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DEBORAH (dĕb'ŏ-ra, Heb. devôrâh, bee)

1. Rebekah’s beloved wet nurse (Gen.24.59; Gen.35.8), who accompanied her charge to Palestine—she became attached to Jacob’s household and died at great age (cf. Gen.25.20; Gen.35.8) near Bethel. The tree under which she was buried was called “oak of weeping.”

2. The fourth and greatest (with Gideon) of Israel’s judges, a prophetess, a wife of Lappidoth (Judg.4.1-Judg.4.24-Judg.5.1-Judg.5.31). She resided near the border of Benjamin and Ephraim, probably belonging to the latter tribe, and administered justice “under the Palm of Deborah” (Judg.4.5). Like most Hebrew “judges,” however, Deborah served primarily as a divinely appointed deliverer and executive leader of Israel.

After the death of Ehud, God’s people had lapsed into apostasy, resulting in their subjection to the Canaanite king, Jabin II, of Hazor. Jabin’s commander, Sisera, “had nine hundred iron chariots and had cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years” (Judg.4.2-Judg.4.3). This period coincides with the unrest that followed the Hittite collapse and the death of Egypt’s Rameses II, the treaties between which had preserved order in Palestine for eighty years (Judg.3.30). Rameses’s successor, however, was the elderly Merneptah. Despite his claim to have pacified both Canaanites and Israelites, disorder became rampant: “The roads were abandoned...and not a shield or spear was seen...in Israel” (Judg.5.6-Judg.5.8).

Then arose Deborah, “a mother in Israel” (Judg.5.7). Summoning Barak of Naphtali, she prophesied that an offensive from Mount Tabor at the NE limit of Esdraelon would lure Sisera and Jabin’s army to annihilation on the plains below (Judg.4.6-Judg.4.7). Barak agreed, provided Deborah’s inspiring presence should accompany the troops, though Deborah predicted Sisera’s death by a woman (Judg.4.8-Judg.4.9). Barak and Deborah then scouted Esdraelon around Kedesh; they mustered ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun; and, together with princes of Issachar (Judg.5.15), they occupied Tabor (Judg.4.12). Deborah also summoned Dan and Asher in the north (cut off by Hazor) and Reuben and Gad in Transjordan, who failed to respond (Judg.5.16-Judg.5.17). But Benjamin, Ephraim, and Machir (Manasseh) answered the call (Judg.5.14), probably massing at Jenin at the SE edge of Esdraelon. Deborah thus accomplished Israel’s first united action since the conquest, 175 years before.

Yet Deborah’s record has occasioned manifold criticism against Scripture. 1. Textually, her song’s admitted antiquity has been used to discredit the reliability of Scripture’s earlier prose narratives. But while poetry does tend to preserve archaic forms, the modernized Hebrew of the Pentateuch need not affect true Mosaic authorship.

2. Confusion, furthermore, is alleged between Josh.11.1-Josh.11.23 and Judg.4.1-Judg.4.24-Judg.5.1-Judg.5.31, as two garbled accounts of one actual battle against Jabin. Yet Joshua’s opponent, in 1400 b.c., may have been a predecessor of Jabin; or “Jabin” may have been a hereditary title in Hazor.

3. Contradictions are discovered between the prose and the poem; fewer tribes fighting in Judg.4.1-Judg.4.24, and Sisera killed in his sleep. But the poetry intentionally singles out the tribes; and Sisera’s sleeping in 5:26 is apparently understood; and his sinking and falling in Judg.5.27 simply describes his subsequent death agonies.

4. Regarding the prose, some surmise that an account of King Jabin in Kedesh Naphtali and an account of King Sisera in Esdraelon were combined into one. Yet the Kedesh of Judg.4.9-Judg.4.11 fits Esdraelon, not Naphtali; and Scripture never designates Sisera “king,” only “captain” of Jabin.

5. The biblical date of Deborah is lowered a full century by Albright to 1125 b.c., but only because of his theory that no Philistines (cf. Judg.5.6; Judg.3.31) could reach Palestine before the 1100s; yet see Gen.21.34; Gen.26.1.

6. Morally, the charge that the scriptural account of Jael is “reprehensible...[and] cannot be justified” is made by one modern commentary. But while we question this Gentile’s treacherous methods, Deborah’s insight into her fearless and unsolicited devotion to God’s people renders her “most blessed of women” (Judg.5.24).——JBP

DEBORAH dĕb’ ə rə. Heb. דְּבֹרָה, prob. derived from the root, דְּבוֹרָה, H1805, meaning a honey bee, as in Psalm 118:12, et al. It appears as the name of three characters in the OT in its fem. form. 1. Deborah, the nurse of Rebekah, the mother of the patriarch Jacob who was buried under an oak at Bethel which was then named. “Allonbacuth,” “The Oak of Weeping.”

