Deborah and the Book of Judges


Deborah’s war illustrates the role of ancient Israelite judges.

Deborah and the Book of Judges

“In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” (Judg. 21:25.)

The seventh book of the Old Testament ends with stories illustrative of the evil of the times, but earlier chapters provide a marked contrast to this dismal conclusion. They describe a righteous and God-fearing Israel settling in Canaan under Joshua’s leadership: “The people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders that outlived Joshua.” (Judg. 2:7.)

What happened in the interim? The book of Judges chronicles Israel’s historical and spiritual life in Canaan during this pivotal period in Old Testament history. The record begins at the turbulent junction of Late Bronze and Early Iron ages and concludes before the calling of Samuel the prophet, providing a remarkable historical account of the nation’s defeats and triumphs in the midst of battles and power struggles. 1

More important, the book of Judges also chronicles events concerning Israel’s twelve judges. In Jewish literature, these judges were called shophetim—leaders who pronounced judgment and were chosen at various times to deliver different Israelite tribes from enemies intent on attacking and suppressing them. These judges labored during eras of spiritual turmoil, tribal divisions, and Baal worship, facing a great deal of temptation and opposition in their attempts to lead.

One of these shophetim was a woman named Deborah. A prophetess, judge, and deliverer, she not only followed the example of earlier Old Testament women in acting upon the word of the Lord, but she fulfilled her role as shophet, or judge, better than most. Based on the information in the Bible, only Samuel and Gideon equaled her accomplishments.

Historical Background

The book of Judges begins with a summary of Israelite settlement under Joshua in Canaan, a land-bridge area that connected mighty empires and thus seldom knew tranquility. For generations, waves of herdsmen, fighting men, traders, farmers, and homesteaders swept into or through the territory in search of power, wealth, fruitful land, abundant water and rich pasturage, and safe homes.

At the time of Israel’s settlement in Canaan, changes in the balance of power and in the nationality and lineage of Canaan’s inhabitants, along with the rise of a new and powerful technology, brought uproar to this western arc of the Mideastern fertile crescent. The might of the Egyptian and Hittite empires, which had long fought fiercely over this strategic area, declined; and as their influence weakened, other peoples eagerly snatched at opportunities to fill the power gap.

During the time-period of Israelite settlement in Canaan, indigenous Canaanites expanded their strong city-states. 2 A coalition of sea-peoples, including the Philistines, swarmed in from the west to wrest power from waning empirical strength. On the Israelites’ eastern border, nomadic raiders from the Trans-Jordan attacked, avid for a share of wealth. Other tribes such as Edomites and Moabites also fought for permanent settling-places in Canaan.

As a consequence, nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes clashed violently with town-dwellers. People whose living depended on the well-being of the animals that gave them food, clothing, and shelter fought with people who lived in walled cities and cultivated grain fields, olive groves, and vineyards. Family, clan, and tribal loyalties warred with loyalties centered in social and territorial ties.

Even the Israelites, despite their military triumphs under Joshua, could not avoid war in Canaan. For a long time, the Israelite tribes forgot their common ancestral ties and viewed themselves as separate entities, each battling for its own territory. They also forgot, at times, their common religious heritage: foreign Baalim and Astartes replaced the Lord in the hearts of the Israelites.

Only gradually, as the individual tribes struggled to win and hold their own areas against the enemies who assailed them, did the Israelites come to regard themselves as a single people.

Shophetim

The compiler of the book of Judges probably selected material from records then extant of localized tribal struggles sometime after the events themselves occurred. 3 Shophetim, the Hebrew Bible’s translational name for the book, is today translated as “Judges,” because the Hebrew word shophet primarily denotes “judicare,” or judicial administration. It also connotes “vindicare,” with reference to leading, defending, delivering, and avenging. 4 In other words, shophet may connote both arbitration and political/military leadership. The judges of Israel certainly acted in these capacities and more.

Othneil, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Gideon, Tola, Jair, Jephtha, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, and Samson appear as judges of Israel in that order in the book of Judges. However, difficulties inherent in dating historical biblical events of this period, for which the main source is the Bible itself, render chronological order uncertain. It is even possible that the events concerning some of the judges may have overlapped. Gideon and Samson may have come near the end of the period of the judges, and Deborah’s time is thought to be somewhere in the middle.

