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Deborah and Jael

Jael and Deborah’s accounts show it is God who works through us and the miraculous outcomes that can be when we allow him to do just that.
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At a sister’s class recently, I was discussing with friends how lessons from faithful individuals still apply today in what can sometimes seem like a vastly different world. While God may not require us to take some of the physical actions of those in the biblical record, such as driving a tent peg through a man’s skull or calling thousands of men to war, we are certainly able to study and apply the principles behind these actions.

Judges chapter 4 is a record of two women who illustrate the Christlike character and willing attitude we can take on when serving God in our own lives. Jael and Deborah’s accounts show it is God who works through us and the miraculous outcomes that can be when we allow him to do just that.

In Judges, as the name suggests, we see God bringing up judges to lead the people of Israel. Through their cycles of sin, struggle, repentance, and being lifted out of captivity by God, these judges act as a conduit to God for the children of Israel. At this time, God had set up the Judge and Prophetess, Deborah in this position of influence and power within the nation. (See Judges 4:4-5 and the “Psalm of Deborah” in Judges 5).

Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment.” (Judg 4:4-5 ESV).1

Deborah as “the wife of Lapidoth,” has taken on this name that means “burning torch or firebrand.” Considering this, perhaps the verse implies that Deborah is a firebrand of a woman judging Israel at that time, as it becomes a perfect description of the role she plays for the people of Israel. 

This year, in our ecclesia’s youth group, one of our study topics was practical service. It is clear this work can come in various forms, such as spiritual motivation, physical acts of service, and emotional support for our brothers and sisters.

In Judges 4:9, we read that Deborah states that Barak would win the battle, but the fate of the Canaanite commander would be put into the hands of a woman. Barak assumes this woman is Deborah when, in fact, it is Jael. One might derive negative connotations about Barak from this exchange, but we should note that Barak agrees wholeheartedly to go alongside Deborah and Hebrews 11:32 later lists him as one of the faithful.

This teamwork and reliance on a godly woman by a faithful man is a great example to us as we seek to support each other in the ecclesia, in relations, or even in the CYC. We have the same ability to encourage our brothers and sisters by placing God and Scripture at the forefront of our speech, decisions, and actions.

Barak and Deborah head off into battle, leading five of the tribes of Israel against Sisera and his great army. At this point, we clearly see God assisting Deborah and Barak. We are reminded He is always with us also to help fight our daily “battles”:

The LORD discomfited Sisera and all his chariots, and all his host, with the edge of the sword before Barak; so that Sisera lighted down off his chariot, and fled away on his feet… and all the host of Sisera fell upon the edge of the sword, and there was not a man left. (Judg 4:15).

Sisera, once a mighty leader of the host who had persecuted and oppressed the people of God for twenty years, flees as the Israelites destroy his army. Weary, he comes to the tent of Heber and Jael, the Kenites. If we investigate the ancestry of Heber and, by extension, Jael, it illuminates the character and mindset of this inspirational family. Heber was a descendant of Jethro, who was a priest of Midian. His other name was “Reuel” (Exod 2:18), which means “a friend of God.” In Numbers 10, we see Jethro’s appointed role for Israel: 

And he said unto him, I will not go; but I will depart to mine own land, and to my kindred. And he said, Leave us not, I pray thee; forasmuch as thou knowest how we are to encamp in the wilderness, and thou mayest be to us instead of eyes. And it shall be, if thou go with us, yea, it shall be, that what goodness the LORD shall do unto us, the same will we do unto thee. (Num 10:30-32).

Jael marries Heber and becomes part of this family whose appointed role was to be eyes for the Israelites in the wilderness. This alliance is a splendid example for us in our ecclesias and community—we all greatly benefit from looking out for each other as we journey and wrestle with “wilderness experiences” en route to God’s Kingdom. It also provides some helpful context as we study the account more deeply.

When Sisera comes to the tent of Jael, he begs for provisions but then is stopped dead in his tracks: 

Then Jael Heber’s wife took a nail of the tent, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly unto him, and smote the nail into his temples, and fastened it into the ground: for he was fast asleep and weary. So he died. And, behold, as Barak pursued Sisera, Jael came out to meet him. (Judg 4:21-22).

