On Mt. Tabor the Israelite soldiers were able to see the Canaanite forces gathering on a plain several miles away to the southwest. As excessive amount of dust, such as would be raised by horses and vehicles, proved to the Israelites that the enemy’s dreaded chariots were being brought up (Judges 4:10-13). Only God’s supernatural help could save Israel now!
The Canaanites moved to a part of the valley close to Mt. Tabor and then set up camp for the night. Sisera, the Canaanite general, wasn’t concerned with the possibility of the Israelites attacking, even though they had some advantage by being on higher ground. He knew they had no desire to tangle with his chariots and his large army. His plan was to capture the lesser-equipped Israelites in their smaller numbers when they were forced to come down off the mountain for necessities. Sisera had no doubt that the small Israelite army would be easy to wipe out under any condition.
Meanwhile, in the camp of Israel, Barak worriedly muttered: “If we go down the mountain we’ll be wiped out by that huge number of men and chariots!”
“The time hasn’t come yet to leave the mountain,” Deborah said. “But the soldiers should be ready when that time comes.”
The time came early the next morning, a while before dawn. Inspired by God, Deborah informed Barak that the Israelites should charge down the slope at once to attack, and that they would have God’s supernatural help (vs. 14). Barak was inspired by Deborah’s example and faith. He ordered the men to follow him down the mountain. Many of them, as they poured down off Mt. Tabor, were filled with dismay at the prospect of facing what was obviously a superior enemy. They approached the camp of the Canaanites quietly, but it wasn’t possible to get beyond the enemy sentries without causing shouts of alarm. When the sentries sounded the alarm, the Israelites attacked with all the courage they could muster.
Bedlam reigned among Sisera’s troops as their attackers caught them napping. Shouts, screams, the neighing of startled horses, the clash of metal against metal and the general confusion made it impossible for Canaanite officers to get their men organized. The chariot drivers, stationed at some distance from the infantry, managed to get their horses hooked to many of the chariots and to get moving. However, with men tumbling and struggling in all direction, the chariots ran down many more Canaanites than Israelites. God was beginning to fight Israel’s battle as He had promised (v. 15).
After making a half-hearted initial attempt to fight off the oncoming Israelites, the whole Canaanite army turned and fled northwestward down the Kishon River valley toward the hope-ful refuge of their fort at Harosheth. By now it was dawn, and in their fright the Canaanites – especially those in chariots might have outran their Israelites pursuers had it not been that God had decreed otherwise.
Suddenly heavy rains fell in the region of the Kishon valley. The river rose rapidly. The closer the Canaanites moved to the streams, the softer and muddier the ground became. When the Chariots ran into these spots they bogged down and came to a sudden stop. Chariots racing up from the rear smashed into them, resulting in a muddy mass of vehicles and struggling horses and men.
The men and horses that managed to get past the soft spots in the ground only plunged on to end up in the swollen waters of the Kishon as it broke over its banks into a flash flood which swept away many of Sisera’s troops (Judges 5:21). The Israelites swept in close behind to cut off any attempted back-tracking and cut down the enemy with swords, slings, knives and spears.
God had again stepped in to rescue Israel by bringing Jabin’s army to a swift end in a welter of mud, water and blood.
As for Sisera, he was among those who raced away in chariots. When his chariot became bogged in mud, he managed in the confusion to leap to safety and run northeastward across the plain toward the hills. He had no way of knowing whether or not he had been observed, but he felt certain that the Israelites would make every effort to find him.
On the other side of Mt. Tabor, on a branch of the plain, was the dwelling of a Kenite named Heber, who Sisera believed was friendly to the northern Canaanites.
After running a few hours, Sisera neared Heber’s tent. The Kenite’s wife, whose name was Jael, happened to see the fatigued Canaanite general staggering toward her tent. She knew who he was, and went out to meet him.
“Come rest in my tent,” she told him as she helped him along (Judges 4:15-18). Inside the tent, he wearily lay down, exhausted by his race for freedom. When Sisera asked for water, Jael gave him clabbered milk to quench his thirst and make him sleep more soundly, and then covered him with a blanket (Judges 5:25).
“If anyone comes to ask about me, don’t mention that you have seen me,” Sisera warned Jael.” You will be well rewarded to protect me from any of those fanatical, God-fearing Israelites!”
Those were the last words uttered by the pagan Canaanite general. He was so weary that he fell asleep almost immediately, though he wouldn’t have done so if he could have realized even to the smallest extent what was about to befall him.
In another compartment of her tent Jael listened intently until she could be certain, by Sisera’s slow, loud breathing, that he was deep in slumber. Then she noiselessly moved outside, pulled up a sharp tent stake and reached for a mallet. Very careful not to make a sound, she entered the room where Sisera slept on his side. With a quick, strong blow of the tent stake mallet, she drove the stake through Sisera’s temples, then into the ground, killing the general almost instantly (Judges 4:19-21, Judges 5:26).
