A name which means “bee” in Hebrew, Deborah is the name of two women mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. Two passages (Gen. 35.8; 24.59) call Rebekah's nurse Deborah. Much more prominent is the Deborah mentioned in Judges 4 and 5, whose fame in the biblical record emerges from her role as a military leader. With her general, Barak, she successfully led a coalition of Israelite tribal militias to victory over a superior Canaanite army commanded by Sisera. The battle was fought in the plain of Esdraelon (Map 13:X3), and the mortal blow to the Canaanite general was delivered by another female figure, Jael.

The account of this war, ending with an important victory for the Israelites in their struggle to control central and northern Palestine, is recounted in two versions, a prose narrative in Judges 4 and a poetic form in Judges 5. The literary and chronological relationship of these two versions is a matter of debate; but most scholars see in the archaic language of the poem evidence that it comes from a very early stage of biblical literature and may be the oldest extant Israelite poem, perhaps dating from the late twelfth century BCE, not long after the battle it recounts.

Deborah occupies a unique role in Israelite history. Not only is she a judge in the sense of a military leader, but also she is the only judge in the law‐court sense of that title (Judg. 4.5) in the book of Judges. Of all the military leaders of the book, only Deborah is called a “prophet.” She is also the only judge to “sing” of the victory, illustrating the creative role played by women as shapers of tradition (cf. Exod. 15.20–21). While some would see Deborah, a female, as an anomaly in all these roles, her contributions should be set alongside those of other women who are pivotal figures in the premonarchic period (Miriam, Jael, Jephthah's daughter, Samson's mother). All emerge as strong women with no negative valuation, perhaps because during the period of the judges, a time of social and political crisis, able people of any status could contribute to group efforts. In the rural, agrarian setting of the period of the judges, with the family as the dominant social institution, the important role of women in family life was more readily transferred to matters of public concern than during the monarchy, with its more formal and hierarchical power structures. Deborah as a strong woman reflects her own gifts as well as a relatively open phase of Israelite society.

Carol L. Meyers