Where do we find her in the Bible?

Gustav Dore's interpretation of Deborah, the prophetess
Gustav Dore’s interpretation of Deborah, the prophetess

Who was she?

  • The only woman acclaimed as a Judge (probably a tribal chieftain or warrior ruler who led the Israelites in fighting oppressive enemies). ((The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume 2, accessed 6/24/2014.))
  • Even though she was female, there is no language that implies that it was unusual for a woman to serve in this role. The absence of the mention of other female judges reminds us that history often only notes women when they do something extraordinary.
  • Deborah is first noted as a counselor (“judge” in a “modern” sense/magistrate) in a time of peace (Judges 4:5), alluding to her wisdom and the respect that others had for her.
  • She is described as “wife of Lapidoth” in 4:4. This word could be her husband’s name or his position (keeper of [sacred] torches, perhaps in a place of worship). It could also mean “woman of fire,” alluding to a fiery, strong personality. ((NIB))
  • Note that Deborah has to encourage/urge Barak to engage in battle (4:6-9, 14).  In many senses, she is either stronger than he, or she has a stronger “connection” to God, upon which he relies.
  • The events in this story date to the transition from the Late Bronze Age to the early Iron Age. ((NIB)) Sisera’s army used the newer technology to create “chariots of iron.” (4:3) They believed that they would be superior in battle because of their advanced battle equipment.
  • The poem tells us that a sudden rainstorm (5:4) and the flooding of the wadi Kishon (5:21) bogged down Sisera’s chariots in the mud. Since his army depended so much on their “chariots of iron” (4:3), they were easily defeated by foot-soldiers, who could maneuver when the chariots could not.
  • Deborah’s story includes not only Barak, but Jael, a Canaanite woman who acts on behalf of the Israelites. (4:17-22 and 5:24-27) All three are central to the story, no one of them being more important than the others:
    • Deborah, the wise counselor and spiritual guide (prophet, oracle)
    • Barak, the military leader
    • Jael, the woman who kills Sisera
  • Deborah does not take personal credit for the victory. She gives all credit to God. (4:7, 14; 5:3-5)
  • The result of Deborah’s tenacity and leadership (and Barak’s cooperation and Jael’s action) was 40 years of peace for Israel. (5:31)

What lessons do we learn from her story?

  • Deborah shows the importance of strong female leaders in history, even though their stories were not often recorded.
  • As we read the prose and poetic stories of Judges 4 and 5, we realize that we don’t know who the “real judge” was: Deborah, Barak, or Jael? It is possible that, given the ambiguity, the authors/poets/editors believe that all three served together in the role that was filled by only one person at a time throughout the rest of the book. ((NIB))
  • The Song of Deborah (5:2-31) is one of the oldest writings in the Bible. It probably dates to the Twelfth Century BCE.
    • As such, it probably serves as one of the major sources of the prose version of the story in chapter 4. ((NIB))
    • This dates it to very soon after the events probably occurred. ((Wikipedia article on Deborah,, accessed 6/24/14))
  • Fun fact about Deborah: Her name means “bee” in Hebrew. ((Wikipedia))
  • Jael’s story takes two, rather different, forms ((NIB))
    • In chapter 4 (the prose story) she serves a very motherly role
      • She hides him under a blanket, like a mother might do to protect her child from “the monsters.”
      • She gives him milk (instead of the water he asked for), which would (and did) have the effect of putting him to sleep. (Think of a mama nursing her baby before laying him down for the night.)
      • In Hebrew, his request of her (in 4:20) is to answer, “No,” if anyone asks “if any man is here” (implying, no, a not-man – a child or an infant – is).
    • In chapter 5 (the poem) she serves a very sexual role
      • The Hebrew for the “piercing” of his temple (5:26) is a term used of rape.
      • In Hebrew, his death is not “at her feet,” but “between her legs.” (5:27) There’s no ambiguity of the meaning.
    • Both images of Jael are in sharp contrast to the boasting, waiting, biological mother of Sisera in 5:28-30.
  • What do we do with Judges 5 and its image of God as divine warrior; the ruthless violence of Jael against Sisera, which seems to be applauded; and the desire for vengeance against one’s enemies (5:31)? ((NIB))