Harper’s Bible Dictionary
edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)
Deborah (Heb., bee)
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1 Rebekahs nurse (Gen. 35:8; 24:59).
2 An Israelite judge and prophet. Though the exact duties of the judges are not clear, some appear to have exercised legal functions while others were purely military leaders. Deborah combined these two important offices in addition to holding a third one, that of prophet (Judg. 4:4). She rendered legal decisions to Israelites who came to her in the hill country of Ephraim (Judg. 4:5), and she led an Israelite coalition to victory over the militarily superior Canaanite forces of Sisera in the plain of Esdraelon. This was a strategic battle in the struggle for control of central and northern Palestine. Deborahs victory is recorded in prose (Judg. 4) and poetry (Judg. 5). In the prose version, her general, Barak, refused to go into battle unless Deborah accompanied him. She agreed, declaring that the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman. That woman, we discover later on, is not Deborah, but another courageous woman, Jael.
The poem, known as the Song of Deborah, is one of the oldest examples of biblical literature, dating ca. 1125 b.c. and roughly contemporaneous with the events it describes. Vivid and fast-paced, with a repetitive style akin to older, Canaanite poetry from Ugarit, it is widely acclaimed for its literary qualities. It graphically portrays the excitement of the battle in which God comes from the South (Edom, Sinai) to lead the Israelite troops as well as the cosmic forces against the enemy (From heaven fought the stars/from their courses they fought against Sisera, Judg. 5:20). The poem concludes with a striking juxtaposition of two domestic scenes: Jaels assassination of Sisera (5:24-27) and Siseras mother waiting anxiously for the return of her spoil-laden son (5:28-30). Whereas the prose version mentions only the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun, the poem praises Ephraim, Benjamin, Machir, Zebulun, Issachar, and Naphtali for their brave participation in the battle, while censuring Reuben, Gilead, Dan, Asher, and Meroz (otherwise unknown) for not responding to the muster. Though more tribes are mentioned as cooperating in this crucial battle than any other in Judges, the traditional twelve tribes are not all enumerated. Judah, Simeon, and Levi are missing, while Machir and Gilead appear instead of Manasseh and Gad.
Judges 4:4 identifies Deborah in Hebrew as an 'eshet lappidot, usually translated wife of Lappidoth but perhaps meaning spirited woman. No Lappidoth is known to us.
3 The grandmother of Tobit (Tob. 1:8)
Edited for BibleTexts.com by Robert Nguyen Cramer