Deborah and the Book of Judges
By Avi Lazerson
The story of Deborah the prophetess which is told in the Book of Judges (Shoftim in Hebrew) is a story that has a special relevance for our generation. The Book of Judges follows the Book of Joshua which is the 'sequel' to the Five Books of Moses. After Moses takes the Jews out of Egypt and they wander in the desert for forty years, Moses dies and it is Joshua who takes the Jews into the promised land. During Joshua's life the Jews were busy conquering the land and settling it. The Book of Judges is the story of the subsequent generations of Jews who followed after the death of Joshua who were living in the land of Israel and the problems they had in staying true to the G-d who took them out of Egyptian slavery and brought their forefathers to the promised land.
Unlike our liberal and modern generation, the position of women during the time of the Bible was rather limited. Her ability to stand out in society was rarely given expression. The role of women was basically given to childbearing, child raising, cooking , cleaning and associated work in and around the house. Education was often denied her and rather her life's lot was to be a faithful support to her husband. It was for him to go out into the world and bring back sustenance for the family, not for the women.
With an understanding such as that, the role of Deborah the prophetess seems singularly not in keeping with ancient conventions. The story of Deborah begins in the fourth chapter of the Book of Judges and extends for two chapters; the fourth chapter relates the story of Deborah, it describes Barak, the Jewish general who followed her prophecy into the battle against Sisra (he was the general of Yabin, the king of Canaan) and how Yael, a courageous woman, killed Sisra. The fifth chapter relates the song that Deborah sang upon the redemption of the Jews.
To properly understand what really took place, two things must be understood first: One: the period of time of these Judges, and Two: what kind of 'Judge' these judges really were.
As stated above, the Book of Judges is a continuation of the story of the Jews continuing the conquest of the land of Israel from the local nations that inhabited the land. After forty years of wandering in the desert, Moses died and Joshua led the people into the promised land. All the years of Joshua were dedicated to conquering and dividing the land. It was decreed that all the gentile inhabitants should be either expelled or killed but by the end of Joshua's life, this goal was not met. The local nations still held onto much land; the Israelites had taken over control of much land and were still trying to conquer more lands while cultivating the lands they had won in battle.
A constant theme in the Book of Judges is the abandonment by the Jews of their G-d, the G-d who took their forefathers out from Egypt. After several generations, came a new generation that did not respect the G-d that had taken their forefathers out from Egypt; the G-d that had done miracles and wonders for their forefathers had basically been forgotten. Israel began a period of acclimatization to the gods of the land of Canaan. The worst possible sin was committed: idolatry! Once they forgot the G-d of their forefathers, G-d turned from them and brought upon them 'evil' meaning negative consequences of their actions - which meant conquest by those very nations they were to conquest and the subsequent life as a conquered people. This became so difficult for them that they could no longer bear such a life so they cried to G-d to redeem them which of course was the purpose He put them in such a situation. G-d sent them a redeemer in the guise of a 'Judge' who led them in battle against the oppression and to eventual freedom.
There are actually some thirteen judges in the Book of Judges, not all of these Judges had prophecy, but what they all did had in common was that they redeemed the Jews from their oppressors. Now the word 'Judge' is the word popularly used to describe these people, but there are two words in modern Hebrew for the word "judge": dayan or shofet. In today's modern Hebrew both are used almost interchangeable, but in ancient Hebrew, the terms are not the same. The word dayan refers to some one who is learned in the law and sits on a court of law; the word shofet which is used in the Book of Judges really has a slightly different meaning. A shofet in ancient times was a leader of extraordinary character. Just like Samson and Yiftach were also called shofetim (plural) yet they certainly did not fit the modern description of a legal judge, rather they were warriors, redeemers and leaders. They were capable of leading the Jews successfully in war and even more so, they served as persons of influence to lead the Jews away from the gods of the nations and return to the G-d of their forefathers and hence redemption.
Deborah stood out in this respect that she was not a warrior; rather she was a prophetess and a fearless leader. The Book of Judges begins the story of Deborah with her sitting under a palm tree where she would give guidance and council to all who came to seek it. She was a very wealthy woman who was well known in her generation and sought after for council. She had a tree on her property where she would sit as the Jews would stream to her; she did not give council in her home in order that she should never come to be secluded with a man, but rather under the shade of the palm tree, open for all to see.
When she was visited with the prophecy that Barak, a warrior (some want to say he was her husband, but it is not conclusive) should assemble ten thousand men to do battle with Sisra. (At that time, the Jews were being suppressed by the king of Canaan, Yabin.) Barak answered her that he was not willing to undertake such a mission unless she would accompany him to the battle. Remember, this is at a time when women did not engage in military actions. Whether he was frightened of Sisra or whether it was to give moral support to his men is a point of discussion, but Deborah was fearless and answered that she was willing to accompany him. However she told him that he should understand that if she did, the credit for victory would not be given to him but to a woman. Barak accepted that condition and Deborah accompanied him to battle against Sisra, who had in addition to a large army also nine hundred armored chariots (like today's tanks). Yet the Jews prevailed against their enemy and were able to totally destroy all of the enemy soldiers with the exception of Sisra, who escaped on foot.
Sisra, looking for a hiding place, came to the tent of Yael who beckoned him in, gave him food and drink and covered him with a warm blanket so that he might sleep. While Sisra slept, Yael took a tent peg and a large hammer and smashed the peg into Sisra's temple, killing him instantly. As Barak came past Yael's tent looking for Sisra, she called out to him that she had killed Sisra and he was lying dead in her tent. Barak was denied the final glory of having destroyed the enemy, rather Sisra's death was accorded to a women, just as Deborah had prophesied.
What is remarkable about Deborah as contrasted to the other 'judges' is that during her life time, the Jews abandoned their desires to live like the nations and worship their idols. They separated themselves of the idols that they were previously so attracted to. This is in contrast with other 'judges' who gave redemption to the Jews, but afterwards, the Jews again returned quickly to idolatry. The reason is that Deborah's personality and leadership skills were considered so lofty that the Jews were totally influenced by her more than by any of the other 'judges'.
She was, a woman who did not go 'out' into the world to fight battles, but rather the world, meaning the men, came to her. Her holiness and goodness were so influential upon them that for the duration of her life time the Jews continued to worship the G-d of their forefathers.
Deborah set an example for the people of her generation and she broke the stereotype of a Jewish woman as a person who takes care of children and stays in the home and is incapable of more. Her essential goodness and holiness was so vibrant that it brought the outside world to come to her. Unlike the prophet Samuel who traveled from town to town to meet and influence people, Deborah accomplished a redemption of her people while 'sitting under her palm tree.' She did not venture out into public spotlight for her own vain sake, but rather for the needs of her people. Her influence on the Jews was so great that even the song that she composed and sang was written in the Book of Judges for all generations to read and be inspired.
Deborah's personality is one to be studied. A women often is challenged that to succeed she feels she must emulate masculine traits. The story of Deborah teaches us just the opposite, a women can succeed in the world using her own goodness and inner qualities without trying to change herself and be something she is not.
from the May 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine