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Israel in Canaan Under Joshua and the Judges


The Oppression of Jabin and Sisera - Deborah and Barak - The Battle of Taanach - The Song of Deborah
(JUDGES 4, 5)

DARKER and darker are the clouds which gather around Israel, and stranger and more unexpected is the deliverance wrought for them. It had begun with Othniel, truly a "lion of God." But after the "lion of God" came one left-handed, then a woman, then the son of an idolater, and then an outlaw of low birth, as if it were ever to descend lower and lower, till the last stage is reached in the Nazarite, Samson, who, as Nazarite, is the typical representative of Israel's calling and strength, and, as Samson, of Israel's weakness and spiritual adultery. Yet each period and each deliverance has its characteristic features and high points. The narrative opens as if to resume the thread of Israel's continuous history, only temporarily broken by Ehud's life: "And the children of Israel continued*  to do evil in the eyes of Jehovah - and Ehud was dead." This furnished a long wished-for opportunity.

* So literally, and very significantly for the history of Israel.

It had been about a century before when a Jabin ("the prudent" or "understanding," - no doubt the monarch's title, like Pharaoh or Abimelech) had marshaled the chieftains of Northern Palestine against Joshua, and been signally defeated (Joshua 11:1-10). Since then his capital had been restored and his power grown, till now it seemed the fitting moment to recover his ancient empire. As we understand the narrative, the hosts of Jabin had swept down from Hazor in the far north, and occupied the possessions of Naphtali, Zebulun, and Issachar. While Jabin himself continued in his capital, his general, Sisera ("mediation," "lieutenant"?) held the southern boundary of the annexed provinces, making his head-quarters at Harosheth ha Gojim - "the smithy of the nations" - perhaps so called from being the arsenal where his iron war-chariots, armed with scythes, were made. The site of this place is probably somewhere in the neighborhood of Bethshean, which afterwards formed the southernmost point of Galilee. Evidently it must have been south of Mount Tabor, to which Barak afterwards marched from Kedron, in the north of Naphtali. For, irrespective of the utterly helpless state of the country, as described in Judges 5:6, Sisera would not have allowed Barak to turn his flank or to march on his rear.*  The occupation of the north of Palestine by Sisera had lasted twenty years. Relief must have seemed well-nigh hopeless. On the one hand, the population was wholly disarmed (Judges 5:8); on the other, Sisera had no less than nine hundred war-chariots - means of attack which Israel most dreaded. But as often before, so now, suffering led Israel to cry unto the Lord - and help was soon at hand.

* For this reason I cannot adopt the localization proposed by Dr. Thomson (Land and Book, ch. 29), north of the hills that bound the Plain of Jezreel, although the suggestion is supported by Mr. Grove.

One of the most painful circumstances in the history of the Judges is the utter silence which all this time seems to envelop Shiloh and its sanctuary. No help comes from the priesthood till quite the close of this period. Far away in Mount Ephraim God raised up a woman, on whom He had poured the spirit of prophecy. It is the first time in this history that we read of the prophetic gift. The sacred text conveys, that she exercised it in strict accordance with the Divine law, for it is significantly added in connection with it, that "she judged Israel at that time." Deborah, "the bee,"*   is described as a "burning woman."**  The meeting-place for all in Israel who sought judgment at her hands was between Ramah and Bethel, under a palm-tree,***  which afterwards bore her name. Thence she sent for Barak ("lightning,") the son of Abinoam ("my father" - God - "is favor"), from the far north, from Kadesh in Naphtali. His ready obedience proved his preparedness. But when Deborah laid on him the Divine command "gradually to draw"|*  an army of 10,000 men to Mount Tabor, Barak shrank from it, unless Deborah would accompany him.

* Although there may be differences as to the mode of its derivation, there is none as to the real import of the name.

** The Authorized Version translates "the wife of Lapidoth." The latter word means "torches," and the meaning, as brought out by Cassel, seems to be "a woman of a torch-like spirit;" the Hebrew for wife and woman being the same. Jewish tradition has it, that she was the wife of Barak, "lightning," Barak and Lapidoth being, of course, closely connected terms.

*** The palm-tree was the symbol of Canaan; and the name Phoenician is derived from its Greek equivalent.

|* This is the meaning of the word, as appears from Exodus 12:21.

This evidently proved distrust in the result of the undertaking, which in turn showed that he looked for success to the presence of man, rather than entirely to the power of God. Accordingly, he must learn the folly of attaching value to man; and Deborah predicted, that not Israel's leader, but a woman, wholly unconnected with the battle, would have the real triumph.

