Who Was Deborah in the Bible?

Deborah provides a picture of leadership that wasn't normally seen in the society of her time. Very few women in Scripture rose to positions of national leadership. Deborah stands out due to both her spiritual and civil leadership. She was the only woman who served as a judge during those extended years of turmoil.

For the most part, the Book of Judges reflects a negative picture of God's people drifting away spiritually and then eventually experiencing God's judgment. This comes through His allowing other nations to come in and dominate their existence. At times they pillaged Israel's crops, as seen in the account of Gideon and the Midianites. Other people, such as the neighboring Philistines, dominated the nearby areas of Israel. Each time the Israelites woke up spiritually and repented, God provided leaders who made a difference in their situation.

Apparently the oppression of the Israelites wasn't always throughout the entire area of Canaan at the same time. Likewise, the reigns of the judges overlapped in time. For that reason, we should not add up the time periods of each judge and assume that number represents the entire era of the judges.

This lesson focusing on Deborah's leadership is a contemporary topic. Our society is currently in a second cycle of leadership emphasis within about a 25-year period. Leadership first came to the forefront in the early '80s. A number of books on leadership were written. Some Christian titles highlighted the leadership principles found in Nehemiah's actions in building the walls of Jerusalem. The current emphasis on leadership often draws from secular sources drawing from business concepts and principles.

It is rare to hear anyone project Deborah as an example of spiritual and civil leadership to follow. However, as will be seen below, Deborah's actions and attitude deserve careful attention.

What Was Deborah like in the Bible? (Judges 4:4-7)

1. Service as a Judge 

"And Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, she judged Israel at that time. And she dwelt under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in mount Ephraim: and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment." Judges 4:4-5

Because of the sins of the people, they were under the oppression of Jabin. He ruled over the northern portion of Canaan with Hazor being his capital city. The name Jabin may be a title like Caesar, Pharaoh, or the Philistine Abimelech. The military power of this enemy of Israel was significant. He had 900 iron chariots under the command of Sisera (Judges 4:3). Such a force would be very difficult, if not impossible, to defeat under normal circumstances.

The domination over Israel may be seen in Judges 4:2, where Sisera's base of operation is noted. Harosheth means "woodcutting." Some have surmised the possibility of Sisera's forcing the inhabitants to serve as woodcutters. Regardless of the specifics, the length of time is definite. For 20 years God's people bowed under Jabin's oppression. Surely it must have appeared unending to them.

Then we read of Deborah's coming to the position as a judge in Israel. As can be seen in Judges 4:1, after the death of Ehud the people had drifted into sin with its resulting consequences. Deborah faces a difficult challenge. We have no record of the circumstances or scenario in which God brought her to the judgeship; this was a divine appointment. One can only wonder what her thoughts were when God initiated this action.

Let's pause to look specifically at her task. In the Hebrew language the title judge indicates someone who will bring others into a right relationship. This points to the spiritual dimension even though the specific tasks were of a civil nature. The three basic functions were administration, the settlement of disputes, and military leadership. However, these tasks must not provide a picture of having sovereign authority over a geographical area. There appears to be a sense of limitation in terms of being like a king or governor.

The description of Deborah in verses 4 and 5 provides a brief picture of this, the only woman chosen to be a judge in Israel. It begins with her spiritual position as a prophetess. This distinguishes her from all the other judges. None of them were given this designation. It also speaks of her spiritual character. We also see she was a married woman with the responsibilities of being a wife. Since her age is not given, we cannot state what phase of family life she might have been experiencing.

Her location for fulfilling her duties as a judge is very specific. The cities of Ramah and Bethel were about four miles apart on a line north of Jerusalem. This is the same area where the prophet Samuel later judged Israel (1 Samuel 7:16). Deborah held court under a palm tree.