These two verses appear to describe everything that happened in that tent. Jael feeds Sisera; she puts him to sleep; she fastens his head to the ground with a tent peg. And then Barak arrives on the scene. In Judges 5, Deborah commends Jael for this brave act:

Blessed above women shall Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite be, blessed shall she be above women in the tent… She put her hand to the nail, and her right hand to the workmen’s hammer; and with the hammer she smote Sisera, she smote off his head, when she had pierced and stricken through his temples. At her feet he bowed, he fell, he lay down: at her feet he bowed, he fell: where he bowed, there he fell down dead. (Judg 5:24-27).

However, when we compare Judges 4:21 with Deborah’s retelling of the event in Judges 5:24-27, it becomes apparent that there are several significant differences regarding what happened in Jael’s tent. In Judges 4, the text is quite specific: Sisera was “fast asleep” when she hit the tent peg so deeply into his temple that she fastened him to the ground. So why does Deborah’s account paint a different picture in the next chapter? She tells of Sisera, this captain of sin, bowing and falling down dead at Jael’s feet. The explanation is likely that Deborah, a woman very well-versed in God’s word, is trying to bring our minds to a powerful lesson that echoes throughout scripture.

Deborah uses the phrase “fell down and bowed” three times in quick succession. This phrase appears forty-four times in scripture to show obeisance, in thankfulness, in death and in praise. In all these instances, the phrase “fell down” has some relation to God’s power and His hand at work. For example:

They shall bow down to thee with their face toward the earth, and lick up the dust of thy feet and thou shalt know that I am the LORD. (Isa 49:23).

Another well-known Bible story employs this same expression: 

And all this assembly shall know that the LORD saveth not with sword and spear: for the battle is the LORD’S, and he will give you into our hands… And David put his hand in his bag, and took thence a stone, and slang it, and smote the Philistine in his forehead, that the stone sunk into his forehead; and he fell upon his face to the earth. (1 Sam 17:47, 49).
Note the similarities: the stone had sunk into Goliath’s forehead just as the tent peg went through Sisera’s temple, and Goliath fell upon his face to the earth just as Sisera was fastened to the ground by the nail. Deborah elaborates that Jael had “smitten off his head,” which is not included in the first account of Sisera’s death, just as David had used Goliath’s sword to take off the head of this giant who had defied the armies of the living God. Furthermore, David became angry at the people for not standing up to a man who defied God (1 Sam 17:26), in much the same way that Jael stood up to Sisera in a time when many others “had not come to the help of the LORD.” (Judg 5:23).

Some other examples include the unclean spirits that fell down before Jesus (Mark 3:11) and the idol Dagon, that was fallen and “the head of Dagon and both the palms of its hands were broken off on the threshold; only Dagon’s torso was left of it.”  (1 Sam 5:4).

bow ourselves sincerely and faithfully before the God of Israel

Once again, we see an idol of the nations brought low to the earth before God’s will. In these examples, sin is brought low in an instant, falling down to the earth in front of these types of Christ to show that the war was of God. This concept is also a good reminder for us to bow ourselves sincerely and faithfully before the God of Israel rather than becoming part of the Image of Men seen in Daniel’s vision, which will eventually topple to the ground and be crushed into powder by Christ (Dan 2:35).

I would like to proceed to look at both Deborah and Jael, the faithful women who conquered God’s enemies for Israel, to see how the lessons from their lives apply to each of us. The Book of Judges depicts Deborah as a Judge, a prophetess, and a leader. Deborah also chose to describe herself as a “mother in Israel” (Judg 5:7), which inspires us to understand that a mother can also be a Judge, a warrior, and a nurturing leader. This comforting leadership is also shown by God ( Isa 49:15; 66:13).

I will meet them as a bear that is bereaved of her whelps, and will rend the caul of their heart, and there will I devour them like a lion: the wild beast shall tear them. (Hos 13:8).

Christ also models this mother-like characteristic. We read in Matthew 23:37 that he would have gathered the children of Israel together as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings if the people had been willing.

For Deborah, arising as a mother in Israel meant taking action and initiative, reminding the people of God’s word, conveying God’s message to Barak (Judges 4:6) and, when it was needed, helping to lead the people herself. She did not seek leadership in battle; however, Barak and his army would not go up to the battle without this godly woman at their head.

