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Who Was Deborah in the Bible?

Who was Deborah in the Bible? Scripture introduces Deborah as “the wife of Lappidoth, a prophetess, and a judge.” In the words of her celebratory victory song, she declares:

“The villagers ceased in Israel;
they ceased to be until I arose;
I, Deborah, arose as a mother in Israel.” (Judges 5:7)

Considering the critical moral and physical state of the nation of Israel at the time, Deborah’s role as a mother might be the key factor. Maybe what Israel needed most was a mother.

Two women named Deborah are mentioned in the Old Testament: Rebekah’s nurse, Deborah, who died during Jacob’s journey to Canaan (Genesis 35:8), and Deborah the fourth judge whose story is found in Judges 4-5.

Deborah lived approximately 140 years after Joshua’s death. She was probably middle-aged at the time of the events described in the Book of Judges. Yet she had seen and heard enough to be a wise and respected woman whom God used in an extraordinary way. Deborah is the only judge who was also called a prophet (prophetess). She was inspired by God and spoke God’s message.


Who was Deborah in the Bible? “Deborah is the only judge who was also called a prophet (prophetess).”


The period of the Judges occurred during the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, approximately 1400 to 1000 BC. It was the time for “the nation to take root in the land presented to it by God.”[1] Rather than grow in the strength that comes from obedience to the Lord, the often-fickle Israelites repeated cycles of “doing evil in the sight of the Lord” (Judges 4:1) and returning to him disgraced and destitute.

“The idolatry of the native people who remained after Joshua’s death spread like well-rooted weeds and choked out the Israelites’ zeal for the Lord.”[2] Idolatry was particularly odious to the Lord, which caused Him to allow surrounding nations to pummel the Israelites. However, each time, God provided a judge to rein them in and to remind them of His ways and of His power. Penitent and humble, they would return to faithfulness—until they took God’s blessing for granted and again turned away.

Deborah the Wife

The passage states up front, “Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time.” Little is known of Lappidoth other than the meaning of his name: “the torches.” Some scholars additionally connect the “the torches” to Deborah, insinuating that he was married to a spirited or feisty woman. Maybe she had the stamina to live with a fiery man, but it is all conjecture.

What we do know is that a single woman would probably not have had the opportunity to serve Israel in the things Judges describes. Even as unraveled as Israel was at that point, a single woman in that era probably would not have been able to appropriately meet with people, much less hold the respect of the people in order to advise them as described about Deborah in Judges.

Deborah the Prophetess

A prophet is a person through whom God spoke to His people, a messenger if you will. Deborah is called a prophetess (Judges 4:4). Only two other Old Testament women are described as prophetesses: Miriam, Moses’ older sister (Exodus 15:20), and Hulda who advised King Josiah (2 Kings 22:14). It had been many years since Israel had seen a prophet. Deborah seems to be the original “Proverbs 31 woman,” everything a godly woman should be. As such, she had spiritual strength and integrity, and God was openly working through her. This spiritual leadership resulted in a following of people who turned to her to guide them and to settle disputes.

Where were the established courts, elders, and priests who should have been handling these issues? Even if there were some who held the titles, they apparently were not respected enough or did not have the ability to do what Deborah did. Sin and idolatry had caused the nation to unravel. Normal social and cultural structures were missing; even places of meeting were reduced to the ground under a tree. So her meeting place was under the handy palm near her home. Perhaps she turned from her cook pot to sit down in the shade when someone came to her for help.


Who was Deborah in the Bible? “Deborah seems to be the original ‘Proverbs 31 woman,’ everything a godly woman should be.”


Deborah the Judge and Military Leader

From the description in Judges 4:5, Deborah acted as a judge. She followed Othniel, Ehud, and Shamgar—all typical male leaders, natural warriors, and real “he-men.” In fact, most of the other judges are military leaders; none are described as prophets. But sin had made Israel as weak as a kitten.

