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The Song of Deborah

By Joy Mounts

February 1, 2004

Judges 4: 4-10

M a
y the words of my mouth and the mediations of each heart here be acceptable in your sight, oh, God.

This Sunday marks the beginning of the United Church of Christ’s Women’s Week. During this time, set aside to celebrate all women of the church past, present and future, in all their roles, I plan this morning to analyze the story of one of our spiritual ancestors. To do this, we will delve into to the Old Testament. This is the story of a woman that appeals to us today, despite her story taking place well over three thousand years ago. Her tremendous faith in God’s plan for her people can still inspire us. This woman was Deborah, prophetess, leader, judge and wise woman of ancient Israel. Wow! I don’t know about you but I am curious how one woman got so many titles.

Deborah’s story is found in the fourth and fifth chapters of the book of Judges. The narrative form of her story is found in chapter 4. Just to make sure you get the message that she and her story are special, the famous Song of Deborah which basically recounts the same story in poetic form is found in Chapter five. It is one of the earliest known forms of Hebrew poetry and one of the oldest texts in the Bible.[i] I have always been personally fascinated by Deborah because she is a strong woman who moved in the world of men as a respected leader but was not a queen. That her story is found in Judges which is so dominated by men is in the words of one scholar “culturally unexpected.”[ii] What is it about Deborah that is worthy of a story and a song? While it is true that she led her people into battle that was not her only role. It is the image of Deborah the leader, sitting under a palm judging Israel that has always stayed with me. Here was a woman to be reckoned with. She was a woman of strength and conviction who brought order out of chaos.

Deborah’s story is worth examining because of the leadership she provided at a crucial time in Israel’s history. This is not Xena, Warrior Princess, flashing swords, screaming and killing everyone in her path. Although I am pretty sure Deborah’s story would make a nice mini-series. This is a woman raised to be a leader by Yahweh to encourage the oppressed Israelites to trust in God’s word. In a time in the world, when who you were, was often determined by how much land you controlled, Yahweh’s direction was to take the land of the Canaanites.

Judges was most likely written during the time of the kings of Israel since there are many references in the text to “before the time of kings.”[iii] These stories would have been a way of looking back at their past and trying to glorify their present. Each of the stories in Judges is cyclical with the people being oppressed, crying out for deliverance, being delivered and then making Yahweh mad and ending up being oppressed again.[iv] This cycle could only come to and end with the advent of a king. The pivotal figure of a woman as leader and commander is out of step with the way things were usually done in a patriarchal world. A woman in charge is not an image that readily comes to mind when we think of the Old Testament world. And while it is true that there are many other examples in the Old Testament of women who helped to rule their tribes, Deborah is the one who “judged” - alone among a host of male leaders.[v] A rose among thorns perhaps?

Judges recounts one after the other the exploits of mostly military leaders. Along with the book of Joshua which precedes it, Judges “extends the story of Israel by serving as a bridge from the book of Genesis to the books of Kings.”[vi] The story begins back in the time of Israel’s captivity in Egypt and Yahweh’s promise to them of someday getting the promised land of Canaan.[vii] Now, with Judges this promise becomes a reality as they were considered to be “deliverers.”[viii] Even though they have been oppressed by the Canaanites for, as the text says, “twenty years,” they are now going to fight back and take over.[ix] They had cried out to God for help and God was answering in the form of Deborah’s leadership. Yet as each subsequent story in the book shows, they were “no better caretakers of the land than the Canaanites had been.” [x] Eventually, all would fall into disarray and the people would no longer want these types of leaders and clamor for a king. Back to Deborah!

Our knowledge of Deborah’s story begins with her sitting under a palm tree with the people of Israel coming to her for advice and wisdom.[xi] Palms were not as numerous as you might imagine so the location of “Deborah’s Palm” would have been easy to find, regardless of the huge numbers of people surrounding it waiting to speak to her.[xii] Men and women came to her for advice and to have their “disputes settled.”[xiii] I love this image of her sitting in the shade patiently hearing each case, sort of the Judge Judy of her time. She had authority and a voice in serious matters when most women did not. This is indicated by the way she is pictured in the text, “holding court under her palm with the Israelites” coming to her.[xiv] The use of the world “Israelites’ indicates that everyone, men and women, came to her to have their matters settled from property disputes to home problems. Clearly this was not a “for women only” court. Because of this role her people would have looked to her to be a kind of oracle concerning “political and administrative matters.”[xv] After all they did not have CNN or MSNBC.

