From her seat in the shade of a palm tree, Deborah looked out over the highlands of Israel. These dry hills were her people's home, and she could see all was not well. In the valley below, armed bands preyed on Israelite peasants. Travelers and caravans, the lifeblood of her region, were too frightened to take the main roads. It was a time of chaos, a time that called for strong leadership.
In answering the call, Deborah became a singular biblical figure: a female military leader. She recruited a man, the general Barak, to stand by her side, telling him God wanted the armies of Israel to attack the Canaanites who were persecuting the highland tribes. Barak was reluctant, and he insisted that Deborah go with him to the battle. Her answer was assertive and prophetic: "I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman."
So it was an unlikely commander who led the Army to a decisive battle with the Canaanites. Faced with "900 chariots of iron," the height of military technology at the time, Deborah's army of 10,000 Israelites rushed down from the hills, clashing with the Canaanite general Sisera near the Kishon River. The "Song of Deborah," one of the oldest in the Bible, says the stars strayed from their courses and the river washed Sisera's armies away in a massive flood. The battle was a total victory. "All the Army of Sisera fell by the sword; no one was left."
Defeated, Sisera fled, taking refuge in an ally's tent. Expecting refuge from the army chasing him, the Canaanite general was greeted by a woman named Jael. Sisera demanded shelter and water. Instead, Jael gave him a bowl of milk—and a tent peg through the skull.
The violence of Deborah's story is a radical departure from standard biblical themes, which rarely place women in roles as warriors and generals. "Every other instance we have of women acting in a military context is of a woman acting as an assassin, using sexual attraction to lure male war leaders to their deaths," says Susan Ackerman, a religion and women's and gender studies professor at Dartmouth College. "Deborah, in terms of the portrayal of her taking the lead as a military commander, is unique."
Deborah's story would stand out even without her unusual role as a military leader. It's essentially told twice: first in a sort of prose summary in Judges 4 and then in a poem or song in Judges 5. The song may be one of the Bible's oldest texts, "probably composed not long after the original events, possibly by Deborah herself," writes University of Chicago Divinity School Prof. Tikva Frymer-Kensky in Women of Scripture. The song's archaic language also sets it apart. Ackerman says the song's Hebrew is as distinct from the Hebrew in the rest of the Bible as the English of Beowulf is from the modern tongue.
Though the two accounts relate the same basic story, telling details set them apart. The prose account, probably written much later, is more traditional: Deborah is a sort of cheerleader and prophet, urging the troops into battle from the sidelines. Jael kills Sisera in his sleep after slyly convincing him to hide under a carpet.
The older "Song of Deborah," on the other hand, "shows none of this unease about women warriors," writes Frymer-Kensky. In language that is powerful even in translation (and often deeply sexual in the original, according to some scholars) the song represents Deborah as a war leader in her own right: "the peasantry prospered in Israel / they grew fat on plunder / because you arose, Deborah / arose as a mother in Israel." And Jael's murder of the enemy general Sisera is a poetic study in bravery and brutality: "He asked water and she gave him milk / she brought him curds in a lordly bowl. / She put her hand to the tent peg / and her right hand to the workmen's mallet; / she struck Sisera a blow / she crushed his head / she shattered and pierced his temple. / He sank, he fell / he lay still at her feet."
The prose version's differences may be the result of an effort to rewrite history, or at least reshape mythology. Ackerman suggests a later writer, "someone who couldn't go with the song's notion of a woman as a war leader," reshaped the tale to fit with the more conservative notions of the day.
Yet both accounts underscore what may be Judges' most important message. Over and over again, Israel's saviors are unlikely heroes. Deborah and Jael were women; mighty Samson was gullible and had a weakness for women; Jephthah was the bandit son of a prostitute; and Ehud was left-handed (things were different back then, apparently). By emphasizing the inappropriateness of the hero, readers were reminded of God's importance. "God can do whatever he wants, and if he wants to work through nonsoldiers—that is, women—he can," says Everett Fox, the Allen M. Glick Professor of Judaic and Biblical Studies at Clark University in Massachusetts and the author of a widely acclaimed translation of the first five books of the Bible. "If you can be rescued by a housewife, it just goes to show God works in mysterious ways."
But was Deborah real? For decades, Judges has been scrutinized for clues to Israel's history. The book describes a period somewhere between 1200 and 1050 B.C., after the death of the tribal leader Joshua. Fox calls it "the Bible's version of the Wild West," a dark time of chaos and collapse. Over and over again, the people of Israel are defeated in battle or fall into moral decline, only to be saved by charismatic leaders. In the original Hebrew, Fox says, the "judges" of the book's title ( " shofet") translates roughly to "chieftains."
Most scholars today think the stories and songs in Judges were collected and written down hundreds of years after they supposedly took place. Working somewhere between 620 and 580 B.C., the writers carefully sifted through traditional hymns and folk tales and selected certain stories to make their points. According to Brandeis University Prof. Marc Brettler's Book of Judges, the book's first goal was glorifying God; the second, justifying the rule of Israel's kings. "What they took from the past seems to be what was most instructive for the present," Fox says. As a result, the authenticity of the figures who are presented in Judges is impossible to verify and in some ways beside the point.
In fact, the ancient language in the "Song of Deborah" has led some to speculate that Deborah may not have been a person at all. The Bible describes the early history of Israel as a long struggle against the Canaanites, the enemy mentioned in Deborah's story. But a growing school of biblical historians argues that Israelites were in fact Canaanites who converted to a new, monotheistic religion. In her book Warrior, Dancer, Seductress, Queen: Women in Judges and Biblical Israel, Ackerman argues that Deborah may be adopted from Canaanite myths that would have been told around the same time the "Song of Deborah" was written. With its supernatural imagery of stars falling from the heavens and rushing floods, "God isn't just blessing the troops but is quite an actor," Ackerman says. "Deborah might be a sort of demythologized warrior goddess taken from an older mythological tradition."