Barak, A Reluctant Commander

Barak (4)

Picture of Barak from The Historical Atlas of Judaism (2009).

References: Judges chapter 4

Heart of the Story: Barak was unprepared to be the war commander of Israel against the Canaanites. His victory was due to God’s plan not Barak’s skill.

Back Story:

For 20 years King Jabin oppressed the Israelites. During these years, village and rural life ceased; villagers lived in walled towns for protection. King Jabin ruled from Hazor, a well-fortified city in west-central Naphtali. Probably he led a confederacy of Canaanite city-states spread throughout Naphtali, Asher, Zebulun, Issachar, West Manassah, and possibly even south into Ephraim. Sisera was Jabin’s war commander. Sisera had a well-supplied army that included 900 iron chariots. His home was in Harosheth Haggoyim in southeastern Asher.

Deborah was the fourth judge after the Israelites entered the Promised Land. She held court under a palm tree in the southern hill country of Ephraim. When the Israelites repented of their idol worship and cried out to God for relief from Jabin, God responded. He instructed Deborah to send for Barak, an Israelite from Kedesh in northern Naphtali. Deborah told Barak that God commanded him to lead the Israelites to defeat Sisera’s army.

Barak was reluctant to accept the commander’s role. Likely he compared the poorly trained and poorly armed Israelites to Sisera’s troops and chariots; however, he agreed to lead the Israelite army if Deborah went with them. Clearly, Deborah was not pleased with Barak’s response. She told Barak that because of the way he accepted the commander’s job, God would give credit for killing Sisera to a woman rather than to Barak.

Story Line

Barak gathered the Israelite troops on Mount Tabor in the Jazreel Valley. The Kishon River passed through the Jazreel Valley. On both sides of the River, the Valley was normally flat and dry; however, with a hard rain, the River flooded and the Jazreel Valley became a muddy quagmire.

God lured Sisera to the Jazreel Valley by allowing him to learn that Barak’s army was camped at Mount Tabor. Sisera was confident that he could defeat the Israelites. The flat Jazreel Valley was an ideal place to maximize the advantage of fast chariots against the Israelite foot soldiers. Because heavy rains were rare in Canaan, Sisera had no Plan B for defeating the Israelites without his chariots.

God caused a heavy down pour of rain. The Kishon River flooded and land on both sides of the River turned into an impassable marsh. Sisera’s chariots couldn’t maneuver in the mud. The Israelite soldiers killed all the Canaanite troops. Sisera abandoned his chariot and fled on foot.

When Sisera approached Harosheth Haggoyim, he came to tents belonging to Heber the Kenite. Believing the Kenites were allies, he entered the Kenite camp.  Although Heber was not home, Sisera accepted milk from Heber’s wife, Jael, and fell asleep in her tent. Jael killed Sisera by driving a tent peg through his temple. Shortly afterward, Barak came to the Kenite camp. Jael showed him Sisera’s dead body.


God’s reason for choosing Barak for the Israelite commander is not clear. Deborah lived in southern Ephriam. Surely, there was an Israelite man who could lead the Israelites who lived closer than Kedesh, Barak’s home in northern Naphtali. On the other hand, Kedesh was only about 5 miles from Hazor. Barak personal experience with Jabin’s domination motivated him to throw off the Canaanite oppression.

Barak’s caution when Deborah’s called him to be war commander of Israel seems appropriate for three reasons. First, the proximity of Kedesh and Hazor allowed Barak to know the magnitude of Jabin’s army along with its chariots. To Barak, the Canaanite army was beyond formidable. Second, the Bible gave no indication that Barak had battle experience. Likely his father Abinoam was a clan leader in Naphtali (Judges 5:12-13). Probably Barak had experience with decision making for a small group of men, but definitely not for an army of 10,000 men. Third, Deborah held court near Bethel, approximately 80 miles from Barak’s home town. Barak may not have known Deborah well; thus he was not sure that she spoke for God rather than herself. Barak must have been reassured when Deborah agreed to go with the Israelite army. Deborah was putting her life on the line along with Barak and the Israelite men.

Barak’s response showed that he focused on Sisera’s seasoned, well-equipped army rather than God’s power and plan, e.g., God plan to lure the Canaanites into the Kishon river valley. Because of Barak’s failure to fully trust God, this Israelite victory over the mighty Canaanite army is remembered more for Jael’s subterfuge than Barak’s leadership.


As a result of this victory, the Israelites grew stronger against Jabin until they destroyed him. One single person plus God is an unstoppable majority.

Copyright: Carolyn A. Roth, 12/13.

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