This Christlike attitude of being ready and willing to lead by example is one that we should incorporate into our own lives and in our ecclesias. Deborah also provided a source of motivation and firm “nudging” to Barak to take on the leadership role that God desired from him. Do we practice these same mother-like qualities in our ecclesias and encourage and motivate each other to take leadership roles?

Each of us has been called to act in the image of God.

In Numbers 10:29-32, we read earlier that Moses asked Jethro to become “eyes to the Israelites” in the wilderness. In Scripture, eyes often symbolize light entering the body. For example, the eyes of Eli, the priest, became cloudy as his faith and service to God weakened. As an additional example, the Apostle Paul lost and regained his sight as he was shown the truth and turned to God. Jesus uses this same imagery to develop exhortations for our lives:

The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light; but if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. (Matt 6:22-23, Luke 11:34 KJV).

We see in Jael a working out of the legacy of the Kenites. Her brave act not only mirrored the work of her ancestor, Jethro but was also a light to the whole body of Israel and a sign of God’s power over sin for all to see:

And then, as Barak pursued Sisera, Jael came out to meet him, and said to him, “Come, I will show you the man whom you seek.” And when he went into her tent, there lay Sisera, dead with the peg in his temple. So on that day God subdued Jabin king of Canaan in the presence of the children of Israel. (Judg 4:22-23).

Jael saw and took the opportunity to serve God and stand on His side. In Judges 4, we find a curious note about King Jabin, whose forces Sisera commanded:

Sisera fled away on his feet to the tent of Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite: for there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite. (Judg 4:17).

Strangely, we learn that Jael’s house (or perhaps her husband?) was at peace with this oppressor of the Israelites. But Jael was given the choice to put her trust in God or side with and obtain the favor of these ruling powers. When the opportunity arose to strike Sisera down, she immediately acted. She knew in whose hand the battle belonged and who Sisera, the captain of the hosts, would be falling down before. Given the same choices in our personal lives, do we act with the same decisiveness and allegiance to God and His people?

We can trace Jael’s confidence back to the assurance of her husband’s grandfather, Jethro, who was the father-in-law to Moses: 

And Moses told his father-in-law all that the LORD had done unto Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, and all the travail that had come upon them by the way, and how the LORD delivered them… And Jethro said, Blessed be the LORD… Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods: for in the thing wherein they dealt proudly he was above them. (Exod 18:8-12).

Jethro, a Gentile convert to the God of Israel, believed that God works for and through us in our lives. God alone can conquer sin, and when we choose to stand for Him, He will work through us to show this, making us a light to the world. 

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Gal 3:26-29 NIV).

Each of us has been called to act in the image of God. We are called to be a light or a “burning torch” to our brothers and sisters, to recognize where we have the chance to serve God, to be an uplifting and passionate example to those around us, and to be faithful individuals that God can work with and use to show His glory. 

But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation a peculiar people: that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of the darkness into his marvelous light which in times past were not a people but now are a people of God: which had not obtained mercy but have now obtained mercy. (1 Pet 2:9-10). 

By following the example of those who obeyed and pleased God, we can become heirs according to these same promises. Jael knew the power of God, and it inspired her to make faithful decisions that had a major impact on the whole nation of Israel. Deborah, having God’s word written in her heart and mind, acted as a mother of Israel to help lead them to victory over the nations who had persecuted God’s people. 

Likewise, God provides us opportunities to shine and stand for him and is always there to help us fight our battles. He is at our sides continually and has promised that we can bring sin low into submission, so we must keep His Scripture ready in our hearts and minds. When we take action prayerfully, guided by God’s Word, to have a positive spiritual impact, God will provide the victory.  

Sophie Robinson,
Cambridge Ecclesia, ON


  1. All Scriptural citations are taken from the New King James Version, unless specifically noted.

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Gwennyth Manser
3 months ago

A well written article, thank you Sophie! Great emphasis on glorifying God at work throughout and provides such sound encouragement to trust Him in all the hard places He brings us through. I am pondering the reasons God allowed Barak to find Sisera, not Deborah as He so easily could have.

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