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A Woman Was a Judge of Israel

We meet the figure of Deborah in the Book of Judges and the biblical writers must have considered her quite important to have dedicated a good two chapters of the book to her and in prose and poetry, the fourth and fifth, respectively. The same story is given in both although with different language and nuances. In the prose we find a narration of the events as they unfold, but in the canto these events are celebrated and recounted after the fact, being enriched by many little details and the insistence of the extraordinary nature of Deborah’s character. The song attributed to her is considered one of the poetic jewels of the Bible. If, as the rabbis say, “nothing is by chance in the Bible,” a consideration of this figure must take into account both the narrative drama and the details that contribute to its build-up.

The chapter written in prose introduces Deborah’s story with a theme that reoccurs throughout the book: a judge dies and Israel turns back to sin and thereby distances itself from God and falls into the hands of its enemies. At that point Israel cries out to the Lord for help (4:3). At the height of suffering the narrator explains that “at that time a woman was judge in Israel” (4:4). The function of the judge, shoftà, was very important in that he or she carried out two functions essential to life in community: directing the judicial disputes among the members of the tribe of Israel and governing. This was not an elected role, rather, as the biblical text states in introducing the judges, it was “charismatic”: “The Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands those who plundered them” (2:16). In other chapters the presentation of the judge is limited to mentioning one’s name and later some other information (3:9–15, 10:1, 11:1; 12:8, 12:11). This is the only case where the narrator explicitly states that one is talking about a woman, a mark of the exceptional nature of the fact that there is no trepidation to elaborate on the details, and the narrator goes on to say more after the usual: “Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth” (4:4). The religious function of prophetess (nevi’à) was as important at least as any political function. This term was given to the wife of a prophet (for example in Isaiah 8:3), but in this case the narrator means to indicate Deborah’s precise prophetic activity, as happens with Huldah ( 2 Kings 22:14–20). Mentioning her proper name and its meaning serve to give the impression that she is a figure very much out of the ordinary. In the biblical world, in fact, one’s proper name expressed the meaning of a person’s role in the affairs narrated and certainly played a role in oral tradition. From this use we can deduce the importance that proper names held in that epoch. The root of the name “Deborah” seems to harken back to a word that means “bee,” an animal the Egyptians used to symbolize the pharaoh and that in the Bible refers to the promised land, where “milk and honey flow.” In the canto, the title “Mother of Israel” appears, the only place in the Bible this occurs: “The villages ceased in Israel; they ceased to be until I arose; I, Deborah, arose as a mother in Israel” (5:7). There is here a spiritual maternity, one acknowledged by the entire people.

In a single verse the narrator delineates a figure of a commanding stature who emerges both out of her own uniqueness (a woman and one to whom one refers by her proper name) and for her functions (judge and prophetess) and in her role as wife, which was the last thing to be observed as if to say this aspect is not the most important. The text continues and shows Deborah carrying out her functions: “She used to sit beneath the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the people of Israel came to her for judgment” (4:5). The place where Deborah exercises her functions contributes to the grandiosity of the character. She is beneath the palm, which symbolizes victory and grace (Gen 35:8). The static nature of her condition is only an appearance. It is she who governs the people. It is she who is the political and religious leader of Israel. It is she who inspired by God guides Israel to victory.

The story in prose speaks of the oppression of Israel by the Canaanite King Jabin and Israel’s lament, a lament that urges Yhwh to raise up from among the people a new judge, the prophetess Deborah. And she, speaking in the name of the Lord, is the one to call Barak (“thunderbolt”, “lightning”), leader of Israel’s army, to go to war against Sisera: “She sent and summoned Barak the son of Abinoam from Kedesh-naphtali and said to him, ‘Has not the Lord, the God of Israel, commanded you, ‘Go gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking 10,000 from the people of Nephtali and the people of Zebulun. And I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the river Kishon with his chariots and his troops, and I will give him into your hand’?’” (4:6–7) Barak did not contest the task entrusted to him but doubted its outcome: “Barak said to her, ‘If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go’” (4:8). The Canaanite general’s army is too numerous for Barak to do battle with and his faith is weak. The prophetess’ presence on the battlefield would guarantee their reliance on other tribes. The Israelite general observes and assesses all events from a human perspective, whereas Deborah has trust in the divine. Barak’s doubt is legitimate but he does not consider the fact that it is Yhwh’s prophetess who speaks and that will cost the general the glory of victory: “And she said, ‘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 hands of a woman” (4:9). Here she alludes to someone who has not yet appeared in the affair. Barak needs certainty and confirmation, but Deborah trusts in God and delivers a prophecy wherein she does not explain in what way God will put the enemy into the hands of Barak––she suggests no strategy––but everything turns on the force of her faith.

At the same time, in the enemy camp Sisera prepares himself to meet Barak on Mount Tabor. He brings with him numerous troops armed with chariots which from a human perspective would assure one of their victory. What clashes in this battle are not two generals, but two perspectives: human and divine. The first is represented by two men who hasten to war with doubts and a certainty based on careful calculations, on what is humanly foreseeable. The second is represented by Deborah who in trust abandons herself to the divine will. And this is not a reckless or forced trust: this woman from the beginning has been presented in the exercise of her functions as prophetess and judge, holder of an authority acknowledged by all of Israel. In a certain sense, the entire narration is an explanation of her qualities. She is a wise woman and inspired by God, and the only true protagonist in the affair. She does not question how victory might be possible, for she is certain that Yhwh will not abandon Israel. She is completely unarmed, yet armored in her own faith and thereby guides Israel to victory. Precisely because she is inspired by God she knows how to incite Barak to fight at the proper moment, assuring him of the Lord’s presence (4:14) and the general carries out his orders. The battle unfolds in an unexpected manner: a storm, a sign of the divine benevolence for Israel, halts Sisera’s chariots and creates confusion among the files of his army. What according to human logic should have been instruments for his victory are transformed into an obstacle to his flight (4:15). The passage describes and praises the earthquake and the storm by which Yhwh manifests his own power: it is only when the enemy’s army is thrown into panic that Barak emerges with his own army to destroy his adversaries. The Canaanite general is forced to flee on foot (4:15) and Jael (“steinbock”), wife of Heber the Kenite, invites him to take refuge in her tent. Convinced of her allegiance, given that her husband’s line was at peace with Jabin’s, Sisera accepts. Yet even here human expectations fail.

From the very beginning, Jael is shown to be shrewd and hard to read. She emerges from her tent and goes to meet Sisera and invites him to enter. In his flight the Canaanite general does not seem to want to stop, but the woman meets him with insistence (4:18), welcomes him in her tent and addresses him with full attention (4:18–19). Jael’s behavior inspires trust in Sisera, who after being refreshed asks her for one more favor: he wants the woman to remain at the entrance of the tent and stand guard. If his enemies happened to seek him out, she was to deny that he was there. In requesting protection, Sisera entrusts himself completely to the woman. Jael assents to the Canaanite general’s request but her presence at the entrance of the tent, like that of Deborah beneath the palm, is only an appearance. Jael does not wait for Sisera’s enemies to arrive, only the right moment to bring her own plans to fruition. As soon as the general is asleep she kills him (4:21, 5:26–27). Barak arrives precisely in that moment and Jael presents him with the trophy of the Canaanite general’s head. Both the prose version and the canto touch upon the cruelty of Jael’s act: not even for a moment does the text deign to comment on the fact that the woman violated the right to hospitality, but instead blesses her and exalts her shrewdness (4:21, 5:24–27) that brings Deborah’s prophecy to full completion (4:9). Nothing is greater than Israel’s victory. The prose version ends with the meeting between Jael and Barak, which is followed by the song of triumph with the true conclusion of this episode (5:31).

Deborah and Jael are very different characters in their respective roles, strategies and ways of acting. But both allow themselves to be instruments of the divine will. One is the voice of God who speaks and acts in public in a transparent manner, whose every word and action are of divine inspiration. The other observes unfolding events and her gestures reveal a kind of opaqueness and that she is one to take initiative. At the same time, they are two characters in continuity: Deborah prophesizes what Jael accomplishes and the deplorable act of the latter, her betrayal, is explained and made legitimate by the words of the prophetess.

The evaluation of this event on the part of the narrator does not follow human logic. If it had been so, Jael’s betrayal would have been condemned and there would have been compassion shown for Sisera’s mother, whom we only meet in the concluding verses of the canto (5:28–30) as she awaits in vain for her son’s return. On the contrary, the narrator lingers on the cruelest aspects of the story and the upheaval of the expectations of the characters whom it wishes to mock: the Canaanites. The only truth that is pressing enough to proclaim is that before the power of Yhwh human armies and strategies mean nothing: Israel will be prosperous and victorious only if it remains faithful to its God. In this affair everything comes together to render the divine intervention extraordinary: the people are guided by a woman, who in turn incites the general to war, the most powerful army is defeated by one much weaker, the general dies not heroically in battle but in the most dishonorable manner at the hand of a woman and within domestic quarters (cf. 9:53). This domestic aspect is then presented in various ways. In the case of Deborah, she falls into this only indirectly when it is said that she is married. Indeed, we only meet Deborah when she is in the public domain (as she judges, prophesizes, and as she guides in battle) and when she is next to a man it is only to issue him a command and to guide him, even though we can assume that marriage duties were the same for her as for all other women. Perhaps it is for this reason that despite the prestige of her public functions her presence is in the end described as “wife of Lappidoth.” Jael instead lives in the domestic sphere “at its door,” understood as the limit she could not supercede. She crosses it to meet the Canaanite general and brings him inside her tent to betray him in a pretended obedience. In this case everything unfolds within the confines of the tent: the entrance transcends the separation between the public and the private. In the end, the house of Sisera’s mother (5:28) is described as a place utterly separated from the events, a place of non-action wherein the public dimension comes into play only by way of the report of its outcomes: the arrival of spoils of war or, in this case, the danger of becoming this.

Deborah’s action is truly that of a liberator, for it is the fruit of a special relationship that she has with the God of Israel. Without faith her words would not be prophecy and her guidance would not be legitimate.

by Debora Tonelli

About the Author

Deborah Tonelli studied in both Italy and Germany, receiving doctorates in political philosophy (Rome-Frankfurt) and the Old Testament (Munster). She is an established researcher at the Fondazione Bruno Kessler (Trent) and teaches in Trent and Rome. Her research focuses on the Biblical origins of modern political thought and the relationship between faith and violence. She is the author of many publications, including Il decalogo: Uno sgardo retrospettivo (Dehoniane, 2010) and Immagini di violenza divina nell’Antico Testamento (Dehoniane, 2014). 

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