). It can’t have been the first time that the Israelites had tried to resist; the Canaanites must have had their eyes on any potential leader so as to nip his pretensions in the bud.

But they tolerated Deborah. She’s just a woman. Poor little Israelites, reduced to having a woman as their leader! She took on the role of ‘mother’ to her people (Judges 5:7). Slowly, patiently, she weaned them off idolatry and nurtured their self-esteem until the time was ripe to throw off the Canaanite yoke.

Of course, Deborah was ‘just a woman’.  There were some (gender-specific) things that she couldn’t do – like fighting in a battle. But she could delegate the role of military commander to someone else; and God gave her the name of the man of His choosing. Barak is often accused of lack of faith (despite his inclusion in the list of the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11), but most of our English translations (Judges 4:9) give the wrong impression: Deborah was not rebuking him, but merely warning him that God had reserved the ultimate battle honour for a woman. This was not to punish Barak, but to humiliate Sisera – because in Canaanite culture it was considered shameful for a soldier to be killed by a woman (Judges 9:52-54).

Deborah and Barak made a great team. Under her (divinely inspired) direction and his leadership on the battlefield, the Canaanite chariots were lured to their destruction in a sudden flash flood (Judges 5:21). The Canaanites had expected it to be ‘business as usual’ (Judges 5:28-30), but this time they were wiped out. Only Sisera got away – and so Israel’s arch-enemy was potentially able to fight another day.

For Jael also, it had been just an ordinary day, going about her normal household duties while the menfolk were away hunting or trading. But then the great Sisera stumbled into the camp, exhausted (and possibly injured)… and she knew instantly what she had to do.

Sisera assumed that Jael would adhere to the social conventions. These nomads would never harm an invited guest, least of all one who is a well-known friend and ally.
He assumed that she would share her husband’s political and religious affiliations. Women don’t think for themselves (do they think at all?).
He assumed that she was the caring, nurturing, feminine type. A woman’s job is to look decorative, to cook, to keep house … oh, and to pitch tents…

Sleep well, Sisera.

And so the decisive act, the deed that changes the course of history in that part of the world, is done not by a warrior on the battlefield but by a woman in her own home.

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