Deborah Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Areas of Achievement: Biblical figures; literature; religion; warfare Israeli prophet and military leader{$I[g]Israel;Deborah} Deborah rallied Israelite tribes to defeat oppressors as she had prophesied; her victory poem is considered one of the Bible’s most ancient texts.

Early Life

The biblical figure named Deborah (DEHB-oh-rah) is believed to have lived between 1200 b.c.e. and 1125 b.c.e. These years, falling between the death of Joshua and the institution of the monarchy in ancient Israel, are recounted in the biblical book of Judges. Tradition assigns Joshua as Moses’s successor, charged with leading the loose federation of Hebrew tribes that were resettling ancestral lands in the area then known as Canaan. Whether or not the initial stage of resettlement proceeded as a unified military effort under Joshua, instability marked the years chronicled in Judges. Archaeological evidence supports a scenario of periods of war and crisis alternating with peaceful intervals during the twelfth and eleventh centuries b.c.e. Most towns in the region apparently suffered destruction, indicating a time of turmoil and uncertainty.

The Bible views the era as a cycle of lapses into idolatry, punished by Yahweh (the god of Abraham) through the agency of outside aggressors, followed by repentance and subsequent deliverance by divinely appointed leaders, or “judges.” In Deborah’s lifetime, the Israelites had become enslaved to Jabin, the king of Canaan. Scripture states that following the death of the judge Ehud, the people had fallen under the sway of gods other than Yahweh, who, in turn, had given them up to their Canaanite oppressors.

The vulnerability of the Israelite population during Deborah’s formative years would have highlighted her role as childbearer, particularly in a patriarchal society in which a man could sell his daughter as payment for debts. The primacy of survival, however, also required that women labor alongside men for the good of the community. Deborah’s development may have been affected by her tribal affiliation. Residing in the hill country in what is now central Israel, she was most likely a member of the tribe of Ephraim. The central position of that tribe’s area of settlement, along with the fact that the religious center of Shiloh was located in the territory, engendered in the Ephraimites a proud and even militant spirit.

Life’s Work

The fourth chapter of the biblical book of Judges introduces Deborah as a prophet to whom people came to settle controversies. She is described as bestowing her counsel under a palm tree, apparently a sacred site popularly associated with the burial place of Deborah, the nurse of the matriarch Rebecca.

Some see in this image the kahin (or kahina), known from nomadic Arabic tribes as a kind of magician or fortune-teller holding court and dispensing judgments in a sanctified place. A common phenomenon in antiquity, prophecy was essentially oracular; that is, it involved communication of the divine will regarding a specific matter. The prophet thus played a prominent role in the political life of a community by delivering messages in the name of a god. Nothing in the biblical account indicates that Deborah as a woman functioned in the role of prophet any differently than would a man. Nevertheless, it has been suggested that, as a woman whose priority was childrearing, her calling was, at best, part-time during her childbearing years and may not even have begun until later in life.

As one to whom they came with their troubles and concerns, Deborah was no doubt keenly aware of her people’s suffering under Jabin. Headed by Jabin’s field commander, Sisera, the Canaanite army was equipped with iron chariots, giving them considerable military superiority over the Israelites, who were still technologically in the Bronze Age. This advantage enabled the Canaanites to control the passage through the valleys that separated the mountain tribes in the center of the land—including Ephraim, where Deborah resided—and those in the north, in Galilee, thus ensuring their subjugation of the Israelites.

Despite this obstacle, after twenty years of domination, Deborah initiated a war of liberation by summoning a military commander, a man named Barak, out of Kedesh-Naphtali in the northern reaches of the territory. Because of the similarity of meaning between the name Barak (“lightning”) and that of Deborah’s apparent husband, Lapidoth...

(The entire section is 1864 words.)