Most people have heard the expression “fly like a butterfly, sting like a bee!” – but ancient Israel’s most famous woman warrior, Deborah, whose name in Hebrew means “bee,” can be said to have “flown” like a bee and “stung” like one, too!
Deborah led Israel for 40 years (Judges 5:31) as the fourth “Judge” of the pre-monarchial era around the 12th Century BC (a century or so after Israel’s settlement in the Promised Land), when Israel was ruled primarily by warrior leaders. She was, in fact, the only recorded female Judge, and it is easy to see why she qualified for the position. Deborah was not only a prophet used by God to foretell things such as the outcome of battles, but also she was clearly a strong, competent and inspiring military leader who acted quickly and decicively.
Judges chapters 4 and 5 tell us that Deborah lived in the hill country of Ephraim, which was in an area controlled by the Canaanite king Jabin of Hazor (perhaps a descendent of the Jabin Joshua fought), who had oppressed the Israelites for 20 years. The Book of Judges states that Deborah received instruction from God and summoned one of Israel’s great warriors, named Barak, telling him to deploy 10,000 Israelite fighting men on Mount Tabor to confront King Jabin's general, Sisera, who led an army including 900 iron chariots. We do not know how many foot soldiers Sisera commanded, but the chariot was the tank of ancient warfare, and Sisera’s force was vastly superior by that fact.
Nevertheless, Deborah did not hesitate: “Then Deborah said to Barak, 'Go! This is the day the Lord has given Sisera into your hands. Has not the Lord gone ahead of you?'” (Judges 4:14). Despite the apparent odds, on Deborah’s unflinching command the Israelites met and completely defeated the Canaanite force, and the victory is celebrated in Judges 5, often known as the “Song of Deborah.” The Bible itself gives few details of the battle, though Jewish tradition has it that torrential rains bogged down the heavy Canaanite chariots in mud, rendering them useless against the attacking Israelites. This providential help may be implied in Judges 5:4, and the Bible does mention another detail of the battle. The defeated Sisera fled his army on foot and came to the tent of the woman Jael and her husband. Jael was able to trick Sisera into letting down his guard, then struck him through the temple with a sharpened tent peg (Judges 4:17-21).
What is clear from the biblical record is the reluctance of many of the Israelites to fight when the time was long overdue to fight and the hesitancy of even the leading warrior Barak who would not fight unless Deborah accompanied the troops (Judges 4: 8). These details contrast starkly with the bravery and willingness to fight of both Deborah as military leader and Jael as front-line fighter. Both women are portrayed as true warriors who led and fought without hesitation. If there is a lesson to be learned from the story of Deborah, it is exactly that willingness to act.
Battles of any type, physical or spiritual, are lost by hesitation. Had Deborah not been close enough to God to receive his guidance and then willing to go to war immediately she knew what had to be done, she would not have been able to seize the opportunity to route her enemy when the enemy could be defeated. It is a spiritual principle as true as the physical principle of battle – delaying what we know we must do only allows our enemy to become stronger. Deborah knew and fought by that rule and, as a result, with God’s help she was victorious and gave Israel forty years of peace, security and freedom – some of the very qualities that spiritual victories bring as well.