Judges is one of those books that you have perhaps read through once or twice in you life. You are more likely, however, to have heard the stories from Sunday School from long ago. The stories are so familiar to us that even when we read through them we rarely take the time to think about them. We just give them a once over and then move to the New Testament.
What do you remember about Barak? If it isn’t ringing any bells, try Deborah and Barak.
Oh, yeah. He was that guy that was too afraid to go to battle unless Deborah went with him.
Now you may remember the account. It might be helpful for you to read Judges 4 again. I can wait.
Israel again did evil in God’s sight, and God sold them into the hands of Jaban and Sisera. Sisera was an extremely powerful general. We can’t possibly imagine the power of 900 chariots in this day of smart bombs and fighter jets, but in Barak’s time, the army was impossible to defeat, especially since Israel didn’t have any weapons at all (See Deborah’s song in Judges 5:8).
But even greater than that: this oppression was of the Lord. Who can fight against the Lord? Since it was God Himself who sold Israel into bondage, only God could deliver them.
Now Deborah is introduced (4:4). All we know about her is that she was a “prophetess” who judged Israel. At this point, most of what you have heard is a defense of God using women to lead men. It was because the men were so weak and cowardly that God cursed them with women leaders.
Perhaps. But that isn’t in the text. I would rather have you read simply what is there. All that the text tells us is that Deborah was a prophetess and that she judged Israel at the time.
Then Deborah receives word from God to call Barak and send him into battle against Sisera.
Barak responds, “If you go with me, I will go. If not, I will not go.”
Most of the Sunday School accounts of this end here, with an admonition not to be as cowardly as Barak. He has gone down in history as the one who was so frightened of battle that he refused to go to battle unless a woman went with him. My study bible has the footnote “a faithless and cowardly response.”
But let’s pause there for a moment and look ahead a few verses:
13 And Sisera gathered together all his chariots, even nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the people that were with him, from Harosheth of the Gentiles unto the river of Kishon.
14 And Deborah said unto Barak, Up; for this is the day in which the Lord hath delivered Sisera into thine hand: is not the Lord gone out before thee? So Barak went down from mount Tabor, and ten thousand men after him.
Picture the scene. Barak has gathered together 10,000 men. Remember that they have no weapons. Sisera sees them at the top of Mt. Tabor and gathers his chariots and armies together at the foot of the mountain.
At the top of the mountain – Barak, Deborah, and 10,000 unarmed farmers. At the foot of the mountain, 900 iron chariots, a multitude of trained, armed men.
The plan is for Barak and the farmers to charge down the mountain. Let that sink in for a moment.
Now Deborah receives word from God. She says to Barak, “Now. God has given them into your hand.”
And they go!
And they go!
They charge down the mountain, and God gives the entire army into their hands.
As I was reading through this again, it occurred to me that perhaps in our zeal to keep women from getting uppity, we have misread Barak. The man at the top of Mt. Tabor didn’t seem like a coward to me. I understand that it is the Lord that gives men and women courage and perhaps the complete change in Barak’s personality was a miraculous intervention of God. But rather than go that route right away, I looked at the passage again with fresh eyes, and saw something astounding.
Barak was not at all a faithless coward. Rather than a statement of unbelief, his statement – “If you go with me, I will go” – is one of the most astounding professions of faith in scripture and should be an example to us all – which is actually what the writer of Hebrews says of Barak.
This, I understand, will need some explaining. First, remember who Deborah was. She was a prophetess. Barak couldn’t run down to the local Walmart in Bethel and buy a 5.99 bible. Revelation was not complete at this time. They had the books of Moses, but those would not have been accessible to the general public. They would have known the 10 commandments, but other than that, where would one go for the word of God?
They could go only one place: Deborah. She WAS the word of God to Israel. She was a prophetess and all Israel knew it and came to her for judgment. She would not have been a political leader, for Jaban would never have allowed it. Israel’s politics were dominated by Canaanites and their religion was corrupted by idolatry. The word of God to Israel was found in only one place: Deborah.
Barak was not at all expecting Deborah to fight the battle for him, or even with him. Deborah stayed at the top of Mt. Tabor. Barak went into battle.
But Barak knew something most of us miss. The battle is too great. Our armies are too small. If we will conquer at all, we DARE not take one step without the word of God.
Barak, rather than being a coward, was a man of tremendous faith who refused to take one step against the enemy without God’s word. And God’s word was found in only one place: Deborah.
So Barak would rather be slandered as a weak and cowardly man and take Deborah with him than go in his own strength against an enemy that was too strong for him.
I realize that you are probably frantically re-reading this chapter, and have come to verse 9.
9 And she said, I will surely go with thee: notwithstanding the journey that thou takest shall not be for thine honour; for the Lord shall sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.
This is immediately read as a rebuke to Barak. Of course, our natural understanding tells us that Barak would want honor for the victory and it is shameful for God to bring victory through a woman. So we can’t see it any other way than as a rebuke.
But is that really what she says? Once again, I would encourage you to read it from the perspective of all of scripture.
God will never give his glory to another. Since the Garden of Eden, we all have been sold into a bondage so deep and so cruel that none of us can ever escape it. And God promised Adam and Eve that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent.
The fact is – God ALWAYS delivers his people in such a way that the strong, powerful and wise can never, ever take the glory.
Deborah is actually clarifying the choice for Barak. “You can go in your own strength, in your own wisdom and seek glory – but without God. Or you can submit to God’s word and expect victory from him alone.”
“I, the prophetess of God, will certainly go with you. And with me will go the word and blessing of God. But if God fights this battle, you won’t get the glory. God will deliver you at the hand of a woman, so that no one can ever say that Barak’s strength got us the victory.”
“If, Barak, you want glory, then go get your glory. I’ll stay here – and the word of God will stay with me. You do the best you can against all of those iron chariots and we’ll see what happens.”
Do you see the choice that Barak had? It is the same choice that we all face every day. The enemy is too strong for us. The battle is too fierce. We can take up our arms and our wisdom and our pride and fight manfully onward – just like the sons of Sceva did (Acts 19:14-16) – and take our chances.
Or, we can say with Barak – I won’t move a step apart from God’s word and I don’t care what anyone else says about me or who gets the glory. But as soon as God says “Charge!” I’m charging full-bore right into the battle!
We spend so much time reading what ISN’T here, that we miss the point of the account entirely. This passage says nothing whatsoever about women in positions of leadership in the church or elsewhere. If you want to find out about women in positions of authority in the church, look at 1 Cor. 14:34; 2 Tim. 2:11-15. This passage has nothing to do with that.
But if you want to know how to do valiant battle against the evil one, who seeks to destroy us daily, you will find no better example than Barak.
You wouldn’t go into battle without a sword. The only sword that will do any good at all in the battle that we are in is the word of God (Eph. 6:17). Barak was wise enough to arm himself with the sword.