2. Deborah, the judge and prophetess (Judg 4). She is said to have been the wife of a certain Lappidoth, a name which because of its fem. form has always been the subject of much speculation. She is described as a “woman, a prophetess,” the only judge thus described (4:4). Centuries later a giant palm which stood between Ramah and Bethel was called “the palm of Deborah.” In the time of the oppression of the loosely knit tribes of Israel by King Jabin of Hazor, Deborah summoned Barak the son of Abinoam from Kedesh-naphtali and gave him the command of the Lord to gather 10,000 soldiers from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun and marshal them at Mount Tabor. When Barak requested Deborah to go with them to the battle with Jabin and his host at the river Kishon, she replied that God would deliver Jabin into the hand of a woman to be slain, thus rebuking the cowardice of the men of Israel. When Jabin’s military chief, Sisera, heard of the Israelite preparations for battle he obliged by setting off for the battlefield. When Deborah gave the command, the battle was begun and Israel was victorious, and Sisera fled the battlefield to be slain by Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. Thus was Deborah’s prophecy fulfilled, and Sisera was put to death by a woman. The next ch. (Judg 5) contains the magnificent psalm, The Song of Deborah, an original piece extant from the 13th cent. b.c. This piece of ancient poetry is one of the oldest fragments of the Heb. language in the Heb. Bible. It has beautiful lyric parallelism and contains many precise expressions drawn from Ugaritic and possibly other, older lits. It is difficult to tr. and exegete because of its antiquity and obscurity. However the joy of Israel’s deliverance is stated gloriously in such lines as: “Awake, awake, Deborah; Awake, awake, Sing thou a song, Rise up Barak, and lead thy captivity captive, thou son of Abinoam,” or the often cited phrase, “From heaven fought the stars, the stars in their courses fought against Sisera.” The victory of Jehovah’s righteousness is inspired by the prophetess, Deborah. Her psalm ends with the prayer, “So perish all thine enemies O Lord—.”

3. Deborah, the mother of Tobit’s father, who raised her grandson after his father’s death (Tobit 1:8).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(debhorah, signifying "bee"):

(1) Rebekah’s nurse, who died near Bethel and was buried under "the oak of weeping" (Ge 35:8 margin).

(2) A prophetess, fourth in the order of the "judges." In aftertime a palm tree, known as the "palm tree of Deborah," was shown between Ramah and Bethel, beneath which the prophetess was wont to administer justice. Like the rest of the "judges" she became a leader of her people in times of national distress. This time the oppressor was Jabin, king of Hazor, whose general was Sisera. Deborah summoned Barak of Kedesh-naphtali and delivered to him the Divine message to meet Sisera in battle by the brook Kishon. Barak induced Deborah to accompany him; they were joined by 10,000 men of Zebulun and Naphtali. The battle took place by the brook Kishon, and Sisera’s army was thoroughly routed. While Barak pursued the fleeing army, Sisera escaped and sought refuge with Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite, near Kedesh. The brave woman, the prototype of Judith, put the Canaanite general to sleep by offering him a draft of milk and then slew him by driving a peg into his temple.

Thus runs the story in Jud 4. It is on the whole substantiated by the ode in chapter 5 which is ascribed jointly to Deborah and Barak. It is possible that the editor mistook the archaic form qamti, in 5:7 which should be rendered "thou arosedst" instead of "I arose." Certainly the ode was composed by a person who, if not a contemporary of the event, was very near it in point of time. The song is spoken of as one of the oldest pieces of Hebrew literature. Great difficulties meet the exegete. Nevertheless the general substance is clear. The Lord is described as having come from Sinai near the "field of Edom" to take part in the battle; `for from heaven they fought, the very stars from their courses fought against Sisera’ (5:20). The nation was in a sad plight, oppressed by a mighty king, and the tribes loth to submerge their separatist tendencies. Some, like Reuben, Gilead, Da and Asher remained away. A community by the name of Meroz is singled out for blame, `because they came not to the help of Yahweh, to the help of Yahweh among the mighty’ (5:23; compare the Revised Version, margin).

Ephraim, Issachar, Machir, Benjamin were among the followers of Barak; "Zebulun .... jeopardized their lives unto the death, and Naphtali, upon the high places of the field" (verse 18). According to the song, the battle was fought at Taanach by the waters of Megiddo; Sisera’s host was swept away by "that ancient river, the river Kishon" (verse 21). Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, receives here due reward of praise for her heroic act. The paean vividly paints the waiting of Sisera’s mother for the home-coming of the general; the delay is ascribed to the great booty which the conqueror is distributing among his Canaanite host. "So let all thine enemies perish," concludes the song; "O Yahweh: but let them that love him be as the sun when he goeth forth in his might." It is a song in praise of the "righteous acts" of the Lord, His work of victory which Israel’s leaders, `the long-haired princes,’ wrought, giving their lives freely to the nation’s cause. And the nation was sore bestead because it had become faithless to the Lord and chosen new gods. Out of the conflict came, for the time being, victory and moral purification; and the inspiring genius of it all was a woman in Israel, the prophetess Deborah.

(3) Tobit’s grandmother (the King James Version "Debora," Tobit 1:8).

Max L. Margolis