November 1 – For saving her people, she was made their judge

October 31, 2013

Deborah the Prophetess

(also known as Debbora the Judge, Deborah the Matriarch)

Deborah the Prophetess

Deborah the Prophetess

Prophetess and judge: she was the wife of Lapidoth and was endowed by God with prophetic gifts which secured for her the veneration of the divided Israelitic tribes and gave her great authority over them. Her wisdom was first displayed in settling litigious matters submitted to her: “She sat under a palm-tree, which was called by her name, between Rama and Bethel, in Mount Ephraim, and the children of Israel came up to her for all judgment” (Judges, iv, 5). Debbora was thus a judge in the ordinary sense of the word. In the case of the other persons whose history is recorded in the book of Judges, the title seems to be given them as “deliverers and leaders” of the chosen people, no mention being made of ordinary judicial functions; but it was rather the confidence inspired by Debbora in the discharge of such functions which enabled her to bring about the deliverance of the nation, which was then suffering under the oppression of the Chanaanites.

Painting of Deborah by Charles Landelle - 1901

Painting of Deborah by Charles Landelle – 1901

The main army of the enemy was rendered particularly formidable by the fact that it possessed nine hundred iron chariots. It was commanded by Sisara, whose headquarters were at Haroseth, probably identical with the actual el Haritiyeh, between Haifa and Nazareth, on the banks of the Nahr Muquatt’a (Cison) in the plain of Esdraelon. Occupying this position in the centre of the country, the Chanaanites could harass the tribes to the north and south, and render it very difficult for them to unite in a common effort. For “twenty years” the enemy had “grievously oppressed” the children of Israel, when Debbora declared it was God’s will that His people should be freed. This will of God she first made known to Barac, who dwelt in Cedes of Nephthali, today Qedeis, one of the principal ruins of Northern Galilee. She charged him to gather and lead to Thabor, a mountain to the east of the plain of Esdraelon, an army of ten thousand men, promising him that God would deliver into his hand Sisara and the Chanaanite army.


Barac undertook to carry out those instructions only on the condition that the prophetess herself should accompany him. She agreed to do so, foretelling, however, that the glory of ridding the land of Sisara would belong to a woman. This prophecy refers not to Debbora herself, but to Jahel whose story is told in the last part of the fourth chapter. Debbora, however, did certainly share in the glory of Barac. The call to battle was not merely issued to the northern tribes of Nephthali and Zabulon; the “Canticle of Debbora”, given in chapter fifth, praises the tribes of Ephraim and Benjamin, in the midst of which the prophetess had lived, as well as the tribes of West Manasses and Issachar, for furnishing their contingents, while it reproves Ruben, Gad, and Aser for their refusal to take part in the contest. Juda and Simeon were apparently not called upon.

In the battle of Thabor, which marked an era in the history of Israel, Debbora had an important part. She indicated the time to attack the enemy, and encouraged Barac to go down boldly from the mountain to fight in the plain notwithstanding the advantages which the chariot troops gave the Chanaanites on level ground. God justified this assurance which He had inspired by the prophetess. A violent rain storm swelled the torrent of Cison and rendered the ground unfit for the movements of the dreaded chariots. A panic seized upon Sisara’s army, and its rout was complete. The general himself died at the hands of Jahel.

Deborah the Prophetess' by Gustave Doré

Deborah the Prophetess’ by Gustave Doré

The “Canticle of Debbora” [below] is in the sacred text attributed to Barac and Debbora. This very early poem is one of the most precious documents for the history of the period of the Judges. The faith in the God of Sinai of the still loosely connected tribes finds vivid expression in the song. It strikingly describes the distress of the land “until Debbora arose, a mother arose in Israel”, and the heroic fight for freedom to which she aroused her countrymen. After the deliverance “the land rested for forty years”. We are not told what part was taken by Debbora in the affairs of her country during this period of peace; but it is likely that her influence was increased by the glorious event to which her name ever remained attached. [WS Reilly 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia]