God allowed Jael to take Sisera’s life in this grisly, cold-blooded manner as a warning to us all. Those Canaanites were better off dead. They sacrificed many of their babies in the temples of Baal and filled adjoining graveyards with jars containing these tiny corpses. When building a new house, a Canaanite family would sacrifice a baby and put its body in the foundation to bring good luck to the rest of the family. Archaeologists who have found the many tiny skeletons of these sacrificed babies have wondered why God did not destroy the Canaanites sooner. He would have done so if Israel had obeyed His command to execute all the idolatrous Canaanites when they first conquered the land (Deut. 7:1-6).
Because Sisera was an idolatrous Canaanite, he was one more to be purged from the land after he had been used for the purpose of punishing the Israelites and bringing them to repentance. As one who sought to destroy the army of Israel, he was denied the so-called honor of dying in action, as a high-ranking soldier would ordinarily prefer.
Only a little while after this unsavory incident, Jael looked out to see the victorious Israelites trotting across the plain. She ran out toward the men, waving frantically to attract their attention. When they reached her she told them that she had an important message for their leader, and Barak approached her to hear what she had to say.
“If you are seeking Jabin’s general, Sisera, I can take you to him at once,” Jael told Barak.
“Show us,” Barak commanded.
Jael led Barak and a few of his men to her tent and into her private compartment, where she drew back a curtain to reveal the nailed-down Canaanite to the startled Israelites. Then Barak remembered Deborah’s prophecy that a woman would destroy Sisera because Barak had at first depended too much on Deborah’s faith. In humiliation, Barak realized his lack of faith was a sin against God. He fully repented and was forgiven by God in whom he now fully trusted (Heb. 11:13, 32, 39).
Although Israel was victorious that day in becoming free, the one who had planned to defeat Israel was still safe in his quarters to the north. That was Jabin, king of the northern Canaanites. On hearing of the defeat of his army, he quickly sought refuge, but within a few day he fell into the hands of his enemies and lost his life (Judges 4:22-24).
Deliverance from the Canaanites was considered such a happy accomplishment that a great celebration was held by Israel. Songs were composed, and Deborah and Barak led the people in praising God with loud, hearty enthusiasm (Judges 5:1-31). Most of them realized that their Creator was the source of their strength and power, though at times they forgot that important fact because every man insisted on doing what he thought best (Judges 17:6). God had specifically commanded His people not to do what they thought best (Deut. 12:8) because that way is often wrong and leads to death (Prov. 14:12; 16:25). Most of the Israelites had not yet learned that man’s conscience is not a reliable guide for conduct, that man needs God’s law to tell him how to live (Deut. 12:32).
For 40 years after Jabin’s overthrow Israel was free from enemies (Judges 5:31). But before that many years passed, another generation came into being, and a large part of Israel again fell into living in a disorderly and lawless manner, each man following his own conscience, doing what he thought best, letting his own opinion, instead of God’s law tell him how to live.
About two hundred years previously, when Moses was the leader, Israel had almost wiped out the idolatrous nation of Midian on the east border of the Dead Sea. Since that time the Midianites had greatly increased in numbers and, though several generations had passed since the fateful war with Israel, a fierce hatred of their victors still existed with the Midianites.
At this point God stepped in to cause Midianite leaders to fan that hatred so that Midian would be used to punish Israel. The result was that the vengeance-seeking Midianites swarmed up out of their land to end Israel’s 40 years of freedom, pleasure and sin!
The Israelites had become so disorganized and weak that the fierce Midianites chased them out of their cities and off their farms. By the thousands the Israelites ran for safety into the mountains. They hid in caves and even in the narrow, secluded canyons, wherever they could hide or fortify themselves (Judges 6:1-2).
The Midianites kept on moving back and forth through all areas to route the Israelites and rob them of their livestock and crops. On their return to each conquered area, the Midianites would attack any Israelite who had tried to return to their homes. Many Israelites were forced to flee outside Palestine to the western shores of the Mediterranean Sea and the sparsely settled coastland of northwestern Europe.
In some regions the attacks by the Midianites were so frequent that the remaining Israelites moved into the wooded mountains to establish permanent residence. Their only homes were caverns and canyons in the rugged Palestinian hills.
Between forays by the enemy a part of the Israelites secretly went back to their farms and grazing areas to try to continue raising crops and stock. Sometimes they were successful for a while. The Midianites couldn’t be everywhere at the same time. When they did come, look-outs generally reported their arrival in time for the Israelites to move from the valleys to safety in the mountain hide-aways and strongholds.
