Deborah is one of seven prophetesses in the history of the Jewish people. Judaism lists them as Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah, and Esther. An Old Testament prophet is one who speaks for God.
In Deborah’s time, the clans of Israel lived independently throughout Canaan. They had no king to unify them; but they had blood, a shared history, and God’s Law. The scattered tribes were guided by Judges. These Judges reminded Abraham’s descendants of God’s friendship and His promises.
The tribes were often persecuted by stronger, more technologically-advanced people. Canaan was a good land, rich in resources, and desired by the people surrounding it. For twenty years Jabin of Hazor persecuted Israel, along with his cruel general Sisera. Can you imagine living in fear of invading marauders who wished to kill you and your children and steal your labor? Who hated you because you were different from them and had something they wanted. No peace talk could rectify this envy. It could only be controlled with war.
I love Deborah’s name. Her name is Bee, connotative of a fiery spirit, a stinger. She was one of the rare people chosen by God in the Old Times to hear His voice; an oracle. Not only did she communicate God’s will to the people of Israel, she was their civil representative. She made decisions regarding the breaking and keeping of the law, and served as a gathering head for the scattered families of Israel. She was respected. She did not abuse her power. She did not grasp it as her own, but as an extension of the rule of God. She served the Lord, not her own ambition.
The fact that she was appointed by God to be judge and prophetess while Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, was living, was to evidence that the spirit of God rests alike upon Jew and Gentile, man and woman, bondman and bondwoman. Read more: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?letter=D&artid=187#ixzz1IfMTfto7
To protect her people, God’s people, she must fight. The Bee begins to buzz.
The Hands of a Woman
Deborah delegates half the battle plan to Barak, her general. He takes 10,000 guerrilla soldiers to fight a superior, trained army with 900 chariots … and Deborah. He insists she be present with him. Who can say for sure why? Faith or fear? I don’t know. But in this, Deborah reveals something to us about her culture. She says to Barak.
“But because of the course you are taking, [insisting on her going with him] the honor will not be yours, for the LORD will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.”
In this sharp sentiment, I see a world of womanly courage and pizazz. The Bee was stinging. Deborah lead alone. A woman politician. A woman who spoke on God’s authority. Like every leader, I’m sure she faced ridicule and diatribe. In the thick of war strategy, her general refuses orders! He refuses to fight unless he had her skirts nearby for safety. Maybe he was thinking of failure? Maybe he wanted it clear that this was all her idea, not his? Regardless of motive, he wouldn’t lead. In Deborah’s flash of irony, we know that even in that ancient time, it was insulting for man to be usurped by woman. A timeless shame. And Deborah turns the curse back on him. “For the LORD will deliver Sisera, not into your hands, but into the hands of a woman.”
The entire story is wrapped in the hands of women. Deborah rescues her people by leading them into war. Jael, the Gentile smithy, assassinates Sisera the archenemy, in an ironically familiar way.
She struck Sisera, she crushed his head, she shattered and pierced his temple. Jud 5:26 (Sound familiar? Woman crushing evil’s head?)
Her bravery and loyalty is praised! And the counter-woman; Sisera’s mother. She stands in contrast to Deborah. Deborah has the truth, Sisera’s mom is placated with lies. Deborah is active; Sisera’s mother passively waits and worries. Deborah has knowledge; Sisera’s mother is ignorant her son is dead and she is ruined. In contrasting the two, we see the classic Hebrew device; setting God’s people against His enemies with ridicule.
Deliverer & Prophet: the stuff of legend
Those who have studied and expounded on the Old Testament for thousands of years (the Rabbis) compare Deborah with Moses. Since I’ve never compared the two, maybe you haven’t either?
- She is respected, decisive and full of authority. Moses also models these qualities.
- Her title Mother of Israel is not literal. It is considered a political title, like “founding father.”
- Like Moses, she lead in politics, in religion and in war. She stands apart in this from the other Judges, and in scope. Deborah ruled all Israel like Moses, not her individual colony alone like her other fellow Judges.
- She is a rescuer who is victorious over enemy chariots through a miraculous intervention of God. Like Moses.
- The Song of Deborah is second only to the Song of Moses. Both are celebratory songs of deliverance! They are read together in the weekly portion of Sabbath Scripture.
- Her reference as wife of the torch (Lappidoth) or literally “woman with fire” is speculated to mean she either kept the flame in the temple or her husband did. Or, it was another resemblance to Moses whose face shone after talking with God. The philosopher Gersonides (Provence, 14th century) concluded,
“She reached such a high level of prophecy that the light of fire surrounded her when she prophesied, just as the Torah reports of our master, Moses.”
Does Deborah Need a Disclaimer?
If you follow a hierarchical view of men and women in Scripture, Deborah is an enigma. She is hard to put into God’s neat gender box of roles, isn’t she? Is she an anomaly? Is she an accident? Did she disgrace the name of God in leading the men of Israel politically and spiritually? Can we use her example for men AND women in our churches today, or does she need a disclaimer? If so, how would you word it?
My husband says, “People will always follow true leadership. It is irrelevant that Deborah was a woman. She lead because that is what God gifted her to do.” Amen.
Go here to read an interesting article on the specifics of the battle. This article explores the topography of the region and how archeological evidence helps us understand what occurred.
Deborah – A Political Mother Myth by Pnina Navè Levinson