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Sefer Shoftim Chapter 4

In this chapter the Jewish people once again fall into sinful ways. This causes Yavin, the Canaanite King of Chazor, to oppress them. Sisera, his general, persecutes them for 20 years. Finally, the people cry out to God. This time, God sends a different style of saviour to the Jewish people. Devora is a prophetess and a judge. She is known for sitting under a date tree while people approach her for guidance and direction.

 

Devora receives prophecy from God. She summons Barak to lead an army against Sisera and King Yavin. Barak doubts his own ability, feeling unable to lead the army, and asks Devora to accompany him. Together, they successfully defeat the Canaanite army, although General Sisera escapes. Yael, a non-Jewish woman, offers to hide him in her tent. When he asks her for water, she gives him milk. This makes him tired and he falls asleep. She then pierces his head with a tent peg, killing him. Finally, the Jewish people are freed from another period of Canaanite oppression.

Why does the story have three heroes?

It is an unusual salvation format. If Devora is the judge, what purpose does Barak fulfil? And why does the story end with the character of Yael? As Elie Assis points out, the answer can be found by comparing this chapter to the previous one. There are many parallels between this story and the story of Ehud (which we read about last week). Both Ehud and Yael act on their own initiative, use trickery to defeat their opponent and carry out their assassinations in a private place. There are similar words and phrases used in both stories. Most importantly, leaders in both stories attribute their victory to God.

 

However, Chapter 3 has a strong focus on Ehud’s charisma and cunning. God is only mentioned at the end. Thus, the people attribute victory to Ehud, forgetting about the importance of God in the story. His death causes a religious crisis and a return to sin. In Chapter 4, to combat this over-emphasis on the leader figure, Devora is present as a constant reminder that God is the true source of the victory. Her role as a prophetess places God firmly in the centre of the story. With the final victory split into 3 (Devora, Barak and Yael) there is no risk of the people giving the credit to one leader. Rather, the people understand that ultimately their salvation comes from a Divine source.

 

In fact, the name Devora comes from the Hebrew word le’daber meaning “to speak”. Her power comes from her prophetic speech, emphasising that her strength is God-given. The goal was to prevent the over-dependence on the leader. This had resulted in the people returning to sin once the shofet had died. The text never records when Devora or Barak die. This suggests that the people took heed of the message and were not overly reliant on the leader (for a while at least!).

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