It is impossible to stay neutral to the character of Deborah. Some have seen her as a formidable war engine, riding Joan of Arc style into battle. Others have portrayed her as a matriarchal prophetess, sitting sagely under her palm tree. Still others use her as a precedent for promoting women as spiritual leaders.

Her name means “bee” and it would seem she was very like a busy bee. She judges Israel. She receives the words of God. She goes with Barak. She recruits the tribes’ assistance. She writes a song. She is a mother. We can imagine her going in and out among the other judges and rulers of the period, a lone female figure in a man’s world, like a queen bee. She was contemporary with Shamgar (Judg 5:6), who judged another area of Israel. From this we see that a judge was not necessarily ruler over all of Israel, but judged their tribe, or a number of tribes.

A judge at a difficult time

The writer of Judges calls her a “judge”. The judges which God raised up were warriors and adventurers who saved Israel from their enemies – all except Deborah.

The period of the Judges can be likened to our own. There was no king in Israel, a fact repeated four times in the latter chapters, contrasted with any number of oppressing kings in the earlier chapters. Yet Samuel, the last judge and first prophet, said that God was Israel’s king. We too, live in a period of invisible kingship. We are a kingdom in waiting.

The nation of Israel was not at its best. After failing in their duty to rid the land of Canaanites, God left them there as a thorn in Israel’s side, so that they would be proven “whether they will keep the way of Yahweh, to walk therein, as their fathers did keep it, or not” (2:21–22; 3:1–4). However, God was not impervious to their cries. He also “made a way of escape” – namely, the judges: “for it repented Yahweh because of their groanings by reason of them that oppressed and vexed them” (2:18).

For those of us with children, we recognize the cycle – we set the rules, the child breaks them, they receive punishment or consequences, they “groan”, we deliver! An endless cycle, repeated day after day, until we see whether the child will walk in the way of our Father.

The unconventional and the irregular

The style of Judges is unexpected. It can seem almost bizarre in its content and twists. No one was expecting the left-handed Ehud to carry a blade at his right. There was the locked room, the vacillating servants, the blade lost in the enormous Eglon. It all has a ring of truth in its horrifying detail. No one was expecting the jugs and torches, destroying an entire army, or the 300 foxes tied together. No one was expecting the answer Samson gave to Delilah, “if I be shaven, then my strength will go from me”. No one was expecting the butchered prostitute. These are all irregular stories.

Scarcely any of the judges are portrayed as the wise, mature, godly Deborah. There is the lefthanded trickster, Ehud. There is the up-and-down Samson, the unsure Gideon, the hasty Jephthah. Truly “my strength is made perfect in weakness”.

The story of Deborah is similarly unconventional. Firstly, she is a female judge. She judged Israel in the territory of Ephraim under a palm tree which later bore her name. Secondly, she is a “prophetess”. The only other women in the Old Testament labelled prophetesses are Miriam, Huldah and the false prophetess Noadiah. These women (apart from Noadiah) received direct revelations from God which they were authorised to give the nation. Deborah’s song is her own expression, but nearly everything she speaks in chapter 4 is from Yahweh. We do not know exactly how people received direct revelation, although the calling of Samuel gives some indication, but we know that they were always sure and convinced of the divine origin of these messages. Like all true prophets, her identity is secondary to her message. Most of her words are directly from God, and so we do not know a lot about her personally. She is the mouthpiece of God at this time.

Some have used the story of Deborah to support a case that women should lead and speak publicly. However, on the contrary, the story shows that God could have used more women as prophetesses, but chose not to. The overwhelming majority of prophets and judges were men, and Deborah is the exception, not the rule.

She sends to Barak, and calls him to her. ‘Hath not God said?’ she questions. We remember another ‘Hath not God said’ by a serpent in the garden of Eden, but in this case, the woman was speaking truth. It would seem that Barak knew about the command, but was not hurrying to perform it. Barak asks for her support (4:8), which Deborah readily gives. However, she is quick to say that he will receive no honour for his pains, as God will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.

We know that Barak became a man of faith, but initially was fearful. This is common to many of the great men of faith. Moses and Gideon both doubted their abilities. These are the people who God can work with because His strength is made perfect in weakness. Barak recruits the tribes with Deborah, attends the battle, fearing but faithful, and receives not the honour of killing the general, but the honour of appearing on the faith roll of Hebrews 11.

Victory over the gods of Canaan

When studying the Canaanite religion, we see that at the end of the day Baal and the pantheon of gods were all weather gods, able (so it was believed) to control the elements and sky. It is therefore poetic justice that many of the battles won by Yahweh involved extreme weather conditions, and this battle is no exception. A huge torrent of water fell from the sky which rendered the up-to-date iron chariots of no effect.

