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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible

Judges 4

 

 

Verse 1

1. Again did evil… when Ehud was dead — A clear intimation that as long as Ehud lived his influence kept the people from idolatry, as well as that his strong arm had delivered them from the power of their enemies.


Verses 1-24

JABIN’S OPPRESSION, AND THE DELIVERANCE BY DEBORAH AND BARAK, Judges 4:1-24.

The historical narrative contained in this chapter, and the triumphal song that follows, inform us of the most fearful oppression and the most remarkable triumph of the age of the Judges.


Verse 2

2. Sold them — See note on Judges 2:14.

Jabin king of Canaan — This powerful monarch was probably a descendant of the Jabin who headed the confederacy of the northern Canaanites against Joshua, but who was signally defeated by that great conqueror. Joshua 11:1-15. He had taken advantage of Israel’s many oppressions, and gradually strengthened his power in the north, and enlarged his kingdom, until he could send into the field a vast army with nearly a thousand iron chariots. Judges 4:3. Having reduced all Israel to the most servile subjection, he was virtually ruler of the whole land, and called king of Canaan. The name Jabin was probably a royal title of the kings that reigned in Hazor. On this capital, see note at Joshua 11:1.

Captain… Sisera — Jabin, like Abimelech, (Genesis 21:22,) had a captain, or general, to command his army. Most of the kings of that time commanded their armies in person. Doubtless Sisera’s great military skill and sagacity had won him this honour. The famous Rabbi Akiba is said to have descended from this Canaanite general.

Harosheth — “About eight miles from Megiddo, at the entrance of the pass to Esdraelon from the plain of Acre, is an enormous double mound called Harothieh. It is still covered with the remains of old walls and buildings. It was probably called Harosheth of the Gentiles, or nations, because it belonged to those Gentiles of Acre and the neighbouring plains which we know, from Judges 1:31, the Hebrews could not subdue.” — Thomson.


Verse 3

3. Israel cried — Compare Judges 3:9; Judges 3:15, note.

Nine hundred chariots — The Jabin with whom Joshua fought had also many chariots. For cut of ancient war chariot, see at Joshua 11:4.


Verse 4

4. Deborah, a prophetess — One of the most celebrated women and most remarkable characters of the Old Testament. The title prophetess indicates her possession of a divine gift which exalted her above the dignity of a military commander, and made her an oracle to whom the people came for counsel. Rebecca’s nurse had borne her name, (Genesis 35:8,) and Moses’ sister Miriam had possessed the spirit of prophecy (Exodus 15:20) ages before this date, but never before had a woman appeared who combined in herself such wisdom, authority, and power as this “mother in Israel.” The manly energy and spirit of the nation had almost expired, when a woman appeared to be the saviour. Joan of Arc may be cited as a somewhat singular parallel to Deborah in modern history. No great and noble act which she has power to do is out of woman’s sphere.

Wife of Lapidoth — The versions and most interpreters take Lapidoth as a proper name, and understand it of Deborah’s husband, and this is the most natural and simple explanation. Others translate the word as the plural of lapid, a lamp, and render, a woman of lights or of splendours, thus poetically designating the brilliancy and force of her genius and power. Cassel renders, woman of a fiery spirit, and explains that she was a divinely-lighted torch to kindle the languid hearts of Israel. Some rabbins have thought that she was so called from having had charge of the lamps in the tabernacle.

She judged Israel — By giving counsel and pronouncing decisions on cases that were submitted to her.


Verse 5

5. Dwelt under the palm tree — This was her official seat or throne. “She sat under a large palm, public and free, accessible to all; not like the German Velleda, who, according to Tacitus, sat in a tower, and to whom no one was admitted, in order to increase the veneration in which she was held. The palm was the common symbol of Canaan; it adorned the coins of both the Phenicians and the Jews.” — Cassel. From its being the well known place where this prophetess judged, and being popularly called after her, it was still known to the historian as the palm tree of Deborah.

