Deborah: A Prophetess Like Moses
Female prophets were not uncommon in ancient Israel, but Deborah is the only recorded female judge (Judg 4–5). She is introduced by the narrator as a woman, a prophetess, and a judge:
שׁפטים ד:ד וּדְבוֹרָה אִשָּׁה נְבִיאָה אֵשֶׁת לַפִּידוֹת הִיא שֹׁפְטָה אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּעֵת הַהִיא.
Judg 4:4 Now Deborah, a woman, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth (or woman of flames), she was judging Israel at that time.
Identifying Deborah as not only a judge, but also a prophetess, gives authority and gravitas to her dialogue and song because she is speaking as God’s mouthpiece. Thus, when Deborah refers to herself as אֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, “a mother in Israel” (5:7), and celebrates Yael as תְּבֹרַךְ מִנָּשִׁים, “most blessed of women,” twice (5:24), her words have the authority of the narrator, if not YHWH himself.
As is common in the Bible, the description of Deborah is marked by brevity, but we can learn more about her character by inferring clues from her words and actions.
Deborah speaks three times, in each case directing her words to Barak. These short exchanges depict Deborah as someone with commanding authority, shown with the phrase הֲלֹא (halo’), “Heed this!” (v. 6; and again in v. 14):
שׁפטים ד:ו וַתִּשְׁלַח וַתִּקְרָא לְבָרָק בֶּן אֲבִינֹעַם מִקֶּדֶשׁ נַפְתָּלִי וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו הֲלֹא צִוָּה יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵךְ וּמָשַׁכְתָּ בְּהַר תָּבוֹר וְלָקַחְתָּ עִמְּךָ עֲשֶׂרֶת אֲלָפִים אִישׁ מִבְּנֵי נַפְתָּלִי וּמִבְּנֵי זְבֻלוּן.
Judg 4:6 She summoned Barak, son of Abinoam, of Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “Heed this: YHWH, the God of Israel, has commanded: ‘Go and draw out at Mount Tabor and take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun.
While the expression could be translated as an interrogative—“Has not…?”—in contexts of prophetic authority, it functions as an exclamation. Deborah is getting Barak’s attention with a commanding jolt.
At the same time, Deborah recognizes YHWH’s authority and power. This is abundantly clear in her song (ch. 5), but it can also be inferred from her use of the verb מָשַׁךְ (mashakh), “to draw out.” First, it is a charge to Barak—מָשַׁכְתָּ, “draw out,” your troops (v. 6)—but then YHWH will also “draw out” Sisera’s army to meet him:
שׁפטים ד:ז וּמָשַׁכְתִּי אֵלֶיךָ אֶל נַחַל קִישׁוֹן אֶת סִיסְרָא שַׂר צְבָא יָבִין וְאֶת רִכְבּוֹ וְאֶת הֲמוֹנוֹ וּנְתַתִּיהוּ בְּיָדֶךָ.
Judg 4:7 And I will draw out to you, to the Kishon River, Sisera the officer of the army of Yabin and his chariot and his troops, and I will give him into your hand.’”
From a narrative perspective, Barak and his troops need only show up, and YHWH will give Sisera into his hand.
Deborah’s Response to Barak’s Hesitation
When Barak refuses to go unless she accompanies him (v. 8), she replies:
שׁפטים ד:ט וַתֹּאמֶר הָלֹךְ אֵלֵךְ עִמָּךְ אֶפֶס כִּי לֹא תִהְיֶה תִּפְאַרְתְּךָ עַל הַדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה הוֹלֵךְ כִּי בְיַד אִשָּׁה יִמְכֹּר יְ־הוָה אֶת סִיסְרָא....
Judg 4:9 She said, “Yes, I will go with you. Nevertheless, because of the course you are taking, it will not be your glory, for YHWH will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman….”
The infinitive absolute, הָלֹךְ (halokh), further emphasizes Deborah’s authority in this situation. While it could be rendered emphatically to communicate the surety of her going with Barak—“I will surely go with you”—here it is used to introduce a concession, thereby highlighting his weakness; Deborah will go with Barak, but not enthusiastically. Her decision reveals something else about her character: she shows compassion for Barak rather than simply rejecting his request.
Prophesying Again at Mount Tabor
Deborah and Barak proceed to Mount Tabor, and when Sisera arrays his army and chariots against the Israelites (vv. 10, 12), Deborah declares again that the Israelites will be victorious:
שׁפטים ד:יד וַתֹּאמֶר דְּבֹרָה אֶל בָּרָק קוּם כִּי זֶה הַיּוֹם אֲשֶׁר נָתַן יְ־הוָה אֶת סִיסְרָא בְּיָדֶךָ הֲלֹא יְ־הוָה יָצָא לְפָנֶיךָ.
Judg 4:14 Then Deborah said to Barak, “Arise! For this is the day YHWH has given Sisera into your hand. Heed this: YHWH has gone out before you!”
In this speech, as in the others, Deborah both uses her authority to command Barak and recognizes YHWH’s sovereignty in Israel’s victory by crediting YHWH for Sisera’s defeat.
Deborah’s actions in sending for Barak so that she can deliver her first message from YHWH—וַתִּשְׁלַח וַתִּקְרָא לְבָרָק בֶּן־אֲבִינֹעַם, “She summoned Barak, son of Abinoam” (v. 6)—rather than going to him herself, further confirm her role as a prophet and a leader.
Her subsequent actions also reinforce her integrity. After assuring Barak that she will go with him, the narrator records her accompanying him two separate times:
שׁפטים ד:ט ...וַתָּקָם דְּבוֹרָה וַתֵּלֶךְ עִם בָּרָק קֶדְשָׁה. ד:י וַיַּזְעֵק בָּרָק אֶת זְבוּלֻן וְאֶת נַפְתָּלִי קֶדְשָׁה וַיַּעַל בְּרַגְלָיו עֲשֶׂרֶת אַלְפֵי אִישׁ וַתַּעַל עִמּוֹ דְּבוֹרָה.
Judg 4:9 …So Deborah arose and went with Barak to Kedesh. 4:10 Then Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali, and ten thousand men went up under his command. And Deborah went up with him.
The repetition could be due to a combination of sources, but the redactor’s choice to leave both statements in the final form of the text underscores the consistency between Deborah’s words and actions. She is as true to her word as her word itself is true.
Contrasts Further Define Deborah
The contrast between Deborah and Barak brings Deborah’s virtues into relief. Whereas she is portrayed as authoritative, Barak is portrayed as insecure. Although Barak does eventually fight Sisera and even joins in Deborah’s victory song (Judg 5:1, 12), his only recorded words are his ultimatum marked by fear. His actions later in the narrative are also portrayed as nearly comical, showing up after Sisera’s death, and being commanded by yet another woman:
שׁפטים ד:כב וְהִנֵּה בָרָק רֹדֵף אֶת סִיסְרָא וַתֵּצֵא יָעֵל לִקְרָאתוֹ וַתֹּאמֶר לוֹ לֵךְ וְאַרְאֶךָּ אֶת הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה מְבַקֵּשׁ וַיָּבֹא אֵלֶיהָ וְהִנֵּה סִיסְרָא נֹפֵל מֵת וְהַיָּתֵד בְּרַקָּתוֹ.
Judg 4:22 Now Barak appeared in pursuit of Sisera. Yael went out to greet him and said, “Come, I will show you the man you are looking for.” He went inside with her, and there Sisera was lying dead, with the pin in his temple.
Meir Sternberg rightly notes that Barak ends up “with little to show for his trouble except a junior partnership in a female enterprise.”
Deborah’s character also contrasts with the expected norms of male leadership in ancient Israelite society. She wields more authority than any other (human) character in the narrative, save perhaps the Canaanite king, Yabin, who stays in the background and is defeated under Deborah’s leadership. She steps into the typically male role of judge, and yet she never loses her womanhood.
