Deborah (fl. 12th c. BCE)

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Deborah (fl. 12th c. bce)

Prophet and judge of Israel, considered to be a historical figure, who stands out among women in both Jewish and Christian history because of her power and influence. Name variations: Deborah the Judge. The literal meaning of Deborah is "honey bee"; the Hebrew for Deborah is close to the Hebrew dabar, meaning word, often referring to the word of God, and to the Aramaic root, dbr, meaning to lead; names in Hebrew culture and narrative expressed anticipation of a person's destiny; Deborah was associated with the presumed enlightening and courage-producing potential of honey.

As with most Biblical women, we do not know the specifics of Deborah's early life. As a child, she would have grown up within a strong extended family and clan. Her parents and elders would have taught her the sagas of their tradition, including an understanding of God that contrasted with the Canaanite fertility gods and goddesses. Though boys' education would have been favored over girls', this was before the days of formal schooling. As a girl, Deborah would early on have assumed domestic responsibilities; however, it seems possible that special attention might have been given to her religious education. Perhaps she demonstrated a propensity for gathering wisdom, or perhaps there were no sons in her family to prime for leadership roles. Whatever the reason, this woman—who would have been considered a man's property and prevented from inheriting land—emerged as a leader who was subject to no one and was responsible for the securing of land for her people.

There are two accounts of Deborah's leadership in the book of Judges (chapters 4 and 5). The first, a prose rendering, which shows the hand of one or more editors, is later than the second account, a piece of poetry (known as "Deborah's Song") that was possibly an eyewitness account and is one of the oldest examples of extant Hebrew literature. Reading the story of Deborah feels more like a leap into the future rather than a peek into the quite distant past. Deborah is first introduced as a leader who displays authority over all men in the narrative and speaks for God—without a literary bat of the eye. Apparently, she rose to power by common consent of the people, who recognized her wisdom and sought her counsel and guidance in important matters. Though the narrative speaks from a patriarchal milieu in which women are presumed subordinate to and owned by men, there is, in Deborah's case, a surprising suspension of some key aspects of patriarchy. A significant handful of women emerge as heroines in Biblical narrative, but they are usually in stereotypic female roles: seductive tricksters, or faithful wives, daughters, and sisters. Most surprisingly, though Deborah's husband may be alluded to (it is unclear whether she is "wife of Lapidoth" or "woman of fire"; Hebrew meaning could go either way), and though she is given the title "mother of Israel," she functions in the story apart from any role as wife to a husband, mother to a son, or sister to a brother. Finally, in contrast to other Biblical war finales, Deborah sings to celebrate her own victory, rather than that of returning male heros. "Deborah stands out as a unique figure in the Hebrew Bible," writes Cheryl Ann Brown . "She is at once a prophetess, a poetess, a great military leader on a par with male military leaders, and even a judge, not simply like others, but a judge to whom Israelites turned for legal counseling and settling of court cases" (Judg. 4:5).

At that time Deborah, a prophetess, woman of fire, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah … and the Israelites came to her to dispense justice.

Judges 4:4,5

Deborah's exceptional nature, in fact, has been too much to swallow for some commentators and retellers. First-century historian Josephus diminished Deborah's stature, and a later legendary rendition of her tale censures Deborah for behaving unseemly. Some rabbis nicknamed her "the hornet" or "buzzing bee" because they thought she was arrogant. Modern commentators as well have obscured Deborah's preeminence and attributed her rise to an absence of leaders in Israel. Because the military leader Barak takes a strong role in the narrative, however, we can assume that Deborah is not judge because there was no one else available. Furthermore, other brave men are vaunted in Deborah's song for their readiness to protect Israel. Interpretive stutterings notwithstanding, the narrative eloquently portrays this woman as a leader extraordinaire.

Deborah emerges as judge during a time when the people of Israel have fallen into idolatry and suffered decades of cruel oppression from the hands of the Canaanites—"in those days caravans ceased and travelers kept to the byways" (5:6). The rustic Hebrews were then a loose federation, and they rejected Canaan's absolutism of the city-states and the extreme hierarchy that created sharp divisions between the privileged elite and the subjected others. Considered intruders and revolutionaries from the perspective of the indigenous Canaanites, the alien Israelites were continually in conflict with the inhabitants of the land. Because warfare was the universal paradigm for handling territorial disputes, battles figure prominently in the sagas of the Judges. The dynamics of this political strife were complicated by religious overtones; in the ancient world, religious fervor and national allegiance were linked. In Israel's understanding, God was on the side of the suffering minority, and interaction with the other nations (who "followed other gods") was believed a key source of religious apostasy. The identity of this Iron Age woman-of-fire is forged within this paradigm, and she emerges as one who has credibility and prowess in this setting.

