In a disorderly, violent time, as Israel fought for land and survival, Deborah was called--and stepped forward--to aid her people.
Although the book of Judges has traditionally been seen as describing a chaotic period of time between the Joshua's orderly conquest and the founding of the monarchy, many modern biblical scholars consider the book an alternative historical view of how the "conquest of Canaan" came about. This is the view of the author of this article, and by this interpretation, Deborah becomes an important figure in the story of the defeat of the Canaanites.
Many of the heroes of the book of Judges are not stereotypical model leaders. They often have significant moral, physical, or social weaknesses, such that the divine, rather than the human, role in Israel's conquest of their enemies is emphasized. The fact that Deborah is a woman is often cited as the factor that makes her, too, an atypical choice for leadership.
But Dr. Frymer-Kensky's contends that, while Deborah's gender may be central to the story, it is not as "atypical" as we might have thought, and other aspects of her story serve to emphasize God's role. Her full article also includes an analysis of the role of Yael, who killed Sisera after his defeat on the battlefield. Excerpted from Reading the Women of the Bible and used with the permission of Schocken Press.
The Challenge of War
Israel, crossing into Canaan, changes its role. It is a time of conquest, a time of war. The Israelites have become fighters, and the saviors of Israel‑-women as well as men‑-have to be aggressors. The times call for warriors, and two warrior women (Deborah and Yael) appear in the decisive defeat of the Canaanites. One, Deborah, initiates the battle, calling the troops to action and declaring the start of hostilities.
The story (of Deborah) is in Judges 4, and the song is in Judges 5. "The Song of Deborah" is a very ancient poem, one of the earliest writings that the Bible preserves: it was most probably written in the eleventh century, soon after the events it records.
The story reached its present shape much later in Israel's history. The two literary creations have subtly different attitudes, and in placing them side by side, the historian of the book of Judges encourages the reader to read them together as well as separately.
Deborah, Prophet and Judge: Judges 4:4-5
"Deborah the prophetess‑woman, Lapidot‑woman‑‑she judged Israel at that time.
"She would sit under 'Deborah's Palm Tree' between Ramah and Beth‑El on Mount Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her for judgment."
Prophet and "Lapidot-woman"
The record begins as Israel is oppressed by Yavin king of Hazor. Deborah is a prophet‑woman, someone who speaks with divine authority, and she is Lapidot‑woman. Eshet lapidot could be translated "wife of Lapidot," but it also means "woman of torches." Lapidot, "torches," comes where we would ordinarily expect a husband's name, but it is a strange‑sounding name for a man and, moreover, does not have the standard patronymic "son of."