Deborah, or Dəvora (literally "Bee" in the Hebrew language), was a prophetess and the only female Judge of pre-monarchic Israel in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). Her story is told twice in chapters 4 and 5 of the Book of Judges. The first account is prose, relating the victory of Israelite forces led by General Barak, whom Deborah called forth but prophesied would not achieve the final victory over the Canaanite general Sisera himself. That honor went to Jael, the wife of Heber, a Kenite tent maker, who killed the general while he slept.
Judges chapter five renders this same story in poetic form, and it is thought to have been composed in the second half of the twelfth century B.C.E., shortly after the events it describes. If that is the case, then this passage, often called The Song of Deborah, is one of the oldest passages of the Bible and the earliest extant sample of Hebrew poetry. It is also significant because it is one, if not the, oldest extant passages that portrays women in roles other than as victims or as villains. Theologically, the Song of Deborah praises synergy between the heavenly power of God the Divine Warrior and the earthly efforts of the Israelite fighters, who together triumph over superior Canaanite forces. The poem may have been included in the Book of the Wars of the Lord mentioned in the Biblical Book of Numbers, 21:14.
Little is known about Deborah's personal life. She was apparently married to a man named Lapidoth (meaning "torches"), but this name is not extant outside of the Book of Judges and might simply mean that Deborah herself was a "fiery" spirit. She was a poet and she rendered her judgments beneath a palm tree in Ephraim. Some refer to her as the "Mother of Israel." Following Deborah's victory over Sisera and the Canaanite army, there was peace in the land for forty years.
Following the death of Joshua, Israel lacked strong leadership. This period, known as the Period of Judges, lasting about four hundred years, had been highlighted Biblically by the phrase, "In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes" (Judges 17:6). Four centuries of decline occurred after the days of Joshua. These years were marked by decline, disunity and moral compromise. In essence, the Israelites became progressively more ignorant of the God of their Fathers. In order to keep the Israelites correctly following the laws of Yahweh, the Judges were set up in leadership positions.
The story of Deborah is a story of deliverance of the Israelite people. Following eighty years of relative tranquility after Ehud delivered Israel from the oppression of the Moabites, new bondage came from within the land from the Canaanites living there. Though God had instructed Moses to destroy or drive these people out, (Exodus 23:33; 34:11-16; Numbers 33:51-56; Deuteronomy 7:1-5), Israel's obedience to this command had not been complete.
Even though it was forbidden by Mosaic Law, intermarriage had taken place between the Israelites and the local peoples. Customs and cultures of the Canaanites, which seemed more advanced and prosperous, were adopted. Worship of Baal began to take place. Indulging in sexual immorality and idol worship, this era of Israelites lived in contradiction to the covenant their forefathers had made with God.
|Judges in Bible|
|In the Book of Judges|
|In the First Book of Samuel|
The enemies of the Israelite people, having moved from the tactic of fortified cities in the time of Joshua had resorted to dividing the Israelites and denying access to good agricultural lands and main highways. The Israelites were forced to hide in the hills for safety.
Jabin, a Canaanite king, stationed 900 chariots at Harosheth-of-the-Gentiles (modern Tell el-Harbej), on the banks of the Kishon River, at the foot of Mount Carmel. This central location on the plain of Esdraelon was ideal for chariot operations, so that Jabin controlled not only the main trade routes but held onto the richest farm land in Israel. The Israelites had been forced into the hill country, leaving the fertile plains in the hands of the Canaanites. In addition to his 900 chariots, Sisera, the commander of Jabin's army, no doubt commanded a large well-armed army of foot soldiers. In contrast, weaponry among the Israelites was scarce.
At this point, Deborah, the Prophetess and Judge, emerged to inspire and guide the Israelites. The position of judge in that era carried more the role of a godly counselor and deliverer than the courtroom judges of modern times. In the absence of a King or prominent godly leadership among the people, the judges guided the people according to their wisdom and knowledge of the laws of Moses. Referred to as "a mother in Israel," living in the hills north of Jerusalem, Deborah had become aware of the suffering and hardship of her people who lived in Galilee. Through her compassion and wisdom the people in the hill country united around her, raising a small standing army.
General Barak lived in the oppressed territories. Barak had been worn down by twenty years of Canaanite tyranny and strength and had become known as timid, if capable. He had seen the slaughter of innocent Israelites numerous times, weakening the faith needed to mount an attack. He was frightened and unwilling: "Then Barak said to her, ‘If you will go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go’" (Judges 4:8).
With Deborah's agreement to participate, Barak rallied men in the requisite number to follow the strategy as directed by her, which was to establish himself and 10,000 men on the flanks of Mount Tabor, a prominent peak on the eastern end of the valley of Jezreel (Esdraelon). There they would soon be discovered by Sisera, who would seek to lure them onto the plains where his chariotry would be no match for them. Instead a small diversionary force of Ephraimites and Benjaminites, led by Deborah coming up from the south, diverted Sisera's attention near Taanach.
During this maneuver, a sudden violent rainstorm occurred, which turned the river Kishon into a torrent and the surrounding plains into a bog. The plain became a quagmire for chariots and armored foot soldiers alike—Barak's troops then rushed down from Mount Tabor to wipe out the bogged–down charioteers and Sisera's encumbered army.
As Deborah had prophesied, it would be a woman who would provide the final downfall of Sisera. Weary in battle, Sisera retreated to the tent of Heber the Kenite for rest and cover. While he slept, Jael, Heber's wife, "took a nail of the tent, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly unto him, and smote the nail into his temples, and fastened it into the ground: For he was fast asleep and weary. So he died" (Judges 4:21).
The fifth chapter of the Book of Judges is entirely composed of the Song of Deborah. It is an ode of triumph over what seemed impossible odds and exults in the breaking of the Canaanite stranglehold over much of the country. The Song of Deborah is beloved by Jews as well as Christians for the lessons perceived within:
Deborah began her song by praising the willingness with which the Israelites put their lives on the line to defend the nation. "Praise ye the Lord for the avenging of Israel, when the people willingly offered themselves." This is the song's main theme: Praising the brave volunteers who went out to battle.
The second theme of the song is the mighty act of God, the divine warrior, to assist the Israelites and defeat their common enemy. Thus, she recounts God's mighty acts in history, specifically the march of the tribes from Sinai to Canaan, when "the earth trembled… the mountains melted from before the Lord."
The dire situation of Israel, which lay naked and defenseless against the enemy, is described in the next verses. "The inhabitants of the villages ceased, they ceased in Israel, until that I Deborah arose, that I arose a mother in Israel." Here Deborah also sings of the concept of the need of protection by a parent–figure. Then she returns to her main theme, "My heart is toward the commanders of Israel, that offered themselves willingly among the people."
Then Deborah lists the tribes who took part in the overthrow of the Canaanites and their varying degrees of participation. In the period of Judges, each tribe tended to act separately and cooperated on only selected occasions. First she praises the brave: "From Ephraim they set out thither into the valley; following you, Benjamin, with your kinsmen; from Machir marched down the commanders, and from Zebulun those who bear the marshal's staff; the princes of Issachar came with Deborah; and Issachar, faithful to Barak; into the valley they rushed forth at his heels." Then she upbraids the timid: "Among the clans of Reuben there were great searchings of heart. Why did you tarry among the sheepfolds, to hear the bleatings of the flocks? … Gilead stayed beyond the Jordan; and Dan, why did he remain with the ships? Asher sat still at the coast of the sea, settling down by his landings."
Although this was not a war in which the Israelite nobility fought, Deborah referred to all fighters as "kings," recognizing their actions as those of noble standing: "The kings came and fought, then fought the kings of Canaan, at Taanach, by the waters of Megiddo."
Then Deborah celebrates God's hand in the battle: "From heaven fought the stars, from their courses they fought against Sisera. The torrent Kishon swept them away…." Deliverance was a miracle, with a sudden rainstorm causing a flood which caused the Canaanites to be stuck in the mud and washed away by the sudden flood of water. We can hear the echo of the miracle at the Red Sea, when the Egyptians were similarly drowned.
"Blessed above women shall Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite be, blessed shall she be above women in the tent." Here is described the fulfillment of the prophecy in the previous chapter of Judges, that Barak would not receive the glory for the victory, but that it would fall to a woman.
Deborah ended her song as she began it, singing praises to her God: "So let all thine enemies perish, O Lord: But let them that love him be as the sun when he goeth forth in his might."
"So may all Your enemies perish, O Lord," is Deborah's final refrain. However, according to the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest figures in Jewish history, was a direct descendant of Sisera. That a descendant of this great enemy of the Jews became a great Jewish rabbi and scholar represented the Jews' ultimate victory over their ancient Canaanite opponent. The victory went far beyond the immediate destruction of Sisera and his chariots.
|Judge of Israel
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