27 November 2013

Heroes of the Bible, heroes of the faith (6):
Deborah … judge and ‘mother of Israel’

‘Deborah Under The Palm Tree,’ by Adriene Cruz

Patrick Comerford

In our series of tutorial group studies of heroes of the Bible and the faith, we have looked in recent weeks at Saint John the Divine, Ananias of Damascus, the Prophet Elijah, the Prophet Daniel, Rahab, who features in the Book of Joshua (see Joshua 2: 1-22, 6: 15-25), and who is also mentioned three times in the New Testament; and then, last week, the Apostle Peter.

This morning we are looking at Deborah the Prophet, the wife of Lapidoth, the fourth Judge of pre-monarchic Israel, a counsellor and a warrior, and the only female judge named in the Bible (see Judges 4 and 5).

Deborah leads a successful counter-attack against the forces of Jabin, King of Canaan, and his military commander Sisera (see Judges 4). The story is told again in poetic form in The Song of Deborah (see Judges 5).

This may be the earliest example of Hebrew poetry. It is also one of the oldest passages to portray fighting women, for it includes the story of Jael, the wife of Heber, a Kenite tentmaker. Jael kills Sisera by driving a tent peg through his temple as he sleeps, so that both Deborah and Jael are portrayed as strong independent women.

The poem may have been included in the Book of the Wars of the Lord, which is mentioned in Numbers 21: 14.

The Book of Judges tells us Deborah is a judge and the wife of Lapidoth (see Judges 4: 4). She delivers her judgments beneath a palm tree between Ramah in Benjamin and Bethel in the land of Ephraim (see Judges 4: 5).

The people of Israel are being oppressed by Jabin, the king of Canaan, whose capital was Hazor. After 20 years, Deborah prevails on Barak, the captain of the army, to fight a battle against Sisera, the Assyrian General who commanded Jabin’s army.

An Israelite force of 10,000 defeats Sisera’s force of 900 iron chariots (see Judges 4:10).

When Deborah sees the army, she says: “Up! For this is the day on which the Lord has given Sisera into your hand. The Lord is indeed going out before you.” So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with ten thousand warriors following him (see Judges 4: 14).

As she prophesied, the Lord give the victory to the Israelites. Judges 4 and 5 tell the story of the battle at Taanach near the River Kishon. Few allies among the southern tribes come to the assistance of Deborah and Barak. Israel, which the Song of Deborah numbers at 40,000 spears, is not available except for forces from the tribes of Ephraim, Machir, Zebulon, Issachar, and Naphtali. Yet, while Sisera is said to have had 900 iron chariots, The Song of Deborah implies that heavy rain renders them ineffectual.

The battle takes place in the rainy season, and Sisera’s chariots are quickly bogged down in the mud. The Israelites overwhelm Hazor’s army, and inflict heavy casualties.

Indeed, there is wonderful irony in the manner of this victory. Baal, the main god of the Canaanite forces, was the god of storms and weather. He was worshipped by the Canaanites, with Anat, a fierce goddess who fought vigorously to protect her family. Yet the Canaanites are defeated in the battle because of a storm.

Sisera flees the battle-site on foot, escapes to the Kenite camp, and seeks refuge in the tent of Jael, the clan leader’s wife. But as he sleeps, Jael seizes the moment, lifts a mallet and drives a tent peg through his head, killing him.

Afterwards, we have an image of Sisera’a mother standing at the window, watching the road and waiting anxiously for her son to return with the spoils of battle. But we, as the readers, know he will never return (Judges 5: 28-30).

The image of a woman watching at a window has special significance for the people who first hear this story. It is a common image of the goddess in Canaanite religion; clay statues dug up at the archaeological site in Ugarit show a woman’s face looking out from a lattice window. The image of Sisera’s mother at a latticed window links her with the Canaanite goddesses. She is the mother of something that is already dead, although she does not realise it. Although those around her do not realise the truth, the Canaanite religion is also dead.

According to the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest figures in Jewish history, is a direct descendant of Sisera. That a descendant of this great enemy of the Jews could become a great Jewish rabbi and scholar represents the ultimate Jewish victory over the ancient Canaanite enemy.

The Biblical account of Deborah ends saying that after the battle, there was peace in the land for forty years, or that the land had peace for forty years (see Judges 5: 31).

A sense of humour?

Busy bees at work in a walled garden (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Perhaps the author of Judges 4 and 5 has a sense of humour. The name Deborah is “bee” in Hebrew. Why? It also means “spirited or fiery woman,” perhaps because when attacked Deborah could sting like a bee.

Barak means “lightning” – perhaps an ironic pun on Barak’s reluctance to go to battle, and the terrible storm that God sent to help him.

Sisera is not a Semitic name. He may have been one of the Sea Peoples, skilled in military matters and feared wherever they went.

Jael means “wild gazelle” or “wild goat,” a suitable name for a woman from a nomadic tribe.

A woman for today?

