The 7 Prophetesses: Deborah

The only female judge, and also the only judge to be called a prophet, Deborah is a decisive figure in the defeat of the Canaanites, a victory told in two accounts, a prose narrative in Judges 4 and an ancient song known as the Song of Deborah, probably composed not long after the original events, possibly by Deborah herself, and preserved in Judges 5. In Judg 4:4, Deborah is identified as eshet lappidot, which may mean “woman of [the town] Lappidoth,” “wife of [the man] Lappidoth,” or “woman of torches” (that is, “fiery woman”).

- Tikva Frymer-Kensky

(ד) וּדְבוֹרָה֙ אִשָּׁ֣ה נְבִיאָ֔ה אֵ֖שֶׁת לַפִּיד֑וֹת הִ֛יא שֹׁפְטָ֥ה אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בָּעֵ֥ת הַהִֽיא׃
(4) Deborah, wife of Lappidoth, was a prophetess; she led Israel at that time.
(א) אשת לפידות. רצה לומר, אשת חיל, זריזה במעשיה כלפיד אש, והוא ענין מליצה, וכאשר יאמרו הבריות:
(1) The wife of Lappidoth. That is to say, a woman of valor, zealous in her deeds as a torch afire. And this a matter of figurative language, as when it is said about a person.
(ב) היא שפטה. בעבור שהיתה נביאה וזריזה במעשיה, בא לה המעלה הזאת להיות שופטת את ישראל:
(2) She judged. On account that she was a prophet and zealous in her deeds, this elevated status came to her; thus, she was judging Israel.
דבורה דכתיב (שופטים ד, ד) ודבורה אשה נביאה אשת לפידות מאי אשת לפידות שהיתה עושה פתילות למקדש
Deborah was a prophetess, as it is written explicitly: “And Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth” (Judges 4:4). The Gemara asks: What is the meaning of “the wife of Lappidoth”? The Gemara answers: For she used to make wicks for the Sanctuary, and due to the flames [lappidot] on these wicks she was called the wife of Lappidoth, literally, a woman of flames.

As the story opens in Judges 4, Deborah is already a judge, settling disputes brought to her while she sits under the “palm of Deborah” in the hill country of Ephraim (4:5). Most of the major figures in the Book of Judges are acknowledged as leaders after military victory; Deborah is a judge before the battle, but the narrative does not include the story of how she became judge, why she is called a “prophetess,” or the way in which God commanded her to begin the battle against Jabin, the Canaanite king of Hazor, and his general, Sisera.

There is no other heroine like Deborah in the Hebrew Bible, but other women did have some of her many roles. She is called a “mother in Israel” (Judg 5:7) perhaps because she was a biological mother. This would be important, showing that mothers might attain political prominence. More likely, the phrase may indicate that her arbitration powers as judge were parental, even maternal. “Mother,” like “father,” can be an honorific title for an authority figure or protector in the community (compare 1 Sam 24:1 and Isa 22:21). Another possibility is that she was a strong administrator of God’s plan, like the matriarchs in Genesis. As a respected politico-judicial authority, she has a counterpart in the wise woman of Abel, who spoke for and rescued the city of Abel where, she said, the people of Israel brought their disputes to be settled (2 Sam 20:15–22). As a singer of victory songs, she echoes Miriam and foreshadows latter women who celebrate David’s military success (1 Sam 18:6–7). And as a prophetess, like Miriam, she anticipates later female prophetic figures, such as Huldah, who prophesied the end of Israel’s time in Canaan, and Noadiah, who appeared during the restoration from exile. But there are differences in these roles. Women singers and prophets continue throughout Israel’s history, but with the consolidation of the Israelite monarchy, politico-judicial authority of the type enjoyed by Deborah and the wise woman of Abel was handed over to the royal bureaucracies. And except perhaps for some queen mothers, they apparently did not include women.

by Tikva Frymer-Kensky