The more we examine it, the more remarkable the song of Deborah and Barak becomes. The two male characters mentioned, Barak and Sisera, are clearly subordinate. Barak is hesitant to attack without Deborah leading; Sisera is dispatched by a peasant woman. The song takes a kind of morbid pleasure in dwelling on the scene of Sisera’s mother gazing anxiously out the window, apprehensive that her son has taken so long to return. She comforts herself that he is busy plundering the Israelites, when in fact he is dead at the hands of Jael.
Not only does this song give dramatic details of the battle, it vividly describes Jael’s assassination of Sisera in what seems lurid detail. As we find in several other episodes in the Old Testament, the song reveals a kind of savage joy that is unsettling for us. It should serve to remind us what courage these circumstances required from women such as Deborah. If this song celebrates the pain and helplessness of Sisera dying with a spike driven through his brain, imagine what frightful deeds the Canaanites would have sung about had the outcome been different. The joy with which this violence is related perhaps gives us an insight into the routine cruelty hidden in the terse phrase “mightily oppressed,” in Judges 4:2. The song is much more understandable when viewed in light of twenty years of suffering.
There are a number of these victory songs in Scripture. We hear of the women singing of “Saul killing his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (1 Sam. 18:7)—much to the irritation of Saul, we might add. The other song of victory that comes to mind is the song of Moses after the victory of the Red Sea. In fact, the descriptions bear some similarities. In both cases, armies are swept away by surging waters.
The biblical author could simply have said that “They sang praise to Yahweh for the victory he gave them,” but he did not. He included the entire song of Deborah and Barak because he deemed it important for Israel to remember the details, and to celebrate the accomplishments of their victory over the Canaanites. The Bible writers are economical with their words. Recording so many words in this song of victory indicates the importance the author places on it. In that respect, it rivals the Song of Moses. Not only that, but in both songs the opposing armies are drowned in surging waters. For the early reader, the comparison would be inevitable, and therefore intended by the author.
If that were not enough to establish Deborah’s significance, the final words of Judges chapter 5 give the results of her judgeship, and seal her significance: Israel had rest for 40 years.
When the monarchy comes, only a few of Israel’s kings will reign so long; David and Solomon, who represent the Golden Age of the Kingdom of Israel, each reigned for forty years. Moreover, the text said that the land had rest for forty years. That was the central purpose of the Land of Promise. There God’s people would find rest. A greater accolade to a ruler can hardly be imagined.
So in Deborah we have a judge who led the people to a military victory over their enemies, a deliverance being compared to the deliverance of Israel through the Red Sea, and who then served as judge during 40 years of peace. There is nothing negative recorded against her; she defeats the enemy, in ways intentionally compared to the deliverance of the Israelites at the Red Sea, then she reigns over 40 years of rest. It is a record unparalleled by any of the other judges.
Come to think of it, how many of the judges can you name? We have one entire book dedicated to describing the exploits of the judges, not counting the books of Samuel which describe the deeds of the last of the judges. Some no doubt would probably remember Gideon and Samson. Very few would know some of the others.
Gideon did rule in peace for forty years, but after his great victory over Midian he made a memorial out of part of the plunder from those battles, and that memorial became an object of worship, “Then all Israel played the prostitute with it there; and it became a snare to Gideon, and to his house” (Judges 8:2). Samson? Well, Samson’s relatively brief misrule was marked with serious problems.
Of the other judges, only Samuel can claim so great a stature as Deborah, but we often forget the consequences caused by the behavior of his sons.
When Samuel was old, he made his sons judges over Israel…. His sons didn’t walk in his ways, but turned aside after dishonest gain, took bribes, and perverted justice. Then all the elders of Israel gathered themselves together and came to Samuel to Ramah. They said to him, “Behold, you are old, and your sons don’t walk in your ways. Now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.”
Sadly, despite Samuel’s personal piety, his sons’ corrupt behavior is a black mark on his legacy.
This is the ultimate goal of any ruler, as far as the Bible is concerned, that they should give God’s people rest. There is essentially no higher accolade that inspired writers can give any ruler, than to say that during his or—as in this case—her tenure, God’s people experience rest. Based on this, we would have to conclude that Deborah is the greatest of the judges. But clearly, of all the judges, Deborah and Samuel stand out above the rest. That would make Deborah and Samuel the “strong partners” as Judges of Israel.
The next woman we shall consider has probably the most complex story of all the women in scripture.