Between Ramah and Beth-el — These cities fell within the territory of Ephraim, and were about six miles apart. The great mountain range in which they lay early acquired the name of Mount Ephraim, from its being largely allotted to that tribe. Joshua 16.

Came up to her for judgment — They came unto the prophetess as unto a divine oracle, seeking to know the divine will and judgment in cases of difficulty or danger.


Verse 6

6. She sent and called Barak — The prophetess has a higher divine calling and authority than the commander of the army, and, like Elisha in the war with Mesha, a later king of Moab, gives directions which the officers of the army must obey. The name Barak means lightning — appropriate name for the hero of the flashing sword.

Kedesh-naphtali — So called from being in the tribe territory of Naphtali. Joshua 19:37. It was a city of refuge, and the sacred city of the northern tribes. Joshua 20:7.

Hath not the Lord… commanded — The interrogative form of expressing a most emphatic affirmation.

Draw toward — Proceed in small companies, one after another, so as not to attract notice, or excite too sudden alarm. Mount Tabor is in several respects the most remarkable mountain of Palestine. It rises from the northeastern part of the great Plain of Esdraelon, and, according to Newman, its graceful form varies with the standpoint of the beholder. Viewed from the heights of Carmel, it resembles a truncated cone; as seen from the northern hills of Galilee, it reminds one of the pyramids of Egypt; from the mountains of Samaria it appears like the segment of a great circle; and from the hills just south, it is not unlike a terraced mound or woodland park. Its summit commands a magnificent view of the great Plain of Jezreel below, which from the time of Deborah and Barak has been the battlefield of the nations. The occupation of Tabor gave Barak an advantage over Sisera’s forces, which were at Harosheth, near the mouth of the Kishon valley, and must approach to meet him in the plain below.

Ten thousand men — An even number, to indicate approximately the force required. It was not to be too large, so as to be unwieldy; nor too small, so as to lack the force and enthusiasm of a considerable host. Of…

Naphtali and… Zebulun — These tribes, who had chiefly felt the bitter oppression of Jabin, braved most, and probably suffered most, in this war. Comp. note on chap. Judges 5:18. These tribes, too, were nearest to the field of battle, and most readily summoned by Barak, whose home was in Naphtali.

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Verse 7

7. I will draw unto thee… Sisera — She speaks in the name of Jehovah, who has power to influence human hearts, and turn them whithersoever he will.

River Kishon — See on Judges 5:21.

With his chariots — Rather, and his chariots. Jehovah disposed the events and controlled the issues of this war so as to bring victory to his people. In drawing Sisera’s hosts and chariots towards Barak, and along the Kishon, Jehovah prepared the way for their utter ruin by means of the driving tempest and the swelling flood. Compare Judges 5:4-5; Judges 5:20-22.


Verse 8

8. If thou wilt not go with me, then I will not go — The great general at once recognizes that Jehovah speaks in Deborah, and that as messenger of God she is not only his own superior, but her presence the pledge of his success. Pausanias says, that in the Messinian war “The soldiers fought bravely because their seers were present.”


Verse 9

9. Not be for thine honour — The honour would go to Jehovah as the author, and to a woman as the instrument. No one, indeed, could say, “No thanks to Barak,” for he bravely led the hosts to battle; but how immensely greater his honour had he gone without the prophetess, trusting solely in the word and power of his God!

Sell Sisera into the hand of a woman — The victory will be ascribed to Deborah rather than to Barak, and Sisera will fall by a woman’s hand, even by the hand of Jael, the wife of Heber. Judges 4:21. Thus Barak suffered loss of honour in that Deborah, in a general sense, and Jael more particularly, robbed him of this crown. This prophecy, that Sisera was to fall by a woman’s hand, was probably noised abroad, and reached the ears of Heber’s wife.

Went with Barak — “For the sake of the great national cause she leaves her peaceful palm, and by her readiness to share in every danger evidences the truth of her announcements.” — Cassel.

