When I was growing up, I remember hearing stories about heroes from the Bible: David, Samson, Joshua, Gideon, Deborah. As a little girl, I especially enjoyed the stories of Deborah, Ruth, Rahab, Esther, and Mary. These were stories of women of faith who did great things. These were role-models.
After I was grown, I began to notice a difference in the way some people talked about Deborah: Sure she was a leader and a judge, but that was a bad thing. Obviously she was only a leader because no men were willing to lead. It was a judgment on Israel to have a woman leader. Look at that weak man, Barak. He was such a coward. He wasn’t willing to go into battle without Deborah, a woman! We shouldn’t use Deborah as an example of good leadership. She’s “non-normative.” We should certainly have more faith than poor Barak showed, etc. etc.
Maybe you haven’t heard these interpretations of Judges 4, but in certain groups it’s becoming a very common theme. For example, I ran across this excerpt from an article recently. The author imagines a conversation between Barak and Deborah after the battle (we’ll skip over the wisdom of putting words into the mouths of Biblical figures):
Barak poured some more wine. Then cradling the cup in both hands, elbows on his knees, he stared into the fire. “I still don’t understand what evil I committed in wanting you to come with me. You’re a prophetess. Who wouldn’t want a prophet with him when going into battle?”
“Wanting a prophet with you wasn’t evil,” replied Deborah. “The evil was refusing to go to battle unless I went with you.” Barak’s brow furrowed. “Barak,” she said earnestly. He looked over at her. “It was the Lord who promised that he would give Sisera into your hand. My role as a prophet was just to speak the Lord’s word to you. The power lay in the promise, not the prophet. When you refused to go unless I accompanied you, it revealed that your confidence was in me, not God’s word. By trusting my presence for victory more than God’s promise, you gave the messenger more glory than the message. It made me an idol. That was the evil. God kept his promise to you because he’s always faithful. But because you took glory away from him and gave it to another, he took glory away from you and gave it to another.”
It seems to me that many times when we expand beyond what Scripture says we end up giving interpretations that tell us more about ourselves than about the passage. In the excerpt above, Barak is guilty of being faithless, and his punishment was that he received no glory from the victory over Sisera. But as good Reformed Christians, maybe we should consider first what the Bible says about Deborah and Barak. The passage is found in Judges 4. It’s not a very long one. Here’s the pertinent part:
Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment. She sent and summoned Barak the son of Abinoam from Kedesh-naphtali and said to him, “Has not the LORD, the God of Israel, commanded you, ‘Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking 10,000 from the people of Naphtali and the people of Zebulun. And I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the river Kishon with his chariots and his troops, and I will give him into your hand’?” Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” And she said, “I will surely go with you. Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the LORD will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” Then Deborah arose and went with Barak to Kedesh. (Judges 4:4-9 ESV)
And Deborah said to Barak, “Up! For this is the day in which the LORD has given Sisera into your hand. Does not the LORD go out before you?” So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with 10,000 men following him. And the LORD routed Sisera and all his chariots and all his army before Barak by the edge of the sword. And Sisera got down from his chariot and fled away on foot. And Barak pursued the chariots and the army to Harosheth-hagoyim, and all the army of Sisera fell by the edge of the sword; not a man was left.
But Sisera fled away on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, for there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite. And Jael came out to meet Sisera and said to him, “Turn aside, my lord; turn aside to me; do not be afraid.” So he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. And he said to her, “Please give me a little water to drink, for I am thirsty.” So she opened a skin of milk and gave him a drink and covered him. And he said to her, “Stand at the opening of the tent, and if any man comes and asks you, ‘Is anyone here?’ say, ‘No.’” But Jael the wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand. Then she went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple until it went down into the ground while he was lying fast asleep from weariness. So he died. And behold, as Barak was pursuing Sisera, Jael went out to meet him and said to him, “Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.” So he went in to her tent, and there lay Sisera dead, with the tent peg in his temple.
So on that day God subdued Jabin the king of Canaan before the people of Israel. (Judges 4:14-23 ESV)
So, Deborah is a judge during the oppressive rule of Jabin, the king of Canaan, and Sisera, his army commander. Note that nothing is said about why Deborah is a judge. Was she a judge because there weren’t any men willing to lead? The passage is silent.