The battle for which Deborah is remembered took place around 1125 bce. The technologically advanced Canaanites, boasting an army of nearly a thousand chariots of iron, controlled a strategically located stronghold that threatened to strangle the main route of Israelite trade. Deborah follows three earlier leaders, referred to as judges, who functioned primarily as warrior-liberators for victims of military aggression; but she alone fulfills the additional roles of prophet and judicial arbitrator. It was Deborah's habit to sit under a particular palm tree (the "palm of Deborah") to counsel and dispense justice. As tribal judge, her task was to rally the people together to defend their customs and territory. As a prophet, her call was to bring God's word and gather the wayward back to Him.

In her capacity as God's messenger, Deborah beckons Barak, Israel's general, and conveys to him God's command that he mobilize the troops to confront the Canaanites in battle. Her oracle contains a strategic plan and the promise of divinely accomplished victory. Barak entreats Deborah to go with him into battle ("If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go."). Deborah chides his hesitance but complies, and against overwhelming odds God delivers the enemy into Israel's hands by means of a torrential downpour that creates a mud trap for the chariots. The enemy troops are routed; however, Sisera, the Canaanite general, escapes on foot. The story ends when the desperate general finds apparent refuge in the tent of Jael , the wife of a man whose clan is at peace with Sisera's. Evidently Jael, in a surprising display of independence from her husband and clan (emphasized in the phrasing "the tent of Jael" rather than, as would be expected, the tent of Heber, her husband), makes her own decision as to whose side she will be on. She entices Sisera into her tent in feigned hospitality. Adept at the women's work of staking tents to the ground, she uses her skill to kill this general by hammering a tent peg through his skull. In pursuit of Sisera, Barak reaches Jael's tent and learns of her exploit. Victory over Canaan complete, Deborah and Barak sing a gloating and celebratory ballad that congratulates the brave warriors who offered themselves, chastises the tribes who did not come to Israel's aid, extols the bravery and wiles of Jael, and praises the God who crushed the enemy.

Jael (fl. c. 1125 BCE)

Biblical heroine who killed Sisera, Israel's mighty enemy. Name variations: Jahel; Yael. Flourished around 1125 bce; wife of Heber the Kenite (Judg. 4:17–22).

After the defeat of the Canaanites by Barak, Sisera, the captain of Jabin's army, fled and took refuge with the tribe of Heber. Jael, a Kenite woman and the wife of Heber, welcomed Sisera into her tent with the offer of milk and a promise to guard against intruders while he slept. When he fell asleep, Jael killed him by driving a tent nail into his temples with a mallet. Jael was later honored in the song of Deborah as "most blessed above women."

Within the book of Judges, Deborah stands out as one of few judges whose character is never sullied by some moral lapse. Modern critics, however, are somewhat uncomfortable with Deborah's character. Although she seems not to be confined by the power structures and expectations of patriarchy, neither does she stand against some of its questionable assumptions. In song, Deborah glorifies the protective aggression of her army and celebrates the violent demise of Sisera and his people. As Danna Fewell and David Gunn note, "The authority of violence is justified. And in the face of that authority, the woman, Deborah, has offered no real alternative" These authors conclude that Deborah and Jael, as women in a man's world, find their place within its structures—they offer no alternative. Elizabeth Cady Stanton , in The Woman's Bible, severely condemns Jael's behavior as that "more like the work of a fiend than a woman."

There is justification for this social critique. The ultimate test of faithfulness to Israel's God is just and merciful treatment of those on the margins (widows, orphans, strangers, and poor). Indeed, as one progresses through the book of Judges, the tactics of oppressors and oppressed are sometimes indistinguishable; trust in God's compassionate presence becomes commandeered by national fervor. God's enemies and God's friends appear to be defined. The narrative depicts an us/they, win/lose worldview: Israel's victory is celebrated and Canaan's demise is legitimated. Deborah, as the mother of Israel, shows a fierce and exclusive protection toward her own. Though her song expresses an awareness of the grief that will come upon the "other" mother—Sisera's—awaiting her son's return from war, the lyrics are short on transformative vision.

Though modern readers cannot fail to see the exclusiveness and brutality of the narrative, we must be careful of too easily pressing Deborah into the service of our contemporary agendas. If we consider the story in its context, we discern glimpses—if not realizations—of an alternate vision. There are places where Deborah's story strains against and indeed sits in judgment upon its own reality. There are four such places of renewal in Deborah's story: movement toward and realization of gender equality, gropings toward peace, the suggestion of partnership, and hints of solidarity with the ravished.

The first, the movement toward gender equality, is evidenced by Deborah's very presence as a judge. However, her relationship to Barak may reveal more of the texture in which such equality was wrestled. Though many male commentators are embarrassed by Barak's refusal to go into battle without Deborah (one legend called him an ignoramus), his reticence may point to his courage rather than his cowardice. He is not afraid to defer to a woman's authority, and he is not above seeking a woman's counsel in battle. It is a tribute to Deborah's character that Barak seeks her presence, and it is to Barak's credit that he does not denounce or bypass Deborah's judgment. Deborah's plan for battle no doubt seemed unwise in light of Canaan's overwhelming technological advantage. However, asking only for her presence alongside, Barak is willing to proceed with her strategy. Deborah apparently upbraids Barak for handing the glory of killing Sisera over to a woman ("I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman."). Although her words are more a portent of what is to take place than an attempt to humiliate her general, it is possible that Barak exposed and challenged remnants of patriarchy even in Deborah. The "road" that he goes on does not lead to his personal glory, but Barak surely prepares the way for what turns out to be their mutual glory. This leads into the broader theme of partnership that is suggested in the overall narrative.

Though in some ways Deborah may seem "larger than life," her story is as striking for the number of players that she brings onto center stage with her as it is for the number of laurels that she accumulates. The three-part cooperation between Deborah, an Israelite woman, Barak, an Israelite man, and Jael, a Kenite woman (a people aligned with the Canaanites), is an interesting study in partnership. Typically in the judge stories, a single man is identified as the military deliverer. In this story, three characters are responsible for the nation's deliverance. Each is indispensable for the delivery of the suffering nation, and all three share the glory of Israel's victory. Though Deborah is remembered as the judge, Barak and Jael also take center stage. Deborah's unique role as leader does not seem to be at the expense of, or in exclusion of, other heros.

In fact, the first-century writer of Biblical Antiquities, known as Pseudo-Philo (his work was erroneously attributed to Philo), compares Deborah's unique leadership to that of the incomparable Moses. Moses and Deborah, in the range and significance of their calling and competencies, seem to stand apart from all other leaders. However, there is a twist in the parallelism. While, according to the Moses narratives, a similar triad formed between Moses, his brother Aaron, and his sister Miriam the Prophet , God jealously protected Moses' pre-eminence—to the near demise of Miriam. However, in the Deborah narrative, sustained partnership, including perhaps mutual correction, is the trajectory. It has even been suggested that in Judges 4 Deborah and Jael are described in such a way as to evoke recollection of Canaanite partner goddesses whose joint efforts eventually became inseparable. Though this is a partnership of power, it is undergirded by a commitment to the powerless. This theme, though not always recognized, is central to the narrative.

It has frequently been noted that "Deborah's Song" brings in aspects of a woman's perspective on battle. In the last stanzas, the singer paints a powerful verbal picture of the scene on the home front of Sisera's family. Deborah imagines the noble women waiting, peering out their windows, wondering what is taking so long; Sisera's mother and her ladies presume that Sisera and his men, victorious, are dividing spoil, including the customary booty ("Are they not finding and dividing the spoil?—A girl or two for every man").

Why does the composer of this song include this scene? Those who decry the violence of the passage maintain that the stanzas are taunting, insinuating that the proud will soon fall, and the plunder will go in the other direction. Surely, "Deborah's Song" gloats over the "poetic justice" rendered when a band of ill-prepared peasants bests a rich and powerful army and a lone woman fells its general. But, rather than taunting, it is equally possible that these stanzas represent a brief but significant suspension of the us/they perspective so pervasive in the ancient world. If only for a moment, these mothers share a common experience.

Deborah's war-victory song ends with the poignant awareness that women suffer the long-term consequences of war-defeat. While that awareness includes a fleeting empathy for "the other" mother, the real empathy is for Israel's daughters. Sisera's victory would give every male victor an Israelite "woman or two" (literally, a womb or two); Sisera's defeat protects Israel's daughters from this sexual slavery. There is an implicit but profound celebration for the women and girls who were spared from Canaan's ravishment. Jael is "most blessed of women," not because she was so bravely violent, but rather because she has redeemed the Israelite wombs. We are brought to eavesdrop on the Canaanite hearth so that we do not miss the often hidden story of equal opportunity of suffering during war—sons and daughters are lost, and sons and daughters are spared.

However, more than mere celebration for the fortunate daughters, there is a hint of protest in these odd stanzas. The brute recitation of the Canaanite despoiling of women is not endorsement or even resignation to the custom. Interestingly (although it may well have taken place), Israel's counter-plundering is neither celebrated nor mentioned. In a culture where bragging over booty was a familiar theme in war epics, the silence may be significant. Though one might argue that the reserve in detailing Israel's booty-taking reflects an unwillingness to admit to reciprocal brutality, it is still a move beyond the usual male bravado. Bellicose and indignant though she may be, Deborah does not engage in power politics as usual; she is within a tradition of those groping toward a vision a peace.

"Would Deborah rather have accomplished the deliverance of the people by peaceful means?" asks Margaret Wold . The pastoral scene of Deborah adjudicating justice beneath a palm tree signals that neither holy war nor treachery was Deborah's chief modus operandi. In fact, Deborah's oracle itself represents a movement beyond the traditional glorification of human might and control. Her message, though it still ensues in brutal consequences for "the enemy," is framed in what Susan Niditch calls "an ideology of non-participation." The task of Israel is not to muster its power and vanquish its enemy; it is rather to relinquish control and trust in God, who "loves the weak and controls the war." When it comes down to it, this is the story of a man deferring to and following a woman who is leaving it up to God. Yairah Amit comments that the hero of the story is neither Deborah, nor Barak, nor even Jael, but rather God. Certainly, we could critique this theory for its apparent lack of realism and responsibility (which is one interpretation for Barak's hesitance). But it is groping toward an alternative understanding of war, perhaps even, as Niditch sees it, a "breakthrough toward an ideology of peace."

Any breakthrough, however, recedes after Deborah's death. Pseudo-Philo portrayed Deborah as a visionary leader and enlightener whose impending death threatens to leave a great void in her community. "To whom do you commend your sons whom you are leaving? Pray therefore for us, and after your departure your soul will be mindful of us forever," the people implore. In Pseudo-Philo's retelling, Deborah exhorts the people to live as she has taught them. Sadly, though she established peace for 40 years, Deborah's accomplishments seemed to have been reversed by subsequent judges. The next judge, Gideon, requested the gold taken as booty from war be fashioned into an idol of sorts. Jepthah ended up sacrificing his own daughter in his bid for power. And Samson depended on his physical prowess to the exclusion of wisdom and responsibility, brandishing his power in personal vendettas and foolish escapades. Gender equality, peace, partnership, and solidarity with the weak fade. Tragically, the epic ends as it began—in chaos, war, and violence.

Yet, in world history, Deborah's vision and enlightenment did not die. Israel itself continued to nurture pockets of equality, peace, and justice, as Deborah's spirit reemerged in prophets, wise women, and liberators. And Deborah, woman of fire, miracle of her time, inspires women to look beyond the actual to the possible, to refuse victimization and imagine a new future.


Judges. Contained in The New Oxford Annotated Bible. New Revised Standard Version. York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

suggested reading:

Amit, Yairah. "Judges 4: Its Content and Form," in Journal of the Study of the Old Testament. Vol. 39, 1987, pp. 89–111.

Brenner, Athalya. The Israelite Women: Social Role and Literary Type in Biblical Narrative. Sheffeld: JSOT Press, 1985.

Brown, Cheryl Anne. No Longer Be Silent: First Century Jewish Portraits of Biblical Women. Louisville, KY: Westminster-John Knox Press, 1992.

Fewell, Danna Nolan. "Judges." in The Women's Bible Commentary.

Newsom, Carol A., and Sharon H. Ringe, eds. Louisville: Westminster-John Knox Press, 1992.

——, and David M. Gunn. "Controlling Perspectives: Women, Men, and the Authority of Violence in Judges 4 & 5," in Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Vol. LVIII, no. 3, pp. 389–411.

Niditch, Susan. War in the Hebrew Bible. NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Wilson, Lois Miriam. Miriam, Mary and Me: Women in the Bible. Winnipeg: Wood Lake books, 1992.

Wold, Margaret. Women of Faith & Spirit. Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1987.

Carol Lakey Hess , faculty member at Princeton Theological Seminary, who works on issues relating to theology and gender