Who was Deborah of the Bible?  Her story can be found in Judges 4-5 and paints a picture of one of the most amazing leaders in Israel’s history.

“Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment.”  Judges 4:4-5.  The first thing we notice is that Deborah was a prophetess.  In fact, that is the first word used to describe her.  First a prophetess, then a wife, then a judge – first describing her relationship with God, the second her family, and the third her people.

First, what is a prophet/prophetess?  A prophet is given a message or messages directly from God and then speaks those messages by the authority of God to the people.  The purpose of a prophet’s message is to correct moral and spiritual abuses and proclaim truth (Easton’s Bible Dictionary).  Smith’s Bible Dictionary, quoting Locke, says:  “Prophecy comprehends three things: prediction; singing by the dictate of the Spirit; and understanding and explaining the mysterious, hidden sense of Scripture by an immediate illumination and motion of the Spirit.”  The NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible says that “Paul envisions prophetic utterances teaching others (1 Corinthians 14:31) and even serving as the means by which certain spiritual gifts are identified and imparted (1 Timothy 4:14). Luke describes situations in which prophecy serves to provide divine direction for ministry (Acts 13:1 – 3) as well as to issue warnings to God’s people (Acts 21:4,10 – 14).”  

In short, a prophet receives messages directly from God and proclaims that word to the people for the purpose of bringing about change by declaring and teaching the truth given them by God.  The key here is that a prophet is given authority by God to speak and teach on his behalf through the Spirit and even to provide divine direction for ministry.  Just so we’re clear, a prophet/prophetess is an authoritative teacher, preacher, minister, singer, interpreter of scripture, and/or administrator.

Second, the text tells the reader that Deborah is married to a man named Lappidoth, which is all we know about the husband of Deborah.  This lack of information leaves me strangely curious about Lappidoth and whether or not they had any children.  We may never know. 

Finally, Deborah was a judge.  A judge in the days of Deborah was much like the judges in the courtrooms today.  The people would come to Deborah under her palm tree for her to decide their disputes, much like Moses did in his day or the secular courts in our day.  However, in addition to judicial duties, these judges were administrative and military leaders as well.  Imagine if the President, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were all rolled into a single person – that would be a judge from the period of the Judges.

Deborah receives a message from God for Barak and she sends for him so that she can communicate that message to him.  She confirms the message God has already given Barak to go into battle against the Canaanites.  Barak receives the prophecy, but refuses to go without her.  She agrees to go with him and, when the time is right, she directs him when to go on the offensive against Sisera, who was the commander of the Canaanite army of King Jabin of Hazor.  The men of Sisera fall at the hand of Barak, but Sisera himself slips away to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber.  Jael feeds Sisera who falls asleep in her tent.  She then capitalizes on that opportunity by driving a tent stake through his temple as he slept.  Deborah’s prediction that a woman kills Sisera comes to pass and Israel is victorious over Canaan.  (Jud 4)  Judges 5 records the song of Deborah, Barak and Jael.  It is important to note that Deborah is the main focus of the song.  Judges ends with the phrase, “And the land had rest for forty years.”

Two chapters in the book of Judges are devoted to the story of Deborah.  In two chapters, not a single negative remark is made about her.  Deborah is one of the five major judges in the Old Testament; the minor judges led Israel poorly.  In fact, Judges 6 starts with the catastrophic statement:   “The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD.”  Godly leadership led to deliverance and peace, while ungodly leadership led to collapse.  This is referred to as the Cycle of Judges.  Poor leadership in any context can be catastrophic.  As John Maxwell says, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.”  This was certainly true in the days of the Judges.

Why is this significant?  

The Bible is the story of God and his people.  Through scripture, we can know God.  Deborah was clearly a Godly leader, as she passed the test of a genuine prophet found in Deut. 18:21-22:  “And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken? when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him [or her].”  The word of Deborah came to pass when she prophesied about Barak’s victory and the killing of Sisera by the woman Jael.  However, she was not only a prophet, but a magistrate and a military advisor.  Nijay Gupta, in Tell her Story, describes Deborah as Israel’s executive, judicial and spiritual leader.  

Deborah is particularly unique given the patriarchal makeup of the Jewish culture.  This narrative memorializes the importance of the women in Hebrew history.  Deborah is one of the few good leaders in the era of the Judges and, in fact, is a shining example of one of the few people in the entire biblical narrative about whom nothing negative is said in the text.  To add to the significance of this story, Jael, the slayer of Sisera, is not only strong, but brave enough to capitalize on the opportunity she was presented.  We can be assured that God continues to sanction Godly female leaders because he never changes:  “…do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.  For I the LORD do not change…” Mal 3:5-6; and “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Heb 13:8.  

The world needs more Deborahs, Jaels and Baraks.

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