Register now for "Tell Her Story: Women in Scripture and History!" Spots are still available! Click here to learn more!

Published Date: May 23, 2022

Published Date: May 23, 2022

Women in Scripture and Mission: Deborah

Portrait courtesy of Cara Quinn from knowyourmothers.com.

Women in Scripture and Mission: Deborah

Published Date: May 23, 2022

New! Resources for Spanish Speakers!

Explore our Spanish Resources.

Like What You’re Reading?

Click to help create more!
0:00 / 0:00
Deborah
0:00 / 0:00
Débora

Deborah, Woman of Valor

Deborah’s leadership in Judges 4–5 describes Deborah as a “woman of valor” who is a courageous judge, prophet, and spiritual advisor as the “mother of Israel.”[1]

Deborah’s Story (Judges 4)

Deborah and Barak (4:1–9a)

Deborah’s story is the first of the “famous four:” Gideon (6–8), Jephthah (10–12), and Samson (13–16). She is also the first judge introduced at length and the only one who is also a prophet with an influence like Samuel’s (1 Sam 1–8). She is lauded with a string of feminine words: “a woman, a prophet, a woman of light /fire (not “her husbands” name), she herself (repetitive pronoun), she is judging.” And “Deborah” in Hebrew carries the name “bee,” implying a “pursuer.”[2] No other judge gets this kind of fanfare. Deborah’s mention of Zebulun and Naphtali (4:6, 10, cf. 5:14, 18) along with seven tribes from the south (5:14–17) paint the geographical context of the occupied “promised land” and this identifies the extent of her influence as prophet and judge (cf. 4:5).

Barak comes from northern Israel where a conflict is raging. He is familiar with the situation, people, and terrain. Deborah greets him with, “the LORD God of Israel commands you…” (4:6). His later bravery suggests he insists on Deborah’s accompaniment because he wants her prophetic voice in battle (4:10, 14–16, 22). Deborah then clarifies, “On the path ahead, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will give Sisera into a woman’s hands” (4:9a). As a man of faith, Barak obeys even when personal glory is not part of the deal. In fact, he later contributes to the victory song that praises Jael, the woman who gets the glory. The New Testament honors him for this as a person “of whom the world is not worthy” (Heb. 11:32–39).

Shared Journey (4:9b–23)

Barak assembles his army, evoking a countermove by Sisera. Under Deborah’s command God blesses their efforts by routing the enemy as she had predicted. Barak’s pursuit of Sisera then introduces Jael, a descendant of Moses’s father-in-law, Jethro (Ex. 2–4, 18, Num. 10:29–32).[3]

The fleeing Sisera hides in Jael’s tent. She recognizes him and gives him milk to drink (4:18–19). With courage and cunning Jael fulfills Deborah’s prophecy that “the Lord will give Sisera into a woman’s hands” (4:9) by killing Sisera as he sleeps (4:21). She then displays her trophy to confirm her defection to Israel (4:22). The story ends by emphasizing Israel’s God as the true hero and victor (4:23–24). Neither the generals nor the women are in view; God frees Israel from oppression, setting the stage for Deborah’s battle hymn.

Deborah’s Song (Judges 5)

Mother of Israel (5:1–11)

Judges 5 opens with, “Deborah sang, accompanied by Barak,” emphasizing her as both author and main character (5:1). She writes repeatedly, “I, even I, will sing to Yahweh…I will praise Yahweh” (5:3), “I, Deborah, arose…until I arose, a mother in Israel” (5:7), and “My heart is with Israel’s commanders…” (5:9). She is the lead character in both the poem and the narrative. This is further highlighted by the commands, “Awake, awake, Deborah! Awake, awake, utter a song!” and “Arise, Barak, lead away your captives…” (5:12, cf. 4:14). She authors the song while Barak rounds up the prisoners.

Deborah recalls Israel’s deliverance through Moses in her pattern of military conflict preceding a victory song (1 Sam. 5:3-5; Ex. 14–15). Similarly, her reference to the earth trembling and the mountains quaking (Judg. 5:4–5) reminds us of Moses’s first encounter with God at Mount Sinai (Ex. 19:18, cf. Hag. 2:21, Heb. 12:26). Thus, she identifies herself with Israel’s first and greatest judge who gave instructions for appointing other judges (Ex. 18:13– 23, Deut. 16:18–20, 34:10). This along with Deborah’s historical location between Moses and Samuel places her strategically between these two great prophets and judges (Judg. 4:5, cf. 1 Sam. 7:15–16, 8:4).

Israel lived in fear until Deborah arose and intervened as “a mother in Israel” (5:6–7a, 8). Judges 4:9 recalls where she “arises” to accompany Barak to war, then calls him to “arise,” fight (4:14) and sing the victory song with her (5:12). She functions as “a mother in Israel,” a rare parental metaphor implying a “spiritual guide.”

Supporting Characters (5:12–31)

The passage ends by vindicating would-be rape victims by contrasting Sisera’s final position on the ground beneath Jael, with Sisera’s mother alluding to him raping young Israelite women (5:27–30). Sisera lying dead “between her feet” can no longer abuse Israel’s daughters by forcing himself “between their feet.” Jael avenges these victims and protects others at risk. Sisera’s mother also contrasts with Deborah as “mother in Israel” (5:7). Jael secures her people’s deliverance while his unnamed mother merely learns of his defeat and death.

Conclusion

Deborah’s story and song in Judges 4–5 portrays a woman of light and fire, as well as a prophet and judge, in a consistently positive way. Her people respect her. She challenges Barak authoritatively with God’s blessing. And she is a wise and protective “mother in Israel” in the spirit of Moses.

Barak is a man of faith who humbly receives God’s guidance through Deborah and is honored among the notables of faith. Jael acts with courage, cunning, and wisdom. Most importantly, God as the true hero of the story accomplishes his work through mere mortals. The book of Judges portrays no group of characters more favorably than Deborah, Barak, and Jael.

Notes

[1] Deborah should be understood as a “woman of valor,” a translation of the Hebrew term eshet chayil  (cf. Ruth 3:11; Prov 12:4; 31:10; translations herein are mine).

[2] Deborah’s name in Hebrew means “bee” and symbolizes a pursuer like the Assyrian “bees” pursued Israel (Isa 7:17–20, esp.18).

[3] Jael had likely allied with Jabin for protection (4:11, 17). As Deborah is best understood as “woman of light/fire,” so Jael is likely “woman of the community of the Kenites,” (Judg 4:17, 21, 5:24) or “a woman of divination”—neither reflect their husbands’ names.

Learn More

Debora: Troublesome Woman or Woman of Valor? By Ron Pierce

Barak By Ron Pierce

Deborah the Judge and Jael the Just by Crystal Lutton

The Boldness that Comes with Mutual Submission by Heather Caliri