Deborah ... a modern icon

The Song of Deborah (see Judges 5: 2-31) is a victory hymn, sung by Deborah and Barak, about the defeat of Canaanite adversaries by some of the tribes of Israel. Many scholars see the Song of Deborah as one of the oldest parts of the Bible, although others argue that the language and content indicate a later dating.

The Song of Deborah mentions six participating tribes (Ephraim, Benjamin, Machir, Zebulun, Issachar, and Naphtali), as opposed to the two tribes in Judges 4: 6 (Naphtali and Zebulun) and does not mention the role of Jabin. It describes Sisera’s death in a different manner than Judges 4: 17-21, where Jael lures Sisera into her tent, letting him lay down to rest, and then as he sleeps hammering a tent peg into his head.

The Song of Deborah is unique as a hymn for celebrating a military victory plotted by two women: Deborah and Jael (Judges 4: 9).

Most of the great women in the Bible either are married to a great man or related to one. For example, Sarah is primarily known as Abraham’s wife and Miriam as the sister of Moses. Even Esther, who saves the Jewish people from Haman’s attempted genocide, is guided by her adviser and cousin Mordechai. A rare exception to this is the prophet and judge Deborah, perhaps the greatest woman to figure in the Old Testament.

Deborah stands exclusively on her own merits. The only thing we know about her personal life is the name of her husband, Lapidot.

Barak’s response to Deborah is hesitant and laden with doubt, yet it also shows the high esteem in which she was held by her male contemporaries: “If you will go with me, I will go; if not I will not go” (Judges 4: 8).

Very well, Deborah replies, but she cannot resist gibing at Barak about the sexism of their society: “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: 8-9).

Other women who are leaders and prophets in the Bible include Miriam (see Micah 6: 4, where she is ranked alongside Moses and Aaron) and Huldah (see II Kings 22: 14-20), and, in New Testament, Anna (Luke 2: 36), Philip’s daughters (see Acts 2: 17), and the women who pray and who have the gift of prophesy in the Church in Corinth (see I Corinthians 11).

Deborah’s story has often been at the centre of the debate over what God does and does not want women to do in God’s service. Some commentators try to argue that Deborah’s exclusion from the “Hall of Faith” (see Hebrews 11) means she is not the “real” judge, and that Barak is the judge.

On the other hand, apart from Deborah, the judges are hardly role models: Jephthah sacrifices his daughter, Samson murders his first wife, Gideon promotes the worship of fertility gods, and so on. Deborah stands out for her wisdom, courage and faith.

A prophet is not someone who foretells the future. A prophet hears a message from God in some way and passes it on. Often the message is about staying apart from the surrounding cultures and maintaining the unique identity and beliefs of Israel.

Judges refers only to Deborah as the judge to whom the word of the Lord comes (see Judges 4: 4, 6). We find no indication in the text that Deborah does anything other than follow God with a whole heart. Just because it was dishonouring to be outdone by women in Deborah’s day does not mean God sees women as “less.”

While it is not entirely clear why Deborah is not listed in Hebrews 11, we must avoid reading too much into her absence. Joseph, Daniel, and Mary are not mentioned either, for example. Indeed, it seems that in most cases the author of Hebrews 11 seeks out the more flawed characters to highlight as people of faith – which I find encouraging.

Elizabeth has more faith than Zechariah. Mary is better remembered than Joseph. Christ reveals himself as the Messiah to a Samaritan woman, even when the disciples fail to understand why he is speaking to a woman. Paul mentions Priscilla several times before her husband, Aquilla.

Focussing on the overall message

Two principal themes emerge from the story of Deborah :

1, Trust in God: The Israelites put their complete faith in God. In return, God helped them defeat a seemingly invincible enemy and gain valuable territory. This battle, and their unlikely victory over a superior army, gave the Israelite tribes their first access to the fertile and prosperous plane of Esdraelon and Jezreel.

2, Right can defeat might: Jael’s story is similar to the story of David and Goliath. Although she was a weak woman, Jael triumphed over a seemingly invincible warrior, Sisera.

Sadly, at times the focus on Judges 4 can become so limited to gender issues that we miss the other clear messages in the story, which is not about gender at all – it is all about God. The Song of Deborah speaks of Deborah not only as a judge or military leader, but as a prophet who leads her people as a worshipping people and as a people of faith:

First Deborah praises and worships God (see Judges 5: 3).

In her appreciation to God, Deborah calls the kings and princes of Israel to give thanks to God for what he has done.

She sings of the suffering of the common people of Israel from the oppression of Jabin and Sisera which gives her a calling to be a “mother in Israel” (Judges 5: 7).

She condemns her people for abandoning the worship of God for the polytheism of the world around them (see verse 8).

She praises the commanders of the army for fighting valiantly, but praises God for the victory (verse 9).

She wants the good news of God to be proclaimed among the people … and to outsiders (verses 10-11).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. These notes were prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with MTh students on 27 November 2013.

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