Six of the judges probably acted as strong tribal leaders rather than heroic deliverers and are mentioned only briefly; however, stories of the other six judges are full of heroic deeds and colorful episodes. Of the former six, Shamgar slew six hundred Philistines with an ox-goad, while Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon seem to have led their people during more peaceful times.

In these charismatic judge stories, a pattern repeats itself over and over as it does in the Book of Mormon. The Israelites do that which is wrong in the sight of the Lord; they forget their covenant with the Lord and choose to follow the beguiling gods of other peoples. They are tested and tried by one or another of the other peoples in Canaan until the Israelites remember their covenants. (See Judg. 2:20–23; Judg. 3:1–4.)

After some years of tribulation and regret, the Israelites remember the Lord and repent of their wickedness; they cry out for help. A leader arises who, with the Lord’s help, saves the people from their oppressors. The people then enjoy peace for a time.

Five of these judges acted in the leadership-deliverer role only. Othniel was endowed with strength by the Spirit of the Lord to defeat the king of Mesopotamia. (See Judg. 3:5–11.) Ehud, using guile and one of the newfangled two-edged iron swords, stabbed the Moabite king and rallied the Israelites for a triumphant battle. Gideon’s story rises to a far higher level. He obeyed the Lord’s commandments and defeated the Midianites with a minuscule army, though he began by doubting and testing the validity of the Lord’s heaven-sent messages. (See Judg. 6–8.)

Jephthah caused great slaughter among enemy Ammonites, but to win this victory he made a foolish vow that inadvertently led to the sacrifice of his daughter. (See Judg. 11.) And Samson followed the sin-chastisement-repentance-deliverance pattern in his own life as he waged his war against the Philistines. (See Judg. 14–16.)

All five were charismatic judges. But they acted only as leaders, dispensing some political influence with the judicial role of shophetim.

Deborah

Of all the charismatic shophetim, of Deborah alone is it recorded that “the children of Israel came up … for judgment.” (Judg. 4:5.) Chosen by the elders of her tribe to dispense justice beneath her palm tree headquarters in the hill-country of Ephraim, she was also the charismatic leader called by the Lord to deliver the northern Israelite tribes from Canaanite tyranny.

Although they didn’t hold the priesthood and did not have equal authority with the prophets, prophetesses—inspired women with strong testimonies called upon by the Lord to perform various tasks—do not seem to have been unusual in ancient Israel. 5 The writer of the book of Judges shows no astonishment concerning Deborah’s role as prophetess, judge, and deliverer. Indeed, as Daniel H. Ludlow points out, perhaps “the fact that a good woman was recognized as the spokesperson for the Lord is … indication of the failure of priesthood members to honor their responsibilities.” 6

Whatever the reason for her leadership calling, Deborah certainly followed the pattern of earlier Old Testament women in recognizing a need, heeding the word of the Lord, and acting accordingly. Rebekah ensured that the appropriate birthright blessing would be given to her son Jacob. Shiprah and Pual, the Hebrew midwives, defied Pharaoh and refused to slay infant male Israelites. And Miriam the prophetess, sister of Moses, helped her mother save her baby brother. Stories of these women may in fact have influenced Deborah.

Acting with honesty, integrity, courage, unwavering faith, and unquestioning obedience, Deborah was honored with great responsibilities both by her own people and by the Lord. She judged her people righteously; she heard and acted upon the word of the Lord when it came to her; she accompanied the Israelite army; and she gave glory to the Lord for her people’s deliverance.

Deborah’s War

Deborah’s war against the Canaanites, which took place around 1125 B.C. according to most biblical scholars, was so important to her people’s history that its events are recounted twice in the book of Judges—in chapter 4 and in chapter 5 [Judg. 4–5]. Chapter 4 is a narrative of the war, and chapter 5, the Song of Deborah, is a hymn of jubilant praise composed soon after the victory it celebrates. 7

Each chapter emphasizes different aspects of Deborah’s War, a battle that resulted after the Israelites “did evil in the sight of the Lord.” (Judg. 4:1.) They followed the pattern and “chose new gods.” (Judg. 5:8.) Consequently, the Lord allowed the Canaanites to oppress them harshly for twenty years (see Judg. 4:3), and the children of Israel fled from their villages and feared to travel the highroads. (See Judg. 5:6.)

