According to the book of Judges, Deborah was a woman from Ephraim who served as a tribal leader and as a woman who was called to speak on behalf of Yahweh. Judges 4:4-5 speaks of Deborah’s dual role in Israel:
“Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment.”
Scholars differ on their understanding of Deborah’s role as a “shophet.” The word “shophet” can be translated “judge,” “deliver,” “rule,” “govern,” or “decide.” Some scholars translate the plural word “shophetim” as “saviors.”
None of the individuals in the book of Judges are called “judge.” The word “judge” was used by the writer of Judges to describe the work of the main characters of the book:
“Then the LORD raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them. Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they whored after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their fathers had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the LORD, and they did not do so. Whenever the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge” (Judges 2:16-19).
The book of Judges shows that the judges were involved in military campaigns (Judges 2:16; 3:10), were leaders of the community (Judges 10:3; 12:7), and also administered justice (Judges 4:4). In the Old Testament, a judge functioned in a judicial and institutional context, but there is no evidence to support the view that Deborah and the other judges in the book of Judges functioned in this capacity.
Some scholars have suggested that the “shophet” was an arbitrator of local disputes without any institutional authority. However, due to the tribal structure of Israel, it seems that the judges mentioned in the book of Judges had little influence outside their own tribes.
A better interpretation of the role of the “shophetim” was that these individuals served as civil or military leaders in their communities. Maybe the only exception was Deborah. However, even in her case, it is possible to attribute Deborah with military leadership for she summoned Barak to be her military commander and fight against the Canaanites. Barak declined the leadership of the army unless Deborah joined him in battle. Barak said to Deborah: “If you go with me, I’ll go. But if you don’t go with me, I won’t go” (Judges 4:8).
In addition to her role in the military campaign against the Canaanites, Deborah also counseled the people and settled disputes in the community. The biblical text states that Deborah held court under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim. It was there that the people of Israel came to her to have their disputes settled (Judges 4:4-5).
Some scholars believe that Deborah was not a judge or a deliverer in the same way that the other deliverers mentioned in the book of Judges were. The reason for this reluctance to accept Deborah as a judge is because there are several important elements missing in Deborah’s story that are present in the accounts of the other judges. These elements include the absence of the statement that Yahweh raised up a deliverer, the fact that Deborah was not involved in direct military action as the other judges were but it was Barak who fought against the enemies of Israel, and the lack of a reference to Deborah as being empowered by the Spirit.
In ancient Israel it is possible that most villages would have wise persons to whom the people would come to seek resolution for their problems. These wise persons would be sought by the community because of their wisdom and the soundness of their advice. These persons did not assume the function of counselors or advisors by having received some official sanction or appointment but by having the confidence of the people or by being recognized as people who were endowed by God with special gifts.
In Israel, the administration of justice was generally dispensed at the city gates. Job said that before his illness he dispensed justice at the city gate: “Those were the days when I went to the city gate and took my place among the honored leaders” (Job 29:7). And there, he dispensed justice for people in need: “For I assisted the poor in their need and the orphans who required help. I helped those without hope, and they blessed me. And I caused the widows’ hearts to sing for joy” (Job 29:12-13).
However, in a patriarchal society, where the elders of the city would decide questions of justice, would Deborah have been welcomed at the city gates? Would her advice have been accepted to be as binding as the decisions of the elders? Maybe that is the reason the text says that Deborah held court under the palm of Deborah.
Since Deborah would not have fit into the traditional social and legal structures of Israel and since she could not act as a judge at the city gate, she probably performed her role at another place and in another setting: under a palm tree.
How difficult was it for Deborah to fulfill her role as a judge? It is possible that in ancient Israel women sought advice from other women, but there is nothing in the biblical text to indicate that Deborah’s work as a judge was limited only to women. As a woman who functioned as God’s spokesperson, the people of Israel would evaluate Deborah’s wisdom and the conviction of her call as a validation of her work as a judge. Because of her God-given abilities, the people would accept her work and follow her leadership. This is clearly expressed in the poetic section of the story of Deborah: “Warriors became fat and sloppy, no fight left in them until you arose, Deborah, until you arose as a motherly protector in Israel” (Judges 5:7).
Advice and counsel given by women was not totally unknown to men in Israel. The Bible mentions several other women who were wise and served as counselors. One of these wise women was the woman from Tekoa whose counsel to David led to his reconciliation with his son, Absalom (2 Samuel 14:1-20). Another wise woman was the woman from Abel who saved her city by persuading Joab not to destroy it and who counseled the city elders “with her wise advice” to deliver Sheba to Joab (2 Samuel 20:22).
The book of Judges shows that Deborah was recognized as a judge in Israel because she offered sound advice to Barak and to other people in Israel. Whether it was Deborah’s prophetic role rather than her judicial office that drew the people to her at her palm tree, whatever the reasons people came to Deborah and listened to her words of wisdom, the fact is clearly evident that she was successful in her role as a shophet in Israel.
Other Studies on Deborah:
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary