All right, we are now ready to move into the main body of the book, the period under the judges. It begins at 3:7 and continues through 16:31. It consists of three major sections. The first is from the first apostasy to deliverance from Jabin, which is 3:7-5:31. That was the period of Othniel, Ehud and Deborah. The second is the time of the Midianite oppression, during which Gideon served as the primary deliverer of the people. That is found in 6:1-10:5. And the third is the period of Ammonite and Philistine supremacy during which Jephthah and Samson were the major figures. It is located in 10:6-16:31. Today we are going to cover that first section, 3:7-5:31.
The section begins in 3:7-11 with a summary of Israel’s first apostasy and deliverance. That is the typical pattern in a nutshell. Aram-naharaim was an area in Mesopotamia near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Therefore the attack probably came from the north. Since Othniel was a leader of a southern tribe, it suggests that there was still some measure of unity among the Israelite tribes early in the period of the judges.
Asherahs refer to cult objects dedicated to the goddess Astates. She was the consort of Baal and the goddess of fertility, especially vegetation. Thus the tree was a symbol of her realm of authority. The asherahs probably were wooden pillars that symbolized the sacred tree.
Note in verse 10 the supernatural empowerment of Othniel by the Holy Spirit. And notice also that the peace lasted as long as the judge lived. That was an important part of the pattern. While the judge was alive, he could keep the people faithful. But as soon as the great leader died, the people slipped back into apostasy.
After the death of Othniel, Israel’s apostasy brought about oppression by the Moabites, verses 12-30. Notice in verse 12 that “the Lord strengthened King Eglon of Moab against Israel, because they had done what was evil” in his sight. God was still in control. And he was using Moab, in alliance with the Ammonites and the Amalekites, to chastise his wayward people.
Moab was located east of the Dead Sea. Ammon lay northeast of Moab. And the Amalekites dwelled south of Judah, and thus west of the Dead Sea. The forces led by Eglon crossed the Jordan in approximately the same area that Israel had years before, because their first objective was “the city of Palms,” which was Jericho, verse 13.
According to the recurring pattern, after a number of years, verse 14, Israel repented; and the Lord raised up a left-handed judge named Ehud, verse 15. The deliverance was accomplished in an unusual way. Israel sent Ehud to Eglon with an impressive tribute, verse 15. But Ehud had a sword strapped to his thigh, verses 16. And by means of a careful plan, he assassinated Eglon and escaped, verses 17-26. The details are rather gory.
Once back in Israel, Ehud raised an army, verse 27; and his strategy was clear. He cut off possible escape by the Moabite forces across the Jordan by seizing the fords, verse 28. And then he essentially wiped them out, verses 29-30.
The mention of Shamgar in verse 31 is interesting, but leaves any unanswerable questions. First, it departs from the usual pattern. There is no mention of Israel’s having done evil, of Philistine oppression, nor of a time of rest for the people. Second, Ehud is mentioned once again in 4:1 suggesting that there was no judge between Ehud and Deborah. Third, Shamgar is named in Deborah’s song (5:6) in connection with unsafe roads. It may be that Shamgar lived during the time of Ehud or Deborah and was a judge only in the sense of having successfully fought against the Philistines.
In chapter four we find the story of Deborah, followed in chapter five with a song of triumph from her victorious days. Let me first set forth some of the geography. Hazor where Jabin reigned was located north of the Sea of Galilee, which is quite far north. Deborah on the other hand was judging Israel “between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim” (vv. 4-5. Thus she was serving far to the south. Barak, whom Deborah chose to lead the army of Israel (v. 6), was from Kedesh in Naphtali, which was a little northwest of lake Hula, not far from Hazor in the north. So once again there appears to be more unity among the tribes during the days of the judges than is sometimes thought.
With this particular story, we may be as much as a century beyond the initial conquest of Canaan by Joshua. You may remember that Joshua had conquered a king Jabin of Hazor during the northern part of that first phase of the conquest. That story is recorded in Josh. 11:1-15.
Of course some scholars want to claim the author of Judges is confused. But there is no serious problem here. The kings of Hazor may have taken the name Jabin as an hereditary name, a practice known in those ancient times. For example, all of the kings of Egypt were known as Pharaoh. At any rate, Jabin probably was an old man, because he has very little prominence in the narrative. Instead it is his general Sisera who is at the forefront of the story.
Notice that there is no doubt about Sisera’s superior military power. He had 900 chariots at his command. And he subjugated Israel for a lengthy period of time (v. 3). Notice also that Deborah did not come on the scene quite as suddenly as some of the other judges. That is, the Lord had brought her to prominence by enabling her to judge the people in the sense of dispensing justice. Thus at the time of the events recorded, she already had a considerable reputation in Israel (vv. 4-5).
Deborah commanded Barak by divine authority. He was to rally the troops at Mount Tabor, which was located at the junction of the tribal portions of Issachar, Naphtali and Zebulun, a little southwest of the Sea of Galilee (v. 6). It is interesting that Barak would not go without Deborah (v. 8). One commentator suggests that he was afraid. However, that was not it. He understood and appreciated the inspirational value of Deborah’s person; and he wanted that for both himself and his troops.
Deborah agreed to go with him, but she prophesied that Barak would get no glory. Rather it would go to a woman. As we shall see, that is exactly what happened, though the woman was not Deborah (v. 9). Verse 11 is parenthetical and simply serves to introduce the family of the heroine Jael who comes into the narrative a little later. Then verses 12-16 describe the battle in such brief terms that it would be impossible without some information from the song in chapter five to tell what happened.
We are told in verse 15 that Sisera’s army was thrown into a panic; but we are not told why. But in the song in chapter five, we learn what happened. There we see how the Lord threw the armies of Sisera into a panic. It rained so much that the fields became sodden with water. And then the rivers overflowed. These circumstances would have rendered the chariots of Sisera useless (5:19-21). And Israel won a total victory.
The rest of chapter four (vv. 17-21) contains the story of Jael. It is a rather gruesome story. She was the wife of a Kenite, a nation at peace with king Jabin. So Sisera, who was fleeing from Barak, came to her tent and trusted her to help him. Jael gave Sisera food and a place to rest. And she agreed to warn Sisera if the Israelites came. Then he fell into an exhausted sleep. But instead of warning Sisera, Jael murdered him by driving a tent peg through his head. When Barak caught up with Sisera at Jael’s tent, Sisera was dead. And the war with King Jabin soon was over (vv. 22-24).
As I indicated earlier, chapter five contains a triumph song of Deborah. Verse one is a prose introduction. Thus the poem proper begins at verse two with a summons to praise the Lord. Then the song unfolds in three sections. The first two sections have three subsections, and the third has two.
In the first section, 5:3-11, the significance of the victory is extolled. The first sub-section, verses 3-5, exalts the glory days of Israel when Moses was alive. Notice the link to Mt. Sinai in verse five. God spoke to Israel there out of a storm, and possibly out of an earthquake. The fact that the Lord won the day for Israel in Deborah’s day by a storm and an earthquake adds power to the poetic connection.
Then the second sub-section, verses 6-8, presents the decline of the nation prior to the rise of Deborah. The third sub-section, verses 9-11, concludes the section with a presentation of the joyful turn of affairs following the victory.
Verse 12 is a fresh summons to rejoice in the victory; and the second section of the song, 5:13-21, which supplies a vivid description of the conflict and Israel’s victory, follows that. The first sub-section, verses 13-15a, extols the tribes who answered the call to war. Then the second sub-section, verses 15b-18, delineates the cowardice of those who did not rally to Deborah. And the third sub-section, verses 19-22, proclaims the successful result of the conflict with the supernatural help of the Lord.
Then comes the third section, 5:23-31, which provides a dramatic conclusion. Its first sub-section, verses 23-27, strongly contrasts the failure of the city of Meroz to support Deborah’s cause with Jael’s heroic act of killing Sisera. And then the second sub-section, verses 28-30, gives a scornful picture of the mother of Sisera vainly awaiting his return and the anticipated spoil of the battle that he would bring to her.
The song then closes with the hope, founded on the victory, that all of the enemies of the Lord might perish, and that her friends might shine brightly as the sun (v. 31).
As we think a moment about application of these two chapters to our lives, the first point I would like to make is in respect to 4:6-7. The point is that the divine call always is accompanied by divine enablement. God revealed to Deborah that Barak and the army of Israel could defeat the army of Jabin and his commander, Sisera. She told Barak that God would draw out Sisera and his troops to a certain place and would give them into his hand (v. 6). And that is exactly what happened. God called Barak and Israel to defeat Sisera and gave instructions on how to do it. Barak followed those instructions, and the Lord did what he said he would do.
The ironic thing is that the men who made up Israel’s army were the same men who had been cowering under the cruel bondage of Jabin for twenty years (4:3). But under the inspiration and power of God, they plunged into battle with Barak against a far superior force and won (4:12-16).
The same can be true for us. If and when God calls us to some task, whatever it might be, the divine call always is accompanied by divine enablement. He will enable us to accomplish that which he has called us to do.