Deborah, the Woman Judge
1After Ehud died, the Israelites again did what the LORD said was wrong.
2So he let Jabin, a king of Canaan who ruled in the city of Hazor, defeat Israel.
Sisera, who lived in Harosheth Haggoyim, was the commander of Jabin’s army.
3Because he had nine hundred iron chariots and was very cruel to the people of
Israel for twenty years, they cried to the LORD for help.
4A prophetess named Deborah, the wife of Lappidoth, was judge of Israel at
that time. 5Deborah would sit under the Palm Tree of Deborah, which was
between the cities of Ramah and Bethel, in the mountains of Ephraim. And the
people of Israel would come to her to settle their arguments.
6Deborah sent a message to Barak son of Abinoam. Barak lived in the city of
Kedesh, which is in the area of Naphtali. Deborah said to Barak, “The LORD,
the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go and gather ten thousand men of Naphtali
and Zebulun and lead them to Mount Tabor. 7I will make Sisera, the commander
of Jabin’s army, and his chariots, and his army meet you at the Kishon River. I
will hand Sisera over to you.’”
8Then Barak said to Deborah, “I will go if you will go with me, but if you
won’t go with me, I won’t go.”
9“Of course I will go with you,” Deborah answered, “but you will not get
credit for the victory. The LORD will let a woman defeat Sisera.” So Deborah
went with Barak to Kedesh. 10At Kedesh, Barak called the people of Zebulun and
Naphtali together. From them, he gathered ten thousand men to follow him, and
Deborah went with him also.
11Now Heber the Kenite had left the other Kenites, the descendants of Hobab,
Moses’ brother-in-law. Heber had put up his tent by the great tree in Zaanannim,
12When Sisera was told that Barak son of Abinoam had gone to Mount Tabor,
13Sisera gathered his nine hundred iron chariots and all the men with him, from
Harosheth Haggoyim to the Kishon River.
14Then Deborah said to Barak, “Get up! Today is the day the LORD will
hand over Sisera. The LORD has already cleared the way for you.” So Barak led
ten thousand men down Mount Tabor. 15As Barak approached, the LORD
confused Sisera and his army and chariots. The LORD defeated them with the
sword, but Sisera left his chariot and ran away on foot. 16Barak and his men
chased Sisera’s chariots and army to Harosheth Haggoyim. With their swords
they killed all of Sisera’s men; not one of them was left alive.
17But Sisera himself ran away to the tent where Jael lived. She was the wife
of Heber, one of the Kenite family groups. Heber’s family was at peace with
Jabin king of Hazor. 18Jael went out to meet Sisera and said to him, “Come into
my tent, master! Come in. Don’t be afraid.” So Sisera went into Jael’s tent, and
she covered him with a rug.
19Sisera said to Jael, “I am thirsty. Please give me some water to drink.” So
she opened a leather bag of milk and gave him a drink. Then she covered him up.
20He said to her, “Go stand at the entrance to the tent. If anyone comes and
asks you, ‘Is anyone here?’ say, ‘No.’”
21But Jael, the wife of Heber, took a tent peg and a hammer and quietly went
to Sisera. Since he was very tired, he was in a deep sleep. She hammered the tent
peg through the side of Sisera’s head and into the ground. And so Sisera died.
22At that very moment Barak came by Jael’s tent, chasing Sisera. Jael went
out to meet him and said, “Come. I will show you the man you are looking for.”
So Barak entered her tent, and there Sisera lay dead, with the tent peg in his head.
23On that day God defeated Jabin king of Canaan in the sight of Israel.
24Israel became stronger and stronger against Jabin king of Canaan until
finally they destroyed him.
The Holy Bible, New Century Version
The story of Deborah focuses on a critical battle that took place on the flatlands near the Kishon River. Military strategists who have studied the geography and the reference in Judges 5:4 to the clouds pouring water have suggested how God enabled the relatively small Israelite force to defeat such a powerful enemy. To reach the battlefield the Canaanites would have had to dismantle their chariots and reassemble them on the flat plain. The heavy rains not only made reassembly difficult, but also so thoroughly soaked the ground that the heavy chariots bogged down in the mud.
The Canaanites were defeated, and their commander was killed when he took refuge in a Kenite tent. The defeat was so decisive that within a few years Hazor itself was destroyed and the northern Israelite tribes enjoyed forty years of relative peace.
Deborah is introduced in Judges as "a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, [who] was Judging Israel at that time" (Iudg. 4:4). These significant relationships help us understand this vital and unusual woman.
Deborah's relationship with God (Judg. 4:4). Deborah is introduced as a prophetess. Prophets were significant persons in Old Testament times. God chose these men and women to communicate His will to His people.
