Formations 07.17.2016: Deborah the Judge

Judges 4:1-9, 14-16, 23-24

Bedouin woman in Jerusalem, 1880

Bedouin woman in Jerusalem, 1880

We traditionally call the biblical heroes who flourished from the settlement of Canaan to the rise of the monarchy “judges,” but that doesn’t quite capture their role. Almost all of them administer God’s justice in one particular way: by liberating the Israelites from outside oppressors through daring military exploits. If you want to get a clearer picture of who these people were, maybe we should call them “action heroes” instead. Don’t think John Roberts and Ruth Bader Ginsburg; think Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson.

Deborah is an exception. Yes, she sets events in motion that ultimately bring the Israelites to freedom. And yes, these events involve a climactic battle against the forces of evil. Even so, Deborah seems content not to be at the center of the action. Barak leads the army. When it comes time for Sisera, the enemy general, to meet his demise at the hands of a woman, the woman turns out to be not Deborah but the previously unmentioned Jael.

Unlike most of her peers, Deborah is portrayed in a purely positive light. She is an able leader and problem-solver who takes the initiative when Israel is oppressed by the Canaanites. She is not only a judge but a prophet, and she is first introduced to us readers as a pastoral figure helping people to sort out their personal disputes. People had come to know and respect Deborah’s leadership long before she became a figurehead for Israelite liberation.

It’s that availability to serve that stands out to me in Deborah’s story. Everybody knew where to find her, dispensing wisdom to the common people under her tree. And everybody knew that she would give them justice.

People could count on Deborah, and she had earned the people’s trust. Her ability was remarkable. But her availability was even more remarkable.


• What qualities make a person trustworthy?
• What is more important, one’s ability or one’s availability? Why?
• On whom can you count during a crisis?
• What made Deborah such a competent and well-regarded leader?
• What keeps us from being available to others in their time of need?

Reference Shelf

Remembering Deborah

Deborah represents numerous charismatics who rose to leadership in that fluid period when tribes were attempting to establish themselves in Canaan and develop political structures by which they could survive as a united people. Deborah’s story is told in Judg 4–5 in both prose and poetry. The prose materials are organized around the typical literary cycle of Judges, moving from disobedience to oppression to repentance to deliverance. Deborah and her general, Barak, are agents for God’s deliverance of Israel from oppression under the northern Canaanites, let by Jabin and his general, Sisera….

The narrative moves with a dramatic seriousness seldom matched in Hebrew story-telling. Deborah, the female, is clearly the heroine and Barak, the male, the secondary character. The characterization is intentionally explicit. Deborah says to her reluctant general, “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” (Judg 49). In a patriarchal environment who could miss the point!

Robert W. Crapps, “Deborah,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 205.

Deborah’s Authority

Deborah is one of the more fascinating judges of Israel. She is the only woman judge and was recognized by Israel as having both legal and prophetic authority and responsibility. The story of Deborah has been passed down in two forms, a prose narrative (4:1-24; 5:31b) and a poetic victory song (5:1-31a), both of which celebrate the power of God and the role of women….

Following the death of Ehud Israel again turns from God and God again hands his people over to be oppressed. In this instance the oppressor is King Jabin of Hazor whose general is Sisera. Sisera’s name is Indo-European which may indicate that he is from the Sea Peoples; it is likely, therefore, that Jabin led a coalition of kings from among the Canaanites and the Sea Peoples (5:19). Sisera commands a large and highly mobile force of 900 chariots with which he is able to oppress Israel cruelly for twenty years.

Israel’s savior in this time of need is Deborah, who functions as a prophet and a legal arbitrator. Like other prophets, she calls for a holy war and herself designates the leader of the Israelite forces, Barak. Barak is willing to lead the Israelite troops only if Deborah will accompany him. Although his request may be seen as a sign of weakness, he may desire to have the continuing directions from God that a prophet could provide. Deborah agrees to come but states that her presence is unnecessary. God has promised victory whether Deborah is physically with Barak or not. Deborah states that she will accompany Barak, but a woman will receive credit for the victory.

Robert C. Dunston, “Judges,” Mercer Commentary on the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1995), 247.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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