Deborah the Prophetess

by Lambert Dolphin

Background: The Times of the Judges of Israel

It is easier to rally around a strong and spiritual leader than it is to pay attention to a life pleasing to God when such leadership is lacking in a nation. Such were the times in Israel following the death of Joshua. The book of Judges, covering a period of about 400 years, is highlighted several times by the statement, "In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes." Every man did what was right in his own eyes in those days---not what was wrong! That there was "no king in the land" is a reminder that we shall never succeed in doing what is right in God's eyes without continual guidance and constant instruction from Him who is King of kings and Lord of lords. Doing what is right in one's own eyes is only consecrated blundering. Godly visible leadership is helpful in any age, as is accountability to older, more mature believers. After the death of Joshua Israel went through four centuries of decline, disunity and moral compromise. When times became severely difficult for them they cried to God who then rescued them for a season from their oppressors.

A summary of those perilous times is given in Judges Chapter 2:

"...there arose another generation after them (Joshua's generation) who did not know the LORD or the work which he had done for Israel. And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals; and they forsook the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them; and they provoked the LORD to anger. They forsook the LORD, and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth. So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers, who plundered them; and he sold them into the power of their enemies round about, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. Whenever they marched out, the hand of the LORD was against them for evil, as the LORD had warned, and as the LORD had sworn to them; and they were in sore straits.

"Then the LORD raised up judges, who saved them out of the power of those who plundered them. And yet they did not listen to their judges; for they played the harlot after other gods and bowed down to them; they soon turned aside from the way in which there fathers had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the LORD, and they did not do so. Whenever the LORD raised up judges, the LORD was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the LORD was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted them and oppressed them. But whenever the judge died, they turned back and behaved worse than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them; they did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways. So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel; and he said, `Because this people have transgressed my covenant which I commanded their fathers, and have not obeyed my voice, I will not henceforth drive out before them any of the nations that Joshua left when he died, that by them I may test Israel, whether they will take care to walk in the way of the LORD as their fathers did, or not.' So the LORD left those nations, not driving them out at once, and he did not give them into the power of Joshua."

In preceding generations prior to our own time, men have known Yahweh, the LORD, and experienced great and wonderful works from Him in their lives. But becoming a believer requires a personal commitment by every individual. This initial commitment must be followed by learning all over again the truths and principles of God that were familiar to the godly in the preceding generation. One does not acquire faith by osmosis, nor by living in a godly home, nor by attending church or synagogue. Yahweh is the God who enters into personal relationships with men and women only when individuals choose to receive Him, and He relates to men and women on His terms. In this regard, Jude opens his short letter by appealing to us "to earnestly contend---(the Greek word translated "contend" gives us our word "agonize")---for the faith which was once for all (time) delivered to the saints." By "faith" Jude means the whole content of faith, the whole counsel of God. He reminds us that this faith was handed to our forefathers and passed along to us by faithful men and women. However, this was in order that we should in turn see to it that the next generation was likewise fully instructed and grounded. Jude is writing to warn against false teachers, it is the integrity and content of our faith he is concerned with protecting. So in the time of Judges, the generations after Joshua had grown up ignorant of the God of their Fathers, yet they found themselves plagued by problems He alone could explain and He alone could solve.

Deborah the Prophetess and Judge of Israel

The account of the deliverance of Israel by Deborah is exciting reading. Following eighty years of relative tranquillity after Ehud delivered Israel from the oppression of the Moabites, new bondage came from within the land from the Canaanites living there. These peoples God had told Moses were to be utterly destroyed or driven out, (Exodus 23:33; 34:11-16; Numbers 33:51-56; Deuteronomy 7:1-5) but Israel's obedience had been incomplete. Specific failures on the part of each tribe are given in Judges, Chapter One. Intermarriage had occurred between the Israelites and the local inhabitants, though forbidden by the Law of Moses. The people of Israel had adopted the customs and culture of the latter groups who were technically advanced and prosperous. Baal worship was adopted. This involved not only gross sexual immorality but belief that the gods had to be placated and counted on for rain and harvest. So the people of Israel had settled into the ways of those around them---oblivious of the on-going covenant God had made with their forefathers.

