Summary of Judges 4

We join the story in the part of the Judges cycle where the Israelites are being punished by God for apostasy. The people cry out. God hears them, and as frequently occurs, raises a redeemer from the fringes of society.[1] Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time (4:4)[2] by a palm tree between Bethel and Ramah. She summons (italics mine)Barak and outlines the strategy that will set the Israelites free from the oppression of Canaan. Barak does as he is told, but tells Deborah he’ll only do it if she accompanies him into battle.  Sisera, the Canaanite general, gets word of trouble in the bush, fires up the chariots and sets out to quell it. Unfortunately for Sisera, God has things firmly in control. His troops scattered and killed, Sisera finds refuge in Jael’s tent, where he meets his demise.

There are actually more gaps to this story than there is story. We are not told explicitly she was married with two kids. We are told nothing about how Deborah came to be a prophetess, or how she came to be a judge. We don’t know anything of how she received the call to summon Barak; we are not told “and the Lord said to her…” concerning when to attack. We don’t know if she had any idea which woman would kill Sisera, only that it would not be Barak. We don’t know if she knew Jael before the killing of Sisera.

Deborah’s significance

Deborah wins best in class as the only entry in three categories: only female judge, only judge to be called a prophet[3], and the only judge in a juridical sense[4]. Carol Meyers notes “The vast majority of the occurrences of the root sh-p-t in the Bible have a decision-making context: to judge, to decide between.”[5]

Deborah’s actions freed the Israelites from the oppression of Canaanite King Jabin. While some argue Deborah as exceptional because of the ways she stands out in Israelite society, others argue that in the relatively disorganized period of the judges, anyone able to do the job got it[6]. As the commentary on Judges by Paula McNutt in the New Interpreter’s Study Bible (NISB) puts it, “We have no information on how such leaders might have been chosen, in all likelihood the head of household for prominent families might have served in such a capacity.”[7] I would assert that selection of charismatic leaders then was not so different from the present: they rise based on gifts & abilities.

I would assert that even given “the times,” it would be unusual for a woman to summon a man as Deborah did with Barak (4:6). On the other hand, if the prophet summons, it seems likely he (a man, the general Barak) would acquiesce.


Deborah can be seen as liberator of the Israelis. That’s not hard to see in the defeat of the Canaanites.

From a liberationist perspective, Julia Esquivel offers the following insights:

  1. “…even in that early period of history, during the period of the judges, God called on a woman to lead a people and to judge. She is the transmitter of the message of God to a man who is strong so that he, together with his men, may militarily defend the right to life and struggle for liberation.
  2. “…here it is shown clearly how God breaks through the mental and social constraints under which women suffer, in fact the entire ideology of submission to man.
  3. The tradition of the strength of the male is broken. The captain of the armies of Israel asks a woman to accompany him into battle. And she who destroys the strong man of the enemy is a female fighter- -Jael. She breaks a pact [hospitality], in order to defend the life of her people, its history and its future.
  4. It breaks the tradition of submission and calls on us to place our bodies before the machine guns. It observes that we continue to talk instead of taking our liberation concretely into our own hands while thousands of our people are massacred. It breaks through the false understanding of pacifism that masks the face of God, reducing God to ineffectual neutrality in the face of injustice and oppression.

Rosemary Radford Reuther offers interesting insights from a feminist perspective:

“Only Deborah and Jezebel stand on their own two feet…Far too little evidence survives about them to assess their actual position in Israelite society, or their representativeness.”[8] It is possible that there were other woman prophets, but records that they existed are lost. We must also keep in mind the difference between a narrative that uses historical events to make a point (in this case the Judges “cycle”) and a compendium of events: if an event does not serve to make the author’s point, it gets struck from the text[9] . in this model, there are likely many prophets, male and possibly female, that didn’t make the grade.

The vast majority appear as ‘types’ rather than real women[10]. With few exceptions, they are flat characters, bit players. They show little emotion. The reader never learns the things that make for round characters: likes and dislikes, their daily routines, their dreams and fears, their “back story.”[11] But having said that, they are often portrayed as crafty and resourceful, especially compared to “their” men.[12] Literarily, the function of women is point to to God. To be socially acceptable, they pointed to the men, who then pointed to God. A critical reading makes it clear who really “gets it done.”

