Deborah, Prophetess and Judge
Posted by foryourfaith on December 2, 2011
The Song of Deborah is one of the oldest pieces of Hebrew literature known. Scholars are in general agreement that this poem is the oldest text in the Bible. The accomplishments of a great woman are honored with these lines:
The peasantry ceased in Israel, they ceased
Until you arose, Deborah,
Arose as a mother in Israel. . . .
Awake, awake, Deborah!
Awake, awake, utter a song!
Ancient Hebrew society was dominated by men; hence, Deborah’s rousing leadership and mighty deeds were a striking exception to the norm. She was able to rally enough of the disheartened and oppressed Israelite tribes to challenge in battle the powerful army of the Canaanite king of Hazor under his commander, Sisera. Her story is told twice, first in a prose account and then in poetry. The poem, known as the “Song of Deborah,” is an anthem of triumph celebrating Yahweh’s victory over the Canaanites through this “mother in Israel.” It breathes the spirit of exhilaration in victory that the Israelites experienced when the hate oppressor Sisera and his army were routed – perhaps as most scholars believe, because it was written at the very time of the battle in about 1125 BC.
Both the prose and the poetry vividly portray the weak situation of early Israel. The northern tribes, described as “peasantry” or villagers, were in a state of near anarchy. They were unable to mount any organized resistance to Canaanite oppression enforced by “nine hundred chariots of iron.” Under the Canaanite yoke, Israelite trade and communication by means of the donkey caravans that linked the tribes had become impossibly dangerous.
It was from this wretched position that Deborah, endowed with charismatic gifts, rose to the leadership of her people. She was both a prophet, who communicated the will of Yahweh to the people, and a judge, deciding legal disputes among those who came to her for judgment. As a prophet she roused Barak to command Israel’s forces by telling him Yahweh’s battle plan against the Canaanites (Judges 4:6-7). Barak accepted the challenge on the condition that Deborah herself accompany him in leading the army.
The two ultimately succeeded in gathering forces from the six tribes most directly hurt by the Canaanites, but these six tribes were sufficient. The battle took place in the valley of the Kishon River, southwest of the Sea of Galilee. As a combination of rain and river floods rendered the mighty chariots of the Canaanites useless on the soft ground, the Israelites saw the evidence of Yahweh’s hand: “Lord, when thou didst go forth . . . yea, the clouds dropped water.”
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