For us in our time the Canaanites symbolize the flesh---the natural life of man---which God finds unacceptable in all its aspects. All that we were in Adam must be put to death, so that all that we have in Jesus the Messiah might be given to us in this life and the next. Incomplete obedience on our part brings chastening from God to bring us through to holiness. Separation from the fallen civilization we live in is always a problem for God's people. Separation from the world is not a matter of withdrawing from society into monastic, isolated living but it involves moral compromise with the pagan world we are immersed in. These compromises especially occur in marriages between a believer and a non-believer, or close business ties with non-believers. Fraternization with the world with all its allure, sensuality and promise of power, riches, and influence is subtle and as threatening to us today as these compromises were to God's ancient covenant peoples. Being "in the world---but not of it" means living righteously and morally, openly and vigorously, but not monastically. It is of vital importance that all believers come to find out why God has arranged our circumstances the way we find them, and what his changeless standards are. That is, we need to ask, "What moral conditions have we inherited that are threatening our lives and our well-being?" We, too, in all probability need deliverance as did the people of God in the times of the Judges. We, too come under bondage and must be rescued from disaster. What is God's strategy to get us out of the mess we are in and whom will he use to help us?

"And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, after Ehud died. And the LORD sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who dwelt in Harosheth-ha-goiim. Then the people of Israel cried to the LORD for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and oppressed the people of Israel cruelly for twenty years," (Judges 4:1-3).

Joshua had previously conquered Hazor roughly 170 years earlier when that Canaanite city-state was ruled by another king also named Jabin (Joshua 11).

The application to our lives is obvious---our failure to completely destroy the centers of fleshly self-indulgence within us only allows them to grow back again, if not in our time, in the lives of our children and subsequent generations. The enemy tactics in the time of Joshua relied on strong, fortified cities. In the time of Deborah these same enemies now resorted to a plan of dividing the people of Israel and denying access to good agricultural lands and main highways. The Israelites were forced to hide in the hills for safety. So it is that our inner enemy, the flesh, deceptively and treacherously appeals to us with new stratagems in order that we might be brought into bondage and defeat.

Hazor (excavated in recent years by Yigal Yadin) lies 9 miles north of the Sea of Galilee and would have been of little strategic importance itself to the Jabin of Deborah's time. For this reason his 900 chariots were stationed at Harosheth-of-the-Gentiles (modern Tell el-Harbej), on the banks of the Kishon River, at the foot of Mount Carmel, 30 miles southwest of Hazor. This central location on the plain of Esdraelon was ideal for chariot operations, so that Jabin controlled not only the main trade routes but held onto the richest farm land in Israel in the territory God had given to Zebulun and Issachar. In fact, Judges, Chapter One, indicates that the Israelites had mostly taken hill country and left the fertile plains in the hands of the Canaanites. Horse drawn chariots armored with iron, carrying two soldiers were fast and hard to attack but only really mobile on the plains, on level ground. In addition to his 900 chariots, Sisera no doubt commanded a large well-armed army of foot soldiers. In contrast, weaponry among the Israelites was scarce (5:6,7).

One of the long term results of the deliverance wrought through Deborah and Barak was that control of these valuable lands came into the hands of Israel. The principal account in Judges Chapter 4 says that God called primarily the tribes of Naphtali (territory north and east of Galilee near Hazor), and Zebulun into battle, but from Chapter 6 we learn of the involvement or neglect of support, and the performance evaluation of the other tribes as well.

Deborah, a prophetess and a "judge" had more of the role of a godly counselor and deliverer than the courtroom judges of modern times. As a compassionate woman, (she is called "a mother in Israel") living in the hills not far north of Jerusalem, she must have become aware of the suffering and hardship of her people who lived in Galilee. No doubt she was responsible for uniting her people in the hill country and helping to raise a small standing army. As a judge she helped people make wise choices in their lives in the absence of prominent godly leadership among the people. Her life is an enduring example of God's willingness and ability to use a devoted woman (or man) to change the course of history and bring about a great military victory. Though the problems must have seemed insurmountable, Deborah saw the need of Israel, knew of the promises of God, and made herself available to Yahweh. It was God who had the exact plan for the hour. All that was required was obedience and courage.

"Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappodoth, 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," (4:4-5).

So it was that she sought the help of God and took courage to rescue her countrymen from the harsh oppression of Jabin of Hazor,

"So she sent and summoned Barak the son of Abinoam from Kadesh in (Southern) Naphtali, and said to him, `The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you, "Go gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe 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."' 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." 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 deliver Sisera into the hand of a woman.' Then Deborah arose, and she went with Barak to Kedesh. And Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali to Kadesh; and ten thousand men went up at his heels; and Deborah went up with him."

General Barak, a capable military man, but one lacking in self-confidence, lived in the oppressed territories and was only too glad to rally men in the requisite number to follow the strategy given to Deborah by the LORD. However, because of his timidity the highest honor in this heroic tale was given to two women. The strategy of the LORD was to establish Barak and 10,000 men on the flanks of Mount Tabor*, a prominent peak on the eastern end of the valley of Jezreel (Esdraelon). There they would soon be discovered by Sisera who would seek to lure them onto the plains where his chariotry would be no match for Israel. Instead a small diversionary force of Ephraimites and Benjaminites, led by Deborah coming up from the south, diverted Sisera's attention near Taanach. He had no way of knowing that the God of Israel had arranged a sudden, violent rainstorm which turned the river Kishon into a torrent and the surrounding plains into a bog. Turning to protect his flank he was betrayed by his god Baal, as the plain became a quagmire for chariots and armored foot soldiers alike-Barak's troops then rushed down from Mount Tabor to wipe out the bogged-down charioteers and Sisera's encumbered army.

"Now Heber the Kenite had separated from the Kenites, the descendants of Hobab the father-in-law of Moses, and had pitched his tent as far away as the oak in Zaananim, which is near Kadesh."

"When Sisera was told that Barak the son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor, Sisera called out all his chariots, nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the men who were with him, from Harosheth-ha-goiim to the river Kishon. And Deborah said to Barak, `Up! For this is the day in which the LORD has given Sisera into your hand. Does not the LORD go out before you?' So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with ten thousand men following him. And the LORD routed Sisera and all his chariots and all his army before Barak at the edge of the sword; and Sisera alighted from his chariot and fled away on foot. And Barak pursued the chariots and the army to Harosheth-ha-goiim, and all the army of Sisera fell by the sword; not a man was left."

"But Sisera fled away on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite; for there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite. And Jael came out to meet Sisera and said to him, `Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; have no fear.' So he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. And he said to her, `Pray give me a little water to drink; for I am thirsty.' So she opened a skin of milk and gave him a drink and covered him. And he said to her, `Stand at the door of the tent, and if anyone comes and asks you, "Is any one here? say, No."' But Jael the wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, till it went down into the ground, as he was laying fast asleep from weariness. So he died. And behold, as Barak pursued Sisera, Jael went out to meet him, and said to him, `Come and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.' So he went into her tent; and there lay Sisera dead, with the tent peg in his temple."

"So on that day God subdued Jabin the king of Canaan before the people of Israel. And the hand of the people of Israel bore harder and harder on Jabin the king of Canaan, until they destroyed Jabin King of Canaan."

The Song of Deborah

The Book of Judges, Chapter 5:

1 "Then sang Deborah and Barak the son of Abinoam in that day:

2 `That the leaders took the lead in Israel,
that the people offered themselves willingly,
bless the LORD!

3 `Hear, O kings; give ear, O princes;
to the LORD I will sing,
I will make melody to the LORD, the God of Israel.

4 `LORD, when thou didst go forth from Seir,
when thou didst march from the region of Edom,
the earth trembled,
and the heavens dropped,
yea, the clouds dropped water.

5 The mountains quaked before the LORD,
yon Sinai before the LORD, the God of Israel.

6 `In the days of Shamgar, son of Anath,
in the days of Jael, caravans ceased
and travelers kept to the byways.

7 `The peasantry ceased in Israel, they ceased
until you arose, Deborah,
arose as a mother in Israel.

8 When new gods were chosen,
when war was in the gates.
Was shield or spear to be seen
among forty thousand in Israel?

9 My heart goes out to the commanders of Israel
who offered themselves willingly among the people.
Bless the LORD.

10 `Tell of it, you who ride on tawny asses,
you who sit on rich carpets
and you who walk by the way.

11 To the sound of musicians at the watering places,
here they repeat the triumphs of the LORD,
the triumphs of his peasantry in Israel.

`Then down to the gates marched the people of the LORD.

12 `Awake, awake, Deborah!
Awake, awake, utter a song!
Arise, Barak, lead away your captives,
O son of Abinoam.

13 `Then down marched the remnant of the noble;
the people of the LORD marched down for him
against the mighty.

14 `From Ephraim they set out thither into the valley,
following you, Benjamin, with your kinsmen;
from Machir marched down the commanders,
and from Zebulun those who bear the marshal's staff;

15 the princes of Issachar came with Deborah,
and Issachar faithful to Barak;
into the valley they rushed forth at his heels.

`Among the clans of Reuben
there were great searchings of heart.

16 Why did you tarry among the sheepfolds,
to hear the piping for the flocks?
Among the clans of Reuben
there were great searchings of heart.

17 `Gilead stayed beyond the Jordan;
and Dan, why did he abide with the ships?
Asher sat still at the coast of the sea
settling down by his landings.

18 Zebulun is a people that jeopared their lives to the death;
Napthtali too, on the heights of the field.

19 `The kings came, they fought;
they fought the kings of Canaan,
at Taanach, by the waters of Megiddo;
they got no spoils of silver.

20 `From heaven fought the stars,
`from their courses they fought against Sisera.

21 The torrent Kishon swept them away,
the onrushing torrent, the torrent Kishon.
March on soul, my soul, with might!

22 `Then loud beat the horses' hoofs
with the galloping, galloping of his steeds.

23 `Curse Meroz, says the angel of the LORD,
curse bitterly its inhabitants,
because they came not to the help of the LORD,
to the help of the LORD against the mighty.

24 `Most blessed of women be Jael,
the wife of Heber the Kenite,
of tent-dwelling women most blessed.

25 He asked water and she gave him milk,
she brought him curds in a lordly bowl.

26 She put her hand to the tent peg
and her right hand to the workman's mallet;
and she struck Sisera a blow,
she crushed his head,
she shattered and pierced his temple.

27 He sank, he fell,
he lay at her feet;
at her feet he sank, he fell;
where he sank, there he fell dead.

28 `Out of the window she peered,
the mother of Sisera gazed through the lattice:
"Why is his chariot so long in coming?
Why tarry the hoofbeats of his chariots?"

29 Her wisest ladies make answer,
nay, she gives answer to herself,

"Are they not finding and dividing the spoil?-
A maiden or two for every man;
spoil of dyed stuff for Sisera,
spoil of dyed stuffs embroidered,
two pieces of dyed work for my neck as spoil?"

31 `So perish all thine enemies, O LORD!
But thy friends be like the sun as he rises in his might.'

And the land had rest for forty years," (Judges 4-5).

A few brief comments will help clarify the story of Deborah and her victory Song:

First Deborah gives thanks to God that the leaders in Israel took action and that the people gave themselves willingly. This is the principle elucidated in Romans 12:1,2 where presenting ourselves unconditionally to God is spoken of as our "reasonable service," (KJV).

Verse three of the Song is an expression of worship---the principal activity of heaven. In her appreciation to God, Deborah calls the kings and princes of Israel to give thanks to God for what He has done. In the fourth verse, Deborah reminds us that God is forever opposed to the descendants of Esau (Mount Seir, Edom), ready to move in judgment against the flesh when there is a willing heart. She notes the trembling of the earth and the great rainstorm sent by the true God of nature at the exact time needed. She remembers the shaking of Mount Sinai when the law was given; we today are reminded of the statement in Hebrews 12 that God will shake soon shake everything that can be shaken "in order that what can not be shaken may remain."

In verse 6 Deborah mentions Shamgar, one of the minor judges of Israel, her contemporary, (Judges 3:31). She sings of the suffering of the common people of Israel from the oppression of Jabin and Sisera and of her calling to be a "mother in Israel." Verse 8 mentions the choosing of new gods in the land. Since the text of v8. of Deborah's Song is difficult in Hebrew, I can only suggest that this refers to the apostate state of her people as they had abandoned worship of Yahweh for the complex polytheism of the world around them. This brought about slavery from the invisible realm of the angels, a change in behind-the-scenes government and the need for concerted spiritual warfare against the "hosts of wickedness in high places" such as Paul speaks about in the New Testament. Behind the scenes, the LORD of hosts is at ready to begin fighting the real war (See for example 2 Kings 6:11-19). During the time of Deborah, she notes that shields and spears were rare among 40,000 men of Israel, indicating the weakness of Israel's army in human terms. But God fights His battles when his people have the meagerest of resources and no strength of their own.

In verse 9 she commends the commanders of the army who fought valiantly with the resources available, relying on the LORD for the victory. In verses 10-11 she expresses the wish that the people of Israel communicate the news of the mighty deeds of their God to the tribes, to community leaders, passing merchants and caravans, "To the sound of musicians at the watering places, there they repeat the triumphs of the LORD, the triumphs of his common people in Israel." Now she remembers the march of Barak's army and her strategic band going down against the gates of the enemy. With her team led by Benjamin and men of Ephraim she attacked the "heels" of Sisera endangering herself to draw them away from Tabor so Barak could attack. With them is Machir (the half tribe of Manessah who lived west of the Jordan), and part of Issachar whose territory the battle was fought in.

Deborah notes that Reuben did not participate, provoking great soul searching from them afterwards, verses 15-16. Likewise Gilead, Dan and Asher all stayed at home, to their shame. (Not mentioned at all are Judah, Simeon, and Gad).Zebulun and Naphtali who were the tribes asked by God to take the lead are again commended in verse 18.

In verse 19 Deborah hints at the arrogance of the kings of Canaan who expected all along to defeat Israel. "From heaven fought the stars, from their courses they fought against Sisera," refers to the LORD of angelic armies conducting the real warfare against Sisera and his men. (The stars are often symbols for the angels in scripture). The rushing torrents of Kishon and the floundering horses of Sisera are vividly pictured for us.

Meroz (mentioned nowhere else in scripture) was a town in the immediate vicinity of the River Kishon. The angel of the Lord cursed Meroz, as later He cursed Chorazim, Bethsaida and Capernaum for their failure to act when needed. One speculation (ISBE) is that Meroz was along the escape route of Sisera as he fled to Jael's tent. If so, the towns' people of Meroz may have failed to stop him as a fugitive from the battle. For this they were forever cursed by God Himself.

Jael is honored for dealing with the treacherous and wicked Sisera, in fulfillment of Deborah's prophecy that the honor would not go to Barak.

Finally Sisera's evil and corrupt mother wonders why her son has not returned from battle. She assumes he has been delayed gathering additional spoil from Israel or procuring "a maiden or two for every man."

"So perish all thine enemies, O LORD! But thy friends be like the sun as he rises in his might."


* Mount Tabor is considered by some to be the Mount of Transfiguration of Jesus mentioned in Matthew 17, Mark 9:2, and Luke 9:29. In fact a beautiful church has been built on the summit in recent years. The more likely spot is Mount Mizar, above Banias (Caesarea Philippi), on the flanks of Mount Hermon as can be seen by reading the context of events before and after the Transfiguration as described in the Gospels.


The prevailing social conditions and military strategy of Deborah, c. 1229 BC, are described in Battles of the Bible by Chaim Herzog and Mordechai Gichon, (Random House NY, 1978).These authors do not give central credit to the God of Israel in their account but do provide helpful background data on the military situation. A thorough Christian commentary is Distressing Days of the Judges by Leon Wood, (Zondervan, Grand Rapids 1975), and I found a helpful chapter in Old Testament Survey by William Sanford LaSor, David Allan Hubbard and Frederick William Bush (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1982).Abraham Kuyper gives an inspiring study of Deborah in his book, Women of the Old Testament, (Zondervan, Grand Rapids 1933).

Deborah the Prophetess

by Lambert Dolphin
Web Pages:

December 25, 1984