Who was Deborah, the Mother of Israel?

Today’s post was inspired by my wife. And whidevorahle I say “inspired”, I mean something else entirely. When I come home from work, if she beats me home, our conversations start off something like this:

Me: Hello! How was your day?

Wife: Have your written that post about my Hebrew name yet? (*)

And you know, I was going to get around to it… in a few years… when I made it to the Book of Judges. My wife’s Hebrew name is “Dvora”, better known in English as Deborah, the so-called “mother of Israel” and the only female Judge mentioned in the Bible. And while I thought I could hold off, in truth Deborah is a fascinating biblical figure and worthy of a deeper look. She’s also one that I had only the vaguest recollection of before I started working on this blog.

But what made the story of Deborah so special? Not one, but two powerful and influential women and a fantastic bit of false foreshadowing that reads like something out of the Lord of the Rings. Read on for more.

Let’s fast-forward through six books of the Bible. Moses delivered the Israelites to the promised land and Joshua waged war to cement his people’s hold. The Book of Judges begins shortly after Joshua’s death as the land enters a challenging period. Over and over again, the people of Israel sin against God and are punished, only to have new leaders inspired by God rise up and save them– at least until they sin again. Deborah was the fourth such judged named in the text as well as the only woman.

The story of Deborah begins in Judges 4 with an ominous refrain, “Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord” (Judges 4:1).

So the Lord sold them into the hands of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. Sisera, the commander of his army, was based in Harosheth Haggoyim. Because he had nine hundred chariots fitted with iron and had cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years, they cried to the Lord for help.

Judges 4:2-3

DeborahGod placed the Israelites under the thumb of Jabin, the King of Canaan and his army of nine hundred chariots. That’s a lot of chariots! Pharaoh only used 600 when he pursued Moses across the Sea of Reeds, so this Jabin meant business. Incidentally, the capital of this kingdom of Canaan is now a UNESCO world heritage site in Israel which I hope to visit one of these years.

It’s here that a unique leader in Israel’s early history enters the story, Deborah:

Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, she judged Israel at that time. And she sat under the palm-tree of Deborah between Ramah and Beth-el in the hill-country of Ephraim; and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment.

Judges 4:4-5

When we see the word “judged” today, we might think of judges of courts and, in a way, that’s what Deborah was doing for the people of Israel. But many bibles (such as the NIV) now translate this word “judged’ as “led” which gets us to the truth of the matter: Israel was led by a woman. I’m struggling to remember another prominent female leader in the bible up to this point (and there aren’t that many after, either). Thus far, there have been fantastic strong-willed women (such as Sarah and Rebekah), but part of a couple. Here, the Bible tells us that Deborah was the wife of Lappidoth, but who the heck was that?  We don’t know! Unlike the strong-husbands that went with those strong wives, Deborah’s husband is never mentioned again.

Not only does Deborah lead the land in a civil way, she also leads it militarily:

And she sent and called Barak the son of Abinoam out of Kedesh-naphtali, and said unto him: `Hath not the LORD, the God of Israel, commanded, saying: Go and draw toward mount Tabor, and take with thee ten thousand men of the children of Naphtali and of the children of Zebulun? And I will draw unto thee to the brook Kishon Sisera, the captain of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his multitude; and I will deliver him into thy hand.

Judges 4:6-7

Deborah commands Barak, presumably a senior military leader, to take up ten thousand men. And Deborah will use her military strategy to ensure that Sisera, the leader, is drawn out and defeated. Now, I’m not a military person and I have no idea whether ten thousand men was a good number to take against nine hundred chariots– that’s about 11 men per chariot– but these aren’t just any chariots, they are chariots fitted with iron so probably pretty scary. In fact, they were so scary that Barak wasn’t sure that he wanted to go through with this plan if his leader wasn’t right there with him:

And Barak said unto her: `If thou wilt go with me, then I will go; but if thou wilt not go with me, I will not go.’

Judges 4:8

But here’s where the story goes from great to brilliant, watch out for this prophetic foreshadowing:

And she said: `I will surely go with thee; notwithstanding the journey that thou takest shall not be for thy honour; for the LORD will give Sisera over into the hand of a woman.’