2. Messenger of the Lord 

"And she sent and called Barak the son of Abinoam out of Kedesh-naphtali, and said unto him, Hath not the Lord 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 river Kishon Sisera, the captain of Jabin's army, with his chariots and his multitude; and I will deliver him into thine hand." Judges 4:6-7

In these verses we see the prophetic ministry of Deborah operating within her position as a judge of the area. The directives and results did not originate from the sharp mind of a military or civil leader. They stemmed from the Lord himself speaking through the mouth of the prophetess.

We know little about Barak, but he was God's chosen military leader for the task at hand. He lived in the city of Kedesh within the tribal lands of Naphtali. His father's name is given. But other than that bit of information, we can only make assumptions. Some have suggested his abilities and reputations as a warrior/leader had traveled southward, thus making him known to Deborah. This may or may not be true. Keep in mind that God can simply direct us to the right person even though we have no prior knowledge.

Once Barak arrived, notice the specifics of Deborah's message for him. There are no generalities which could lead to insecurity or to wrong actions. She lays out God's plan for him. Victory is guaranteed. Barak simply needs to fulfill it.

Deborah begins by identifying the source of her message. It is not self-generated. These words come from the Lord God of Israel. The direction Barak is to take is toward Mount Tabor. This mountain is distinct because of its flat top with a circumference of nearly one mile. It could serve as a fortified stronghold or as an excellent lookout post. The instructions further state the size of the fighting force and from which tribes they are to come. Since the regions being oppressed are Naphtali and Zebulun, it's only logical they should be the ones to participate in the deliverance.

In order for Barak to muster a force this size, it would appear he was known to the men of this region and trusted. After all, it would seem to be suicidal for a ground force to go against the mobilized chariots of Jabin. Of course, if Barak announced the promise of God in verse 7, the people would be foolish not to accept God's wanting to work on their behalf.

Deborah gave the specific plan of the Lord. Sisera would be lured into a situation which would bring about his defeat. In order to attack Barak's forces, the enemy chariots would need to cross the plain through which the river Kishon flowed. In the original language of these scriptures, the word for river literally means "torrent bed." The Kishon would flow when flash flooding took place.

The message of the Lord clearly states this location where the victory would take place. This victory would not be due to their superior forces. It would come from God's giving Sisera and his mighty forces into Israel's hands.

Think about putting yourself in Barak's shoes. There is a double trust issue here. He had to trust Deborah to be a true prophetess. And he must believe God would fulfill His word regardless of how impossible the task might appear.

In this case, God gave very specific directions and the results that would follow. Most of us do not experience this type of guidance in our life decisions, yet God is still directing us. Our faith should be no less than if everything were spelled out.

Deborah submitted to God's plan (Judges 4:8-24)

1. Personal availability 

"And Barak said unto her, If thou wilt go with me, then I will go: but if thou wilt not go with me, then I will not go. And she said, I will surely go with thee: notwithstanding, the journey that thou takest shall not be for thine honour; for the Lord shall sell Sisera into the hand of a woman. And Deborah arose, and went with Barak to Kedesh. And Barak called Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh; and he went up with ten thousand men at his feet: and Deborah went up with him. Now Heber the Kenite, which was of the children of Hobab the father in law of Moses, had severed himself from the Kenites, and pitched his tent unto the plain of Zaanaim, which is by Kedesh. And they shewed Sisera that Barak the son of Abinoam was gone up to mount Tabor. And Sisera gathered together all his chariots, even nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the people that were with him, from Harosheth of the Gentiles unto the river of Kishon." Judges 4:8-14

Barak's response to Deborah's message indicates he accepted the plan. But he did not want to do it by himself. As we feel at times, he wanted the comfort of another human with him before fulfilling God's guaranteed plan. Moses did the same thing when God appeared to him in the desert (Exodus 3). He came up with various excuses until God said Aaron, his brother, was on the way and would be his spokesperson. Though having been given verbal assurance and a miraculous demonstration, Moses resisted until he had a family member with him.

