Who was Deborah?
Engraving by Gustove Dore
Who was Deborah?
Deborah (Devora) was a charismatic, inspiring prophetess, judge, poetess, 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 and includes Shirat Devora (the Song of Deborah. It is considered by scholars to be a magnificent work of literature.
Before and during the times of Deborah, 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.
Deborah was accepted by all the people as judge and prophet, in spite of her being a woman. She issued legal decisions and taught the laws of the Tora. The sages say she was a woman of fiery inspiration and talent. She was also a woman of wealth, who owned orchards and property, who drew no pay for her services.
Deborah’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 brutal Canaanites.
Deborah 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. She went with him to direct the Israelites to victory.
Barak rushed down Mt. Tavor, leading his army 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 reed (Red) sea before it split, inspired courage and faith in his troops and they plunged down after him.
God 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 of the Keini tribe, 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. She sings later, “In the face of evil, it’s forbidden to be meek.”
After the battle, Deborah and Barak sang a song of praise to God and to those who joined in the combat. In her song, Deborah 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, that they should stand together with their brothers.
And the land was quiet for forty years. May it be so in our day, and throughout the world.