The time in which Deborah lived was notable for its lack of heroes. Apparently, there were no men qualified to lead. If there had been, it would have been likely that they would have been used by God to lead and judge the children of Israel. But since there was no one else, God used a woman named Deborah. That is not to diminish Deborah in any way. It is not to say that she was not a great leader, it is not that she did not shine as a virtuous woman, it is not to say that she was not wise enough to judge God’s people, for she was all these things. But God had set man into that leadership role and only in remarkable circumstances would a woman be required to fill it.
The times were desperate. After the death of Ehud, Israel was spiritually weakened, engaging once again in the numerous sins which haunted Israel nearly all its existence (Judges 4:1), and for this cause God sold them into the hand of Jabin, king of Canaan (Judges 4:2). It is during troubled times like these that men turn to the Lord, and this time it was no different. The children of Israel, after twenty years of Canaanite oppression, cried unto the Lord in their distress and the Lord answered their prayer with the leadership of Deborah.
The name Deborah means “bee.” It was a rare name for only one other woman in the Bible wore it, Rebekah’s nurse (Gen. 35:8). We are told that Deborah was the wife of one Lapidoth, about whom we know nothing more (Judges 4:4). Some have rendered this “woman of splendors.” Others have suggested that this means “woman of Lapidoth,” signifying her place of birth. But if it is correctly translated as “wife,” then she was a married woman, possibly even the mother of children, though the role of mother mentioned here probably had more to do with her role as a leader in Israel (cf. 5:7). Thus, she had many roles in her busy life and was capable of balancing them all, as women have done all down through time.
As a judge, she was renowned, for the children of Israel came up to her for judgment (Judges 4:5). Earlier, in the days of Moses, when issues arose among the people, they would bring their concerns to him and he would settle the matter (Ex. 18:13). The same was true in the days of Samuel, who would act as a circuit judge and go between Ramah, Bethel, Gilgal and Mizpeh (I Sam. 7:16,17). Later, when the number of cases increased, Moses added other judges to help, but all hard cases were brought to him (Ex. 18:14-26). The same was true with Samuel, as he grew older and the cases became too much of a burden, he made his sons judges (I Sam. 8:1). But Deborah apparently handled all these cases by herself.
She was also called a prophetess (Judges 4:4). The term “prophet” was applied to no other judge, though naturally these judges were in some fashion guided by the Lord (Heb. 11:32). There were other women throughout Biblical history who were chosen by God to be prophetesses. First, there was Miriam, the sister Moses (Ex. 15:20). After Deborah we find a Huldah during the time of king Josiah (II Sam. 22:14-20). When the book of the law was found, they went to Huldah instead of Jeremiah, though he was available (cf. Jer. 1:2,3). A prophetess named Anna lived during the period of the birth of Christ and spoke of the redemption that Christ would bring (Luke 2:36-38). Finally, the four virgin daughters of Philip, the evangelist, are referred to as those which could prophesy (Acts 21:8-10).
While Deborah was the judge of Israel, she also recognized the need for a military man to execute God’s plan of defeating Israel’s enemies. Whether it was God’s plan to chose Barak or whether this detail was left up to Deborah we cannot say, but he must have had some background in the art of war. He was able to gather ten thousand men out of Naphtali and Zebulon and march against Sisera. This was a command of God (Judges 4:6). While Barak had the skill, Deborah held the moral and spiritual influence to give Israel the confidence to act. Barak would not go up without Deborah by his side (Judges 4:8).
Curiously, in the Hebrews Hall of Faith, Paul mentions Barak but does not mention Deborah (Heb. 11:32). But it was Deborah who surely exhibited the greater faith in following the commands of God. It was she who motivated him to act. It was she who had faith to go. It was she who spoke the commands of God. It was she who judged Israel. It was she who was doing what Barak and others ought to have been doing all along. And while Barak had a major role in the defeat of Jabin, it was two women who were to truly instrumental (Judges 4:9). First, until Deborah, the villages ceased, the highways were empty, and there was no spear among forty thousand in Israel. She brought the country back to God and encouraged the defeat of Jabin. Second, it was Jael who delivered the final, fatal blow to Jabin (Judges 4:21).
Deborah is a great example to women and men of all ages. She was a faithful wife to Lapidoth. She cared for the people of Israel as her own children, and perhaps for her own children, as well. She judged Israel and guided them in difficult times. She motivated Barak to obey God’s commands to take back the country from foreign invaders. May God give us more leaders with the character and charisma of Deborah!
Eric L. Padgett