In a disorderly, violent time, as Israel fought for land and survival, Deborah was called--and stepped forward--to aid her people.

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"Ten thousand men went up at his feet, and Deborah went up with him."

What prompted Deborah to call Barak? Perhaps the people initiated the call. The people not only regularly went to her for decisions, they came to her one day for a particular kind of "judgment." The poem provides a hint as to what they wanted: "Then the people of YHWH went down to the gates:  'Awake, awake, Deborah.  Awake, awake, speak a song.  Arise, Barak, take your captives, son of Avinoam'" (Judges 5:12).  This anguished outcry may have impelled Deborah to begin the redemption.

Deborah calls Barak in her role as a prophet, an envoy of God. Moreover, Deborah hints that she is following up on a previous call to Barak: Did not YHWH God of Israel command? God has spoken to Barak, and Deborah's call is a second summons. Barak is reluctant to go, like Moses before him, like Gideon and Samuel later in Israel's history, others called by God to be envoys. He seeks assurance that God is really with him and insists that Deborah go with him to the battle staging area where the warriors assemble.

Is It "Weak" of Barak to Need Deborah?

Readers have often been bothered by Barak's reluctance to go without Deborah, declaring that his hesitation makes him "less manly" or tarnishes his glory. But Barak has good reason to be insecure: Yavin, after all, has nine hundred chariots! Moreover, prophets play several roles in battle: they muster and inspire the troops, and also declare the correct, auspicious time to begin. Prophets are such an important presence in battle that Elijah and Elisha are called "Israel's chariot and cavalry."

Female Prophets, Women at War

Many readers of this story have been particularly troubled by the presence of women in war, believing that they are somehow out of place there and assuming that ancient Israelites would have felt the same way. But most of the Assyrian prophets were women, and reports from both the ancient and more recent Near East show a consistent pattern of the presence of women to inspire the troops and taunt the enemy. There is no reason to think that biblical readers found anything strange about Barak's request to Deborah, as either prophet or woman.

The Battle: Judges 4:13‑16

"Sisera mustered all his chariotry, nine hundred iron chariots, and all his people from Harosheth‑Hagoyim to Wadi Kishon.

"Deborah said to Barak, 'Arise, for this is the day that YHWH gives Sisera into your hand. Does not YHWH go out before you?'

"Barak quickly descended from Mount Tabor and ten thousand men after him.

YHWH distressed Sisera and all the chariotry and all the camp by the sword before Barak and Sisera descended from his chariot and fled on foot.

"Barak chased the chariots and the camp to Harosheth‑Hagoyim and fell on Sisera's camp with the sword. Not even one remained."

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Tikva Frymer-Kensky

Tikva Frymer-Kensky (1943-2006) was a professor of Hebrew Bible at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. She was the author of many works of biblical scholarship and spirituality. She was a foremost assyriologist, biblical scholar, and feminist.