Canticle of Deborah

Of chiefs who took the lead in Israel, of noble deeds by the people who bless the Lord,
Hear, O kings! Give ear, O princes!
I to the Lord will sing my song,
my hymn to the Lord, the God of Israel.
O Lord, when you went out from Seir,
when you marched from the land of Edom,
The earth quaked and the heavens were shaken,
while the clouds sent down showers.
Mountains trembled
in the presence of the Lord, the One of Sinai,
in the presence of the Lord, the God of Israel. Subscription16
In the days of Shamgar, son of Anath,
in the days of slavery caravans ceased:
Those who traveled the roads
went by roundabout paths.
Gone was freedom beyond the walls,
gone indeed from Israel.
When I, Deborah, rose,
when I rose, a mother in Israel,
New gods were their choice;
then the war was at their gates.
Not a shield could be seen,
nor a lance, among forty thousand in Israel!
My heart is with the leaders of Israel,
nobles of the people who bless the Lord;
They who ride on white asses,
seated on saddlecloths as they go their way;
Sing of them to the strains of the harpers at the wells,
where men recount the just deeds of the Lord,
his just deeds that brought freedom to Israel.
Awake, awake, Deborah!
awake, awake, strike up a song.
Strength! arise, Barak,
make despoilers your spoil, son of Abinoam.
Then down came the fugitives with the mighty,
the people of the Lord came down for me as warriors.
From Ephraim, princes were in the valley;
behind you was Benjamin, among your troops.

Jael driving a tent peg through the head of Sisera and into the ground.

Jael driving a tent peg through the head of Sisera and into the ground.

From Machir came down commanders,
from Zebulun wielders of the marshal’s staff.
With Deborah were the princes of Issachar;
Barak, too, was in the valley, his course unchecked.
Among the clans of Reuben
great were the searchings of heart.
Why do you stay beside your hearths
listening to the lowing of the herds?
Among the clans of Reuben
great were the searchings of heart!
Gilead, beyond the Jordan, rests;
why does Dan spend his time in ships?
Asher, who dwells along the shore,
is resting in his coves.
Zebulun is the people defying death;
Naphtali, too, on the open heights!
The kings came and fought;
then they fought, those kings of Canaan,
At Taanach by the waters of Megiddo;
no silver booty did they take.
From the heavens the stars, too, fought;
from their courses they fought against Sisera.
The Wadi Kishon swept them away;
a wadi…, the Kishon.
Then the hoofs of the horses pounded,
with the dashing, dashing of his steeds.
“Curse Meroz,” says the Lord,
“hurl a curse at its inhabitants!
For they came not to my help,
as warriors to the help of the Lord.”

Jael Shows to Barak, Sisera Lying Dead

Jael Shows to Barak, Sisera Lying Dead

Blessed among women be Jael,
blessed among tent-dwelling women.
He asked for water, she gave him milk;
in a princely bowl she offered curds.
With her left hand she reached for the peg,
with her right, for the workman’s mallet.
She hammered Sisera, crushed his head;
she smashed, stove in his temple.
At her feet he sank down, fell, lay still;
down at her feet he sank and fell;
where he sank down, there he fell, slain.
From the window peered down and wailed
the mother of Sisera, from the lattice:
“Why is his chariot so long in coming?
why are the hoofbeats of his chariots delayed?”
The wisest of her princesses answers her,
and she, too, keeps answering herself:
“They must be dividing the spoil they took:
there must be a damsel or two for each man,
Spoils of dyed cloth as Sisera’s spoil,
an ornate shawl or two for me in the spoil.”
May all your enemies perish thus, O Lord!
but your friends be as the sun rising in its might!
And the land was at rest for forty years.

Judges 5:2-31

LAGRANGE, Le livre des Juges (Paris, 1903); DE HUMMELAUER, Commentarius in libros Judicum et Ruth (Paris, 1888); PALIS in VIG. Dict. de la Bible, s. v.; VON ORELLI in Realencyk. für prot. Theol., s. v.


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