Accompanied by Deborah, Barak now returned to Kadesh, whither he summoned the chiefs*   of Naphtali and Zebulon. All plans being concerted, the combatants converged in small companies, from all roads and directions, "on foot,"**  towards the trysting-place. About six or eight miles east of Nazareth rises abruptly a beautifully-shaped conical mountain, about 1,000 feet high.

* This we infer, as it could not have served any purpose to have gathered the tribes themselves so far north, while it would certainly have attracted the attention of the enemy.

** So, and not as the Authorized Version renders it: "he went up with 10,000 men at his feet."

This is Mount Tabor ("the height"), its sloping sides covered with trees, and affording from its summit one of the most extensive and beautiful prospects in Palestine. Here the army under Barak and Deborah gathered. Tidings soon reached the head-quarters of Sisera. His chariots could of course only fight to advantage in the valleys, and he naturally marched north-west to the plain of Jezreel or Esdraelon. This has ever been, and will prove in the final contest (Revelation 16:16), the great battle-field of Israel. It was now the first of many times that its fertile soil was to be watered with the blood of men.

Sisera had chosen his position with consummate skill. Marching in almost straight line upon the plain of Megiddo, his army was now posted at its entrance, resting upon the ancient Canaanitish town of Taanach (Judges 5:19, comp. Joshua 12:21). Behind, and at his left flank, were the mountains of Manasseh, before him opened the basin of the valley, merging into the plain of Esdraelon, watered by the Kishon. Into this plain must Barak's army descend "on foot," badly armed, without experienced officers, without cavalry or chariots - and here his own 900 war-chariots would operate to best advantage. It was not even like one of those battles in which mountaineers hold their own fastnesses, or swoop down on their enemies in narrow defiles. On the contrary, all seemed to tell against Israel - but this, that God had previously promised to draw Sisera and his army to the river Kishon, and to deliver them into Barak's hand. Then once more did the Lord appear as "a man of war," and fight on the side of His people. It is said: "And Jehovah discomfited," or rather, "threw into confusion, Sisera and all his chariots, and all his host." The expression is the same as when Jehovah fought against Egypt (Exodus 14:25), and again when before Gibeon Joshua bade sun and moon stand still (Joshua 10:10). It indicates the direct interference of the Lord through terrible natural phenomena; (comp. also its use in 2 Samuel 22:15; Psalm 18:14; 144:6). As we gather from Judges 5:20-22, a fearful storm swept down from heaven in face of the advancing army.*  The battle must have drawn towards Endor, where its fate was finally decided (Psalm 83:9, 10). Presently the war-chariots were thrown into confusion, and instead of being a help became a source of danger. The aftrighted horses carried destruction into the ranks of the host. Soon all were involved in a common panic. A scene of wild confusion ensued. It was impossible to retreat, and only in one direction could flight be attempted. And now the waters of Kishon had swollen into a wild torrent which swept away the fugitives!**

* So also Josephus (Ant. v. 5, 6).

** The battle must be read in connection with the song of Deborah (Judges 5), which furnishes its details.

To escape capture, Sisera leaped from his chariot, and fled on foot northwards towards Hazor. Already he had passed beyond Kadesh, and almost reached safety. There the boundary of Naphtali was marked by what was known as "the oakwood at the twin tents of wandering" (Elon be-Zaanannim; comp. Joshua 19:33). Here Heber the Kenite had pitched his tent, having separated from his brethren, who had settled in the extreme south at Arad (Judges 1:16). Living quite on the boundary of Jabin's dominion, and not being really Israelites, the clan of Heber had been left unmolested and "there was peace between Jabin, king of Hazor, and the house of Heber the Kenite."

Only outward, not real peace! There is something wild and weird about the appearance of these Kenites on the stage of Jewish history. Originally an Arab tribe*  they retain to the last the fierceness of their race. Though among Israel, they never seem to amalgamate with Israel, and yet they are more keenly Israelitish than any of the chosen race.

* They were Midianites, descendafnts of Abraham by Keturah - undoubtedly a Bedouin tribe.