Judges 4:9

This is great: Sisera will be defeated by (of all things!) a woman! And we know that Deborah is a war leader, and the next passage even says that she joined Barak on his march. She was not one to only lead from the rear. Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy might even detect here a hint of his inspiration for the story of Éowyn in that series.

And Deborah said unto Barak: `Up; for this is the day in which the LORD hath delivered Sisera into thy hand; is not the LORD gone out before thee?’ So Barak went down from mount Tabor, and ten thousand men after him. And the LORD discomfited Sisera, and all his chariots, and all his host, with the edge of the sword before Barak; and Sisera alighted from his chariot, and fled away on his feet. But Barak pursued after the chariots, and after the host, unto Harosheth-goiim; and all the host of Sisera fell by the edge of the sword; there was not a man left.

Judges 4:14-16

A little while later, the battle was joined and, as Deborah predicted or planned, it was a slaughter: all of the troops were killed and their leader Sisera ran away like a coward on foot. So much for those chariots! At this point in the story, I think you know what I was expecting: Deborah backed away from the battle at the last minute and Sisera has fled on foot. Was she planning that? Was she going to prove the prophecy correct by defeating him herself? The outcome may surprise you. I’m just going to give the whole thing here since it’s best read in one big gulp:

479px-Palma_il_Giovane_Giaele_uccide_SisaraHowbeit Sisera fled away on his feet to the tent of Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite; for there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite. And Jael went out to meet Sisera, and said unto him: `Turn in, my lord, turn in to me; fear not.’ And he turned in unto her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug.

And he said unto her: `Give me, I pray thee, a little water to drink; for I am thirsty.’ And she opened a bottle of milk, and gave him drink, and covered him. And he said unto her: `Stand in the door of the tent, and it shall be, when any man doth come and inquire of thee, and say: Is there any man here? that thou shalt say: No.’

Then Jael Heber’s wife took a tent-pin, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly unto him, and smote the pin into his temples, and it pierced through into the ground; for he was in a deep sleep; so he swooned and died.

Judges 4:17-20

Sisera had fled to what he believed was a house of refuge. Indeed, Jael provided him with all the hospitality that he had asked for, written as almost a reflection of Abraham’s hospitality to the angels was back in Genesis. Canaanite hospitality is important. And then, a moment later, Jael hammers a tent-pin through the warleader’s head. Just like that, he is dead.

When I re-read this recently, I was caught aback. This is a remarkably graphic death and must have been a complete surprise to Sisera. It was even more a surprise to me because I thought for sure that Deborah was going to be the one to beat him, perhaps in single combat. That might have been the story I would have told, but the bible is saying something entirely different. Deborah is a hero because she leads Israel AND Jael is a hero and she’s just a housewife. These are both amazing women and it shows that there is ample room in the story for heroes–and women– of all stripes.

While this doesn’t end the story, it’s clear that the writing is on the wall for poor Jabin, king of the Canaan. The book doesn’t even bother to describe it:

So God subdued on that day Jabin the king of Canaan before the children of Israel. And the hand of the children of Israel prevailed more and more against Jabin the king of Canaan, until they had destroyed Jabin king of Canaan.

Judges 4:23-24

Naturally, with the battle won, the next thing to do is to sing a song about it, which Deborah and Barak proceed to do. The song is interesting in its own right (and many scholars believe that it may be the oldest part of this story) and I’ll look at it a little deeper next time since it tells a subtly different story than what the narrator tells us. This could just be a variant textual tradition, or give us a hint at the way that Deborah and Barak wanted the story to be remembered and the way that they told it. In either case, too much for now.

I’ll end with one more– very haunting– female image from this story. This time, from Sisera’s mother. Even terrible war-leaders have mothers that mourn their passing:

Through the window she looked forth, and peered,
The mother of Sisera, through the lattice:
`Why is his chariot so long in coming?
Why tarry the wheels of his chariots?’

Judges 5:28

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(*) Dorie would like you all to know that she really wasn’t that bad. She also makes Hebrew name necklaces like the ones above, so contact me if you’re interested and I’ll pass along her information.


2 thoughts on “Who was Deborah, the Mother of Israel?”

  1. I like how you presented this information. She does deserve the credit for being one of the “faithful remnant” among the people who still listened to Yah. I find it interesting that some take this particular episode of biblical history and take it to mean ALL sorts of weird and strange doctrines.

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