The campaign of Deborah and Barak - the wars of the northern and central tribes - against Sisera and his army is one of the most famous military clashes of the Bible. We have a first-hand account in that majestic Biblical poem, the Song of Deborah. Like the chronicle of Rameses II that describes the Battle of Kadesh, Deborah's battle appears in parallel forms in prose and poetry (Judges 4 and 5).
But unlike the Kadesh records, Deborah's story is not backed up by wall reliefs that show images of the battle scenes. All the same it is possible to work out the basic tactics of the tribal warriors and the way they used topography and weather conditions against the Canaanite chariots.
The Canaanites in ancient Israel were superior in virtually every aspect of war:
Despite Joshua’s battles, they still had a firm hold on the coastal area and the Jezreel Valley – which was the best land in the area.
The Canaanite army
The Canaanite army's main force, or at least that part of it which went into action against the Israel tribes, was made up of chariot squadrons, the vehicles manned by two warriors and drawn by horses. The illustrated monuments nearest in time to this period are the reliefs and ivory carvings from Megiddo belonging to the end of the I3th century, which show details of the Canaanite chariot (see below). It is heavier than the Egyptian, as can be seen from the position of the axle-rod, which is not at the rear of the body. It seems to have been armored and strengthened by metal plates.
At this time the federation of Israelite tribes was headed by Deborah, a leader and prophetess. Women like
Miriam the sister of Moses, or Salome Alexandra who ruled the Hasmonean kingdom from 76-67BC, have sometimes played a decisive role in Jewish history. Among these women, Deborah stands out. She provided leadership, unflinching valor, and above all clever strategy and tactics.
Deborah faced the sort of problem a modern-day commander might face if he had to fight cohorts of tanks in open country with only lightly-armed infantry and no armor-piercing weapons. With this in mind, Deborah developed a three-phased campaign. She relied on
The main part of Sisera's army was at “Harosheth of the Gentiles.” This must have been close to the Valley of Jezreel, for the site of the decisive battle was near Megiddo, in the western section of the valley.
The tactics used by Deborah and Barak are less clear. But from part of the text it would seem that there was a surprise onslaught by the Israel troops upon the Canaanite chariots in the valley near the River Kishon. Crucially, time chosen for the attack was arranged to coincide with the heavy rains when the river was swollen, overﬂowing its banks, and turning the ground into sticky mud. For we are told in the Song of Deborah (Judges 5: 21): 'The river of Kishon swept them away, that ancient river, the river Kishon.'
The Battle: Phase 1
Key to map: 1: Sisera’s first base camp; 2: Deborah and Barak concentrate their forces on Mount Tabor; 3: Sisera moves to occupy Mount Tabor; 4: the second Israelite force near the northern slopes of Mount Ephraim
But Deborah had a second force at her disposal, militia she had gathered from Ephraim. She used this body of soldiers to draw Sisera away from his vigil opposite Mount Tabor, towards the swampy area of the Kishon River in the western part of the Jezreel Valley.
She must have provided good reason for him to abandon his first position – tantalizingly, the Bible does not tell us what it was. But it must have been a movement threatening the unprotected plain. Only this would have induced Sisera to break camp and move in the direction of the Kishon River, to secure the narrow pass between the Carmel and the Tivon hills leading from the Jezreel Valley into the coastal plain.
Whatever this feint was, it worked.
Phase 3; see key below
A sudden downpour aided the Israelites considerably and helped turn Sisera’s defeat into a rout. The Song of Deborah tells how the Kishon River swelled into a torrent and swept away the enemy’s horses and chariots. Even the heavily armed infantry became bogged down and hampered in their movements. The World War I image at right shows just how helpless the horses and chariots would have been in the mud. The Israelite warriors fell upon them and wiped them out.
Even the chariot of the commander, Sisera, was unable to move. He panicked. Instead of trying to save as much as possible from the debacle and fight another day, he jumped off his chariot and fled by foot to his ignominious death at the hands of Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite, in whose tent he sought refuge. ‘So God subdued on that day Jabin the King of Canaan before the Children of Israel’ (Judges 4:23)
Thus was terrain and climate used cleverly to bring victory to the Israel Tribes.
Bible Study Resource for Archaeology: Deborah and Jael, what archaeology adds to the Bible story