Deborah's presence with Barak was the deciding issue as to whether or not he would fulfill God's plan. Without hesitation or rebuke, Deborah agreed to accompany him. She did, however, point out there would be no personal honor in the victory for him. In spite of his being the leader and gathering the forces, there would be no acclaim after Sisera's defeat. This did not seem to bother Barak. We can only speculate as to why he accepted this so readily. Probably the might of the enemy loomed before him. Or, it could be he valued the defeat of the enemy above his own personal acclaim.

In response to Barak's call for a military force, 10,000 men joined him. The engagement was not long in coming. Hearing of the gathering of rebel forces, Sisera activated his chariots and soldiers.

Here the family of Heber the Kenite enters the narrative (v. 11). Normally the nomadic Kenites lived in the wilderness south of Judah. Heber, an independent person, moved his family to the north. They were camped in a plain near Kedesh. When Sisera and his forces came where the family camped, they showed him the path that Barak's forces had taken up the mountain. Exactly as Deborah stated, Sisera moved his forces to the river of Kishon (v. 13).

2. Proper timing

"And Deborah said unto Barak, Up; for this is the day in which the Lord hath delivered Sisera into thine 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; so that Sisera lighted down off his chariot, and fled away on his feet. But Barak pursued after the chariots, and after the host, unto Harosheth of the Gentiles: and all the host of Sisera fell upon the edge of the sword; and there was not a man left." Judges 4:14-16

When God says "now," timing is everything. In verse 14, Deborah gives the signal. Today is the day of deliverance. In complete obedience, Barak leads his force down the mountain to meet the enemy. Their victory is overwhelming. It's not because of their tactics or fighting skill. Rather, God enters the battle and Sisera's forces are utterly confused and destroyed. According to Judges 5:21, it appears God sends a flash flood which turns the plain into a muddy quagmire. The chariots are rendered useless.

Barak's army kills all of Sisera's forces. Only the leader escapes after abandoning his chariot. He literally runs for his life, hoping to find some shelter of escape. Deborah's prophetic announcement to Barak is fulfilled exactly as stated.

3. Misplaced trust 

"So God subdued on that day Jabin the king of Canaan before the children of Israel. And the hand of the children of Israel prospered, and prevailed against Jabin the king of Canaan, until they had destroyed Jabin king of Canaan." Judges 4:23-24

Looking for a safe haven, Sisera comes to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. She invites him to come in and find safety. To enable him to rest, Jael covers him with a quilt or rug and gives Sisera milk when he requests a drink of water. Assuming his hostess will redirect anyone looking for him, Sisera goes to sleep. He never wakes again due to Jael's brutally killing him.

Jael's actions are debatable. On the one hand, Sisera knows the custom of never going into a woman's tent without her husband being there. Anyone who does can be killed. On the other hand, Jael's action of inviting him to come in without fear covers her intention. She doesn't hesitate to commit cold-blooded murder after having offered hospitality, which always included protection.

The end of the story results in Jael's receiving the honor of having overcome the enemy leader. "Though predicted by Deborah, the act was the result of divine foreknowledge, not of divine appointment or action" (Jamieson, Fausset and Brown). When Barak finally catches up with Sisera, it's by Jael's coming out to meet him and showing him the body.

Deborah was humble and grateful (Judges 5:1-31)

1. Song of praise 

"Then sang Deborah and Barak the son of Abinoam on that day, saying, Praise ye the Lord for the avenging of Israel, when the people willingly offered themselves. Hear, O ye kings; give ear, O ye princes; I, even I, will sing unto the Lord; I will sing praise to the Lord God of Israel. Lord, when thou wentest out of Seir, when thou marchedst out of the field of Edom, the earth trembled, and the heavens dropped, the clouds also dropped water. The mountains melted from before the Lord, even that Sinai from before the Lord God of Israel." Judges 5:1-5

When reading through the Book of Judges, this is one chapter which we could easily bypass in favor of reading about the next judge. In doing so, we miss a poetic description of the preceding events as they recap God's deliverance. Also, failure to spend some time in this chapter robs us of reading one of the masterpieces of Hebrew poetry.

The "Song of Deborah" begins with the historical past. She calls for a remembrance of God's marvelous manifestations. It goes back to Mount Sinai where God demonstrated His power and spoke verbally to them. Then it covers the overall journey to Edom. This part of history includes God's punishment for sin as well as His provision. It also points to God's revelation of Himself.

It is easy to think of the specific events referred to here and miss the key point — praise. Deborah and Barak knew what their response needed to be. God deserved all the honor and glory. The tremendous victory over superior forces came through divine intervention. By themselves, Barak and his foot soldiers could never have accomplished such a feat.

2. Years of peace 

"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. And the land had rest forty years." Judges 5:6-31

To fully appreciate the present, it is important to review the past. As Deborah continues her song or war ballad, as some call it, she reviews selected events of the past. The dire conditions that brought about the need for deliverance arose from the people's turning from God and selecting other gods (v. 8). Not only had they become defenseless spiritually, but also militarily. They had no weapons with which to defend themselves.

Hope came only when a new spirit gripped the people. They, the leaders and the people, turned to the Lord (v. 9). Though verse 7 speaks mainly of Deborah, it does emphasize the role that spiritual women play in bringing individuals, families, and even nations back to their rightful relationship with God.

Deborah's song recounted how the forces of select Israel tribes were gathered and how the Lord came to fight their battle (vv. 13, 14, 18). Listed are the tribes who did not help their brothers in this encounter because they weren't asked to participate (vv. 16, 17). She sang about the death of Sisera at the hand of Jael, recounting with specifics the manner of the death (vv. 24-27). Normally the Bedouin women pitched the family tent. Tent pegs and mallets would be familiar tools to Jael.

To emphasize the misery that came upon the Lord's enemies, Deborah's song includes a picture of Sisera's mother anxiously awaiting the return of her son. Attempting to reassure, those women around her suggested the dividing of the plunder was the reason for the delayed return (vv. 28-30). But later we know she would find the true reason. Her anxiety then would turn into mourning.

Verse 31 provides a contrast between those who serve the Lord and those who are His enemies. While the enemies perish, His servants will live in strength. The key is loving God and Him alone. Though the enemies of the Lord and His people appear to be triumphant, it is only temporary. There comes a point when they will be destroyed. Sometimes we do not live to see it. Nevertheless, it will take place.

As a result of Israel's turning back to God and following Him, they enjoyed an extended period of peace. We do not know how much of this Deborah saw, since her lifespan isn't part of the narrative. Yet, it really doesn't matter. Her leadership in a time of crisis benefited the people of the area for 40 years. What a legacy!

What Should We Learn from Deborah?

The distinctive of Deborah's work as a judge stands firmly in the battle. As a woman she would not be expected to be on the battlefield. However, she did not allow cultural norms to hinder her leadership and thereby enabled others to bring victory to God's people.

Personal Challenge

"Then sang Deborah and Barak ... Praise ye the Lord for the Avenging of Israel, when the people willingly offered themselves" (Judges 5:1-2).

Verse 2 calls for praise to be given to the Lord. Israel, especially the northern section, had been under severe oppression for 20 years. No doubt, the only songs the people could sing were filled with frustration and mourning. Now, however, they had cause for rejoicing in the Lord. In the same way, the first response of the believer when surveying the redemption and deliverance of God should be one of praise.

The reason for praise is given next. The Lord had avenged Israel. The Hebrew word for avenge in this verse actually meant "to break or set loose by delivering from oppression." Deliverance from the oppression and bondage of the enemy is always cause for praise to the Lord.

The timing of their release is also given in verse 2. They were set free when they "willingly offered themselves." There are a number of words in Hebrew translated offer, presenting varied insights into the concept of giving an offering. The particular Hebrew word used here for offering emphasized the freewill nature of giving. In this verse it means the people "freely urged and gave themselves" to the Lord.

God responds to a freewill offering of ourselves. A child of God might be able to give many things to the Lord. However, God desires the believer to freely give himself or herself to the Lord. Faith brought on by manipulation and coercion is not a substitute for a genuine, voluntary giving of oneself.

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