Deborah: A bee in peace. A wasp in war


Just as we imbibed lessons from the leadership experiences of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Rahab and Joshua, we are lingering over the character traits of effective leaders, as we study the Judges. In Series 21, we gain insight into the power generated by a well-integrated personality that lives authentically in every role. Deborah was a spiritual leader and prophetess in Israel, the Judge and head of government, a military strategist who rose up to the occasion in mustering the nation to war, a poet and collaborator in music, and a woman who identified her womanhood without any belittling or entitlements of gender. Deborah was a woman who threaded and wielded effectiveness in different roles with pure integrity and powerful coherence.

Judges 4, 5
Ten men sat with their robes trailing around their feet and their heads hanging low. It had been a strange day since they gathered that morning to work in Deborah’s court. She had been praying and keening all night and they did not know what to make of the sounds she was making.

And unlike her usual elegant self, she was sweating profusely and seemed unaware of it. Her fragrant hair wrapped in a turban had escaped tendrils bouncing untidily all around her head. People had gathered for her counsel and words but she seemed oblivious of them. No one knew how to start the business of the day.

She pointed a long finger at one man. ‘Go and fetch Barak son of Ahinoam out of Kedesh-naphtali. The lord has spoken to him!’ The man stood up slowly. A four day journey lay ahead of him. He sighed deeply and set off to prepare. Heads went even lower. And all wandered what was about to break loose.

Deborah disappeared into her private quarters close to the court. When she assumed her seat, it was as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened that morning. Everyone looked at the woman they respected and adored and hoped the strange moment had passed. But the low clouds did not lift.

Barak arrived in a flourish. He was a judge in Naphtali whose decisions were often brought to Deborah to confirm or overturn. He did not look like he had been travelling only two days. His eyes were distended and hair as disheveled as Deborah’s had been four days ago. Deborah did not attend to him until everyone was gone.

Well. Are you going to obey God or not?’ Barak only looked at his feet.

If you will go with me, then I will go: but if you will not go with me, then I will not go

Deborah looked up in horror, shaking like a leaf. ‘Even after hearing the word of the Lord? Even after the Lord’s provision? Has the Lord God of Israel not commanded you saying: Go and draw towards mount Tabor, and take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun? Did He not tell you that He will draw Sisera to the river Kishon with his chariots and multitude and deliver him into your hand? How do you hesitate?

Barak set his lips stubbornly. Deborah shook with anger. Have the men of Israel come to this? Shamgar the son of Anath had turned out to be a disappointment. After slaying six hundred Philistines with an ox goad a few months before the death of Ehud in his seventieth year and being held up as the natural successor of Ehud, it turned out that giving him the mantle of leadership had been a terrible mistake.

He loved new gods. The shrines Ehud had burnt during his seventy prosperous years of judging Israel by the laws of Moses began to sprout along the highways and byways like strange dolls. And with them came murders and blood sacrifices. Danger and insecurities became the norm in Israel. In the tenth year of Shamgar’s leadership, Jabin king of Canaan and his captain Sisera seized control over Israel.

The Canaanites had ridden into the city of Palms with hundreds of iron chariots, developed in the eighty years that Israel was at peace and opening trade routes. After killing men and raping women, the city became a garrison for Jabin in the next twenty years. Shamgar was driven into the caves of Ephraim where no one heard of him again. He was believed to have died from disease while looking for God’s ark of covenant in the hills of Timnath-serah, where Joshua was buried. Israel was cowed and rudderless.

That is when the beautiful prophetess set up her post under a large palm tree between Ramah and Bethel and declared it the place of God’s presence. She prayed, preached and counseled the distressed people. As her wise directions brought peace into homes and hearts, and people began declaring that they were even healed of physical ailments, Deborah became the rallying point for the confused tribes.

In the next twenty years that Jabin was the military force over Israel, Deborah became their force for peace. Somehow, Jabin deferred to her and allowed her influence to grow. Until last night when the word of the Lord had rolled over her in visions, terrifying her through the night. She had only known the gentle voice of the law, and had given counsel all these years by simple faith and compassion for her people. But last night, she saw another side of God. At the end of the visions, the voice like many waters had uttered the words she repeated to Barak. And it assured her that Barak had heard the same words. So how could he doubt??

Shaking her heart from the place of confusion, she turned to Barak. ‘I will surely go with you. You will fight. We will win the war. But you will receive no honor from your work. That is reserved for a woman.’

Barak only muttered under his breath. ‘Israel’s honor lies with a woman now. What will be new? Come and share the danger.’

Deborah drew her robes around her and left the business of judging to the jurors. She and Barak became military leaders. Blowing the trumpet across the hills, ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun gathered at Mount Tabor, near the tents of Heber the Kenite, of the family of Hobab, Moses’ father in law. Heber listened to Israel’s battle plan to fight in the mountains and went straight to Sisera.  For ten thousand coins, he sold the knowledge of the headquarters of Barak and Deborah to Sisera.

Sisera’s troups marched with the full force of the Canaanite army. Nine hundred chariots pushed the grounds around the river Kishon, towards Tabor. Ready to kill and quell the rebellion that had surprised them. As the hoofs of horses and power of chariots shook out dust, the skies answered. The rain poured, lightning flashed and thunder tore chariots as the river Kishon caused mud and sludge to fight the soldiers of Canaan. Sisera’s army could not fight the elements. Horses tumbled over, as wheels caught in the torrents of the spilled Kishon. Israel’s blades of iron cut through the falling soldiers of Canaan and Sisera fled – straight into the tent of Heber.

Heber was in the war front still seeped in his missions of treachery. His wife Jael listened to his story and decided the side of the war she was on. Her faith in God was too deep to align herself with her traitor husband. She received Sisera with the promise of safety, calmed him and gave him milk laced with sleeping herbs. As Sisera slept, she drove a wooden peg into his head with a hammer. The night of battle was over; the oppression of twenty years had ended.

Deborah smiled at Barak. Their song and poetry bounced between harp and timbrel. Prophecy, praise and drums rolled as one. History was recorded by this woman who led Israel with peace, song, wisdom and God’s Spirit for the next 40 years

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