Deborah – Prophet, Judge, Mother, Wife, Battle Leader!

Was Deborah the woman who had it all? 

The last woman we looked at was Rahab who helped the spies sent by Joshua to see the lie of the land before the Israelites crossed into the Promised Land.

We find the tale of Deborah in the Book of Judges which covers the time after the entry of the people of God into the land of Canaan, led by Joshua.  After his death the people are governed by a series of leaders, known as Judges.  Their toehold on their land is precarious and there is a lot of conflict with neighbouring tribes to establish themselves. From God’s perspective the people are often led astray and fall into worship of the gods of their neighbours. 

Janice Nunnally-Cox in “Foremothers” summarises the cycle of the times thus:

“The people would be unfaithful to the Lord, captured and defeated by various foes; then they would repent, and God would raise up for them a judge. The judges were probably tribal heroes – minor kings of a sort, who held what power they could for a time…Each appeared when Israel forgot God; the judges would then exhort the people to faithfulness, defeat the current enemy, and rule in peace for varying years.”

The first three were men: Othniel, Ehud and Shamgar and the fourth was Deborah.

We first encounter her in Chapter 4, sitting under a Palm Tree, known as the Palm of Deborah, between Ramah and Bethel in the land of Ephraim:

“And Deborah was a woman who was a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth.  And she was judging Israel at that time.”

So we have a woman who has at least three descriptions, prophet, judge and wife.  Lappidoth does not seem to have any role, so although she is described as a wife, she has a role independent of her husband. 

Later on, she is referred to as “Deborah arose, a mother in Israel”  which implies that she had children, but it could be a figurative description.

As she sat under her palm tree the people would go to her for resolution of their complaints.

Tissot, James, 1836-1902. Deborah Beneath the Palm Tree, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. 

Judges 4v2 puts the time of Deborah into context – as the children of Israel continued to do what was evil before the lord – they fell under the control of Jabin, King of Canaan, the commander of the army being Sisera.

Deborah organised action to free the people. Her actions are inline with those of her predecessors. For example we are told that the Judge prior to Deborah – Shamgar:

“struck the Philistines, as many as six hundred men with the ploughshare of his oxen and he also saved Israel.”

Deborah summoned Barak, the commander and told him that God had commanded him to go to Mount Tabor, taking with him 10,000 men to fight the occupying force. 

“for I am going to bring Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to you at the river Kishon with his chariots and men, and I will deliver him into your hands.”

Barak’s response was that he would only go if Deborah accompanied him.  It is noteworthy that he did not query her role in military strategy. o

Deborah agreed that she would go with him – “but if you do it that way the honour of the victory will not be yours, for Sisera will be killed by a woman.”

Off to battle they went – Barak’s force of 10,000 men engaging Sisera’s force which included 900 iron chariots. The Batttle was fought near the River Kishon.

V15-16 tell us the outcome: “And the Lord threw Sisera and all his chariots and all his army into a panic before Barak.  Sisera alighted from his chariot and fled on foot, while Barak pursued the chariots and the army… All of Sisera’s army fell by the edge of the sword.  Nobody was spared.”

This remarkable victory, we think took place about 1300 BC.  The Israelites were an inferior force to those led by Sisera, lacking in knowledge of ironworking, they did not have iron chariots.  Nevertheless, led by Barak, with Deborah beside him, they achieved a remarkable victory. 

We leave Deborah here, at this comprehensive victory, and continue her story next time, alongside another woman Jael – who has a pivotal role.

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