Deborah, the Prophetess
By Arthur Rosen
After the death of Joshua ben Noon, the leadership of the Jewish people who had just come into the land of Israel went to three people, Othniel, Ehud and Shamgar, and this was only for a short period of time. The fourth leader was Deborah, a women and a prophet who lead the Jewish people from 2650 2676 from the time of creation (approximately 3,000 years ago 1104 B.C.E. to 1084 B.C.E.). This was a period of twenty-six years.
Deborah was unique in her period. She lived and was respected during a period when men ruled the world and women's place was in the home. What can we learn about her to add to our own lives?
First let us understand the history of that period:
The early Israelis or Hebrews who were taking control of the land that G-d promised to give them seemed to have a propensity for forsaking their G-d and getting involved with the pagan heathens, taking them for marriage partners, and adopting their idols as gods. When this would happen, the G-d of the Hebrews would send them sufferings until they would repent. First they were robbed of their independence by the King of Aram Naharayim for eight years. Then they repented and prayed to G-d and under Othniel they regained their independence for forty years.
Then after a relapse into their evil ways, they were enslaved by the king of Moab. Then after repenting, they were redeemed from him and had eighty years of independence and prosperity until they again sank into defection. This time it was the Canaanites oppressed them.
Each time they tried to emulate their gentile neighbors, G-d brought upon them problems. (Sounds familiar?) When they repented, they were redeemed.
At the time of Deborah, it was Jabin, the king of Canaan who reigned in Hazar together with his general, Sisra, who oppressed the Jews. They possessed a tremendously powerful army that had the current version of the most powerful weapon, 'iron chariots', the biblical version of modern tanks and a legion of well trained and powerful cavalry. They oppressed the Jews for twenty years. Finally the Jews repented and cried out to G-d that He help them.
It was then that G-d in His mercy sent them the prophetess Deborah. She was one of the seven women prophetesses whose prophecies are recorded in the Bible. Deborah lived in the mountain area between Ramah (possibly modern Ramot section of Jerusalem) and Beth-El. Although many people had turned to idolatry, she remained true to G-d. She was wise and G-d fearing and was possessed with the spirit of G-d. The people came to her for advice and help. She held court beneath a palm tree and not indoors, in this manner she avoided any problem of being secluded with a man, and possibility of being suspected of immoral behavior.
In the open air where all could hear and see her, she warned the people that their behavior would bring them problems and that they must return to G-d. She became respected and known amongst the people as a righteous women and a prophet of the Hebrew G-d.
She was the wife of a man named Lapidot who our sages tell us made wicks for the lights that were illuminated where the Ark of G-d was placed at that time in Shiloh (this was before King David and the first Temple period). Our sages also tell us that she, too, burnt like a torch, radiating G-dliness and enthusiasm for serving G-d. It was because of this radiance of G-dliness that brought to her those people who needed direction and inspiration.
During that time, even the most capable warrior and intelligent leader had given up hope of regaining independence from Jabin and Sisra and of weaning the wayward Jews away from their idols. It was only Deborah who never gave up hope. She continually inspired them and finally the Jews began to repent of their evil ways. It was then that she called for Barak, the son of Avinoam, to come to her. Barak was an influential man in those days and when Deborah called for him to come to her, he respected her wishes realizing that this was an important calling and he came to her.
She told him that it was time to fight against Jabin and Sisra and that he should raise an army of ten thousand men from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun. They were to gather at the foot of Mount Tabor and with this army from where he would attack the Canaanite oppressors.
Barak was reluctant to undertake this task on his own. He knew that only with the help of G-d could he win against such a strong army. He reasoned that only if Deborah the prophetess would come would he have the presence of G-d in his midst and it was only with the presence of G-d that he would be assured of a victory against the iron-plated chariots and trained and powerful cavalry. Deborah agreed to accompany him but warned him that unless he went alone, the victory would not be credited to him, but to a woman. For a man to have a victory credited to a woman was an embarrassment. Never the less, Barak insisted that she come with insuring the presence of G-d in their midst. She agreed.
Sisra had no problem assembling his ready army for the battle. At first he quickly began to thwart the Jewish attack and gain in the battle. But suddenly G-d threw confusion into the army of Sisra, it began to rain and their iron chariots got bogged down in the mud and could not budge. Terrified by the sudden change of events, the soldiers of Sisra began a slow retreat that quickly became a mass run from battle. The Jewish warriors pursued them to Sisra's home town and killed every one of the Canaanite soldier. Only Sisra was spared.
Realizing his defeat and seeking to save himself, Sisra quickly fled on foot for a hiding place. At that time, the descendents of Moses' father-in-law, Yitro, lived in that area. Heber the Kenite had a tent into which Sisra passed. Heber was on good terms with Jabin, the king of Hazor. When Sisra passed the tent of Heber, Heber's wife, Yael, bid him to come in to hide and rest until the Jewish army would pass.
Sisra was only too happy to accept this invitation, being tired from the difficult battle and subsequent defeat. Yael gave him food and drink and covered him with a blanket. She sat at the entrance to the tent for the 'purpose' of telling the Jews that she had not seen Sisra. She waited for Sisra to fall asleep and soon secure in the tent of Yael and exhausted from the battle, he dosed off into a deep sleep. Yael took a hammer reserved for driving the tent pegs into the ground and a sharp tent peg and cautiously approached the sleeping general. With one strong swing of the hammer she drove the tent peg deep into the temple of Sisra killing him instantly.
In the meantime Barak was searching the area for Sisra and he passed the tent of Yael. Seeing him, Yael called him saying, come and see the man who you are looking for. She brought Barak into the tent to see the cruel general lying dead in a pool of blood. From this time, Jabin lost his power and was no longer a threat to the Jews.
Thus Deborah's prophecy came true, it was to a woman that credit for the victory went, not to Barak. Deborah herself glorified Yael in a moving song called the Song of Deborah which is recorded in the Book of Judges, (chapter 5).
Perhaps it is based on this story that the sages have declared in the merit of the righteous women Israel will again be redeemed. As we see in our time, like in Deborah's time, the Jewish people have strayed from their G-d and follow gods of the other nations. When this happens, trouble comes to the Jews. Again we call to G-d and He helps us, let Him again send us righteous women like Deborah to guide us back to Him.
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For more on Jewish Personalities, see our Personalities Archives
from the February 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine