In 1975 my wife and I moved to Waukegan, Illinois, on the shores of the inland freshwater sea called Lake Michigan. We often saw the great freighters and ore boats that plied the waters of the Great Lakes from Duluth on Lake Superior all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. In November of that year, on Lake Superior, a large ore boat went down with the loss of all 29 hands. Stories consisting of a few terse paragraphs, beginning with words like “Edmund Fitzgerald reported missing…” appeared in the back sections of newspapers in ports all along the Great Lakes. Still settling into a new home and new school year, I did not notice.
And then came Gordon Lightfoot’s song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” Its haunting melody and lyrics brought home many of the details of the story, as well as the emotional impact on the families, not only of those lost, but of all those who sail these inland seas. It got my attention, stirred my emotions, and led me to look up the old newspaper accounts to try to understand the tragedy better.
And this is part of a much older tradition. As we shall see, it goes back at least to the time of Deborah, in the Old Testament. Something happens, and narrative accounts are passed down. But to mark significant events, both tragedies and triumphs, we often write songs. Just like the case of the Edmund Fitzgerald, long before I knew the simple facts of a railroad disaster, I heard the song about Casey Jones, the railroad engineer and hero. The narrative stories give the facts; the songs convey the emotional impact. And that is what we have in the story of Deborah. Judges 4 is the “newspaper account,” terse and minimalist. Judges 5, the Song of Deborah and Barack, celebrates the victory and God’s providence. Each account complements the other.
We begin, as Scripture does, with the narrative account: the facts, ma’am, just the facts.
The children of Israel again did that which was evil in Yahweh’s sight, when Ehud was dead.
These words describe an all too familiar pattern under the judges. God would raise up a righteous judge to rescue the people and restore their faith. And so long as the judge lived, the people respected the judge’s example and ordered their lives accordingly. God blessed their reformed behavior, and they prospered.
But in that age or any other, prolonged prosperity breeds unwarranted self-confidence in human beings. We come to believe that prosperity is the natural order of things and that, blessed by material things, we can indulge ourselves in activities that are less than productive. And so there follows a time of trial.
Ehud had delivered them from the tyranny of Moab. But when Ehud died, they forgot that the reforms he fostered had brought them peace and prosperity. So God had to remind them.
Yahweh sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the captain of whose army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth of the Gentiles. The children of Israel cried to Yahweh, for he had nine hundred chariots of iron; and he mightily oppressed the children of Israel for twenty years.
Hazor, where Jabin king of Canaan reigned, lies within the territory given to the tribe of Naphtali.[i] Their tribal lands ran from the western shore of the Sea of Galilee east to the foot of the region known today as the Golan Heights, north to modern day Lebanon, and westward slightly more than half the way from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. It includes the city of Dan, the northernmost large city in Israel at the time. The expression “From Dan to Beersheba” encompasses the entire North-South length of Israel.
So Jabin and his army are an occupying force, displacing Israelites of the tribe of Naphtali, taking their land, occupying their homes, and all the other grim details that includes. Their homes, their crops, their wives and daughters, their children—none of these are safe; none escape the routine cruelties that such an occupation meant in those days. “Mightily oppressed” indeed.
And if you substitute the phrase “Abrams battle tanks” for “chariots of iron,” you get a sense of the military power the Israelites faced, and the threat they lived under. For twenty years. As happens to all of us, in times of difficulty they realized their need for and dependence upon God’s watch care.
Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, judged Israel at that time. She lived under Deborah’s palm tree between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment.
In these few words, we get a picture of the tremendous power Deborah held. First, her designation as a prophetess means that the people recognized her as speaking for God. We tend to think of prophesying as predicting the future, but throughout Scripture the main function of a prophet is to reveal God’s will, counsel, and admonition to His people. She will make predictions in this episode, but that is not her primary function. Whether making predictions or not, she served to relay God’s will to His people.
We tend to think of a judge in the sense of a courtroom. But to be a judge in Israel at this time meant to be a national leader, including military leadership. Gideon and Samson, as two examples, were known almost exclusively for their military achievements. More to the point, as the story of Solomon tells us, judging, in the sense of settling disputes, was a function of a monarch. She is a leader in the fullest sense, functioning as a monarch would, yet without the power of coercion. She has true power–the power of influence, the power of trust. The Israelites “came up to her for judgment” because they saw in her a woman led by God, so they trust her character and her wisdom.
The palm tree where she holds court has become known by her name, “Deborah’s Palm,” and all of Israel journeys there to have her hear their disputes. It gives you some idea of the tremendous stature she had. But we’re about to see it become even bigger.
[i] Map edited by Ed Dickerson. Original is public domain: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10865624