Leaders are best described as problem solvers. Women—especially wives and mothers—spend much of their time solving problems. In a day when life was “hand to mouth,” when food was scarce, and there was the constant threat from enemy armies, women were most concerned with keeping their families alive. This was no small task, and those who did the job well stood out. Physical strength helps, but for a woman, intelligence and wisdom make up for the lesser physical strength. Women through the ages have needed to “work smarter not harder.” People naturally turn to the person who manages to thrive, not just survive, under difficulties.

Over the years, Deborah gained a following because her strength came from following God’s laws and from His guidance. Someone had to direct the nation. She also understood basic military strategy as well as the wisdom of taking God at His word. Deborah was not an unknown, meddling woman. She was a well-known, respected leader.


“Over the years, Deborah gained a following because her strength came from following God’s laws and from His guidance.”


When neighboring Canaanite King Jabin threatened to annihilate Israel, General Barak should have been the one to take on the challenge. Deborah reminded him, “Has not the LORD, the God of Israel, commanded you, ‘Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking 10,000 from the people of Naphtali and the people of Zebulun. And I 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’?” (Judges 4:6-7). Even with God’s promise that God would win the battle for them, Barak was too fearful to face the 900 chariots of iron. The contrast between Deborah’s strength and Barak’s weakness was a lesson for Israel, who had lost her strength.

The oppression Israel faced was not to be taken lightly. The Canaanites were more advanced with their ironworking and iron-plated chariots—equipment that the Israelites had no way to defend against. Canaan had tormented Israel for 20 years at this point. The word “cruelly” (Judges 4:3) should be qualified as vehement oppression, crushing torment. When they turned to Deborah for help, they had already been pressed beyond endurance. Deborah alludes to their tactics in her song which points out how victorious Canaanite soldiers would celebrate with a “womb or two for every man” (see Judges 5:30, ESV).

It’s important to note that as horrible as the wrongs against the Israelites were, the wrongs against women and children in particular are not that hard to imagine. What is left unsaid tells the story of how it was (and is) for these who are most vulnerable when they fall prey to evil men. The violent attack that took place October 7, 2023, in Israel would be typical of the cruel oppression that the Israelites experienced for those 20 years.


“The violent attack that took place October 7, 2023, in Israel would be typical of the cruel oppression that the Israelites experienced for those 20 years.”


So, when Israel cried out to God, He sent Deborah. As a judge, Deborah did not assume the place or role of the normal judicial setting. Instead of sitting at the gates, the normal place for settlements to take place, the people came to her out under a tree. Although she operated outside the norm, Scripture in no way alludes to any wrongful assumption or grasping for power by Deborah. Note that Deborah never presumed to be a warrior or to take such honor away from a man. According to Julia Staton, she “gave the man [Barak] the opportunity to take the honor of leading the nation to victory all for himself, but was not afraid or hesitant to help him in the leadership role when asked to do so.”[3]

God’s message, through Deborah, promised a victory. Whether Barak felt unworthy or unprepared or lacked faith in God, there was no valid excuse for refusing to accept God’s clear mandate. Barak’s hesitance persisted so much so that on the day of the battle Deborah had to call Barak to action: “And 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?’ So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with 10,000 men following him” (Judges 4:14).

Deborah did not shame Barak; he brought shame upon himself. This is an important distinction. In our own lives, or in the lives of public figures, disobedience or ungodliness inevitably brings shame. When someone defies God, their own sin brings shame upon them.


“Whether Barak felt unworthy or unprepared or lacked faith in God, there was no valid excuse for refusing to accept God’s clear mandate.”


Barak should have recognized that the message came from God. Instead, he wanted to enlist Deborah into the battle as his “good luck charm.” He should have recognized that the source of her message was God, from whom the real power came. But because Barak hesitated and countered God’s instructions, she predicted that a woman would receive the glory for victory. The prediction was the truth: another woman, Jael, instead of a man, executed the enemy commander, Sisera. This ended the battle and the persecution of the Israelites.

