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The Person of Deborah Prophetess and Judge

By Bro. Solomon

In the history of the Old Testament, prophetic ministry takes on and defines the character of the relationship between Israel and YHWH. We see that prophets are not uniquely part of Israel’s history but also other neighboring cultures and kingdoms, during the ancient period of the Old Testament. In the book of Judges the people of Israel find themselves in a predicament since there was yet no monarchy and they found themselves in a transitional phase from the settlement towards the anointing of Saul, who was to be the first king of Israel (1Sam.10). It is during this period that the judges arose in Israel. The judges were people God chose to deliver the Israelites from their enemies and other foreign rulers. They could be likened to modern day national heroes.

A phenomenon occurs in the book of Judges, which makes a unique contribution to the history of prophecy in Israel. This occurs in the figure of Deborah (Judges 4:4) . Deborah is a woman who is both prophet and judge. She is an unlikely choice to have these roles in a time when women were not considered as having the ability to lead or govern in a male dominated culture.

This paper will be a research study on the prophecy and figure of Deborah. I will attempt to analyze her role and character as portrayed in the book of Judges 4-5. This is no scholarly work by any means, but just a simple fruit of research and hypothesis.  I hope with the help of certain sources to bring about a better understanding of Deborah’s person and the relevance of her feminine prophetism for the people of today.

The Person of Deborah Prophetess and Judge

In the book of Judges, interplay begins in the account of Deborah the prophetess (Judg. 4-6). This interplay involves a shift from male judges to an episode in the epic of Israel’s history to a story, which involves redemption of the chosen people, through the charismatic and resourceful wisdom of women. “The battle of “us versus them,” the equation between battle and sex, and gender related themes are all at play in this passage.” [2]

We have the repetitive theme of sin and rescue in the beginning of the passage of the narrative “the sons of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord”  (Judg. 4:1-2).   The breaking of the covenantal relationship will once again cause the Lord to allow Israel to be handed over to another political and oppressive ruler. This time the Lord hands them over to “Jabin king of Canaan” (Judg. 4:2). The theme continues to play out by Israel “crying out to the Lord for help” (Judg. 4:3).  It is after twenty years of oppression and cruelty that God responds to Israel’s plea by raising up Deborah. It is accounted first that Deborah is a prophetess, “Deborah’s primary affiliation is not a family or a spouse, as would be expected of a married woman, but to her profession, prophecy”,[3] it is fascinating to note that the description of her prophetic role comes before the description of who her husband is “Now Deborah was a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth” (Judg. 4:4).

It seems that her reputation of being a prophetess already precedes her, she is known as “one capable of mediating between God and human beings, and is perceived as having gifts of divination and charisma.”[4]  Deborah is found sitting under a palm tree named after her, and between Ramah and Bethel and that the sons of Israel came up to her for judgment (Judg. 4:4-6).  The fact that she is found under a special tree and that people would go to her for judgment is reminiscent of the “Greek’s oracles for judgment like the Oracle of Delphi.” [5] Deborah breaks the mold of the domesticated roles of women; her feminine qualities are used towards the benefit of her people “that she is female and therefore not expected to lead in a military context only enhances the impression of the judge as one raised by God, inspired and unusual, beyond the work day roles of men and women.” [6]

The epic unfolds as Deborah summons Barak who will lead the people towards a military victory (Judg. 4:6). Deborah calls up Barak from his home base, Kadesh in Naphtali. She charges Barak with YHWH’s orders to gather ten thousand troops from his tribe (Naphtali) and Zebulun (Judg. 4:6-7). It seems according to the oracle that YHWH will “draw out Sisera the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the river Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand” (Judg. 4:6-7).  The military strategy of Deborah comes not from her own skill but from the oracle given to her by YHWH. It seems that in her case the prophetic charisma includes a military and political prowess that is uniquely her own. The security and confidence that Barak has in her as judge and prophetess is undoubtedly certain “Barak said to her, if you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go” (Judg. 4:8-9). There seems to be a maternal attachment that Barak has towards Deborah, one in which could be likened to a mother holding her child’s hand so the child does not feel alone.

