Today I begin a series of studies on Deborah. Deborah is the only woman who is numbered among the judges of Israel. According to the narratives that appear in the book of Judges, Deborah is also called a prophetess. The stories of the judges reflect the conditions in Canaan in the 12th century B.C., a time when there was no king in Israel and everyone did what was right in his own eyes (Judges 21:25).
The story of Deborah and how she helped deliver Israel from the oppression of the Canaanites is found in the fourth and fifth chapters of the book of Judges. The book of Judges is the second book in the Deuteronomic history, a history that begins with the farewell address of Moses in Deuteronomy and ends with the exile of Judah in 587 B.C.
The book of Judges was probably written after the reforms of Josiah in 622 B.C. and covers a period of about two centuries, from approximately 1200 B.C. to 1020 B.C. The book of Judges is a theological interpretation of the life of Israel in Canaan in the days prior to the monarchy. This history describes the activities of military heroes called “judges,” who delivered Israel from the hands of nations which oppressed them.
According to the Deuteronomic historian, this oppression came because of Israel’s apostasy. Israel had been faithful to the covenant faith during the days of Joshua and the leaders who succeeded him. But there arose a new generation of Israelites that “did not know Yahweh or the work which he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10).
This new generation of Israelite was indifferent to the demands of the covenant. They abandoned Yahweh to serve the gods of the land, and as a consequence of their disobedience, the curses of the covenant were evoked upon Israel.
The book of Judges includes historical events that took place after the death of Joshua, that is, after Israel entered and settled in Canaan. Although the first chapter of Judges indicates that after the death of Joshua Israel continued fighting against the Canaanites, the book of Judges narrates Israel’s struggle with their enemies up to the establishment of the monarchy under Saul.
The life of Israel in Canaan prior to the monarchy is presented in the book of Judges in a literary device of a cycle of apostasy and repentance that reflects the Deuteronomistic understanding of Israel’s judgment for their sins:
(a) The people of Israel sinned against God
(b) God sent an oppressor
(c) The people cried unto God for deliverance
(d) God raised a judge to deliver Israel
(e) There is peace as long as the judge lived
(f) Israel sinned again after the death of the judge
The book of Judges contains the acts of twelve judges. Six of them are known as major judges and six are known as minor judges.
The six major judges are: Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson. These six judges are called “major judges” because their stories are presented with some details of their activities.
The six minor judges are: Jair, Tola, Ibzan, Elon, Shamgar, and Abdon. These six judges are called “minor judges” because the texts do not give any information about their work.
Several years after Ehud delivered Israel from the oppression imposed by Eglon, king of Moab (Judges 3:12-30), the people of Israel “once again did evil in the eyes of the Lord” (Judges 4:1). As a result, Israel was oppressed by the Canaanites under the leadership of Jabin. The Deuteronomic historian called Jabin “king of Canaan,” however scholars are not in agreement about Jabin’s identity.
In Joshua 11:1-14 Jabin appears as the king of Hazor who formed a confederacy of Canaanite kings to fight against Joshua and the people of Israel. In Judges 4:2, Jabin appears as a king of Canaan whose kingdom was in Hazor. For this reason, scholars believe that Jabin was a throne name for the kings of Hazor. The commander of Jabin’s army was Sisera. Sisera commanded the combined Canaanite army in their struggle against Israel.
During the period of the judges, Israel was a confederacy of tribes loosely organized around the worship of Yahweh and a centralized sanctuary. During the period of the judges, Israel was not a highly centralized nation. At this time, Israel did not have a standing army and had limited weapons with which to defend themselves against their enemies. Thus, the leaders of the tribal confederacy had a difficult time mustering a militia to fight against their oppressors, as Deborah found out when she tried to summon a military coalition against the Canaanites.
Deborah, as judge of Israel and as prophetess of Yahweh, summoned Barak to assemble the troops to fight against Sisera and the Canaanites. As the two armies met in battle, Israel’s army led by Barak defeated the Canaanites with the help of a torrential rainstorm that trapped the Canaanites’ chariots in the mud and allowed the Israelites to completely defeat their enemy.
Sisera escaped and fled to the tent of Jael, a Kenite woman, believing that he would find a friendly reception among the Kenites. Instead, after enticing Sisera to come inside her tent and rest, Jael drove a tent peg through his skull and he died.
With the death of Sisera by the hands of Jael, Deborah’s oracle that the credit for the victory against the Canaanites would go to a woman, and not to Barak, was fulfilled. Judges chapter four provides a narrative account of the battle and chapter five the story is retold in poetic form known as “The Song of Deborah.”
The story of Deborah as told in the book of Judges is rather brief and not much is said about Deborah. However, there are three women who became the central figures in the story, both in the narrative and in the song: Deborah, Jael, and Sisera’s mother. In a future post, I will study the important role these three women played in the story of Deborah, the judge of Israel.
Other Studies on Deborah:
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary