Bethel, now called Beiten by the wandering descendants of disinherited Ishmael, lies in a solitary valley among the mountains twelve miles north of Jerusalem.
Here Jacob rested on his way to Padanaram, (Gen 28:7) and while he slept in sadness and weariness, beneath the open sky, had a beatific vision of the worshipping train that fill the “Temple not made with hands.” (Gen 28:12.) When he arose he poured the consecrating oil, and named the place Bethel, “the house of God.” (Gen 28:19) It was here he buried Deborah, who had long been an inmate of his family, distinguished for her kindness and piety. In this solitude the ark and tabernacle had rested in sacred seclusion. But it also became the very fastness of Judean idolatry, and the heights which had glowed with the presence of God, were darkened with the shadow of temples to Ashtaroth and Baal. The defiles which had echoed the thrilling voice of the Eternal sent back the shouts of licentious revelry, and the blasphemies of idol‐worship.
Grieving over this desolation in Israel, and expostulating with her country men, there was Deborah the Prophetess, Judge among her people. (Jdg 4:4.) According to Eastern custom she pitched her tent in summer in the shade of a spreading palm, and gave judgment upon the lawless, uttering in their reluctant ears the gathering wrath of the Lord for their guilty alienation from him. They were crushed by the despotism of a heathen invader, and their fruitful fields were turned into a desert. With oblations they crowded the shrines that glittered on every summit, while the scourge fell more heavily, and the cry of distress arose more wildly with their increasing apostasy.
Deborah devoutly trusted in God, and knew that deliverance would follow rebuke. She remembered the flood, when a lonely vessel with a single family rode the crest of the billows amid the drifting dead, proclaiming to the universe that “the Lord’s portion is his people.” She read the same sublime truth, in promises to the patriarchs and their rescue from the vengeance of foes, and it was felt in every answer to prayer. Calling Barak (Jdg 4:6-7), commander of their national forces, she assured him the country was ripe for insurrection—that Jehovah would shake the throne of Jabin, and vindicate his own sullied honor by tarnishing the glory of an oppressor, whose nine hundred chariots of iron and vast army, encompassed them darkly as the horizon of despair. Barak was skeptical, and hesitated to assume the commission; but told Deborah if she would attend him, he would rally his scattered bands and hazard the desperate encounter. (Jdg 4:8-9.) Girding on his sword, with the prophetess he entered his chariot and drove with tempest‐speed along the valleys, summoning the tribes around the drooping standard of Israel. Jabin was reposing luxuriously in his palace by Lake Merom when the news of revolt and revolution reached his ear. He curled his lip in scorn, and told his brave General, Sisera, to harness his steeds to his scythed chariots, and as a pastime of war ride over the restless Hebrews till the flame of rebellion was extinguished in blood. (cf. Jdg 4:2-3.) Barak with ten thousand men marched up the side of Mount Tabor to its fortified top, and watched their coming, the thunder of whose myriad wheels shook that mountain, over whose stillness hovered the wings of the Almighty, and the angel of victory waved unseen the banner of a celestial host! (Jdg 4:6, 4:10.) Deborah looked off on the scene, with the eye of a poet and prophet. On the north lay the valleys and mountains of Galilee. Towards the south, was the wide plain of Esdrelon, guarded on one hand by Mount Hermon, and on the other by Gilboa. Eastward, Kishon, “that ancient river, Kishon,” wound among the hills to the Mediterranean, whose waters melted away into the haze of the horizon. On the west, slept in the sunlight the sea of Genesareth, and Jordan rolled its waves. Nature was peaceful and glorious—as though the sweet vale of Kishon could never tremble to the tread of slaughtering armies, and its current be turned by the slain into a torrent of blood.
The host of Sisera came pouring down the defile into the plain, when Deborah raised her shout—“Up! Barak! for this is the day in which the Lord hath delivered Sisera into thy hand; is not the Lord gone out before thee?” (Jdg 4:14.) Barak with his ten thousand soldiers then made a descent to the banks of the river, where the Canaanites, numbering according to Josephus three hundred thousand footmen and ten thousand cavalry, were drawn up in battle array.
