Deborah, An Old Testament Prophet
Perhaps one of the most famous woman leaders in the Old Testament, Deborah was well-known as a prophet, married to a man named Lappidoth, and lived during the time of the Judges. In fact, her story takes up two chapters in that book (Judges 4-5).
Somewhere between 20 and 40 years old, God called upon Deborah to “deliver” and “rule” Israel as its fourth Judge (the meaning of the Hebrew word “shaphat”). Under Deborah’s guiding hand, Israel knew victory in battle, worship of God, righteous living, and peace in all the land for forty years.
Deborah’s official court was held under what became known as “Deborah’s Palm Tree,” where she would settle the disputes of the people, receive reports from throughout the land, and organize military campaigns. As a prophet, Deborah had a close connection with the Lord, receiving His word and guidance in everything, and holding the responsibility to deliver God’s instructions, warnings, and promises to the people.
As commander of all Israel, it was both her privilege and her obligation to ride at the head of Israel’s army in combat, a fact general Barak was counting on when God called him up to lead Israel in battle against King Jabin’s Canaanite forces. General Barak’s high opinion of Deborah says much about her character and towering charisma as both a person and a leader. She was courageous, wise, powerful, and led with the full authority vested in her by God Himself.
Unfortunately for him, because Barak had placed more faith in his leader, Deborah, than he had placed in God’s strength and protection, Deborah prophesied the victory would be taken by a woman (named Jael) rather than by Barak.
Because, previously, the Israelites had once again devolved into idol worship and “did things that the Lord saw as evil,” God gave them over to a local tyrant, King Jabin. After twenty years of cruel oppression, finally the Israelites called out to God, and He tapped His best leader, Deborah. She, in turn, sent word to Bark, and together they marched on Jabin, whose army was led by General Sisera.
Enter Jael! Her husband, along with his clan the Kenites (related to Moses’ second wife) had tried to remain neutral in the dispute, living as they did in a proto-Bedouin encampment between the two people groups.
When General Sisera found his army routed and demolished, not a man left living, he fled towards the Kenite encampment and sought refuge in Jael’s tent. That is when she famously plied him with warm milk, let him settle into a deep sleep, and pounded a tent peg straight through his skull.
Perhaps when Deborah delivered her prophecy about victory going to a woman, General Barak (and everyone else listening) thought Deborah was referring to herself. But in the power of the Holy Spirit, Deborah was foretelling God’s miraculous and astonishing move to bring in the faithful Jael who recognized her opportunity to do right by God and His people.
Of all the leaders in the Old Testament, Deborah is shown in the best light. People came to her for her instruction and for her decisions. She was honored by her own people as “a mother in Israel.” (Judges 5:7), spoke God’s word boldly, honored God in public worship, and honored God in her leadership.
Most notably there was no hint of scandal or moral controversy during her forty year rule, unlike even Israel’s most beloved king, King David.