Bible Commentary: Judges 4

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Judges 4

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Deborah and Barak Defeat Jabin 

Once the restraining influence of Ehud's leadership was removed, "the children of Israel again did evil in the sight of the Lord" (verse 1). The Expositor's Bible Commentary refers to the quotation here as "the sin phrase." It occurs six times in the book of Judges (see Judges 3:7, 12; 4:1; 6:1; 10:6; 13:1). For their rebellion this time, God sold them to Jabin, king of Canaan in Hazor, who cruelly oppressed them 20 years. Long before, Joshua had defeated a king of Hazor named Jabin (Joshua 11:1-15). The same name has been found in a text from the archeological site of Mari on the River Euphrates (Nelson Study Bible, note on Judges 4:2). Such facts may suggest that Jabin was a title rather than a proper name, like Abimelech among the Philistines or Ben-Hadad among the Syrians.

It does not appear to have dawned on the Israelites that as they continued to disobey God their periods of servitude lasted longer and grew more intense in severity. Neither did it occur to them that, one way or the other, they were going to serve someone—God or a gentile. Their service to God was light and held great reward, but their service to the gentiles was always heavy and bitter. Were these men mad in not being able to discern such things? No, they were simply carnal, and carnality does not like restraint of any kind—enabling their willing blindness to reality.

At this time Deborah was judging Israel. How she became a judge we do not know, but perhaps her status as a prophetess caused Israel to seek counsel and justice at her word. Her judgeship, however, took place during the oppression of Jabin and must have been limited to religious matters and civil matters of little consequence to him. It was while she was judging Israel that she received a revelation instructing her to call Barak and inform him that God had chosen him to free Israel.

When Barak came to Deborah and received word of God's intention, he agreed to assume the task but only if Deborah would accompany him. Barak's reluctance is not too difficult to understand when one considers that what made Jabin's army so formidable was the presence of 900 chariots of iron. These were strategic superweapons when pitted against forces without them, such as Israel's. Furthermore, the number of chariots suggests that Jabin had built a very large standing army. To attempt to defeat such a numerically superior and well-armed force would be quite daunting, and trepidation, especially given Jabin's cruelty, would be the natural response. Also, Barak may have questioned the truth of Deborah's revelation. Was she issuing a false prophecy, one of her own making? If she would go with him, Barak could be assured that the prophecy was true—else why would Deborah hazard her life for what she knew to be a falsehood?

Fear, of course, is an enemy of faith. And despite the fact that Barak is recorded in Hebrews 11:32 as an example of faith, his wavering in this situation would cause the honor of victory to go to a woman, leaving Barak somewhat disgraced. Nevertheless, Barak still consented to the task, perhaps expecting that woman to be Deborah—which would not have seemed so bad considering the important position she already occupied. Instead, God chose yet another woman, further stripping Barak of honor.

Many of the judges raised armies from only one or two of the Israelite tribes, which is evidence that Israel was probably more of a loose tribal confederation at this time. Barak's army was drawn primarily from Zebulun and Naphtali. Chapter 5 of Judges reveals that smaller elements of Issachar, Benjamin, Manasseh and Reuben were also present, but Reuben (true to his nature, Genesis 49:3-4) vacillated. Large parts of Manasseh remained beyond Jordan, and Dan and Asher preferred to continue their shipping trade rather than engage in a war of liberation. At this time in their history, Israel had no strong central government that organized and legislated for all the nation. The individual tribes acted in their own self-interest, with most of the governmental authority of the nation being vested in the tribal elders.

The engagement at the River Kishon was a complete route of Sisera, general of Jabin's army. The entire Canaanite army was exterminated, and Sisera fled on foot. Unhappily for Sisera, he came across the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. Exhausted and begging water, Jael instead gave him milk—a wise move considering the sleep-inducing properties of milk. Sisera's fatigue combined with a large amount of milk sent him fast off to sleep, a slumber so dense that Jael was able to sneak into the tent and kill Sisera by driving a tent peg through his skull.

With his army destroyed, all his chariots captured and the military genius of Sisera gone, Jabin's days were numbered. Israel grew stronger and stronger until they finally killed Jabin and destroyed his persecuting power forever. And Israel had peace 40 years.