The book of judges calls Deborah a prophetess: “Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time” (Judges 4:4). Deborah’s name (דְבוֹרָה֙) is generally translated as “bee.” However, it is rare for Israelites to be named after animals. For this reason, Johannes Cornelis de Moor, in his book The Elusive Prophet: The Prophet as a Historical Person, Literary Character and Anonymous Artist (Leiden: Brill, 2001), p. 240, proposed another possible translation of Deborah’s name. De Moor associates the name Deborah with the Hebrew word dabar (דבר) and translates her name as “the woman of the word.”
Although most of the prophets in the Old Testament were men, several women were also called prophets (the Hebrew word nebia, translated “prophetess” in English, is the feminine of the Hebrew word for prophet nabi).
In addition to Deborah, the following women were called prophetesses in the Old Testament: Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14; 2 Chronicles 34:22), Noadia (Nehemiah 6:14) and Isaiah’s wife (Isaiah 8:3). These women prophets are present in all major historical periods in the history of Israel. Miriam and Deborah come from the pre-monarchic period, Isaiah’s wife and Huldah from the monarchic period, and Noadia from the post-exilic period.
The word prophet comes from the Greek word prophetes, a word which means “one who speaks on behalf of.” A prophet proclaims the words of God to men and women in order to communicate the divine will to them.
A prophet was a person who spoke on behalf of God and revealed God’s words and demands to the people. Deborah is called a nebia, a word which is the feminine equivalent of a nabi. Most scholars believe that the word nabi comes from an Akkadian root which means “to call.” Thus, a prophet is a person who has been called by God to proclaim his word. A prophet is the person who has been divinely inspired and who has received a special revelation from God which she then is compelled to proclaim.
With the exception of Isaiah’s wife and Noadia, there is some kind of musical connection with the women identified as prophets in the Old Testament. For instance, Miriam is associated with the “Song of Miriam” in Exodus 15:20-21:
Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and dancing. And Miriam sang to them: ‘Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.’
Deborah the prophetess is associated with the “Song of Deborah” in Judges 5:1. Although Huldah is not directly associated with music, she was the wife of Shallum, the son of Tikvah, who was the keeper of the wardrobe. The office of “the keeper of the wardrobe” is only mentioned in 2 Kings 22:14 and 2 Chronicles 34:22. This occupation may indicate that Shallum was in charge of maintaining the Levitical garments of the singers in the temple, who also were called prophets (1 Chronicles 25:1-7). This probably makes Huldah a person associated with music in the temple.
Since most of the prophets of the Old Testament were men, God’s call of a selected group of women to the prophetic ministry makes them special among the prophets of Israel. The biblical text does not reveal how Deborah received her call to the prophetic ministry. In the Old Testament the prophetic word generally came through dreams, visions, prophetic symbolisms, ecstasy, and in a few cases, through direct communication.
With Deborah, God’s call comes in the midst of patriarchal structures. However, the existence of female prophets in other Near Eastern cultures, such as Mari, indicates that the presence of a prophetess in Israelite society would be in harmony with the religious culture present in the ancient Near East in the second millennium B.C.
As a woman called by God to the prophetic ministry, Deborah played an important role in delivering Israel from the oppression of the Canaanites. The self-awareness of being called to the prophetic ministry and the self-assurance she demonstrated in summoning Barak to fight against the Canaanites is evidence that the divine call gave her the confidence she needed to take upon herself the role God called her to fulfill.
Her prophetic mission was to bring God’s message to Barak and to Israel. Barak had no problem in acknowledging Deborah as a woman with a mission and message from God since he recognized that Deborah’s message was from Yahweh. Barak was so convinced that Deborah was sent by God that he refused to go into battle without her presence, since her presence with the army would insure the presence of God with Israel and victory against the enemies. Barak’s request is comparable to the Israelites’ decision to take the ark, a sign of God’s presence and favor, with them into battle against the Philistines in 1 Samuel 4:1-3.
Deborah’s prophetic words came in the form of a divine oracle summoning Barak to gather the people of Israel to fight against Sisera, the commander of the Canaanite army. The text does not reveal how Deborah received the oracle from Yahweh, but her oracle reveals a strategy for Barak to fight against the Canaanite encroachment.
Deborah’s oracle to Barak is found in Judges 4:6-7:
Deborah sent and summoned Barak the son of Abinoam from Kedesh-naphtali and said to him, “Has not the LORD, the God of Israel, commanded you, ‘Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking 10,000 from the people of Naphtali and the people of Zebulun. And I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the river Kishon with his chariots and his troops, and I will give him into your hand.’”
The form of Deborah’s oracle reflects a clear awareness of her prophetic status. What Deborah proclaimed to Barak as a person authorized to speak on behalf of Yahweh was by definition what Yahweh had spoken. Deborah even proclaimed Yahweh’s message in the first person.
In view of Barak’s reluctance to go to battle unless she accompanied him, Deborah gave Barak a sign that would authenticate God’s presence in the field of battle. Deborah predicted that Yahweh would deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman. Deborah said to Barak: “I will surely go with you. Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the LORD will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (Judges 4:9). This sign, although unflattering to Barak, would be the evidence of Yahweh’s involvement in Israel’s victory.
As the time for the battle approached, Deborah told Barak: “‘Go! This is the day the LORD has given Sisera into your hands. Has not the LORD gone ahead of you?’ So Barak went down Mount Tabor, followed by ten thousand men” (Judges 4:14 NIV). Deborah was not helping Barak; Deborah was commanding him to go into action. And her words to Barak were not spoken in private but were spoken in front of the army to encourage Barak and the fighting men of Israel. Deborah’s prophetic words were fulfilled and Sisera was defeated and killed by a woman, just as Deborah had predicted.
Deborah was one of the great women that appear in the pages of the Old Testament. Her greatness came from her accomplishments and character. Although Deborah was aware of the limitations imposed on her by the social and cultural constraints of her days, she was able to accomplish the mission entrusted to her because she was obedient to God.
Other Studies on Deborah:
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary