In Judges 4:4 we read: “Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading … Israel at that time.” In Judges 5 Deborah describes herself as “a mother in Israel.”
After Joshua died God did not raise up a military leader to take his place. Instead each tribe was to be responsible for the area that had been allotted to them. In Deuteronomy we find that Moses had instituted the role of judges. The word judge means “bringer of justice” and their role was similar to that of a modern day mayor.
In the book of Judges there is a rather depressing pattern which goes like this: The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord. God gave them over to their enemies. The Israelites cried out. God raised up a deliverer. God gave the oppressor into the hands of the deliverer. The land had rest.
At the start of Judges 4 we find the Israelites had done evil in the eyes of the Lord and He had given them into the hands of the king of Cannan. The story of Deborah is record in two ways. First there is the factual account in chapter 4, then in chapter 5 there is a second account in the form of a song that Deborah wrote. At the time of this story the Israelites had been cruelly oppressed by the Canaanites for 20 years. The Canaanites were much better equipped than the Israelites since they had 900 chariots. Since chariots work best on flat ground, the Israelites had been forced into the hills and we find Deborah holding court under a tree in the hill country.
The Israelites had been crying out to the Lord and the day came when Deborah knew it was right to attack. She told Barak ho was the military leader to go and get the people ready. However, not all the Israelite tribes were supportive. In Judges 5:17 we read: “Gilead stayed beyond the Jordan. And Dan, why did he linger by the ships? Asher remained on the coast and stayed in his coves.”
Deborah and Barak have a decisive victory which seems to be because God sent a storm and the Kishon River flooded. “The earth shook, the heavens poured, the clouds poured down water. …The river Kishon swept them away” (Judges 5:4, 21).
It seems that the Canaanite chariots were not much use when the river flooded. They could not spread out and surround the Israelites. Probably the chariots got stuck in the mud which would explain why Sisera fled on foot. God defeating the Canaanites by sending a storm is particularly significant because Baal who the Canaanites worshipped is consider to be the storm god.
Deborah waited for God’s timing and trusted God to bring victory. The Israelites had been oppressed for 20 years. They saw themselves as slaves. They lacked the resources to win. Yet Deborah step out in faith even when Barak expressed some doubts and God took the very thing the enemy saw as their strengths – their chariots and their storm god – and used it against them.
Deborah was a strong leader who heard from God. She showed great courage in leading her people into battle.