Notably, the battle took place during the dry season. Sisera would never have gone into battle during the rainy season. Though it was the dry season, God brought unseasonable rains to thwart the Canaanites. The finest equipment and weapons will not stand against God. It was miraculous. Just as Deborah had predicted, God won the battle for them, and it was humiliating to King Jabin and his army. This victory made other kings in the region take notice of Israel’s God.

Deborah as a Mother

God orchestrates the lives of men and women long before they are even born, as we see in some of the details in this narrative. The literal translation of Deborah’s prediction about Jael is, “Into the hand of a woman the Lord will sell Sisera.”[4] Sisera ran into a Kennite woman’s tent that day. Although the Kenite tribe was cooperating with King Jabin, Jael’s husband, Heber, was a descendant of Moses (Judges 4:11). Here is a family that had reason to be sympathetic to the Israelites. The Kennite women had responsibility for the tents. Due to the harsh winds and the hard, sunbaked land, “she had to have been swift and accurate in her use of the tent peg.”[5] Jael may even have had a baby or a child in that tent. Sisera happened to walk into the wrong woman’s tent, or the right one depending on your perspective.

We understand the expression that “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.” We know the gracefulness of a woman’s hands. A woman’s hands driving a tent peg into a man’s temple just don’t fit the picture. However, the stereotypes about women are often very different from the reality about women. My grandmother’s hands were strong and rough from hard work on the farm. Yet childhood memories of my hand in hers are sweet. Her cracked, callused hands were beautiful to me.


Who was Deborah in the Bible? “The stereotypes about women are often very different from the reality about women.”


In addition to being a judge and leader, Deborah was a homemaker. There is no record that Deborah bore children other than her own words: “I, Deborah a mother in Israel, arose, arose a mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7). This seems to be the simple answer, yet some commentators debate about whether Deborah actually had children of her own. It’s possible she was referring to herself figuratively as a mother of Israel because she was a great leader, but this is not the usual description of a mother.

As a woman, I want to suggest that Deborah’ strengths in her various roles are actually no different from those needed to be a homemaker and mother. The fact is that most women have extraordinary strength. Anyone had a baby recently? There are obvious, God-given differences between males and females. But leading a company, a platoon, or even a country may actually be easier in some ways than raising a family. Needless to say, whatever role a godly woman fulfills, she can be a woman of strength and a leader wherever God has placed her.

“In the days of Shamgar, son of Anath,
in the days of Jael, the highways were abandoned,
and travelers kept to the byways.
The villagers ceased in Israel;
they ceased to be until I arose;
I, Deborah, arose as a mother in Israel.” (Judges 5:6-7)


Who was Deborah in the Bible? “I, Deborah, arose as a mother in Israel.”


Women become warriors instantly when their own children are threatened. You never want to threaten an animal who is protecting her babies. That same rule applies to human mothers. It was a time of war, of indescribable evil. People, women and children especially, living in subjection to an evil, ungodly nation suffered unspeakable horrors even from their own leaders. Killing a man “who raped and pillaged God’s people”[6] mercifully brought a quick end to other violent acts.

The forces of evil still surround God’s followers today. Peter describes our enemy as someone who “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). A lion is strong, courageous, stealthy, ferocious, and hungry. The devil is like that, and as the enemy of God, he is hungry for souls in a never-ending quest to usurp the Lord of the Universe. His roaring might be the cries of unhappiness and anguish from those he deceives.

Who was Deborah in the Bible? An example. Any man, woman, or child would do well to see Deborah as a prototype for a faithful follower of Jesus. While we may not have the advantage of God’s own audible voice in our ears, we do have His Word as our “battle manual,” and we have His Spirit as our guide. We have every reason and means for courage. We must resist the enemy as we stand firm, contend for the faith entrusted to us, and seek to rescue those taken captive by the enemy (2 Timothy 2:25-26). We stand firm and steadfast because we know God has already won the victory for us.


“We have every reason and means for courage.”


A Conversation with Deborah

If I had a chance to speak with Prophetess and Judge Deborah, it might have gone something like this:

She patted a place beside her on the bench indicating a place to rest in the shade of a palm tree. Children ran around playing nearby. Their squeals and laughter were contagious, bringing smiles to our faces as well. “This” she said, pointing to the children. “This is worth fighting for. Children need to run and play without fear. They should stay innocent as long as they can.” The lines in her strong face betrayed the suffering she had experienced, and I asked her to tell me more.

“Our people never learned. God would bless them, and they would prosper. Before you knew it, they ran after the things of this world, rejecting God, rejecting his ways—and doing every indecent thing they would think of. The sad thing is that the children suffered the most. Next, our people would fall into the hands of godless enemies, and again the children would suffer in the hands of those evil tormentors. Such terrible evil,” she whispered.


This is worth fighting for. Children need to run and play without fear.”


“Then they would cry out to God for deliverance, and our great, good God would rescue us with patience, only to see us go through the cycle again. When I was a prophetess in Israel, we had been under violent oppression for 20 years. I feared for the life of every man, woman, and child of Israel.

“You want to know how I became a leader of my people? Well, history tells the truth. Whenever men become selfish, worldly, and weak, someone has to stand up and save the children. I guess that is what God put me here for,” she said as she looked up at the palm tree that shaded us. “Right here under this tree, my people would come to me for advice and for help solving problems—everything from crime, squabbles between neighbors, and boundary disputes to advice about how to survive the persecution we experienced.

“I prayed and sought God’s help to the best of my ability, when finally God spoke to me. If the burden we bore under that Canaanite King Jabin, was heavy, imagine how heavy God’s command was on my heart. I appealed to Barak, the leader of our army to carry out God’s orders. He knew God was calling him to stand up against Jabin. I reminded him that God had promised the victory to us. If we did not stand up and throw over that oppression, we would be annihilated.”

She shook her head and clinched her hands into fists. I’m not sure if she even realized it as she relived those moments. “Barak refused to make a move. He was not a man. He was a weakling!”


“If we did not stand up and throw over that oppression, we would be annihilated.”


“’Nooo, I don’t think I can do that,’ he told me. As if he was the one being asked to perform the miracle! Barak was forgetting that this was something God was calling him to and which God would make happen. ‘I will only go if you go with me, Deborah,’ she whined, mimicking the general. Imagine!” she said, “That poor excuse of a general needed a woman, a grandmother no less, to lead him into battle. I warned him that he would not receive any glory in the battle, and that a woman would have the honor for protecting Israel.”

She shrugged her shoulders and continued, “Barak called his men, and I went up with them. Ten thousand men fought with us, and the horrors of that battle are unspeakable. But God won the victory for us by the hand of Jael, another strong, brave woman in Israel.”

She rested her head back on the rough trunk of the palm tree. “All I ever wanted was the safety of my children. I wanted to watch my children, and my children’s children grow up in freedom and peace. I love my God and I served him with my whole heart, but all I ever wanted to be was a good mother in Israel.”


[1] C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament: Joshua, Judges, Ruth (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1970), 239.

[2] Ann Spangler and Jean E. Synswerda, Women of the Bible. A One-Year Devotional Study of Women in Scripture (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 108.

[3] Julia Staton, quoted in Claudia Camp and Carole Fontaine, “Women, War, and Metaphor,” Semeia, vol. 61 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1993), 264.

[4] Rob Fleenor and Mark S. Ziese, The College Press NIV Commentary: Judges & Ruth (Joplin: College Press, 2008), 86.

[5] S.J. Robinson, Opening up Judges (Leominster: Day One Publication. 2006).

[6] J.E. Smith, The Books of History (Joplin: College Press, 1995). 

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