Deborah & Jael: Models of Courage


Deborah and Jael were contemporaries who lived during the time of the judges in the Old Testament period. Both of them played very important roles in the deliverance of the nation of Israel from oppression under the hand of Jabin, a nearby king.

Their account is recorded in Judges 4 and 5; and in Hebrews 11:32-34.

What this account reveals about these women

Deborah, called “a mother in Israel” (5:7), was the nation’s only female judge. She was humble, courageous, and wise, and she did what she could. Her name means “a bee,”and it has been said that she was “a honey bee to her friends, but a stinging bee to the enemy” (Fausset’s Bible Dictionary). She evidently had a close relationship with God. She did not make a big deal out of her gender, but she did rebuke Barak when he relied too heavily on her.

A palm tree was named after Deborah (4:5). Who named it? Her, or the people? My guess would be the people named it. She herself seems rather unpretentious, and quite simply, that was where she could be found. I believe Deborah stayed close to home so she could care for her family. By contrast, the prophet Samuel traveled throughout the country quite extensively. He was greatly used of God, but his children did not follow in his footsteps. Could it be because he was an absentee father?

Deborah made it clear to Barak (4:6-7) that this was the Lord’s battle, but Barak insisted that she go with him. I think he trusted her more than God. Because Barak depended too much on Deborah, the honor was given to a woman. However, I noticed that in Hebrews 13:32-34, Barak is named, but not Deborah or Jael. So God honored him too, long after his death, though in life the honor went to the women.

Chapter 5 is a song of victory, sung (and perhaps also composed) by Deborah and Barak together. This is one of the oldest samples of Hebrew literature, and it is truly remarkable. Hebrew songs were important as a way to pass down their oral history. They would sing the songs to their children from generation to generation to remind them of the mighty acts of God.

Let’s look more closely at the song itself. Twice it is stated in the song that the people willingly offered themselves for the battle (5:2,9), but both times they praised the Lord, giving Him credit for their willingness.  Sadly, the vast majority of the tribes stayed home and continued on with business as usual (5:16-17). Only the two tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali (v.18) came to fight. Deborah and Barak rebuked the apathy of the others, but God was not disturbed. As in the case of Gideon, the army was deliberately kept small because God wanted to make it abundantly clear that His hand won the battle, not theirs (4:6-7).

Both Barak and Deborah are singing, but I believe they are taking turns and that 5:28-30 came from Deborah, for as a woman she would surely understand a mother’s heart. Regardless of who sang the words, this portion of the song also lends a sense of humanity to the scene. Sure, Sisera was the captain of the enemy’s army, but he was also a son, a friend, and very likely a husband and father. For that matter, the Bible says the entire army was destroyed (4:16), so there were a good many grieving mothers, widows, orphans, and friends.

Notice the humility of God’s army (5:10). Most were on foot, and those who rode were on donkeys, not horses. “White asses” is such an oxymoron. Their color suggests regality while their breeding suggests humility. But I wonder if there is a connection between the use of asses here and our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Mt 21:5).

God blesses those who stand with Israel and curses those who do not (5:23). Jael stood with Israel and was blessed. She was the wife of Heber, a descendant of Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law. Heber was friendly with both the Israelites and Sisera. Was he a peaceable man who got along with everyone? Or had he formed an alliance with Sisera merely to gain his trust so that he would let his guard down? We do not know where Heber was when his wife killed Sisera or whether he would have approved of her actions. It is possible that she acted completely independent of him.

In Judges 4:17-24 we read about Jael’s courageous act. Barak and his army were slaughtering the enemy, and Sisera ran away from the battle, coming near to the tents of Heber and Jael. They were considered allies, so when Jael went out to greet Sisera and invited him into her tent, he gladly accepted. He asked her for water, but she did one better than that and offered him buttermilk. With both his thirst and hunger satiated, he lay down to rest, and she covered him with a blanket to make him more comfortable. Then when he was sound asleep, she took a mallet and drove a tent spike into his temples, nailing him to the floor.

The name Jael means “mountain goat.” I’m not sure that there is any significance to her name in the context of this account, but I did learn that although a mountain goat is not a predator, the nanny will kill to protect her young. Jael was not protecting herself, as she was apparently in no danger; but she was protecting her neighbors the Israelites. She has received much criticism from Bible commentators due to the crude manner in which she killed the army captain, but God does not condemn her for it. In fact, she fulfilled the prophecy that Sisera would be taken down by a woman. The truth is, she did what she could. Jael had no traditional weapons at her disposal, and she certainly had never been taught how to fight; but she knew how to drive a tent peg, so that is what she did.

What this account reveals about God

  • God uses whom He will, and He certainly has a high regard for women.
  • His instructions are clear and simple: Obey and be blessed.
  • It took the Israelites 20 years to repent, but God in His mercy gave them 40 years of peace (4:3; 5:31).
  • God cares about all people, not just His people. He will judge those who persecute His people, but He acknowledges their value as individuals, and He is patient with them, giving them plenty of time to repent of their wickedness. Perhaps that is another reason why He waited 20 years to deliver Israel from their hand.

Personal application

All God expects of me is that I be where He wants me to be and do what He wants me to do. Obedience is mine; the results and the glory belong to God. If I am unsung on earth, that is no matter, for I will receive my reward in heaven, and that is a reward that will never fade or lose its value. God will accomplish His will with or without me, but He longs to use me, and He promises to bless all who do His will (5:23).

Next week: Sarah

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