March is Women’s History Month (WHM), so it’s a great opportunity to commemorate the contributions of women to American history. The most influential book in the United States—even the world—is the Bible; it not only shapes the way we Christians live, it also helped set the foundations for the way our nation is governed. Thus, women featured in the Bible, despite never having lived in America, have contributed greatly to the spiritual heritage of our nation. Periodically throughout the month, we will be sharing their inspiring stories.
Time and time again, throughout the Old and New Testaments, God chose unlikely individuals (by worldly standards) to join Him in completing His sovereign plans and purposes. As the apostle Paul explained to the church in Corinth:
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Cor. 1:26-29)
In the Old Testament, most of the celebrated political and military leaders were men. But not all these men were natural leaders by worldly standards. (Consider Moses, who had a speech impediment, or David, who was a shepherd.) Nor does it mean that God exclusively worked through men to do His sovereign will. For one example, in the book of Judges, God used two women to defeat an enemy that had left even the bravest men of Israel cowering in their homes for over two decades. These women were named Deborah and Jael.
Deborah was an Israelite, a prophet, and a judge. She was married to a man named Lappidoth and may have belonged to the tribe of Ephraim, either by birth, marriage, or both. She lived “between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim” (Judg. 4:5). In Judges 5, Deborah describes herself as “a mother in Israel” (v.7). Biblical scholars are not sure if she was literally the mother of natural children or if she was speaking figuratively of her position as a judge. Nevertheless, this description shows us that Deborah embraced the role of a mother figure, biological children or not.
Deborah is one of only five women the Old Testament refers to as prophets. The other four are Miriam (Exod. 15:20), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14; 2 Chron. 34:22), Noadiah (Neh. 6:14), and “the prophetess” (Isa. 8:3). In addition to being a prophet, Deborah was also a judge—a rare combination. Judges were leaders that God raised up to lead Israel after they entered the Promised Land. These rulers judged Israel until Saul was anointed Israel’s first king (circa 1050 BC). Not every Israelite judge was also recognized as a prophet.
Unlike some of the other judges, such as Gideon, Deborah did not lead the Israelite armies into battle. Instead, when Barak had received a military directive from God—and was dragging his feet—Deborah summoned Barak. She reminded him of the Lord’s command to lead 10,000 men of the Naphtali and Zebulun tribes into battle against Sisera, the commander of the Canaanite army (Judg. 4:6-7).
Barak was reluctant to trust in God’s promise of victory, however, and refused to go into battle unless Deborah accompanied him! “If you go with me, I will go” (Judg. 4:8). Deborah agrees to go with Barak, but because of his lack of faith in God’s promise, she informs Barak that he will not be the hero: “the road on which you are going will not lead to glory.” Instead, God would choose His own hero from an unexpected place: “God will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (Judg. 4:9). Mighty Sisera, commander of 900 iron chariots, who had oppressed Israel for 20 years, would be defeated not by male soldiers, not by the strength of arms, but by the arm of a woman who God would providentially set in Sisera’s path: Jael.
Jael was the wife of Heber, a Kenite (Judg. 4:17). The Kenites were a nomadic people living in Canaan, who emanated from Midian, Edom, and the Arabah. Moses’ father-in-law had been a Kenite. However, while they were generally on good terms with the Israelites, they were not Israelites. In fact, Heber was on peaceful terms with the Hazorites, oppressors of the Israelites. So, when Sisera, commander of the Canaanite army, fled from the battlefield (after Barak’s army decisively defeated them) and sought shelter in Heber’s wife’s tent, it made sense tactically; Sisera believed he was hiding in an ally’s tent. He was wrong.
Commentators have debated why Sisera chose to hide in a woman’s tent (did he think it was the least likely place to be searched?); why Jael, the wife of a Kenite, decided to kill the Israelite enemy (had he offended her in some way?). Whatever the reasons, when Sisera walked into Jael’s tent, he walked unwittingly to his demise at the hand of an unlikely person. While Sisera was sleeping, Jael took a tent peg and hammered it into his head (Judg. 4:21-22). Thus, the mighty oppressor of Israel died at the hands of a Kenite woman.
The author of Judges concludes the story by attributing the victory to the Lord: “So on that day God subdued Jabin the king of Canaan before the people of Israel” (Judg. 4:23). Indeed, this victory was God’s doing and not man’s. Afterward, the land was at rest for 40 years (Judg. 5:31).
Deborah exemplifies God’s authority and faithfulness to His promises. Jael exemplifies God’s use of weakness to defeat strength. While God used 10,000 Israelite men to rout the Canaanite army—a remarkable achievement and sign of God’s blessing—God’s glory shone most brightly in the slaying of the mighty general by a housewife, as predicted by a female prophet and judge.