Devora (Deborah) was a charismatic, inspiring prophetess, judge, poetess and military leader and strategist who lived in approximately 1200 BCE, at the beginning of the Iron Age. Her story is told in the book of Shoftim (Judges
), chapters 4-5. Chapter 4 is the prose description of what ensued during her reign, and Chapter 5, commonly known as Shirat Devora
(the Song of Deborah
) is the poetic version, partly sung by Devora herself and partly by Barak, her lead general. It is considered by scholars to be a magnificent work of literature.
Before and during the times of Devora, for a period of twenty years, the Canaanites, under the direction of King Yavin, who lived in Hatzor, in the northern part of Israel, greatly oppressed the Jewish people. The Jews could not travel the roads safely, and they were plagued with taunting and with raids and attacks by Canaanite forces. Previously, some of the Jews had begun to adopt Canaanite customs, including the worshipping of idols.
Devora was an anomaly, as she was accepted by all the people as judge and prophet, in spite of her being a woman. She sat under a palm tree between Rama and Beit-El, in the hill country of Ephraim, issuing legal decisions and teaching the laws of the Tora. By the time she began to serve, the Jews had been in the process of setting aside their idol-worship. She is called “the wife of Lapidot”, which some interpret to mean that she was married to a man named Lapidot (the interpretation we have adopted for this play) and others interpret as meaning that she was a woman of “torches” (lapidot
), i.e., of fiery inspiration and talent (characteristics with which we have also imbued her). There is an interpretation that Lapidot and Barak were one and the same; we have left them as two distinct individuals, as indicated by the pshat
(straightforward meaning) of the text. She was a woman of wealth, who owned orchards and property, who drew no pay for her service.
Devora’s prophecy indicated that the Jewish people must go to war against Yavin in order to free themselves of his tyranny, and to release from his hold the final areas of the land that were promised to the Israelites, and that were still under the control of the Canaanites.
Devora called to Barak, of the tribe of Naftali, to go up to the top of Mount Tavor, knowing that Yavin would send his forces, and his general, Sisera, would be lured to the valley below to wait for them. Barak wanted Devora to accompany him. She warned him that if she went, the people would say the “G-d will deliver Sisera into the hand of a woman.” However she went with him to direct the Israelites to victory.
Barak rushed down Mt. Tavor, leading his army of Zevulun and Naftali, of only 10,000 men against tens of thousands of men on the side of Sisera, and 900 iron chariots. This leap of faith, compared by the commentators to that of Nachshon, who jumped into the sea before it split, inspired courage and faith in his troops and they plunged down after him. The tribes of Naftali and Zevulun were joined by the tribe of Yisachar in the Yizre’el Valley. Other tribes who came were Ephraim, Binyamin and Machir, one of the families of the tribe of Menashe.
G-d sent a miraculous downpour which caused the Kishon River to rise up and bog down the soldiers of Sisera, and their 900 chariots, in mud, enabling the Israelites to kill them. Sisera’s forces were swept away in the Kishon River.
Sisera escaped and made his way to the tent of Yael, whose husband, Hever, was an ally of Yavin. Yael lured him to sleep with warm milk and then killed him by plunging a tent peg into his forehead. Barak, seeking Sisera, in order to finish him off, found his way to the tent of Yael, where she showed him what she has done, thusly fulfilling the prophecy of Devora -- that Sisera would fall at the hand of a woman.
Sisera’s mother sang a lament as she awaited his return, through whose cruel words we discover that she was no less ruthless than her son.
Devora and Barak sang a song of praise to G-d and to those who joined the battle. In her song, Devora was critical of three of the tribes who could have come but did not, the message being that brethren should not have to be summoned to help their people. We are told at the end of Chapter 5 that, subsequently, the land had rest for forty years.
May it be so in our day.