During the Civil War in America an almost unknown woman, pondering one night over the great cause at issue between her fellow-countrymen, received a sudden poetic inspiration, and almost at a sitting Julia Ward Howe wrote her "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Henceforth, the men of the North met death or victory with the words of that magnificent song upon their lips.
Many people wondered that a woman should be the author of the most stirring battle song of modern times. History was but repeating itself, for in the ages long ago, Deborah, the first woman poet, had raised her voice to sing of battle and of victory.
It is not, however, as a poet, but in the more unusual character, to our modern conception, of a woman lawgiver, that Deborah first appears upon the scene of history. Deborah was a prophetess, the wife of Lepidoth, and she dwelt under a palm-tree between Raman and Bethel in Mount Ephraim, and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment.
The period was one of the most disastrous in the history of her nation. The Israelites had been passing through successive periods of disobedience and of restoration to Divine favour. Again and again they had fallen into idolatry and sin, and God had left them to the mercy of their enemies. Now they were suffering dire oppression at the hands of Jabin, the King of Canaan. They dwelt in their mountain fastnesses or in the villages of the great plain of Jezreel in terror of their powerful foe. He had mighty implements of war at his command. His chariots of iron numbered nine hundred, and as they rolled through the great valley, the Israelites, husbanding their flocks and herds, trembled with dread of approaching conquest and slaughter. Above all, they feared the mighty general, Sisera, the captain of Jabin's army. In such terror was Sisera held that the men of Israel would not go up to give him battle.
A Woman Lawgiver
Deborah judged Israel at this time. She was, in modern parlance, the chief magistrate of the Jewish nation. She held her court with picturesque simplicity under the shade of a palm-tree. Neither jury nor counsel complicated her verdicts. She judged alone, a sublime figure of prophetic inspiration not unusual amongst the women of Israel.
As she sat under the palm-tree, settling disputes and administering justice, she heard from the people who came up to her for judgment of the oppression which was closing like a vice upon the lives and liberties of those who dwelt nearer to the headquarters of Jabin. At Mount Ephraim she dwelt secure, far removed from the sound of those chariots of iron thundering through the valley of the Kishon, and striking terror and dismay into the hearts of her kinsfolk. Her own tribe of Issachar was suffering most at the hands of the enemy.
Despite the increasing gravity of the situation, the army of Israel hesitated to go up against the oppressor. Barak, the captain, and his ten thousand men were paralysed into inactivity. It took a woman to rouse them.
Not only was Deborah to spur on the army to meet the enemy, but she initiated the plan of campaign, sending messengers a hundred miles into Kedesh-naphtali, where Barak was stationed, to rouse him to action. As a prophetess, an acknowledged interpreter of the will of Jehovah, she could speak with authority. Her message was stern, not unmixed with reproach. "Hath not the Lord God of Israel commanded," she said to Barak, "that thou go and draw toward Mount Tabor, and take with thee ten thousand men of the children of Naphtali and of the children of Zebulun?" That was the first strategic step in the campaign, and, as prophesied by Deborah, would have the effect of drawing Sisera, the redoubtable captain of Jabin's army, into the valley of the River Kishon, with "his chariots and his multitude," and there he would be delivered into the hands of the Israelites.
It was the time of year when the river, ordinarily running like a silver streak through the valley, became flooded and swept all before it.
Still, Barak hesitated. He had neither the faith nor the intuition of Deborah. At length he made the unvaliant suggestion: "If thou wilt go with me, then I will go; but if thou wilt not go with me, then I will not go."
Deborah accepted the challenge. She was not afraid of Jabin or Sisera, or their chariots of iron, and their multitudes of warriors. Strong in the faith of the God of her fathers, she set forth for the scene of battle, confident that the hosts of the Canaanites would perish in the flood tide of the Kishon even as the Egyptians had perished in the Red Sea. But though she assured Barak, "I will surely go with thee," she warned him that his cowardice would meet with just retribution: "The journey that thou takest shall not be for thine honour, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman." With this last shaft Deborah arose, folded up the scroll of the law, left her seat of judgment under the peaceful shade of her palm-tree, and went with Barak the long, toilsome journey into Kedesh. It was to be a momentous "Long Vacation," this, of the woman judge.
Her plan of campaign was now swiftly carried into action. Barak mustered his ten thousand men of Zebulun and Naphtali at Kedesh and went up to Mount Tabor, and Deborah went with him.
The news was told to Sisera, and he gathered his chariots of war and his people together in the valley. From their vantage ground in the mountain fastnesses the men of Israel looked down upon the mustering of the foe.
At length Deborah gave the order to advance. She wore no warrior dress, she carried neither ensign nor sword, but we can picture her, a majestic figure on the mountain brow, her face illumined with patriotic fire, and her eyes aglow with Divine inspiration, as she commanded Barak: "Up, for this is the day in which the Lord has delivered Sisera into thine hand; is not the Lord gone out before thee?"