Despite all this, the Israelites stubbornly continued to live their own way, though they had to live in caves like animals, rather than repent and obey God and have His divine protection.
For two or three harvest seasons Israel managed fairly well on what food could be raised in the more secluded valleys. Then the Midianite soldiers began bringing their families and their herds into the region. Furthermore, the Amalekites and other Arabian tribes began pouring into Canaan, and just at a time of harvest.
Cities were taken over, farms were stripped of their produce and herds and flocks grazing in the valleys were seized by the invaders before the Israelites could hide them in the mountains. The numbers of the enemy were this time so great and so spread out that the Israelites had little or no opportunity to go after food. They were forced to remain in their mountain refuges on the verge of starvation (Judges 6:3-6).
Being cooped up without a regular source of food became an increasingly more serious problem for Israel. Well organized groups sneaked down at night to seize vegetables or fruit or meat wherever it could be found, but this pursuit became increasingly more dangerous as the enemy became more watchful, and whole bands of Israelites lost their lives trying to get something to eat.
By the time seven years had passed, Israel was in a desperate, half-starved condition. Life in caves and hollowed-out places had reduced a large part of the people to an unkempt state verging on barbarism. At this time a man whose name isn’t mentioned in the scriptures was chosen by God to remind the Israelites that they had brought this one more calamity on themselves by their disobedience to God. Some of the people had already been begging God for forgiveness and help, and now thousands joined them (vs. 6-10).
The Creator’s mercy again was extended to Israel, though as usual the people were required to act in helping themselves. It began in the mountain town of Ophrah, about midway between the site of Jericho and Mt. Ephraim in the territory of the half-tribe of Manasseh. A relatively young man named Gideon was one day threshing wheat in an out-of-the-way place near his father’s old winepress, long unused because the Israelites no longer had grapes with which to make wine.
Although hidden from passers-by, Gideon commanded a clear view down the mountain so that he could watch for approaching Midianites. He was certain that he was alone as he hand-threshed the few small but precious bundles of wheat he and a few servants had courageously gleaned the night before in a field below.
Abruptly he was aware that a man was sitting in the shade of an oak tree only a few yards away. Gideon was startled by the strangely sudden presence of this man, who might well have been a Midianite spy. He started to quietly gather up his wheat and scamper for safety, but before he could sack it up and leave, the man got up and sauntered toward Gideon, who was relieved to note that he obviously wasn’t a Midianite.
“I see that you are very careful not to let your enemies know what you are doing,” the stranger remarked. “Why do you, a strong courageous young man, seem to fear the Midianites so much? Don’t you know that your God is ready and willing to help you?”
“I don’t know who you are, sir,” Gideon replied, “but if God is willing to help us, why hasn’t He rescued us from these terrible conditions” (vs. 11-13)?
“Because Israel has ignored My laws and our agreement,” the stranger answered.
“Your laws?” Gideon queried, staring.
“My laws,” the stranger replied firmly and calmly.
Gideon was a bit shaken by this answer. He met the gaze of the stranger, and realized that the brilliant eyes were those of one far greater than a human being! He respectfully waited for the stranger to continue.
“If you will act with faith in your Creator, you can help rescue Israel from the Midianites, Gideon”, the stranger told him.
Gideon could scarcely believe what he heard. Although he had always refused to take part in the idolatrous practice of other Israelites, he couldn’t at the moment realize why he should be chosen to help liberate Israel. He had never considered himself an outstanding leader, though he had some reputation among the Israelites of his area as being quite active in the welfare of his people, even at the risk of his own life.
“How is it possible for me to help rescue Israel, my Lord?” asked Gideon. “I am not wealthy and I am the youngest of my fathers’ sons. I do not command any fighting force. Why should I be chosen to do something that many other men are more qualified and better equipped to do?”
“Don’t be concerned about such things,” the stranger said. “Your God will be your strength, and you shall strike down the Midianites as easily as though their army consisted of only one man” (Judges 6:14-16)!
Gideon hardly knew what to do. He didn’t feel that he could accept such responsibility without knowing for certain that this man was really divinity in human form. On the other hand, he couldn’t risk refusing a commission from God.
He asked the stranger to continue resting under the oak tree, excused himself and hurried to his abode not far away to quickly prepare a sacrificial offering of food. When he returned he presented unleavened cakes, broth and a boiled young goat to the stranger, who looked pleased at sight of the food.
“Place the meat and cakes on this flat rock and pour the broth over them,” Gideon was told, and he did so.
The stranger then touched the offering with the end of his staff. Abruptly fire shot up out of the rock, rapidly consuming the food! When Gideon turned his startled gaze up from the spectacle, the stranger had vanished (vs. 17-21).
Be watching for the next installment of The Story of the Bible.