Sisera stood in his chariot and surveyed his legions with their flying banners, caparisoned steeds, and Captains impatient for the glory of conquest, and turned with a glance of haughty contempt toward the steady march of his unequal foe. With a shout that was herd along the enemy’s line like a trumpet‐call; Barak’s columns dashed into the very bosom of Sisera’s host, led on by disciplined horsemen, and walled in by chariots of iron which sent a tempest of javelins, and the slinger’s hail of death; while swords clashed and gleamed in the resistless onset of the Hebrew battalions. The imperial ranks were broken, and reeled before the shock. Sisera rallied his hitherto invincible forces, and swept down upon the enemy like an engulfing tide—and again recoiled before the steady and deadly advance of the undrilled army, Deborah had called into being, like Rhoderic’s men, uprising with flashing steel from the brakes of the mountain slope. He turned to flee; and the soldiers followed in dismay before the devouring sword into the current of Kishon, to pass over. But the waters which often rose suddenly from the swollen streams of the summits at its source, overflowed the banks, and they were borne, a shrieking and ghastly throng, with horses and chariots, weapons, and ensigns of battle, down beneath the surging and crimson flood. Deborah and Barak, like Moses and Miriam, looked on the scene, and gave God the glory. Behold, in the distance, the fugitive chieftain of that Gentile host! Barak pursuing, now catches a glimpse of his flying form on the crest of a hill, and again he is lost from his straining sight. (Jdg 4:17)
Heber, a descendant of Jethro, had pitched his tent in the plain of Zaanaim, and maintained neutrality during the fierce contest which restored the independence of Judea. (Jdg 4:11.) His wife saw Sisera coming, and with a cheerful salutation offered him the refuge and hospitality of her home. The terrified and weary man turned in to rest till the pursuer had passed. She spread over him a mantle, and calmed his fears as the shout of the enemy came faintly to his ear, and he looked wildly through the parted curtains on the path of his flight. Jael bade him repose securely, and he fell asleep; for the struggle of that burning day and escape from the battle‐field, had overtasked his frame and bewildered his thought. Stealing quietly to his pillow, with a single stroke, the iron entered his throbbing temples, and fastened him to the earth. A convulsive start, a look of agony, a tremor of his manly form, a gasp for life, and all was over—the dew of the sepulchre was on his brow, and his long locks lay clammily round his pallid features and rayless eye, which just before shone with heroic fire in the deepening conflict. (Jdg 4:18-22.) Then came Barak flushed with victory, and Jael met him. She told him to go in and look at the man he was pursuing; and with his hand on his sword‐-hilt, he entered the tent to complete the slaughter. But a woman, according to Deborah’s prediction, as a reproof for his own timidity, has snatched the laurel from his extended hand. Starting back from the corpse her blow had riveted to the ground, with wounded pride, he gazed silently on his helpless foe. The cloud hung but a moment open his noble spirit; he thanked God, applauded the Kenite for her deed, and bore the body in triumph to the foot of Tabor, where the prophetess had beheld the scene of battle, and waited his return.
Then sang Deborah and Barak, a duet of great sublimity; a song through which runs a seraphic ardor—a holy panting of soul to emulate in praise those who pour their tide of harmony into the depths of eternity! (Jdg 5:1-31.) Every cliff and defile of Mount Tabor echoed the melody, and the forest seemed to shake its green leaves with joy, while the anthem died away on the bosom of distant Carmel. The multitude stood mute and motionless; as the jubilant strains rose like the sky‐lark’s song to Heaven’s gate, then descended in fainter tones as if a wail for the dead, to the bed of the slain.
Oh! little thought they then, that the mountain-top they encamped, and which now stood a monument of mercy and of wrath, would, in the lapse of ages, become more luminous than day beneath the opening sky, while Moses and Elias descended in their white robes to commune with the transfigured Son of God, whose brightness fell on the astonished disciples, till they bowed and worshipped in fearful reverence. Now did they deem that on its consecrated brow, a mighty Homicide would stand and pour his troops upon the same trampled plain. That when the strife was over, and the smoke of the battle gathered upon the still height while dying groans went sadly up its side, the shout of blasphemy and the riot of lust, would rent the air and fill with the cries of fiends its hallowed solitude.
Deborah returned to the shade of her Palm Tree, and Israel to the High Places, and shivered the idols of Baal. Whether we contemplate this gifted woman listening to the complaints of her people, and uttering her decisions with the dignity and authority of a Judge—or attended by Barak sounding through all the coast the tocsin of war; standing on Mount Tabor, and gazing unterrified on the living tide of armed men—or with the conqueror when the battle was past, in the utterance of purest poetry giving all the glory to God, she commands equally our admiration. This is the second heroine in Scripture invested with princely power, and gains in the comparison with Miriam. For if she had faults, they are unrecorded, and she stands before us unblemished by the homage of a grateful nation, who, in their devotion, added to her titles that of Mother in Israel.
How impressively the scenes at which we have glanced illustrate the fact, that earth is a sphere of probation and trial, foreshadowing in its retributions, the scenes of that day when every man will reap the harvest he has sown. The chastisement of the Hebrews—the overthrow of their persecutors in turn—the fall of Sisera, and the affection Deborah received as a more valued reward than laurels, for well‐doing when the popular taste was wholly against her; are replete with encouragement and warning, and point to the decisions and the doom of a final adjudication.