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Deborah

Israel's Only Female Judge Was Both Wise and Courageous

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Deborah

French artist James Jacques Joseph Tissot created this work, "Deborah Beneath the Palm Tree" (c. 1896-1902). It's now housed at the Jewish Museum in New York City.

Public Domain

Deborah ranks among the most famous women of the Hebrew Bible, known to Christians as the Old Testament. Not only known for her wisdom, Deborah was also known for her courage. She is the only woman of the Hebrew Bible who gained renown on her own merit, not because of her relationship to a man.

There Are Few Details About the Life of Deborah

Deborah was one of the rulers of the Israelites prior to the monarchy period that began with Saul (circa 1047 B.C.). These rulers were called "judges," an office that traced back to a time when Moses appointed assistants to help him resolve disputes among the Hebrews (Exodus 18). Their practice was to seek guidance from God through prayer and meditation before making a ruling. Therefore, many of the judges also were considered prophets who spoke "a word from the Lord."

Deborah lived somewhere about 1150 B.C., about a century or so after the Hebrews entered Canaan. Her story is told in the Book of Judges, Chapters 4 and 5. According to author Joseph Telushkin in his book Jewish Literacy, the only thing known about Deborah's private life was the name of her husband, Lapidot (or Lappidoth). There's no indication who Deborah's parents were, what kind of work Lapidot did, or whether they had any children.

Deborah Gave Judgments Under a Palm Tree

Unfortunately, details of her time as a judge of the Hebrews are nearly as sparse as her personal details. The opening Judges 4:4-5 tells this much:

At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment.

This location, "between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim," places Deborah and her fellow Hebrews in an area controlled by King Jabin of Hazor, who had oppressed the Israelites for 20 years, according to the Bible. The reference to Jabin of Hazor is confusing, since the Book of Joshua says that it was Joshua who conquered Jabin and burned Hazor, one of the main Canaanite city-states, to the ground a century earlier. Several theories have been put forth to try to solve this detail, but none have been satisfactory thus far. The most common theory is that Deborah's King Jabin was a descendant of Joshua's defeated enemy, and that Hazor had been rebuilt during intervening years.

Deborah Was A Warrior Woman as Well as a Judge

Having received instruction from God, Deborah summoned an Israelite warrior named Barak. She told him to take 10,000 troops up to Mount Tabor to confront Jabin's general, Sisera, who led an army made up of 900 iron chariots.

The Jewish Virtual Library says that Barak's response to Deborah "shows the high esteem in which this ancient prophetess was held." Other interpreters have said that Barak's response actually shows his discomfort at being ordered into battle by a woman, even if she was the ruling judge at the time. Barak said: "If you will go with me, I will go; if not I will not go" (Judges 4:8). In the next verse, Deborah agrees to go into battle with the troops, but tells him: "However, there will be no glory for you in the course you are taking, for then the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman" (Judges 4:9).

Hazor's general, Sisera, responded to news of the Israelite uprising by bringing his iron chariots to Mount Tabor. The Jewish Virtual Library recounts a tradition that this decisive battle took place during the rainy season from October to December, although there is no date reference in the scripture. The theory is that rains produced mud that bogged down Sisera's chariots. Whether this theory is true or not, it was Deborah who urged Barak into battle when Sisera and his troops arrived (Judges 4:14).

Deborah's Prophecy About Sisera Comes True

The Israelite warriors won the day, and General Sisera fled the battleground on foot. He escaped to the camp of the Kenites, a Bedouin tribe that traced its heritage back to Jethro, Moses' father-in-law. He asked for sanctuary in the tent of Jael (or Yael), wife of the clan leader. Thirsty, he asked for water, but she gave him milk and curds, a heavy meal that caused him to fall asleep. Seizing her opportunity, Jael tiptoed into the tent and drove a tent peg through Sisera's head with a mallet. Thus Jael gained fame for killing Sisera, which diminished Barak's fame for his victory over King Jabin's army, as Deborah had predicted!

Judges Chapter 5 is known as the "Song of Deborah," a text that exults in the victory over the Canaanites. Deborah's courage and wisdom in calling up an army to break Hazor's control gave the Israelites 40 years of peace.

Sources:

  • The Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, New Revised Standard Version, (Oxford University Press 1994). NRSV copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved
  • The Jewish Virtual Library, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org
  • Jewish Literacy by Joseph Telushkin (William Morrow and Co., 1991)

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