Not only is she introduced by the narrator as a woman (4:4), Deborah also refers to herself in her song as a “mother in Israel” (Judg 5:7). This apt metaphor naturally highlights her femininity, but it also underscores her leadership. Scholars like Carol Meyers have shown that matriarchs were the household managers, and since the household was the hub of ancient Israelite society, they wielded much more power than traditionally supposed.
Deborah Compared with Moses
A lesser-known aspect of the book of Judges resides in the connections between the judges and Moses. For Deborah, this comparison (and contrast) seems to be invited by Jewish tradition, which pairs Judges 4–5 with the exodus account as the haftarah reading for Beshalach (Exod 13:17–17:16).
Deborah shares numerous qualities with Moses. They both:
- Judge Israel (Exod 18:13; Judg 4:4)
- Prophesy (Deut 34:10; Judg 4:4)
- Command military leaders into battle, but are not directly involved in the fighting (Exod 17:9–10; Judg 4:14–15)
- Sing victory songs (Exod 15; Judg 5)
- Have a forty-year career (Num 13:33; Judg 5:31)
Their narratives also have many similarities:
- Their enemies have chariots and superior weaponry (Exod 14:6; Judg 4:13)
- Water plays a major role in defeating their enemies (Exod 14:25; 15:4–10; Judg 4:7; 5:4, 21)
- YHWH throws into a panic (ה.מ.ם) their enemies’ army (מַחֲנֶה) (Exod 14:24; Judg 4:15)
- Of their enemies, נִשְׁאַר עַד אֶחָד, “no one remained” (Exod 14:28; Judg 4:16)
- Kenites play a pivotal role (Num 10:29; Judg 1:16, 4:11)
Taken together, these parallels present a strong case for seeing Deborah as a Moses-like figure. This added layer of characterization highlights the exemplary nature of Deborah’s role in the book of Judges. Like Moses, she is a faithful leader and interceder for her people during a time when doubt and fear threaten to pull Israel away from God.
If Deborah’s characterization has been shaped by the accounts of Moses, who might other characters in her narrative represent?
The contrast between Deborah and Barak parallels the relationship between Moses and the exodus generation of the Israelites, who consistently waver between fear and courage, needing Moses’s intercession and leadership. She is strong while Barak wavers between hesitancy and courage. She commands him and leads him and even shows compassion for him in his weakness. She prophetically intercedes for him.
In addition, Yael’s role seems to parallel that of Joshua, who finishes what Moses starts, leading Israel into the land so YHWH might give them rest. Yael is the fulfillment of Deborah’s prophecy, and she finishes what Deborah and Barak start, as her decisive victory over Sisera secures rest for the Israelites under the leadership of Deborah.
A Prophetess like Moses
The book of Judges characterizes Deborah as a woman prophetess who judges and leads Israel with authority and compassion. She gives the glory of Israel’s deliverance to YHWH. The Torah invites us to compare other prophets to Moses:
דברים לד:י וְלֹא קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל כְּמֹשֶׁה אֲשֶׁר יְדָעוֹ יְ־הוָה פָּנִים אֶל פָּנִים.
Deut 34:10 And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom YHWH knew face to face.
Sifrei Deuteronomy responds by looking beyond the Israelites:
ספרי דברים שנ״ז ולא קם נביא בישראל כמשה - אבל באומות קם. ואיזה? זה בלעם בן בעור
Sif. Deut. 357 No prophet has arisen in Israel like Moses (34:10), but one has arisen among the nations. And who was he? Balaam son of Beor.
In this vein, we observe that there has never been a prophet like Moses, but there has been a prophetess: Deborah.
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Prof. Elizabeth Backfish is associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Jessup
University in Rocklin, CA. She holds a PhD from Trinity International University in
Deerfield, IL, and serves on the board of the Institute for Biblical Research (IBR) as the
director of IBR Women. She is the author of Hebrew Wordplay and Septuagint
Translation Technique in the Fourth Book of the Psalter (Bloomsbury, 2019).
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