To Kedesh — The house of Barak, and the rendezvous of the northern tribes. Judges 4:6.


Verse 10

10. Ten thousand men at his feet — That is, following after him as their leader. Compare Exodus 11:8. Barak’s soldiers were all footmen; he had no chariots.


Verse 11

11. The Kenite — On the Kenites, see note at chap. Judges 1:16. The Hebrew reads, And Heber the Kenite had separated himself from Kain, of the sons of Hobab. Heber’s emigration from the wilderness south of Arad, and his settlement here near Kedesh, is introduced at this point to prepare the reader for what follows in Judges 4:17-22.

Hobab — See at Numbers 10:29.

Father-in-law of Moses — In Numbers he is called the son of Raguel, (Raguel or Reuel is the same person as Jethro; compare Exodus 2:18, with Judges 3:1,) and that is probably the more accurate statement. In this merely casual reference the writer does not pause for exact and detailed statements. According to Cassel “ חתן means to contract affinity by marriage; and just as in German schwaker (father-in-law) and schwager (brother-in-law) are at bottom one, so the Hebrew חתן may stand for both father in law and brother in law.”

The plain of Zaanaim — Rather, the oak in Zaanaim. The Zaanannim of Joshua 19:33, was probably the same place. “The oak was probably some noted tree, perhaps a patriarch in a sacred grove, beneath or around which the nomad shepherds of those days were accustomed to pitch their tents, as Abraham pitched his by the oak of Mamre. The green pastures which abound around the ruins of Kedesh are studded to this day with large oak trees; and the writer has seen, at more than one place, the black tents of the nomad Turkman pitched beneath them. The name Zaanaim, which appears to signify removings, (as if a camping ground,) has passed away; at least no trace of it has bees discovered.” — Porter.


Verse 15

15. The Lord discomfited Sisera — Confused and confounded him, and gave such an impulse to the warriors of Barak that the vigorous use of their swords was more terrible than Jabin’s chariots, and filled all the Canaanitish host with such sudden alarm that they fled panic stricken before the Israelites. There was also direct miraculous interposition. “They fought from heaven,” says Judges 5:20, and Josephus states that there came a violent tempest and hail, which so obscured the eyes of Sisera’s host that they could not use their arrows and slings, and many were killed by their own horses and chariots. The rain had swelled the Kishon to a flood, so that its rushing waters swept multitudes away. Judges 5:21. The flight of the defeated host would naturally be down the valley towards Harosheth.

Sisera lighted — Hoping, probably, to elude pursuit.

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Verse 16

16. Barak pursued — The footmen had the advantage of the enemy’s chariots, which, after the rain, must have stuck in the softened soil.

Not a man left — A hyperbolical expression to denote the utter ruin of Sisera’s army. Judges 5:12, intimates that some captives were taken.


Verse 17

17. Tent of Jael — According to Dr. Thomson, Heber had removed for the time from his home near Kedesh, and pitched his tent for winter quarters at the border of the Plain of Esdraelon. Hence the tent of Jael was not so far from the battle field as Kedesh, which was nearly two days’ journey distant. “I once,” says Thomson, “crossed the lower part of Esdraelon in the winter. It was then full of Arab tents, and at first I felt a little nervous; but my guide assured me there was no danger, for he was well acquainted with these Arabs. Their home was in the mountains north of Nazareth, and they only came down here to pass the cold months of winter. This was the very thing that Heber did, and who knows but these Arabs are lineal descendants of that heroic Jaal.”

Peace between Jabin… and… Heber — This shows why Sisera so readily entered Jael’s tent, and seemed to have such confidence in her. He was probably acquainted with Jael, and knew of Heber’s alliance with Jabin, and fled to her tent with the purpose and expectation of being sheltered there.


Verse 18

18. Jael went out to meet him — It is probable that tidings of Sisera’s defeat and Israel’s great victory had already reached her by some swift-footed fugitive, and she was looking out for further news, when lo! Sisera himself came rushing towards her tent. We understand that, being acquainted with Deborah’s prediction, (Judges 4:9,) she planned the murder of Sisera as soon as she saw him flying towards her, the conviction flashing that moment upon her that hers was the woman’s hand by whom the Canaanitish chief should fall. See note at the end of the chapter.


Verse 19

19. A bottle of milk — “He asked water and she gave him milk.” Chap.

Judges 5:25. Josephus states that it was milk already sour. Sour or curdled milk (lebban) is still a common and favourite drink among the Arabs. Thus Jael satisfied Sisera’s thirst by giving him a drink esteemed better than water, and by such apparent kindness allayed suspicion.


Verse 20

20. Thou shalt say, No — On these words Bush has the following: “The custom adopted in some families of instructing servants to say, ‘Not at home,’ when a master or mistress does not wish to receive company, is directly at variance with the dictates of Christian simplicity and sincerity; nor is it anything in its favour that it here has the sanction of a wicked heathen warrior, doomed to destruction.” On the morality of Jael’s action, see at the end of the chapter.


Verse 21

21. A nail of the tent — Or, a tent-pin, sometimes made of iron, but commonly of wood, to which, when driven into the ground, the ropes of a tent are fastened. “The nail which Jael used was a tent-pin, now, as then, called wated, and the hammer was the mallet with which it is driven into the ground. It is not necessary to suppose that either of them were of iron. The wated was probably a sharp-pointed pin of hard wood, and the hammer was the ordinary mallet used by these tent-dwelling Arabs.” — Thomson.

Smote the nail into his temples — Stanley thus pictures this scene: “Her attitude, her weapon, her deed, are described both in the historic and poetic account of the event, as if fixed in the national mind. She stands like the personification of the figure of speech so famous in the names of Judas the Maccabee, (the Hebrew word for hammer is maccab,) and Charles Martel — the Hammer of her country’s enemies. Step by step we see her advance: first, the dead silence with which she approaches the sleeper, slumbering with the weariness of one who has run far and fast; then the successive blows with which she hammers, crushes, beats, and pierces through and through the forehead of the upturned face, till the point of the nail reaches the very ground on which the slumberer is stretched; and then comes the one startling bound, the contortion of agony with which the expiring man rolls over from the low divan, and lies weltering in blood between her feet as she strides over the lifeless corpse.”

Fastened it into the ground — Rather, it went down into the ground; the tent pin passed through his head so as to reach to the very earth beneath him.

For he was fast asleep and weary — This statement is parenthetical, showing how it was practicable for Jael to dispatch Sisera in the way she did. Compare the poetical description in Judges 5:26-27.


Verse 22

22. Behold, Sisera lay dead — As Barak gazed on the bloody sight, and saw that Sisera had perished by a woman’s hand, he realized the fulfilment of Deborah’s words, (Judges 4:9,) “The journey shall not be for thine honour, for the Lord shall sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.”


Verse 24

24. Prospered… prevailed… destroyed — Compare marginal reading. “The meaning is, that Barak’s great victory was the beginning of a successful resistance to Jabin, by which the Israelites recovered their independence, and finally broke the Canaanite power. Accordingly we hear no more of Canaanite dominion in the Book of Judges.” — Hervey.

The morality of Jael’s deed has been, of course, the subject of many a dissertation. The enemies of the Bible would fain use it to throw reproach on the sacred history; and as both Jael and her deed are evidently praised by an inspired poetess, in Judges 5:24-27, the friends of truth have sought in various ways to show how such praise might be compatible with the apparent wickedness of Jael’s act. It is claimed that her deed violated all the proper usages of war. A fugitive chieftain, an ally of her husband, defeated and almost exhausted, sought protection in her tent, and received from her more than the common tokens of security. But, in violation of the sacred rites of hospitality, she murdered in his sleep her confiding and unprotected guest. This surely makes up a dark picture; but it is one sided, and overdrawn by magnifying certain points at the expense of others which are equally prominent in the sacred history. The whole subject may be relieved of difficulty by attention to the following considerations.

1. Though Heber was at peace with Jabin, and neutral in this war, there were circumstances in view of which Jael might not have felt herself bound to observe at this time the treaty of her husband. She was, perhaps, an Israelitess; but if not, her husband’s family were historically identified with the interests of Israel. She had before her eyes abundant evidence that Jabin’s power was utterly broken and annihilated in all that region where Heber had his home. She could not but feel, therefore, that her husband’s alliance with Jabin was no longer binding. “Israel’s freedom is her freedom; Israel’s glory her glory. Shall she be idle when the tyrant gives himself up into her hands? What if she saves him? Will it not be treason on her part against the ancient covenant with Israel? The conflict in which she finds herself is great, and none but a great and powerful soul could end it as she does. She scorns the reward which Sisera’s safety might, perhaps, have brought her. She takes the nobler object into consideration — the freedom of a kindred nation — and the older right preponderates. A ruthless warrior is before her, the violator of a thousand laws of right, and all hesitation vanishes.” — Cassel.

2. The prophecy of Deborah, that Sisera was to fall by a woman’s hand, (Judges 4:9,) was probably known to Jael. She had not been personally designated as that woman, but when she saw Sisera flying on foot and alone, and coming towards her tent, the thought might naturally have flashed upon her mind that she herself was the divinely appointed instrument.

3. In Judges 4:19 we are expressly told that Jael went out to meet Sisera, and urged him to come in. Now suppose that upon his approach she had not gone forth to meet him, but, like the woman of Thebez who killed Abimelech, (Judges 9:53,) had broken his skull with a stone, or even had suddenly rushed forth and thrust a dagger to his heart, who would have charged her with gross wickedness? But if it was her purpose, from the moment she first saw him running towards her, to destroy him, then where appears so much guilt and wickedness as is pretended, merely in the means she used? She probably knew no other way to ensure his destruction by her own hand. Her tent afforded no height from which to crush him with a stone, and to rush forth and attack him in single combat would have been to expose herself to needless danger, if not to certain death. She therefore strategically drew him as into a snare and killed him. Once grant that his destruction was her settled purpose from the beginning, based on her knowledge of Deborah’s prophecy, and the measures she used were but the stratagems of battle. Her deed receives all its glory and significance from the war, with which it is ever to be associated; and what are artifice and stratagem but legitimate parts of war? Who blames the artifice by which Ai was taken when once he sees that its destruction was the will of God? The ability of the greatest generals is often seen more in their skill to deceive and entrap the foe than in their prowess in battle; and, in Judges 4:20, Sisera orders her to lie, and thus deceive his pursuers.

4. As for Deborah’s praise of Jael’s deed, a clew is furnished in the closing verse of her song, (Judges 5:31,) “So perish all thy enemies, Jehovah.” It is to be explained, like the vindictive Psalms, from the standpoint of the Divine administration. “It is not the poetess, who utters a private wish of her own,” says Bachmann, “but the prophetess, who utters a truth deeply grounded in the very essence of God — a weighty law of divine righteousness for all after ages to observe. Sisera’s fall is regarded by her as a righteous judgment of Heaven upon one who was a foe to the name and kingdom of God.” The same Spirit that could justly curse Meroz for neglect to intercept the flying the (Judges 5:23) might well bless Jael’s deed, but might as justly have cursed her had she been guilty of similar neglect. And so the whole song of Deborah breathes the noblest theocratic spirit of her age and people.

There is no need, therefore, of supposing that Deborah speaks only as the poetess, or the patriotic woman in sympathy with the fortunes of Israel; and we reject the notion of Farrar, (in Smith’s Bible Dictionary,) and all similar views, that an inspired prophetess uttered this blessing “in the passionate moment of patriotic triumph,” without pausing “to scrutinize the moral bearings of an act which had been so splendid a benefit to herself and her people.”

 


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Bibliography Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Judges 4:4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/whe/judges-4.html. 1874-1909.

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