Although Barak will lead Israel in battle, the glory of victory will not be his.  YHWH has decided to use women throughout this episode of judges to bring about liberation for Israel, “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” (Judg. 4:9-10). The glory of course will be Deborah’s and Jael’s since they are truly the women who will accomplish the victory, “ The references to Sisera’s death at the hand of a woman states a number of principles in no uncertain terms. By stating that no glory will come to Barak because he would die at the hand of a woman, the text highlights what women should not be doing in the story where they did it.” [7] The emphasis that women will triumph over the enemies of Israel causes no response from Barak, there seems to be an obedience to Deborah’s words, the narrative gives no defense to the fact that she is a woman, neither is there any animosity that a woman will be the conqueror, yet the focus of woman in the text shows an underlying issue which seems to be to the contrary, “Women should not be capturing the opponents military commander. When women fight in battles men lose glory. The implications is that men, or especially Israelite men, fought for glory or renown, not, as Deborah stated because the deity commanded it.”[8]

Painting of Deborah by Charles Landelle - 1901As the battle ensues on Mount Tabor (Judg. 4:12-17) Deborah is the one to give the command to the Israelites to begin the battle, “Deborah said to Barak, “Up for this is the day in which the Lord has given Sisera into your hand. Does not the Lord go out before you?” (Judg. 4:14-15)  One can compare the figure of Joan of Arc, and the absurdity of a woman from Orleans leading an army of men who was both laughed at by her own comrades and enemies. Yet Deborah is the “prophetical trumpet” of battle giving courage to Barak and his troops. Her question to Barak “does not the Lord go out before you?” shows that YHWH is with his prophetess and since she is with YHWH’s army he is present.

The battle is a success for the Israelites, even though Sisera’s army is more sophisticated having “chariots, nine-hundred chariots of iron” (Judg. 4:12-13). The combination of the prophetess Deborah and the dependence on YHWH by Israel is the formula for liberation. That which Barak could not do through his own military intelligence YHWH accomplishes through one battle “And the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and all his army before Barak at the edge of the sword; and Sisera alighted from his chariot and fled away.” (Judg. 4:15-16)

The battle reaches its climax in Judges 4:17-22. Sisera flees from the battle only to accomplish the oracle given by Deborah “the focus on the power of women in this story, reinforce the prophetic aspect of Deborah’s earlier statements, take the capture of the foreign ruler away from Barak, and maintain the sense of irony.”[9] Sisera falls into a “divine trap” since it will bring about the fulfillment of the oracle. He flees to the tent of Jael, who lures him into her tent and offers him refreshment and hospitality. While he is asleep in the tent, she drives a tent peg through his skull and kills him, “he (Sisera) was tired and had been lulled to sleep by a woman warrior, disguised as a would-be lover or mother. Expectations about her (Jael) own soft side as a woman, make her deadly. The Israelite writer identifies with the power of the feminine. So Israel, lacking chariots and relying on a war plan of tricksterism, gains the upper hand, and with God’s help turns out to be stronger than the enemy.”[10]

Jael (Yael) Killing Sisera by Palma il Giovane In the person of the prophetess Deborah we see a woman chosen by YHWH to lead and direct his people. In the history of prophecy in the Old Testament the number of women prophets are scarce, but they do exist and have brought about YHWH’s plan for his people.

Deborah shows us that women are just as capable as men in carrying out a mission and plan. She was a valiant leader who was sought out by the people for wisdom and judgment. In an age of gender polarization and a male dominant world, we can learn from the story of Deborah that we need feminine leaders in the Church and in the world. Women bring their own qualities and gifts that enrich the lives of others. Deborah was receptive to YHWH’s command. She was not interested in personal gain or glory but attentive to the cries of her people. History has given us many examples of noble and valiant women of the same caliber, such as Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, Margaret Thatcher, Hilary Clinton and Dorothy Day to name only a few.

The history of prophecy has been enhanced and given equality by the figure of Deborah. YHWH chooses whom he wills not because of sex but according to his divine pleasure.

Peace to all, Bro. Solomon


[1] All biblical citations are taken from the Revised Standard Version Bible, Published by Thomas Nelson Publishing for Ignatius Press, 2006

[2] Susan Niditch, The Old Testament Library Judges A Commentary, 2008, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, London, Pg. 67

[3] Tammi J. Schnider, David W. Cotter, Editior, Berit Olam Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry, Judges, 2000, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, Pg. 67

[4] Susan Niditch, The Old Testament Library Judges A Commentary, 2008, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, London, Pg. 65

[5] ibid. Pg. 65

[7] ibid.

[8] Tammi J. Schnider, David W. Cotter, Editior, Berit Olam Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry, Judges, 2000, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, Pg. 67

[9] Susan Niditch, The Old Testament Library Judges A Commentary, 2008, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, London, Pg. 64

[10] ibid. Pg. 67

Reader Comments (1)

Where did you find the second depiction of Deborah, in the article, that shows a side profile of her standing with finger pointed, (soldiers in the background)? I'd like to order a print of that!

March 25, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRenee

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