The Female Judge (ca. 722 BC)

By: The Scribe on Sunday, October 28, 2007

This gravesite has been attributed to either Deborah or the General Barak; there isn’t yet enough evidence to conclusively say whose it is one way or the other.

In chapters 4 and 5 of Judges in the Hebrew scriptures, a story is told of a woman named Deborah. Deborah lived during pre-monarchic Israel, and held a position as both prophetess and judge – in fact, she was the fourth Judge and the only female to have had this position during the Israelite period.

During this time period, Israel’s judges were regarded more as kings than simply people who tried court cases… and although it is unknown as to how a woman came to be in this position, it is evident by the literature that she was greatly respected and honored by the Israelites. Not only that, but as Judge, she also was the official leader of the army – which means that thousands of men had to follow a woman’s orders in battle, something completely unheard of in this patriarchal society.

Although very little is known about Deborah herself, the text explains that she was married to a man by the name of Lapidoth, and that she sat under a palm tree to give her judgments. She was a poet – which was not an unusual hobby, as there are plenty of examples of Hebrew poetry still remaining today – and her eventual legacy was that she became a ‘mother in Israel’, although whether the title is literal or metaphorical is up for debate.

When Deborah came into power as Judge, the nation of Israel had been suffering at the hands of the Canaanites for the past 20 years. The Canaanites had made sure that the Israelites knew their place in society – taking some as slaves, forcing others to work at backbreaking labor, oppressing their religious beliefs, and even taking their women to marry.

Artist Gustave Dore’s interpretation of Deborah, prophetess and Judge of Israel, from the mid-1800s.

Unlike the Judges before her, Deborah was unwilling to allow these atrocities to continue any further, but there was one problem: the Israelites were at a severe disadvantage. Their army consisted of only 10,000 men, whereas the Canaanites had at least 900 iron chariots and tens of thousands more warriors than Israel. However, since she was a prophetess, Deborah was in a better position than the previous Judges – so, she received instructions from God, telling her to instruct the Israelite general Barak to take his soldiers up to the River Kishon on Mount Tabor.

Deborah’s prophesy was that God planned to send the Canaanite general Sisera and his army up to the same place, but that the Israelites would win the battle. According to the text, Deborah relayed this information to Barak, who agreed to trust her instructions – but only if Deborah would go with him into battle! Instead of trusting the prophesy from God that his army would win, he would only trust this woman – something quite unheard of in ancient Mesopotamia.

In retaliation for his mistrust in God, she prophesied that Barak would not achieve the final victory over the Canaanite general, but this would instead go to a woman. As it turns out, Deborah helped Barak lead the troops into battle, which the Israelites won…with the exception of one small thing: they didn’t manage to kill the Canaanite general Sisera. What happened to Sisera is a tale for another day…

The end of the text on Deborah recalls how she gave thanks to God for the Israelite victory, instead of claiming honor for herself. The book of Judges 5 even includes a poem that she wrote, entitled the ‘Song of Deborah’ , which commemorates the Israelite victory on that day.

Want to read more?

Tomorrow: More Ancient Standard


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