In a disorderly, violent time, as Israel fought for land and survival, Deborah was called--and stepped forward--to aid her people.

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The reader must decide whether to translate lapidot as a name or a noun. Translating it "wife of Lapidot" has the advantage of emphasizing that a prophet could be married and that a married woman could have another role.

On the other hand, "woman of torches" or "fiery woman" fits the image of Deborah and would fit the story in the manner of biblical names. "Torch‑Lady" provides a significant wordplay, for it is Deborah, not her husband, who is the torch that sets the general Barak (whose name means "lightning") on fire.

Moreover, in Mesopotamian mythology, the torch and the lightning (tsullat and hanish) are the heralds of the storm god. In the same way, "Torch Lady" and "Lightning" are fit agents for the God of Israel, who defeats Sisera by creating a river of mud to incapacitate his chariots.

Deborah the Judge

The story also tells us that Deborah judged Israel. The "judges" were Israel's charismatic leaders in the days before the monarchy. These leaders usually acquired their political authority after they saved Israel through battle. The first such judge, Othniel ben Kenaz, set the pattern: the oppressed people cried out to God, "the spirit of YHWH came upon him (Othniel), he judged Israel and went out to battle, and YHWH gave Cushan Rishatayim king of Aram into his hand" (Judges 3:10).

Did Deborah become a judge in the same way, by leading a group in battle? Or perhaps she acquired her authority by offering sage advice that led to a victory, or by predicting an important matter that came true. The story never tells us.

In the "Song", Deborah describes a total breakdown of order in Israel. Wayfarers had to go by roundabout ways to avoid danger; in those days there was no rescue "Until I arose, Deborah, until I arose, a mother in Israel (Judges 5:7)". Somehow Deborah imposed order on Israel.  How this happened, neither the poem nor the story records. Their silence on such important matters is a reminder that neither the story nor the Song was framed as a record of Deborah's life.

One day, Deborah called Barak: Judges 4:6‑10

"She sent and called for Barak ben Avinoam from Qedesh‑Naftali.

"She said to him, 'Did not YHWH God of Israel command: "Go and pull toward Mount Tabor and take with you ten thousand men from the men of Naphtali and Zebulun. I will draw Sisera the head of Yavin's army and his chariotry and masses to Wadi Kishon and I will give him into your hand."'

"Barak said to her, 'If you go with me, I will go. if you will not go with me, I will not go.'

"She said, 'I will indeed go with you, especially since you will get no glory on the way you are going, for into the hand of a woman YHWH will deliver Sisera.'

"Deborah rose and went with Barak to Qedesh.

"Barak mustered Zebulun and Naphtali to Qedesh.

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Tikva Frymer-Kensky

Tikva Frymer-Kensky (1943-2006) was a professor of Hebrew Bible at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. She was the author of many works of biblical scholarship and spirituality. She was a foremost assyriologist, biblical scholar, and feminist.