The rabbis who composed the Aggadah in Encyclopedia Judaica Online put a slightly different spin on the story and history:

Deborah was one of 7 prophetesses. Candle making was her husband, Lappidoth’s, only skill or redeeming feature: he was “an ignorant man.”[13] The narrative denigrates her: “The rabbis criticize Deborah for her unbecoming arrogance in sending for Barak rather than going to him (Meg. 14b). Because of this and because of her conceit in boasting, “I arose, a mother in Israel” (cf. Judg. 5:7), she was given the unflattering name of Deborah (“bee”).”

Deborah in culture

Internet Movie Database (IMDB) returns a hit on “Deborah the Prophetess” as part of their “reality TV” series (episode 622, no less)[14]. I have to admit to not having watched it. Could be fun. Or annoying.

A google search of “Deborah prophet in the Bible” turns up interesting statements.[15] Wikipedia observes “Some people today refer to Deborah as the mother of Israel.”[16] A Google search of “movies about prophet [sic] Deborah” returned 15,200,000 hits. Many were bible studies. Others were sermons. Deborah is in fact still out there.


This picture[17] by Gustav Dore, published in the “authorized version” of the Bible in 1866 contains elements of artistic license. Reprinted in Women’s Bible Commentary,[18] the caption reads “Deborah holds court at the city gate in Deborah, an engraving by Gustav Dore…”

I am no art critic, but Deborah judged under a palm (4:5), not at the city gate. Also, her flowing hair is untied, rendering her a “loose” woman, socially unacceptable in her time.

The second picture is uncredited,[19] but it seems “more realistic.” I think the tree she is sitting beside is supposed to be a palm. She is definitely in the open countryside. The arid landscape resembles Israel. The woman’s dress is consonant with rural society (at least as I imagine it); certainly it seems less regal than the upper picture.

[1] The judges are often the misfits: small, weak, challenged in some way.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, all scripture citations are from Judges, ch. 4, NRSV (Walter J. Harrelson, Ed. 1989)

[3] (Carol Meyers 2000) p. 66

[4] (Walter J. Harrelson 1989) pp. 353-54

[5] (Meyers 2015)

[6] (Meyers 2015)

[7] (Walter J. Harrelson 1989) p. 353

[8] (Rosemary Radford Reuther 1998) p. 61

[9] WR 240, spring, 2015 “Writing as Public Theology”

[10] (Rosemary Radford Reuther 1998) p. 60

[11] WR 220, spring 2012 “Writing the Story”

[12] Class discussion BS 375, spring 2015

[13] (Liver n.d.)

[14] Faithful Word Baptist Church.




[18] (Carol Newsom, Sharon Ringe, Jaqueline Lapsley, Ed. 2012) p. 129


2 thoughts on “Deborah

  1. martinmelville Post author

    Deborah is a short “book,” about a printed page, 2 columns. I use a study bible that has notes about the text on the bottom of the page. As you can see from the footnotes, I used several other commentaries, but they weren’t more than a page or 2. The paper is written in an informal style that isn’t considered appropriate for academic work. It was OK for this class. A lot depends on the instructor’s requirements. (WWF resulted in a rewrite).

    ADD as I am, organizing material is the biggest challenge, but I’ve come up with a system. As I read, I put the source (say NISB, New interpreter’s Study Bible) and page number. Then once I have a bunch of notes, I make an outline based on the information I have and assign the appropriate outline ID (for example 2 B iii a, if you can picture that). Then in Word, there’s a sort function near the middle of the toolbar that has an “a” above a “z.” Highlight the whole document by ctrl “a” & then hit the sort button. All of a sudden all of the 2s are together. Computers are really good at sorting things. All of the notes that have to do with that topic are together.

    I don’t think I had more than 12 hours in researching & writing this essay, mostly in small blocks of time over the 2 week class.


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