In short, these stranger-converts are the most intense in their allegiance to the nation which they have joined, while at the same time they never lose the characteristics of their own race. We mark all this, for example, in the appearance of Jehonadab, the son of Rechab (2 Kings 10:15), and again much later during the troubles that befell Judah in the time of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 35). Jael, "the chamois," the wife of Heber, was among the Kenites what Deborah, the "torch-woman," was in Israel, only with all the characteristics of her race developed to the utmost. At her tent-door she meets the fugitive Sisera. She disarms his suspicions; she invites him to rest and security; she even sacrifices the sacred rights of hospitality to her dark purpose. There is something terrible and yet grand about that fierce woman, to whom every other consideration is as nothing, so that she may avenge Israel and destroy its great enemy. All seems lawful to her in such an undertaking; every means sanctified by the end in view. She has laid the worn warrior to rest; she has given him for refreshment of the best her tent affords. And now, as he lies in heavy sleep, she stealthily withdraws one of the long iron spikes to which the tent-cords are fastened, and with a heavy hammer once, again, and yet a third time, strikes it into his temples. It is not long before Barak - a "lightning" in pursuit as in battle - has reached the spot. Jael lifts aside the tent-curtain and shows him the gory corpse. In silence Barak turns from the terrible spectacle. But the power of Jabin and his dominion are henceforth for ever destroyed.

There is, as it seems to us, not a word in Scripture to express its approbation of so horrible a deed of deceit and violence - no, not even in the praise which Deborah in her song bestows upon Jael. It was not like Deborah's war, nor like Barak's battle, but strictly Kenite. Her allegiance to the cause of the people of God, her courage, her zeal, were Israelitish; their fanatical, wild, unscrupulous manifestation belonged to the race from which she had sprung, to the traditions amidst which she had been nurtured, and to the fiery blood which coursed in her veins - they were not of God nor of His word, but of her time and race. Heathen history tells of similar deeds, and records them with highest praise;*  Scripture with solemn silence. Yet even so Jehovah reigneth, and the fierce Arab was the sword in His hand!

* For example in the case of Aretaphila in Cyrene (Plutarch, The Virtues of Women, 19).

1. "Then sang Deborah and Barak on that day, saying:
2. For the loose flowing of the long hair,*  For the free dedication of the people, Praise ye Jehovah!
3. Hear O kings, hearken O rulers,**  I - to Jehovah will I sing, Will psalmody***   to Jehovah, the God of Israel!

* The language is extremely difficult, and the most different interpretations have been proposed. We have adopted the ingenious view of Cassel, which represents Israel, as it were, taking the Nazarite vow for God and against His enemies.

** Comp. Psalm 2:2 - these, of course, are kings and princes of the heathen.

*** Always used of sacred song with instrumental accompaniment.

4. Jehovah, when Thou didst come forth from Seir, When Thou marchedst from out the fields of Edom, The earth trembled, also the heavens dropped, Even the clouds dropped water.*
5. The mountains quaked before Jehovah - This Sinai before Jehovah, the God of Israel.**
6. In the days of Shamgar, the son of Anath, In the days of Jael,***  the highways ceased,|*  And they who went on paths, went by roundabout ways.

* Deborah begins with the record of God's great doings of old in the wilderness, the later parallel being in Psalm 68:7, 8. Comp. here especially Exodus 19 and Deuteronomy 33:2, and for the expressions, Psalm 47:5; 114:7; Isaiah 63:12; 64:2; Jeremiah 10:10; Joel 3:16.

** Here the first stanza of the first division of this song ends. There are in all three sections, each of three stanzas. The reader will have no difficulty in marking the progress of thought.

*** Cassel, as I think fancifully, regards "Jael," not as referring to the wife of Heber, but as a poetic name for Shamgar or Ehud.

|* Or were deserted.

7. Deserted was the open country*  in Israel - deserted - Till I arose, Deborah, I arose a mother in Israel!
8. Chose they new gods - Then war at the gates - If shield was seen or spear Among forty thousand in Israel!**
9. My heart towards the rulers of Israel, Those who freely vowed (dedicated) themselves among the people. Praise ye Jehovah!

* That is, the country with open villages and towns, in opposition to walled cities.

** That is, "shield and spear were not seen." So low had the fortunes of Israel fallen before their enemies.

10. Ye that ride on white*  she-asses, Ye that sit on coverings**  Ye that walk by the way - consider!***
11. From the noise (sound, voice) of the archers between the draw-wells|*  - There they rehearse the righteous deeds|**  of Jehovah, The mighty deeds of His open country||*  in Israel - Then went down to the city gates the people of Jehovah!

* The expression is not without difficulty; Cassel would render it by pack-saddled.

** The reference here is evidently to abiding in tents, whether the word be rendered mats, carpets, garments, or coverings.