In keeping with patriarchal times in which it was written, Deborah is identified by her husband Lappidoth.[xvi] The interesting thing about this is his name. Lappidoth means fire.[xvii] Deborah is close to the Hebrew for “she speaks.”[xviii] It also means “bee” as in busy as a.[xix] However, in hearing her story we have to ask - Did she speak fire? Or was it just lucky she was married to fire? Or is that Deborah is remembered as being a “fiery woman?”[xx] Her husband, having identified her as being married and therefore not some single woman trying to give advice, heaven forbid, promptly disappears from the text. He has no role in this story.

So there she is, restoring order, dispensing wisdom and helping the tribe of Israel to get back on it’s feet during its time of captivity. She is nurturing it as a mother would by bringing order to the land. In this role as mother to her people, she is placed with the other “mothers of Israel, Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel.”[xxi]

How did she get to be a leader? No one knows for sure because other than her husband’s name, no personal information is provided for her. No Biography Channel Special on the Prophetess of the week. However, there are clues in the Song.[xxii] A time of chaos is described preceding her appearance on the scene when “travelers took to the winding paths and all village life in Israel ceased.””[xxiii] In other words, times were bad, folks kept away from the main roads, left their villages and fled to the “protection of walled cities” while gangs roamed the land.[xxiv] People lived in fear. Then something wonderful happened. A leader rose up in the Israelites time of need. And lo and behold, it was a girl. “I Deborah arose, arose a mother in Israel.” The people were being reminded that God had not forgotten them. The people put their lives back together and began to feel a stirring of hope. This led them to want to throw off the oppression they were living under. So “the people went down to the city gates and cried “Wake Up, wake Up Deborah, break out in song! Arise, O Barak! Take captive your captives.”[xxv] Enter stage left, Barak, the general. You know a man had to enter this story sometime. With the people clamoring and with a word from God, Deborah sends for Barak and says to him “Yahweh, The God of Israel, commands you: Go take ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulon and lead the way to Mount Tabor!”[xxvi] Deborah tells him that if he does this then Yahweh will deliver to him the Canaanite General Sisera.[xxvii] It is interesting to note that Barak means lightning.[xxviii] How appropriate that fire and lighting should be working together to do God’s will!

But Barak is more like summer lightening. He does not quite believe her. He honors that she is a prophetess and giving him a summons from God but he does not trust that the outcome will be as she says. As a prophet she has the right to call him. Deborah says to him “Yahweh has commanded” indicating that perhaps this is not really news to Barak.[xxix] Yet Barak refuses to go without her. He is a general. She is not. She cannot command the army. He can. Why this reluctance to follow through with the plans being given to him from God. Perhaps the Canaanites nine hundred chariots of iron might have something to do with it?[xxx] Deborah knows that if the battle is lost she will most likely lose her life, but she has no doubts in Yahweh and quickly agrees to go with him. Her bravery is inspiring.

But it is Barak’s uncertainly which is essential to understanding the important of her response for suddenly Yahweh is being doubted at a crucial moment.[xxxi] In the past, if Yahweh said I will deliver you they believed. They might balk at it but they went. So Barak’s insistence that Deborah come with him to the battle seems cowardly. Yet was it? Why did he not just say “Thanks Deborah, got the message now I will go do what I have to do?” Does it seem fair that Deborah replies “Very well, I will go with you but because of the way you are going about this, the honor will not be yours for Yahweh will hand over Sisera to a woman.”[xxxii] Yes, she was doing her job. She wanted him to do his. Perhaps he simply wanted confirmation that God was with him.

