Sunday School Lesson on Deborah the Judge



A. Women in the Old Testament

The Old Testament is treated by some as little more than a book of fantastic children’s stories. To do this is to miss the rich treasury of insights into the lives of men and women who struggled in their relationships with God. Sometimes they are heroically successful, and we learn how they are pleasing to God. At other times they are colossal failures, and we can observe the patience and redemptive nature of God in dealing with them.



The Old Testament is dominated by the lives and exploits of men. Because of this, it is common to overlook the crucial and inspirational roles played by women in the history of Israel. Rarely are women presented as recognized community or national leaders. More often we find them in supporting roles as mothers, sisters, and wives of important men.

Consider Moses, the great man, whose life was influenced by women who functioned in all three of these supporting roles. The name of Moses’ mother was Jochebed (Numbers 26:59).Exodus 2 relates the story of her daring actions to save baby Moses from a death edict. She stood against Egyptian tyranny, and God providentially rewarded her by allowing her to keep her baby and nurse him before turning him over to the Egyptian princess.



Also involved in this incident was Moses’ sister, Miriam. This brave little girl, maybe just five or six years old, hid near her baby brother in the Nile and had the presence of mind to suggest to the princess her mother as a nurse. Later, Miriam played a key leadership role in the exodus. After the destruction of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea, she led the women of Israel in a celebration of singing and dancing (Exodus15:20, 21). In this passage she is referred to as a prophetess, although we have no record of her prophetic activities. Centuries later, the prophet Micah remembered the leaders of the exodus as three: Moses, Aaron, and Miriam (Micah 6:4).An often-overlooked woman in the life of Moses is his wife, Zipporah. Exodus 4:24-26 tells a sobering story of a time when God sought to kill Moses. Zipporah saved Moses’ life. She moved to guard her family in a time of crisis. Had she failed to understand the perplexing threat and act decisively, the history of Israel would have been very different.

Many other women can be identified as examples of faith in action in the Old Testament. Today’s lesson is about one of the most famous of them all: the prophetess, judge, and warrior named Deborah.



B. Lesson Background

Last week’s lesson presented the destructive cycle of Israel that is found repeatedly in Judges: apostasy, crisis, repentance, and then deliverance by a judge raised up by God. After the death of the judge, this cycle began again and grew worse with each repetition (Judges 2:19). This week’s lesson examines the story of the judge Deborah. Many enemies threaten Israel in the book of Judges. The people who pose a threat to the Israel of Deborah’s day are called simply the: Canaanites. Genesis presents them as descendants of Canaan, the grandson of Noah. This Canaan was cursed because of an unfortunate incident related in Genesis 9:20-27.
The primary city of this particular group of Canaanites was Hazor, a large city located about10 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. The site of Hazor has been excavated extensively. It is the largest biblical-era site in Israel, covering approximately 200 acres. Archaeologists estimate that ancient Hazor was a city with a population of more than 20,000—very substantial for the time. The story of Deborah is told twice in Judges. In chapter 4 it is presented in prose form, as if from the hand of a recording historian. In chapter 5 the story is told as a song or in poetic fashion. This is likely the earlier version, for ancient peoples were great storytellers. Their stories were composed in a poetic manner so that they could be more easily learned and remembered. The triumphal ode of chapter 5 is ascribed to Deborah herself (Judges 5:1). Scholars recognize the Song of Deborah as one of the oldest texts in the Old Testament.



I. Deborah the Judge (Judges 4:4, 5)

A. Prophetess and Wife (v. 4)



4. And Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, she judged Israel at that time.
The author introduces Deborah as a wife, prophetess, and judge. With all of these jobs, she must have been as “busy as a bee” and indeed her name means “bee” in Hebrew.

The Old Testament gives the title prophetess, in a godly sense, only to Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), Deborah, and the un-named wife of Isaiah (Isaiah 8:3). This title is the feminine equivalent of prophet, with no real difference aside from gender.

We usually think of a prophet as one who has divine insight into future events, but this is only part of a prophet’s function. Old Testament prophets are God’s mouthpieces. As such, they are inspired by God to keep Israel cm track in religious and moral matters. Deborah, then, is presented as more than a wise judge. She is an inspired judge, used by God to guide the development of the young nation.

Deborah is also presented as a wife. Her husband’s name, Lapidoth. means “torches” or “wicks.” One tradition outside the Bible holds that Lapidoth was responsible for providing the wicks for the sacred lamps of the sanctuary in Shiloh. There is no record that Deborah and Lapidoth had any children.



B. Judge of Israel (v. 5)

5. And she dwelt under the palm tree of Deborah, between Ramah and Bethel in mount Ephraim: and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment.

Deborah and Lapidoth live in a rural area less than a dozen miles north of Jerusalem. This is in the tribal territory of Ephraim. It is a semi-mountainous region. Deborah muses an outdoor courtroom under a famous palm tree also called Deborah.

The fact that people come to her for judgment indicates that Deborah’s judging is akin to what we would call binding arbitration. It is doubtful that she is dealing with criminal cases. Those would have been quickly resolved in the various communities of Israel, usually at the city gate(see Deuteronomy 17:5; 21:19).



More likely, Deborah is an agreed-upon judge for difficult private disputes (more like our civil litigation). The two disputing parties to abide by her decision before it was given, perhaps having been sent by the elders of a village or city. Deborah likely receives a fee for each judgment.

Such a system would have no strict legal basis, because there is no king or government to appoint and validate Deborah’s authority. This makes her judgeship all the more remarkable.

Deborah most have a widespread reputation for fairness and wisdom. She would be fulfilling the qualities stated to Moses by his father-in-law, Jethro, for a judge: capable, God-fearing, truthful, and not open to bribery (Exodus 18:21).

She judges the thorniest matters, a role filled by Moses during an earlier period (see Exodus18:14, 15, 25, 26). The people appreciate this just and impartial judge, because government officials in the ancient world are known for corruption (see Isaiah 1:23).



HONEST AND DISHONEST JUDGES

A little-known lawyer was sworn in as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice on December 19, 1975.How he got there is an intriguing story.

In 1958 a man by the name of Sherman Skolnick sued a Chicago brokerage firm for allegedly mishandling his life savings. Skolnick lost his case. He also lost his appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court. The experience embittered him against the justice system and he began a judicial watchdog organization. In 1969 Skolnick accused two state supreme court justices of accepting thousands of dollars’ worth of bank stock in return for deciding a case in favor of a powerful Chicago lawyer.

Media pressure forced the state supreme court to appoint a special commission to investigate. John Paul Stevens became the chief counsel. The meticulous care with which he built his case, combined with his courtroom strategy, brought down two previously respected but now-tainted justices. (Ironically, both had ruled against Skolnick in his case years earlier.) Stevens was exactly the kind of person President Gerald Ford was looking for to restore respect for the federal government after the Watergate scandal of 1974.Deborah was such a judge: careful and honest in her judgments. The common people of every nation are blessed when people of impeccable reputation, practical wisdom, and honest judgment control the judicial system.

A. Recruiting General Barak (v. 6a)

6a. And she sent and called Barak the son of Abinoam out of Kedesh naphtali.
As a leader of the people, Deborah’s role ex-tends beyond maintaining an outdoor courtroom. She recognizes a crisis among her people and summons a man who can do what she cannot: lead an army into battle. This man is Barak, from the city of Kedesh (meaning “sanctuary”).

Kedesh is located about 5 miles north of Hazoror about 15 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. Although in the tribal territory of Naphtali, Kedeshis one of the six cities of refuge controlled by the Levites (Numbers 35; see Joshua 20:7).



The crisis is a state of Canaanite banditry. That had caused trade caravans to disappear and farming villages to be abandoned (Judges 5:6, 7).

B. Planning a Strategy (vv. 6b, 7)6b, 7.

And said unto him, Hath not the LORD God of Israel commanded, saying, Go and drawn toward mount Tabor, and take with thee ten thousand men of the children of Naphtali and of the children of Zebulun? And I will draw unto thee, to the river Kishon, Sisera the captain of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his multitude; and I will deliver him into thine hand. Barak is instructed to gather an army of 10,000men to mount Tabor, a solitary dome that rises about 1,500 feet above the surrounding country-side. It is located in the northeast end of Israel’s central Plain of Esdraelon. The army is primarily drawn from the northern tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun; Judges 5:14, 15 tells us that there are also present men from Benjamin, Issachar, and Machin (or Makir, a sub tribe of Manasseh).The enemy army has gathered under the leadership of Sisera, the military expert of King Jabin. Jabin rules from Hazor in the northern Galilean area. Hazor is reckoned as the great city of the Canaanites (compare Joshua 11:10). Al-though Joshua had defeated and burned the city, it was not conquered. By the time of Deborah, the Canaanites had rebuilt it. Deborah determines the strategy of the coming battle, choosing to engage Sisera on the banks of the river Kishon, to the east of Mount Tabor.

C. Traveling with the Troops (vv. 8-10)8-10.

And Barak said unto her, If thou wilt go with me, then I will go: but if thou wilt not go with me, then I will not go. And she said, I will surely go with thee: notwithstanding the journey that thou takest shall not be for thine honor; for the LORD shall sell Sisera into the hand of a woman. And Deborah arose, and went with Barak to Kedesh. And Barak called Zebulunand Naphtali to Kedesh; and he went up with ten thousand men at his feet: and Deborah went up with him.
Barak may be the most able military leader in Israel, but he recognizes the value of having Deborah accompany him. It-we question #3, pay, Deborah warns him that this will divert the glory of victory from himself to her.

THOUGHTS



Deborah most have a widespread reputation for fairness and wisdom. She would be fulfilling the qualities stated to Moses by his father-in-law, Jethro, for a judge: capable, God-fearing, truthful, and not open to bribery (Exodus 18:21).

She judges the thorniest matters, a role filled by Moses during an earlier period (see Exodus18:14, 15, 25, 26). The people appreciate this just and impartial judge, because government officials in the ancient world are known for corruption (see Isaiah 1:23).

HONEST AND DISHONEST JUDGES

A little-known lawyer was sworn in as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice on December 19, 1975.How he got there is an intriguing story.

In 1958 a man by the name of Sherman Skolnick sued a Chicago brokerage firm for allegedly mishandling his life savings. Skolnick lost his case. He also lost his appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court. The experience embittered him against the justice system and he began a judicial watchdog organization. In 1969 Skolnick accused two state Supreme Court justices of accepting thousands of dollars’ worth of bank stock in return for deciding a case in favor of a powerful Chicago lawyer.

Media pressure forced the state supreme court to appoint a special commission to investigate. John Paul Stevens became the chief counsel. The meticulous care with which he built his case, combined with his courtroom strategy, brought own two previously respected but now-tainted justices. (Ironically, both had ruled against Skolnick in his case years earlier.) Stevens was exactly the kind of person President Gerald Ford was looking for to restore respect for the federal government after the Watergate scandal of 1974.Deborah was such a judge: careful and honest in her judgments. The common people of every nation are blessed when people of impeccable reputation, practical wisdom, and honest judgment control the judicial system.

III. Deborah the Warrior (judges 4:12-16)

A. Powerful Enemy (vv. 12, 13)

12, 13. And they showed Sisera that Barak the son of Abloom was gone up to mount Tahoe. And Sisera gathered together all his chariots, even nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the people that were with him, from Harosheth of the Gentiles unto the river of Kishon.

We now begin to understand the daunting challenge, for Sisera’s army is known to have nine hundred armored chariots. These are the most fearsome battle machines of the ancient world (see Judges 4:3). The author paints an imposing picture: the Canaanite forces are spread for several miles across the broad Plain of Esdraelon. Sierra’s army is vulnerable, however, be-cause of its dependence upon this chariot force.

B. Confidence in God’s Presence (v. 14)14. And Deborah said unto Barak, Up: for this is the day in which the Lotto hath delivered Sisera into thine hand: is not the LORD gone out before thee? So Barak went down from mount Tahoe, and ten thousand men after him.

The faith and determination of Deborah shine brightly here. She announces that this is the day—the day of victory! Deborah understands that God is willing to fight on the side of Israel, and, there-fore, “safety is of the Lord” (Proverbs 21:31). With this great blessing of assurance, Barak and his men rush down Jioni mount Tabor to meet the Canaanites in battle.

THOUGHTS INTO ACTION

Matthew Nagle is a quadriplegic. He made history in June 2004 when surgeons implanted a sil-icon wafer into his brain. The wafer, known as BrainGate, is one-sixth of an inch square and has100 electrodes that extend one-sixteenth of an inch into Nagle’s brain. When he thinks about moving his arm, the brain signals are sent to another device on the outside of his head. Fromthere an electronic message is sent to a computer that translates it into code that enables a ma-chine to do things such as change the TV channel or perform simple tasks on Nagle’s computer.

Deborah’s role in Israel’s victory started with her being in touch with the will of God, hearing the message God gave her for Israel’s good, and using her wisdom and strength of character to turn God’s thoughts into human action. Not all of us have Deborah’s gifts, and, like Nagle’s machine, we don’t respond perfectly to “divine input.” But when we are “properly tuned,” wee ach have the ability to use what God has given us to turn His thoughts into action.

C. Victory with God’s Power (vv. 15, 16)15, 16.

And 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. But Barak pursued after the chariots, and after the host, unto Harosheth of the Gentiles: and all the host of Sisera fell upon the edge of thes word; and there was not a man left.

Despite Sisera’s superior technology. Barak’s army is able to rout the enemy. There is both an earthly and a heavenly reason. First, the mighty chariots become bogged down in the sandy soilin and around the river Kishon, rendering them in effective (Judges 5:21). Judges 5:20 may indicate that this was made worse by a providential downpour of rain.



Second, the superior forces of Sisera were discomfited. This is a panic sent from God himself. The deep fear that follows causes Sisera’s troops to flee chaotically. God is fighting on Israel’s be-half. This is the opposite of the periods in Judges where God withdrew His blessing and fought against Israel (Judges 2:15).

The victory is complete, for there is not a man left. Sisera himself is reduced to fleeing on foot.He dies at the hand of another woman, WI, the wife of Heber (Judges 4:21).

Conclusion

A. Faithful Women Today

Are there lessons for the church in this Old Testament story? Is Deborah a model for women today? These are good questions, and there are thorny problems of interpretation regarding the the role of women in church leadership (see1 Timothy 2:12). Perhaps, however, this story can give us at least partial insight into how God views these issues.



First, we see that God is not opposed to using women to help His people. Deborah enjoyed God’s blessings in her work as a righteous judge, in her voice as a prophetess, and in her planning as a military strategist. The judges of Israel are overwhelmingly male but not exclusively. Second, we see that capable women can earn the respect of the people of God. It would be fascinating to learn exactly. how Deborah developed her reputation as a judge, but we meet her after this had been accomplished. Undoubtedly, this did not happen overnight. It probably look many years of consistent excellence as a judge for Deborah to achieve her position of authority.

Third, we should understand that it is unnecessary for men to deny women credit for effective service. Barak seas warned that his need for Deborah’s presence would result in her receiving the people’s acclaim for the great victory over the Canaanites. Barak didn’t seem to have a problem with this. The wisest players are those who sometimes step aside to let someone else carry the ball and hear the roar of the crowd.

B. Overcoming Leadership Conflicts

Why are some churches in constant turmoil? Why is growth sporadic or absent altogether? These are complex issues, and there is no single answer that fits every situation. However, many churches fail to grow and thrive because of conflicts among the leaders. Here are three lessons from the story of Deborah that can help us. First, egos need to be checked at the church door. Judges 4 and 5 paint a beautiful picture of two cooperating leaders, each recognizing the abilities of the other.

Churches that are con-trolled by isolated, inflexible leaders will have problems. Congregations led by win-at-all-costs personalities will suffer. Some qualities that make a person successful in the business world may become destructive in church leadership. Second, good leadership decisions have the welfare of the people sharply in focus. Neither Deborah nor Barak are presented as bloodthirsty warriors itching for glory. They pursue the terrible option of war because the people must be freed from oppression.



When making leadership decisions, we should ask ourselves, “Why am I doing this? Am I choosing this course because it is most comfortable for me? Am I making a choice that is best for the long-term health of the church?”Third, leadership success ultimately is deter-mined by God. Deborah knew that the battle would be won because God was fighting for Israel. All church leaders should be accountable to God and open to His leading. The church is not a private little empire for any leader. Whatever leader-ship roles we are given, we should approach our ministries with the desire to serve people and to serve God.

C. Prayer

Holy God, we are in Your hands. We pray that You will provide our church with leaders who are brave and strong, yet humble and obedient. Give those called to leadership the wisdom to trust You fully. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.

D. Thought to Remember

Tough times require strong leaders.