“In the days of Shamgar, the son of Anat, in the days of Jael, the way ceased to be; and those who walked, walked by paths.”
As we see so often in Hebrew poetry, there is double meaning within these words if we look closely. The most obvious and surface meaning is a reference to the notion that during the time of Canaanite oppression, the people could not travel the main roads and had to stick with smaller pathways. And that is how many of our English translations render the text.
Yet, recognizing the context, there are some plays on words that are taking place. First of all, the broader context of the book of Judges is that people are doing what is right in their own eyes and not what is right in the eyes of God. In particular, in the account of Deborah, the men have yielded to fear before the Canaanite armies and are thus not rising to the call to defend the people from this wicked king or to lead their families in obedience to God’s Word. Even Baraq, we find, had to be prodded by Deborah to do what God had already commanded him to do.
With that in mind, we need to remember that the word we translate as “way,” jårOa (‘orach), is commonly used to refer to the way that the believer must walk (see, for example, Psalm 119:9,101,104,128). Psalm 44:18 makes this notion quite clear that there is a way that believers should walk and that way has been laid out for us by God on high. As David also writes in Psalm 25:4:
“Make me to know your approach, Yahweh;
Your way, teach me.”
Note even the chiastic structure of this language, reversing the word order to add emphasis to the parallelism.
As the song of Deborah and Baraq lays this verse out, the idea of “the way” is contrasted (again as a chiasm) with the notion of those who walked, choosing to walk by paths…or perhaps, in context, by paths of their own making. They were blazing their own trails literally to avoid the Canaanite guards and figuratively to avoid walking in the way — living our lives — in the way that God commands. So indeed, people were walking pathways, but their idolatry was a far more dangerous threat than the Canaanites.
Little has changed. Fallen man despises the way of God. There is no way around that notion. Most of the abuse and even persecution that comes in the direction of believers is due to the notion that we represent something — a principle even — that fallen man resents: God is…. And being that God is, he has the right to place demands on our lives as to the way we live, we act, and we treat one another. It also means that he is rightfully worshipped, and again, fallen man recoils at the notion of worshipping anything other than the works of his own hand (which he can control).
Further, when the church allows believers to walk in their own ways and does not direct Christians back to the ways of God, then the church falls into the same morass as the society is bogged down by. Sad.