Deuteronomy 18 reminds us that all the peoples of the ancient world sensed a need for supernatural guidance when circumstances forced them to make critical choices. The people of Canaan looked to mediums and spiritists. All these occult avenues were defined in Deuteronomy as "detestable to the Lord." And so God promised to raise up individuals, prophets, from among people, through whom He would speak and provide the guidance needed. Go men and women to be His spokespersons.
Unlike other roles in the religion Israel, this was not a cultic position – such as priest or Levite - and it was not hereditary. God called whomever He wished to be His spokesperson, and those He called firmed as prophets and prophetesses in the eyes of the people.
The first thing we learn of Deborah is that she had a special relationship with God. She had been called by Him and commissioned to speak in His name. All Israel recognized that special relationship.
In the words of Deborah's song, this prophetess was one who loved God, and a result was "like the sun, when it comes out in full strength" (Iudg. 5:31).
Deborah’s relationships with the Israelites (Judg. 4:4). The word translated "judging" implies more than a judicial function. The judges were in fact spiritual, political, judicial, and in most cases military leaders. During their lives they functioned as the government of the tribes they led, much as kings functioned in the following era.
Deborah both fit and did not fit the pattern we see in the male judges. Deborah fit the pattern in that the people recognized her as the tribe's judicial/political authority. Judges 4:5 tells us that she held court "under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the mountains of Ephraim." This involved settling disputes the Israelites were unable to resolve locally. Moses had fulfilled this role before her, as had the other judges. The kings that followed her era also performed these functions. Clearly Deborah was the acknowledged leader of the Israelite tribes. It is totally appropriate to say that during her time Deborah was leading Israel.
Two things, however, set Deborah apart from other judges. First, she was a prophetess. None of the other judges aside from Samuel, who was a priest as well as prophet, are so identified. We can assume that Deborah was first recognized as a prophetess, and that this special relationship with God preceded her recognition by the Israelites as a judge.
Second, she was not a military leader. When Deborah was about to call on her people to fight the Canaanites of Hazor, she first summoned Barak, a military man, in name of the Lord. She then passed on instructions from God, which Barak was to follow.
Strikingly, the thing that established other judges as leaders in the sight of people was that they were first of all military leaders who won victories over God's enemies. Not so Deborah. Exercising her prophetic gift, she appointed a man to command Israel’s army.
We can conclude from this that God did not want Deborah in the role of military leader. God had appointed Deborah as prophetess and judge, and had communicated His intention to commission Barak to lead the battle.
Deborah's relationship with Barak (Judg. 4:8, 9). Barak responded to Deborah's call and accepted the commission as army commander. But Barak placed a condition on his acceptance. "If you go with me, I will go, but if you don't go with me, I won't go." This reaction suggests how much credibility Deborah had as God's spokesperson and as Israel's leader. Barak felt inadequate; he was willing to fight only if Deborah was present at the battle.
Deborah accepted the condition, but rebuked Barak. God had called Barak and promised him victory (Judg. 4:6, 7). Barak should have placed his faith in God's word. Yet Barak's reaction suggests how deeply the Israelites respected Deborah and were in awe of her relationship with God. Barak viewed Deborah as a talisman, a symbol of the divine presence with His people.
Deborah recognized Israel's need to see Barak as the military leader, and she placed herself in the background. Even when writing the victory poem we have in Judges 5, Deborah attempted to give Barak credit for the "song." But while the verse credited Barak by name, the Hebrew has a feminine singular verb, vatashar, literally "and she sang."
This interplay suggests that while Deborah's special relationship with God made her the acknowledged leader of the Israelite tribes, her gender defined those roles of leadership in which she could function with God's blessing.
Deborah was a woman whose confidence was rooted in a close personal relationship with God and in her awareness that God had chosen to use her to guide His people. It is certainly true that Deborah's role was not a typical role for a woman in a strongly patriarchal society. Yet Deborah clearly did not draw back, concerned about what others might think. Deborah had heard God speaking to her, and she was willing to put herself forward only because she knew that God had also chosen to speak through her.
At the same time, Deborah was sensitive to the limitations that her sex seems to have placed on her. Deborah would settle disputes, like any other judge, but Deborah would not lead the army. The military role was one God chose to give to Barak, and Deborah clearly concurred. In fact, Deborah was not even comfortable with the role Barak insisted she fulfill. She would have preferred it if Barak had simply trusted God and gone off to battle without her. Deborah neither needed nor wanted any credit for the victory.
What an unusual combination of traits Deborah displayed! She was self-confident and assertive, and yet modest and self-effacing. She was bold enough to step out of the shadows in which most women of her time lived, yet she was unassuming enough to seek to avoid the spotlight in a military campaign whose results would define her own leadership.
In displaying these qualities Deborah stands as a timeless example for spiritual leaders of either sex.
(From Every Woman in the Bible by Sue and Larry Richards).