*** Viz., the contrast between the insecurity of former times and the present happy condition. Cassel happily points out that, as in Psalm 1:1, the reference is to the three classes: those who sit, who stand, and who go.

|* The language is very difficult. To us it seems to indicate the contrast between the noise of battle and the peaceful scene of the maidens, who can now go without fear outside the gates to draw water.

|** The righteous deeds are here the mighty deeds, and so we have rendered it in the next line.

||* Seems to mean: His mighty deeds in reference to, or as seen in the villages and unwalled towns of Israel.


12. Awake, awake, Deborah, Awake, awake - utter the song; Arise, Barak, and lead captive thy captives, son of Abinoam!
13. Then went down a remnant of the mighty, of the people, Jehovah went down for me among the heroes!
14. From out of Ephraim - his root in Amalek;*  After thee: Benjamin among thy nations**  - From Machir***  come down they who bear rule, From Zebulon who draw out with the staff of the writer.|*

* There seems an allusion here to the ancient glory of the tribes: Ephraim, from which sprang Joshua, the conqueror of Amalek.

** "Nations," here equivalent to heathens, and the reference is to Ehud.

*** Machir is Manasseh, Genesis 50:23.

|* These two tribes then distinguished for peaceful avocations. Such was the former glory of Israel. In the next stanza Deborah proceeds to sketch the present state of the tribes.

15. But the princes of Issachar were with Deborah - And Issachar the foundation*  of Barak, Pouring on foot into the valley! By the brooks of Reuben great resolves of heart**
16. Why abodest thou among the folds To hear the flutes of the flocks? By the brooks of Reuben great ponderings of heart!
l7. Gilead dwells on the other side Jordan!***  And Dan, who pass upon ships? Asher sitteth by the sea-shore, And by its bays resteth!

* In his territory the battle was fought - the rendering "foundation" is after the Jewish commentaries.

** Here begins the censure of the tribes who should have taken part.

*** Such is its plea.

18. Zebulon a people that jeoparded its life unto death, And Naphtali on the heights of the field!
19. Came kings - warred - Then warred the kings of Canaan, In Taanach, by the waters of Megiddo - Spoil of silver took they none!
20. From heaven warred, The stars out of their paths warred against Sisera!
21. The river Kishon swept them away, River of encounters,*  River Kishon! March forth my soul in strength!

* The common rendering is "ancient river;" Cassel translates "river of help." I prefer "battle," the root being: to meet or to encounter, obviam ire. Kishon, "the winding one." Ancient Jewish tradition has it that this battle was fought on the Passover, which is not unlikely, as the Kishon is swollen during the rainy season, but quite dry in summer.

22. Then clattered the hoofs of the horse From the racing and chasing*  of his mighty.
23. Curse ye Meroz,**  saith the Angel of Jehovah, Curse ye - cursed its inhabitants, For they came not to the help of Jehovah, The help of Jehovah against the mighty!

* In their flight. In the original the word is simply repeated.

** Probably a place near Endor, whose inhabitants joined not in the pursuit of Sisera.


24. Blessed among women, Jael, The wife of Heber, the Kenite, Among women in the tent*  blessed!
25. Water asked he - milk she gave, In the cup of the noble**  brought she thickened milk***

* Such women as live in tents - pastoral and nomadic, as all the Kenites were.

** The cup used on state occasions, as it were.

*** Cream, or thickened milk (it is a mistake of interpreters to suppose that it was thickened to make him intoxicated); or else camel's milk.

26 Her hand to the tent-nail sendeth forth, And her right hand to the ponderous hammer of workmen - Hammers*  she Sisera, shivers*  his head, Cleaves*  and pierces his temple!
27. Between her feet he winds - he falls - he lies - Between her feet he winds - he falls - Where he winds there he falls desolated!** 
28. High up through the window spies - anxiously she calls, The mother of Sisera - cut through the lattice: 'Why tarrieth his chariot to come, Why linger the steps of his war-chariots?'

* We almost seem to hear the three strokes of the hammer by which her bloody work is done.

** The description of the effects corresponding to the three strokes of the hammer.

29. The wise of her princesses answer - Nay, she herself answers her words to herself: 'Are they not finding - dividing spoil -
30. A maiden-twain maidens to the head of the warriors - Spoil of dyed garments to Sisera, Spoil of dyed garments - many-colored kerchief - A dyed garment, twain many-colored kerchiefs for the necks of the prey!'*  
31. So perish all Thine enemies, Jehovah - And let those who love Him be like the going forth of the sun in his strength! And the land had rest forty years.

* With each captive maiden the warrior would also receive one dyed garment and twain many-colored kerchiefs. In the arduous task of translating this, one of the most difficult passages of Scripture, Cassel's Commentary has been of greatest use, although its suggestions are too often fanciful.

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