In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. —John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address (1961)
Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?
Forbid it, Almighty God! —Patrick Henry (1775)
The Long Twilight Struggle
The struggle for freedom is essentially a religious undertaking. Its most important battles are theological and spiritual. It is never enough to defeat the tyrant in battle; the religious philosophy that allowed the tyrant to come to power must be overthrown as well. The idols must perish and truth must reign in men’s hearts for freedom to be sustained. But sometimes the religious struggle must be supplemented by military action. Sometimes freedom must be won—or won back—with the sword.
History books often trace the long war for freedom back to ancient Greece. They tell us of Marathon and Thermopylae, key battles in the Greek war against the Persia Empire. But in truth, ancient Greece knew little of liberty. The polis, the Greek city-state, was a totalitarian institution. Democracy was rare among the Greeks, and democracy has never been a successful hothouse for long-term liberty in any case. Far more important to the long twilight struggle for liberty than anything Hellenic were the wars that Israel fought against tyrants of Canaan and against their depraved idolatry.
The Return of the Dark Power
After the death of the judge Ehud, Israel turned back to worship and serve the nature gods of Canaan. “And the LORD sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan, that reigned in Hazor” (Judg. 4:2). Jabin was a royal title, something like Pharaoh or Caesar. When Israel had first entered the Promised Land under Joshua, Isreal’s armies had faced an earlier Jabin. That Jabin had organized a large coalition of Canaanite kings against Israel. His forces had included chariots, horses, and a combined host “as the sand that is upon the sea shore in multitude” (Josh. 11:4). Yet in the end, Israel destroyed his armies, executed Jabin, and burned Hazor. Joshua put the city under the ban (herem) as something wholly dedicated to Yahweh. And so the destruction of Hazor marked the end of the holy war for Canaan as the destruction of Jericho had marked its beginning.
But as the years passed, Israel was negligent in maintaining her victories. Canaanites were allowed to return and rebuild Hazor. Israel let a new Jabin assume authority over a new league of Canaanite kings. And this new military power became God’s chastening rod to teach Israel what submission to foreign gods must ultimately mean: tyranny.
A Mother in Israel
After twenty years of severe oppression, Israel turned from her idolatry. She repented. Then God raised up a another judge. Actually, He already had the judge in place. Her name was Deborah, and she was a prophetess.
We don’t meet many prophetesses in Scripture: Miriam, Huldah, and Anna are the most prominent (Ex. 15:20; 2 Kings 22:14; Luke 2:36). Isaiah’s wife was a prophetess (Isa. 8:3). Philip the evangelist had four virgin daughters who prophesied (Acts 21:8-9). We may also think of Hannah, Elizabeth, and Mary, each of whom prophesied on a special occasion (1 Sam. 2:1-10; Luke 1:41-55). God obviously has no problem speaking through a godly woman when it is appropriate to His purposes.
We don’t find any other female judges in Scripture. Jethro’s original advice to Moses was to select “able men,” “men of truth,” to be judges in Israel’s court system (Ex. 18:21). But that advice didn’t address the high court judge, Moses, who was God’s spokesman and already in office by divine appointment. What God did with Deborah was unusual, but it didn’t violate His own order. Who better to judge Israel than a person who regularly received divine revelation?
Deborah speaks of herself as “a mother in Israel” (Judg. 5:7). God had called her to raise up a new generation of responsible young men who would carry His war to the enemy. Deborah understood this and never pushed herself forward as war leader or general. Rather, she encouraged a young man named Barak to take up the military task that God had laid upon him. When she went with him into battle, it was as a symbol of God’s presence, not as some sort of She-Ra or warrior-queen.
Barak, the Lightning Bolt
Barak was from Kedesh-Naphtali, a Levitical city of refuge in Galilee. Barak’s name means “lightning.” Apparently, Deborah had already told him God’s will for the upcoming battle. Now she prompted him again: “Hasn’t the LORD God of Israel given you a command?” (Judg. 4:6). God’s orders were to go to Mt. Tabor with ten thousand men from the tribes of Zebulon and Naphtali. His promise was that He would draw the Canaanite army into battle and deliver it into Barak’s hand.
Barak’s faith, though real, was weak. He wanted a tangible assurance of God’s presence. He answered Deborah, “If you’ll go with me, I’ll go; if you won’t go, neither will I.” But as Bob Deffinbaugh observes, “Little faith, rightly directed, is far superior to great faith in the wrong object.” Barak ultimately finds a place among the heroes of faith (Heb. 11:32-34). And as a flash of lightning in Galilee, he becomes a type and figure of the coming Messiah (Isa. 9:1-2; Matt. 4:12-17).
The Battle of Megiddo
The account of the battle is sparse in detail, and we must look to Deborah’s Song in chapter five to fill in some of the details. Barak gathered an army of ten thousand on the slopes of Mt. Tabor, a peak at the eastern end of the Valley of Jezreel. Chariots couldn’t go there. But at Deborah’s prophetic encouragement, Barak led his troops down the mountainside and into battle. His men were poorly armed. The Canaanites had seen to that (5:8). On the other hand, the Canaanites had 900 chariots of iron—top-of-the-line military technology for the time. Humanly speaking, the situation was hopeless, and Barak’s tactics were idiotic.
But the battle was the LORD’s. God raised up a thunderstorm that dumped an incredible amount of water into the river Kishon and its tributaries. A flood swept across the plain of Megiddo and stuck the Canaanite chariots in mud and mire. Barak’s men came upon them suddenly, took the soldiers’ weapons, and slew them with them. We’re told the Canaanite general even fled the battlefield.
The Wars of Yahweh
There is more here than a military victory. God fought not only against the Canaanite idolaters, but also against their nature gods. Baal was a storm god, yet he couldn’t control the storms or rescue his worshippers. Astarte, the evening star, was just as useless. According to Deborah’s Song, the very stars in their courses were arrayed against the armies of Canaan (5:20). That is, God orchestrated all of creation, the seen and the unseen, to work together against the Canaanites. Baal and Astarte were impotent. When God bares His arm, neither magic nor technology can save His enemies.
This great battle took place at Megiddo—what the Book of Revelation calls Armageddon (Rev. 16:16). It was one more step in God’s war against evil, and a significant one. Barak’s victory ended the Canaanite threat in the north and reestablished political and economic liberty there. It would remain for Samson, Samuel, and David to end the Philistine threat in the south. But Barak’s work of faith brought us one step closer to liberty in his time and one step closer to the liberty found in the kingdom of Jesus Christ we seek in ours.
For Further Reading:
James B. Jordan, Judges, God’s War Against Humanism (Tyler, TX: Geneva Ministries, 1985).
Bob Deffinbaugh, “The Prophetess Deborah,” Bible.org (2012) <http://bible.org/seriespage/prophetess-deborah-judges-4-amp-5>
Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction, Christian Faith and Its Confrontation with American Society (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1983).