With Sisera running on foot, and finally melting away, we see personified the great war with the seed of the serpent. Finally he is pierced through the temple with a tent peg and pinned to the ground, again, irregularly by a woman. In this story, the seed of the woman is represented by two women, and it is largely through their faith and courage that God is seen to be victor.

The song of Deborah, Judges 5

Deborah’s song is beautiful and poetic. It highlights her thanks that the tribes offered themselves willingly in the service of the nation, her delight that God’s doings would now be sung and remembered, and her conviction that God is in control.

The opening verse states this song to have been sung by Deborah and Barak, but it is undoubtedly written by Deborah. This is a battle from a woman’s perspective with talk of village life, singers at watering places, a lordly dish, and women waiting for their men to return from battle.

This was a song to be sung at watering places, a place of gathering for women. It is not a psalm to be sung in a place of worship; it is a ballad to call to mind the works of Yahweh.

Contrary to the belief that Deborah was an exemplar of women’s liberation, she opens her song with praise for the return of male leadership (v2). It would appear that she is referring to the recruiting work of the tribes to help in the battle – and that the leaders of the tribes performed their duty in mustering men to battle, resulting in people willingly offering themselves, reminiscent of verses like Exodus 25:2; 35:21; 35:21,29; and also repeated in verse 9.

There is a beautiful modesty in the words “I, even I, will sing”, but joy when she writes, “Village life in Israel, ceased, ceased until I, Deborah, arose, arose a mother in Israel” (v 7niv). Joy – not in her ability to judge God’s people, which she all but glosses over in her song, but in the fact that she, a mother in Israel, was involved in saving them from their enemies.

Deborah saw herself as a “mother in Israel”. The author of Judges titled her a “judge” (4:4); so here in the song we have Deborah’s self-perception. She saw herself as a “mother in Israel”, who arose because she had to, at the nation’s lowest ebb.

Village life had ceased (v7), people had sought walled cities to escape the arrows of the enemy (v11) and everyone sought back roads (v6). Life had become unsafe in Israel. Deborah arose as a protective mother, intent on bringing back the village life she so loved and saw as important.

Manoah’s unnamed wife bore a son she called “Samson” – ‘the sun’ – a possible allusion to verse 31. David used Deborah’s words – we see echoes of her song in Psalm 68:18. Elisabeth used Deborah’s words when she saw Mary (Luke 1:28, 44). Truly, the influence of this courageous and godly woman has touched the lives of many after her. Unexpected in her role as female judge, Deborah proved herself to be an unforgettable deliverer for Israel.

Another mother

The song ends with the picture of Sisera’s mother waiting for his return. Her “wise ladies” feed her pride. All the reasons suggested for his late return are because of his success in battle. This is an incredibly personal portrait of Israel’s enemy. Barak most definitely did not enter the battle with visions of personal glory – Sisera would be given into the hands of a woman.

The picture of a mother waiting for her son to return from war is poignant, and eminently feminine. Here is Sisera’s mother, looking through her lattice calling to her wise ladies, “Why is his chariot so long in coming? why tarry the wheels of his chariots?” We hear the apprehension in her question. But her wise ladies answered her, in fact

“she returned her sayings to herself” (v28–29).

“Do they not find? – they apportion spoil A female – two females – for every head, Spoil of embroidered finger-work, Finger work – a pair of embroidered things, For the necks of the spoil!” (v30 young’s literal)

The interrupted thought process of Sisera’s mother is reminiscent of the sudden destruction of God’s enemies. This is also how it will be in the battle of Armageddon.

“The stars in their courses fought against Sisera” – poetic language to describe the completeness of the forces ranged against Sisera when meeting Israel in battle. “So let all thine enemies perish, O Lord: but let them that love him be as the sun when he goeth forth in his might” (v31).

Forward to Armageddon

The central theme of the story, however, is the ruin of the Canaanite.

The kings of Canaan fought for pleasure and spoil. They took no money when assisting the gathered army of Sisera (v19). We can only deduce from this their hatred of Israel, and are reminded of the latter day conglomerate which will rage against Israel in the end.

The Canaanite is still alive and well. His thinking is everywhere. Sometimes we even find it in our own heads. It is interesting to note that the word “Canaanite” became interchangeable with “merchant”.

It was Jesus who flung the traders out of the house of God in Jerusalem, and he will do it again. In the Kingdom Age – then, and only then – “there will no longer be a Canaanite [‘merchant’, Young’s Lit] in the house of Yahweh of Armies” (Zech 14:21). The victory of the woman’s seed will be complete.