But what about Barak? Surely there is evidence to show that he’s a weak leader and not strong in his faith. Well, the passage does have Deborah reminding Barak that God has commanded him to go and defeat Sisera. Barak then tells Deborah that he won’t go unless she goes with him. She agrees but warns him that he won’t receive glory from Sisera’s defeat. Sisera will be defeated by a woman. Interestingly enough, that woman is not Deborah, but Jael who drives a tent peg into his temple. (I’ve always admired Jael for her courage and initiative.)
If that were all the passage said, it would be easy to conclude that Barak had little faith and that he was punished by not receiving glory. But the passage goes on. The next thing that Deborah says to Barak is, “Up! For this is the day in which the Lord has given Sisera into your hand. Does not the Lord go out before you?” According to this, God is with Barak and will deliver Sisera into his hand. God defeats Sisera and his army, and He uses Barak and Jael.
Interestingly enough, there is another place in the Bible that mentions Barak. He’s listed in Hebrews 11, in the hall of faith:
And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. (Hebrews 11:32-34 ESV)
Why would Barak be named as one of the giants of the faith with such commendation if the lesson of Judges 4 is that he was a weak and cowardly man? Maybe there’s a better interpretation of the passage.
I read several commentaries researching for this post. I found two that give more credit to Barak and his motivations. The first is from Matthew Henry. I was pleased to find this because it mitigates against those who would blame recent feminism for the interpretation of the passage:
At Barak’s request, she promises to go along with him to the field of battle. (1.) Barak insisted much upon the necessity of her presence, which would be to him better than a council of war (Jdg. 4:8): “If thou wilt go with me to direct and advise me, and in every difficult case to let me know God’s mind, then I will go with all my heart, and not fear the chariots of iron; otherwise not.” Some make this to be the language of a weak faith; he could not take her word unless he had her with him in pawn, as it were, for performance. It seems rather to arise from a conviction of the necessity of God’s presence and continual direction, a pledge and earnest of which he would reckon Deborah’s presence to be, and therefore begged thus earnestly for it. “If thou go not up with me, in token of God’s going with me, carry me not up hence.” Nothing would be a greater satisfaction to him than to have the prophetess with him to animate the soldiers and to be consulted as an oracle upon all occasions.
Matthew Henry believed that Barak was not a man of weak faith but a man of conviction, a man aware of the necessity of God’s presence.
The second commentary I found was written by Daniel Block. I found it through Tim Challies’ post on the best commentaries on Judges. Block equates Barak’s reluctance to Moses’ and Gideon’s call for authenticating signs:
The narrative should have moved directly from v.7 to v. 10 but Barak’s response provides one of the keys to the rest of the chapter. Despite Yahweh’s assurance of victory. Barak resists the call. His protestation is less emphatic than Moses’ in Exodus 3-4 and less apologetic than Gideon’s in Judg. 6:15, but it is clear he is not impressed with Deborah’s commissioning speech. On the surface his reaction, “If you go with me I, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go,” appears cowardly. He will not enter the fray unless he has this woman beside him holding his hand. And this impression is reinforced by Deborah’s response. But at a deeper level the objection reflects a recognition of Deborah’s status. The request to be accompanied by the prophet is a plea for the presence of God.
At this point in other call narratives Yahweh responds with reassuring promises of his presence and/or authenticating signs. Both elements are found here, albeit in veiled form. The first is evident in Deborah’s firm promise of her own presence (lit. “I will certainly go with you”). It is easy to trivialize the significance of this declaration by interpreting them simply as the words of a strong woman to a weak-willed man. The timing of Deborah’s words is critical, for it occurs precisely at the point where, in other call narratives, Yahweh promises his personal presence to a reluctant agent. The prophet obviously functions as Yahweh’s alter ego. Her presence alone is enough to guarantee victory over Sisera. To reinforce Yahweh’s commitment to Barak, Deborah offers him an authentication, if ironic, sign. Barak will need to step out in faith in the divine promise, for the sign she presents is proleptic in nature: Yahweh will sell Sisera into the hands of a woman, to whom the glory would go. When this happens, Barak will know that he has been called by God and that God has intervened on Israel’s behalf. 199-200 Daniel I. Block, Judges, Ruth: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (New American Commentary) 1999
I thought that was very interesting. I’ve never read commentaries that make the main focus of those passages either Gideon’s or Moses’ lack of faith when they asked for signs or were reluctant to do what God had asked. Gideon asks for two signs to be sure of God’s presence. Moses balks even after the signs are given, and so Aaron is sent to be the mouthpiece. The Scripture even says that God was angry with Moses for asking Him to send someone else. But Gideon and Moses are regarded as men of faith.
Why not Barak?