People

Deborah by Jennifer L. Koosed

Judges were charismatic political and military leaders who ruled over the tribes of Israel in the approximately two-hundred-year period between Israel’s appearance in Canaan and the formation of the monarchy under Saul (circa 1200–1020 B.C.E.). The tales of 12 judges are told in the biblical book of Judges. Their stories are framed by cycles of sin, punishment, repentance and then deliverance—that is, the Israelites do “what is evil in the eyes of the Lord” and a foreign king is allowed to oppress them, then the people “cry out” and God raises up a judge to overthrow the oppressor (see Judg 3:7-9, Judg 3:12-15). Deborah is the only female judge whose story is recounted in the book of Judges.

Were women warriors in ancient Israel?

Unlike other judges, Deborah is called a prophet and is depicted adjudicating disputes under the “palm of Deborah” (Judg 4:5). Hence, she is the only judge who is also a spokesperson for God and who acts in ways that are associated with what judges do today. She may or may not be married: “wife of Lappidoth” (Judg 4:4) can also be translated “woman of torches” or “fiery woman.” She may or may not be a mother: “mother in Israel” (Judg 5:7) may be a title of honor and authority. Like other judges, her story focuses on her military conquests. Deborah and her general Barak lead the Israelite army in a battle against the Canaanite king Jabin and his general Sisera. 

Deborah’s story of victory has several unique elements.  First, she rides into battle not alone but with her general Barak. In fact, Barak refuses to go into battle without Deborah. His hesitancy is met with a sharp rebuke as Deborah predicts that glory will not be his; rather, Sisera will be killed by a woman. You may think that she is predicting her own triumph, but instead her words foreshadow the second unusual element of the story: Sisera will not be killed on the battlefield at all. He will be killed by a tent peg wielded by Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite, a most ignominious death for a soldier.

Despite the fact that Deborah is indeed a woman warrior who displays both wisdom and courage (more so than even her general), for a man to be killed by a woman was still considered shameful. During the period of judges, when political organization was loose, leaders emerged from among the people based upon their personal charisma and military prowess. Consequently, exceptional women could and did become judges. However, gender biases still operated in Israelite society and women warriors were rare.

Why didn’t Deborah assassinate Sisera herself?

The Israelites rout their enemy, slaughtering all the Canaanite soldiers. Sisera escapes the bloodbath on foot. He runs by the tent of Heber the Kenite, and Heber’s wife Jael comes out to meet him, assuring him that he has nothing to fear in her tent. Acting in ways both motherly and seductive, Jael lays him down, covers him, and gives him milk. While he sleeps, she takes a tent peg and drives it into his head, all the way through his skull and into the ground beneath.  

At least according to one version of the story... Immediately following the narrative account (Judg 4) is the Song of Deborah (Judg 5). Some scholars think that Deborah's song was written well before the rest of the book of Judges, and is thus one of the oldest passages in the Hebrew Bible, while others believe that it was written during the time of the Babylonian exile.  In the song, Deborah lauds Jael, calling her “most blessed of women” (Judg 5:24). Instead of performing her murderous act while he is asleep, in this version Jael drives the tent peg through Sisera’s skull while he is awake and standing. The passage is also full of sexual innuendo. The song ends with Sisera’s mother awaiting his return. This poignant moment turns gruesome when one of her servants assures the anxious mother that he is late because he is busy dividing the spoil: a girl (literally a “womb”) or two for every man (Judg 5:30). Her words remind us that rape has been a weapon and sexual slavery a consequence of war for millennia. Jael’s actions can be understood as a reverse rape—seducing and killing the aggressor before he had a chance to rape her (and others). In Deborah’s song, Deborah and Jael are both warriors, and as a pair they are a triumphant Thelma and Louise.

Jennifer L. Koosed, "Deborah", n.p. [cited 23 May 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/people/main-articles/deborah

Contributors

Jennifer L. Koosed

Jennifer L. Koosed
Associate Professor, Albright College

Jennifer L. Koosed is professor of religious studies at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania. She is the author of Gleaning Ruth: A Biblical Heroine and Her Afterlives (University of South Carolina Press, 2011). She has edited The Bible and Posthumanism (SBL, 2014) and, with Stephen Moore, Affect Theory and the Bible, a special issue of the journal Biblical Interpretation (2014).

Deborah, the only female judge in the Hebrew Bible, defeated the Canaanites with the help of her general Barak and Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite.

Did you know…?

  • Deborah’s name means “bee.”
  • Deborah is one of five women called a prophet in the Hebrew Bible.  The others are Miriam (Exod 15:20), Huldah (2Kgs 22:14), Isaiah’s wife (Isa 8:3) and Noadiah (Neh 6:14).
  • Women may have had an official liturgical role as song writers in ancient Israel.
  • The two oldest passages in the Bible are both victory songs attributed to women: Miriam (Exod 15:20-21) and Deborah (Judg 5).
  • The place of Deborah’s battle is the pass of Megiddo, which is also the place of the final battle between good and evil according to the book of Revelation (Megiddo = Armageddon).

A system of rule with a monarch as its head; or the hereditary system passed from one monarch to another.

Judg 3:7-9

Othniel
7The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, forgetting the Lord their God, and worshiping the Baals and the Asherahs.8Therefore the ange ... View more

Judg 3:12-15

Ehud
12The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord strengthened King Eglon of Moab against Israel, because they had done what ... View more

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Evidence of a divine gift or divine favor, or the attractive leadership associated with such favor.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

Judg 4:5

5She 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.

Judg 4:4

4At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel.

Judg 5:7

7The peasantry prospered in Israel,
they grew fat on plunder,
because you arose, Deborah,
arose as a mother in Israel.

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

Judges 5, a poetic account parallel to Judges 4 and attributed to the prophetess and judge Deborah.

Judg 4

Deborah and Barak
1The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died.2So the Lord sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan ... View more

Judg 5

The Song of Deborah
1Then Deborah and Barak son of Abinoam sang on that day, saying:2“When locks are long in Israel,
when the people offer themselves willingly— ... View more

Judg 5:24

24“Most blessed of women be Jael,
the wife of Heber the Kenite,
of tent-dwelling women most blessed.

Judg 5:30

30‘Are they not finding and dividing the spoil?—
A girl or two for every man;
spoil of dyed stuffs for Sisera,
spoil of dyed stuffs embroidered,
two pieces of d ... View more

Exod 15:20

The Song of Miriam
20Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron's sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with danc ... View more

2Kgs 22:14

14So the priest Hilkiah, Ahikam, Achbor, Shaphan, and Asaiah went to the prophetess Huldah the wife of Shallum son of Tikvah, son of Harhas, keeper of the wardr ... View more

Isa 8:3

3And I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son. Then the Lord said to me, Name him Maher-shalal-hash-baz;

Neh 6:14

14Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, O my God, according to these things that they did, and also the prophetess Noadiah and the rest of the prophets who wanted to m ... View more

Exod 15:20-21

The Song of Miriam
20Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron's sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with danc ... View more

Judg 5

The Song of Deborah
1Then Deborah and Barak son of Abinoam sang on that day, saying:2“When locks are long in Israel,
when the people offer themselves willingly— ... View more

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