Deborah is one of the major judges (meaning charismatic leaders, rather than juridical figures) in the story of how Israel takes the land of Canaan.
The only female judge, and also the only judge to be called a prophet, Deborah is a decisive figure in the defeat of the Canaanites, a victory told in two accounts, a prose narrative in Judges 4 and an ancient song known as the Song of Deborah, probably composed not long after the original events, possibly by Deborah herself, and preserved in Judges 5. In Judg 4:4, Deborah is identified as eshet lappidot, which may mean “woman of [the town] Lappidoth,” “wife of [the man] Lappidoth,” or “woman of torches” (that is, “fiery woman”).
As the story opens in Judges 4, Deborah is already a judge, settling disputes brought to her while she sits under the “palm of Deborah” in the hill country of Ephraim (4:5). Most of the major figures in the Book of Judges are acknowledged as leaders after military victory; Deborah is a judge before the battle, but the narrative does not include the story of how she became judge, why she is called a “prophetess,” or the way in which God commanded her to begin the battle against Jabin, the Canaanite king of Hazor, and his general, Sisera.
Deborah summons Barak to be her general, relaying God’s command to take ten thousand men to Mount Tabor to begin the battle. When he responds that he would go only if she will, she agrees to go, but informs him that Barak will get no glory from the victory, for “the Lord will deliver [NRSV, sell] Sisera into the hand of a woman” (4:9). The reader naturally assumes that the woman will be Deborah. Sisera deploys his army against Deborah, and Barak and the troops near Mount Tabor in Galilee. Deborah announces to Barak that the day of victory has come, and “the Lord is indeed going out before you.” Barak and his warriors destroy all the Canaanites except Sisera, who flees from the battle and seeks refuge with a Kenite woman, Jael, who kills him; Jael is in fact the woman who seals Sisera’s fate.
The Song of Deborah, preserved in Judges 5, tells more about this final battle. It describes the chaotic conditions that exist until “you arose, Deborah,/arose as a mother in Israel” (5:7). The poem hints that the battle against Canaan was instigated by the people, who call, “Awake, awake, Deborah!/Awake, awake, utter a song!/Arise, Barak, lead away your captives,/O son of Abinoam” (5:12). Deborah’s job would not be to fight. As the prophetic leader, her job would be to sing encouraging war chants and a victory song (such as Judges 5); the actual fighting would be Barak’s job.
YHWH takes part in the actual battle, causing a sudden flood storm: “The stars fought from heaven,/from their courses they fought against Sisera./The torrent Kishon swept them away” (5:21). This disabled the Canaanite chariots, enabling Israel’s infantry to win.
The Song of Deborah concludes with a heroic depiction of Jael as a woman warrior and with a taunt of Sisera’s mother, waiting anxiously and in vain for Sisera to return after the battle. Deborah does not show sympathy toward another woman, Sisera’s mother. Quite the contrary—she portrays her as the quintessential enemy woman, already anticipating the riches that the fighters will bring as spoil when they return. These riches would include both materia1 wealth and captive women—“a girl or two [Hebrew, a womb-girl, two womb-girls] for every man” (5:30). The battle is between Israelites and Canaanites, and the women align solidly with their own group.
There is no other heroine like Deborah in the Hebrew Bible, but other women did have some of her many roles. She is called a “mother in Israel” (Judg 5:7) perhaps because she was a biological mother. This would be important, showing that mothers might attain political prominence. More likely, the phrase may indicate that her arbitration powers as judge were parental, even maternal. “Mother,” like “father,” can be an honorific title for an authority figure or protector in the community (compare 1 Sam 24:1 and Isa 22:21). Another possibility is that she was a strong administrator of God’s plan, like the matriarchs in Genesis. As a respected politico-judicial authority, she has a counterpart in the wise woman of Abel, who spoke for and rescued the city of Abel where, she said, the people of Israel brought their disputes to be settled (2 Sam 20:15–22). As a singer of victory songs, she echoes Miriam and foreshadows latter women who celebrate David’s military success (1 Sam 18:6–7). And as a prophetess, like Miriam, she anticipates later female prophetic figures, such as Huldah, who prophesied the end of Israel’s time in Canaan, and Noadiah, who appeared during the restoration from exile. But there are differences in these roles. Women singers and prophets continue throughout Israel’s history, but with the consolidation of the Israelite monarchy, politico-judicial authority of the type enjoyed by Deborah and the wise woman of Abel was handed over to the royal bureaucracies. And except perhaps for some queen mothers, they apparently did not include women.
Ackerman, Susan. Warrior, Dancer, Seductress, Queen: Women in Judges and Biblical Israel. New York: 1998.
Exum, J. Cheryl. “Mother in Israel: A Familiar Story Re-considered.” In Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, edited by Letty M. Russell, 73–85. Philadelphia: 1985.
Fewell, Dana Nolan. “Judges.” Women’s Bible Commentary, edited by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, 73–83. Kentucky: 1992; expanded edition, 1998.
Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. Victors, Victims, Virgins, and Voice: Rereading the Women of the Bible. New York.
Meyers, Carol, General Editor. Women in Scripture. New York: 2000.
Stager, Lawrence. “Archaeology, Ecology, and Social History: Background Themes to the Song of Deborah.” In Jerusalem Congress Volume, 1986, edited by J. A. Emerton, 221–234. Netherlands: 1988.