There is probably another reason why Barak may have wanted her with him where the troops could see her. The role of both prophets and women in battle at that time was crucial. Prophets “play many roles in battle they muster and they inspire.”[xxxiii] Deborah goes with him to where the troops are assembling and then watches the battle. She does not fight. Yet she has a weapon just the same. Her words are her weapons.[xxxiv] Her role is to “inspire, predict and celebrate in song.”[xxxv]

After the battle is won, the song of Deborah was composed and the battle celebrated. The people of Israel continued on their rocky road as people of faith trying to continually prove who they were and whose they were. Peace broke out for forty years. Deborah, judge of Israel is remembered and honored as one who created order from chaos and kept firm her faith in Yahweh despite overwhelming odds against her and her people.

Understanding our spiritual ancestors helps us to more fully comprehend the spiritual journey of how we got to where we are today. Deborah is one of these ancestors. She was a strong woman who emerged in a chaotic time with spiritual gifts that enabled her to successfully lead her people. She looked to Yahweh for help. One point of the story is not that Barak was cowardly for asking Deborah to go with him but that he did not trust Yahweh enough to go on faith alone. Deborah was the one who did. When told if she did not come, they would not go, she said, “Let’s ride!” She knew what has been assured to her people and had no intention of looking back. As she says in the Song of Deborah: “March on my soul with courage!” [xxxvi]

Deborah is a woman who is defined by her role as leader. Despite her husband’s name, she stands alone. Strong independent women who lead, like Martha, Phoebe, Priscilla and others, are a feature of the New Testament where they are numerous and do not seem unusual. Perhaps they looked to Deborah as an example of how a strong woman should behave.

Deborah’s faith never wavered. She showed the way of Yahweh to a people starving to be redeemed. I like the fact that Deborah is noted as first bringing peace though arbitration before she is shown going into battle. If she were just: Deborah, Warrior Prophet, I do not think I would be so taken with her story. But pushed to show where her heart lay, she went where she felt God was leading. Faith was her guide and her watchword. I think at the heart of this story is the message that we need to have faith no matter what the odds. Too often we are fearful about letting faith be our guide. Perhaps what we learn from Deborah is that having a strong faith means we have to follow where God is leading us knowing that if the valley gets dark God walks with us: even in painful situations. We have all been in painful situations that required faith above what we thought we could give. I know I own faith was tested six years ago when the doctor told me that I had cancer. As I struggled to understand my situation, my doubts surfaced and stared me in the face. It was not an easy time in my life. However, I surrounded by family and friends who encouraged and prayed with me. Through their presence and through prayer, I knew deep in my heart, despite my fear and questioning that that God was with me. It was something I never understood as completely as I did then. It is something I now carry with me always. God is with me. God was with Deborah. God is with us. Amen.

[i] Norman Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible, Fortress Press, 1985

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading The Women of the Bible, Schocken Books, 2002

[iv] Women Bible commentary,

[v] Norman Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible, Fortress Press, 1985

[vi] Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, Editors, Women’s Bible Commentary, Westminster John Knox Press, 1998

[vii] Ibid

[viii] Norman Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible, Fortress Press, 1985

[ix] Judges, 4: 3

[x] Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, Editors, Women’s Bible Commentary, Westminster John Knox Press, 1998

[xi] Judges, 4:4

[xii] Judges, 4: 5

[xiii] NIV Study Bible, Zondervan, 2002

[xiv] Judges, 4:5

[xv] NIV Study Bible, Zondervan, 2002

[xvi] Judges, 4:4

[xvii] Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading The Women of the Bible, Schocken Books, 2002

[xviii] Ibid

[xix] Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, Editors, Women’s Bible Commentary, Westminster John Knox Press, 1998

[xx] Ibid

[xxi] Ibid

[xxii] Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading The Women of the Bible, Schocken Books, 2002

[xxiii] Judges 4

[xxiv] NIV Study Bible, Zondervan, 2002

[xxv] Judges 5: 11 - 12

[xxvi] Judges 4:6

[xxvii] Judges, 4:7

[xxviii] Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading The Women of the Bible, Schocken Books, 2002

[xxix] Judges, 4: 6

[xxx] Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, Editors, Women’s Bible Commentary, Westminster John Knox Press, 1998

[xxxi] Ibid

[xxxii] Judges, 4:9

[xxxiii] Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading The Women of the Bible, Schocken Books, 2002

[xxxiv] Ibid

[xxxv] Ibid

[xxxvi] Judges 5:21


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