Deborah, whose name means “bee,” was the wife of Lappidoth. An online Jewish encyclopedia states that she was one of seven Hebrew women in ancient times known as prophetesses. They included Sarah, Hannah, Abigail, Miriam, Esther, Huldah, and Deborah.
All of the above-mentioned women are found in this book; however, only Huldah's story is included in this chapter. The remaining women are grouped into categories other than prophecy. Deborah alone stands out in biblical history as an adept female military commander, and unique among the five leaders or “Judges” of Israel that God inspired and empowered to lead Israelites in throwing off the yoke of their oppressors. In the Old Testament narratives, women often led sheltered lives. However, a few had contact with military men, luring enemies to their deaths through sexual prowess. Deborah, however, served her people as a holy prophetess, woman warrior, and a just and righteous judge.
Deborah's people, the Hebrews, had been oppressed for some twenty years by a group of Canaanite rulers whose military strength was unsurpassed. Their ruler was King Jabon, who resided in the city of Hazor, and whose general, Sisera, was a formidable warrior. Sisera believed that his military power was invincible, and that the Hebrews would not challenge him because a woman, Deborah, was leading them. But, inspired by God, Deborah threw down the gauntlet, summoned her own general, named Barak, and told him to gather together 10,000 soldiers and take them to Mount Tabor; she would lure Sisera to the river Kishon and “…deliver him into thine hand” (Judges 4:7).
Sisera heard of the plan and went to the Kishon Wadi (a dry riverbed). He must have felt quite confident, since his army substantially outnumbered the Israelites and his iron chariots represented the best in the world. But Deborah had God on her side. The Bible says that “the stars in their courses fought against Sisera,” and “the river of Kishon swept them away.” Many sources say that the Kishon River flooded in a torrential downpour that rendered the iron chariots useless, and Sisera's men died by the sword. Sisera fled to Jael's tent (see the section on Jael in Chapter 3), where he perished when she plunged a tent peg through his brain.
Deborah had a powerful and abiding faith in God, and she was blessed with the gift of prophecy. Receiving divine inspiration in a message from God, she ordered Barak from his home at Kedesh in Naphtali to lead the Israelites against the Canaanites. Barak said he would go only if she would accompany him; he wanted his ruler and prophetess by his side. Deborah said she would go with him, but prophesized that “…the journey that thou takest shall not be for thine honor; for the Lord shall sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (Judges 4:9). Jael murdered Sisera, and Deborah's prophecy proved accurate.
Deborah summoned General Barak, a male military leader who was the son of Abinoam, and ordered him in the name of God to lead the armies of Israel to Mount Tabor in an all-out assault on the Canaanites. The Canaanites, led by Sisera, had 100,000 men and 900 iron chariots, the best in the land. Deborah and Barak defeated Sisera and the Canaanites with only 10,000 men. For the next forty years, the people lived in peace.
Just and Righteous Judge
For a woman in ancient times, Deborah occupied an almost unheard of position of power as a leader or Judge of Israel. It would have been unseemly for her to hear petitions and complaints in private quarters, so she held court “…under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in mount Ephraim…” and there dispensed wisdom and justice to the children of Israel (Judges 4:5).
Mother of Israel
Deborah called herself “…a mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7). The Old Testament says she was a wife, but doesn't say whether or not she ever had children. As a “mother in Israel” she shouldered the responsibility for the entire Hebrew nation — the children of God. Barak, in biblical mentions, clearly occupied a subordinate position to Deborah. In Rabbinical literature, Barak's name means “lightning,” and some say that he was Lapidoth, Deborah's husband, whose expression after the victory flashed brightly.
After inciting the rebellion and successfully winning the battle against Sisera and the Canaanites, Deborah and Barak sing a triumphant song. Some sources suggest that Deborah composed that song. The complete song is found in Chapter 5 of The Book of Judges. It is a lovely example of the poetry of the ancient Hebrews. Her ode of triumph exalts the Lord, who led Israel against the Canaanites and empowered them to conquer their foes.
Deborah emerges as an icon among the women of Scripture, as a woman of strong faith, vision, and resolve. She saw how her people had become weak from years of oppression by idolaters, and when called by God to be a deliverer, she did not question Him, but took action to free the weak from the iron grip of the oppressors.