When the word of the Lord came to Deborah, the Old Testament says, “I Deborah arose.” (Judg. 5:7.) She sent a message north to Barak of Kedesh-Naphtali: “Hath not the Lord God of Israel commanded, saying, Go and draw toward mount Tabor, and take with thee ten thousand men?” (Judg. 4:6.)

Barak, fearful and reluctant, agreed to gather an army and attack the Canaanites only if Deborah would accompany him on the mission. But according to Deborah, Barak’s reluctance was unnecessary: “The journey that thou takest shall not be for thine honour; for the Lord shall sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” (Judg. 4:9.)

Sisera, captain of the Canaanite troops, gave Barak good reason to fear; he awaited the Israelites on the plain by the Wadi Kishon below Mount Tabor with the military might of powerful Canaan. Hundreds of invincible ironclad chariots threatened the ill-trained, poorly armed volunteer Israelite troops who waited on Mount Tabor with Deborah and Barak for the day chosen by the Lord.

Finally, “Deborah said unto Barak, Up; for this is the day in which the Lord hath delivered Sisera into thine hand.” (Judg. 4:14.) And the Lord went out before the Israelites with a terrible storm. Torrents of rain flooded down the mountainside, filling the Wadi Kishon and spilling over the plain: “And the Lord discomfited Sisera, and all his chariots, and all his host. … The river of Kishon swept them away.” (Judg. 4:15; Judg. 5:21.)

Deserting his army, Sisera fled north and sought refuge in the tent of Jael, a woman of the nomadic Kenite tribe, which had a peace agreement with the Canaanites. 8 Jael fed him, concealed him with coverings, waited for him to sleep, and then hammered a tent peg through his temples. She turned the body over to Barak, having fulfilled Deborah’s prophecy that Sisera would be sold into the hands of a woman.

Deborah’s War broke the main Canaanite power in the north, opening the way for territorial expansion that united the Galilee tribes with the territory of Ephraim to the south. 9 Under Deborah’s rallying call, a joint cooperative effort among the Israelite tribes produced victory against a common enemy. After the battle, Barak, according to Josephus, “was the commander of the Israelites for forty years.” 10

And what of Deborah, who fulfilled her call as Shophet, gathered the tribes to battle, then turned the leadership over to Barak? Nothing more is mentioned of her.

Perhaps, her work in the north finished, Deborah returned to her palm tree in the Ephraim hills and to her role as “a mother in Israel.” (Judg. 5:7.)

[illustrations] Illustrated by Greg K. Olsen

Kristin E. Litchman is a member of the Albuquerque Twelfth Ward, Albuquerque South Stake, where she serves as the stake early-morning seminary supervisor.

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    The Palestinian Iron Age began around 1200 B.C.

  2.   2.

    A. Malamat, “The Egyptian Decline in Canaan and the Sea-Peoples,” The World History of the Jewish People, ed. Benjamin Mazar, first series, 8 vols. Jewish History Publications: Rutgers University Press, 1971), 3:23.

  3.   3.

    Madeleine S. and J. Lane Miller, Harper’s Encyclopedia of Bible Life, 3rd revised ed. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978), p. 237.

  4.   4.

    A. Cohen, ed., Joshua Judges (London: Soncino Press, 1950), p. 152.

  5.   5.

    Miller, p. 203.

  6.   6.

    Daniel H. Ludlow, A Companion to Your Study of the Old Testament (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 1981), p. 210.

  7.   7.

    Malamat, “The Period of the Judges,” The World History of the Jewish People, ed. Benjamin Mazar, first series, 8 vols. Jewish History Publications: Rutgers University Press, 1971), 3:137. See also Samuel Sandmel, The Hebrew Scriptures, an Introduction to their Literature and Religious Ideas (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963), p. 34.

  8.   8.

    Kenites were descendants of Midianites, who were associated with Moses at Sinai and were invited by Moses to migrate with Israel to the land of promise. Though they initially declined, large groups later migrated there. They joined with and supported the children of Israel.

  9.   9.

    Malamat, “The Period of the Judges,” 3:140.

  10.   10.

    William Whiston, trans., The Work of Flavius Josephus (London: William P. Nimmo, n.d.), p. 115.