Deborah: Prophet, Judge, and Military Commander

After Moses guided God’s people out of Egypt, and after his successor, Joshua, led them in the conquest of Canaan, the Israelites seemed to exist comfortably from their victories. But, this peace was short lived as the Israelite people — once again — began to abandon God’s commandments and partook of pagan practices. The more they undertook apostasy, the more God withdrew his protection.

It was during these early settlement years of apostasy that is the subject of the Book of Judges. This was the time in which judges were chosen by Yahweh (God) to interpret legislative and cultural issues; they also served as military leaders to safeguard Israel’s future.1 Generally, each tribe had a military leader whose allegiance was principally to their own particular tribe, but God’s selection was to lead a unified nation in times of great conflict. Therefore, tribes sometimes joined forces in a loose confederation. This was all before the period of the Israelite monarchy of kingdom states and royal kingships.2

The Bible story about Deborah takes place about 1200 BC3 during the great Canaanite Oppression. It involves five main characters: (1) Deborah, God’s prophet and selected Israelite judge at the time, as well as the military commander for her tribe, Ephraim,4 (2) Barak,5 a military leader from another tribe, (3) Jabin, the cruel enemy Gentile king of the city Hazor in Canaan, (4) Sisera, a hostile Canaanite army captain,6 and (5) Jael, who although the wife of a Gentile loyal to King Jabin, was sympathetic to the Israelite’s cause.7

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The full story is recorded in just two bible chapters: Judges 4 and 5. Chapter 4 tells about Deborah becoming the only female judge in the Bible and her adventures in ridding an Israelite’s oppressive enemy, and chapter 5 tells the story in a song, written and performed by Deborah. This would make this remarkable woman not only a prophet, judge, and military leader, but also a singer-songwriter.

Deborah, with her husband, lived in the mountainous area of Ephraim near Ramah and Bethel8 and she performed her judicial function for the people while under a palm tree. Citizens would bring their problems to her attention and Deborah would decide how they should be handled. She led Israel for sixty years, including twenty years of hardship before the Canaanite war and then through forty years of peace after winning the great military campaign.

At that time, Israel held the wilder parts of the country, composed of the unproductive hills and forests. Their settlements were cut off from the better land areas in the central country by many Canaanite fortresses between Galilee and Samaria. The pagan king there, Jabin, also guarded all commercial access roads.9 Very important too, King Jabin’s military had 900 iron chariots, which were war vehicles of a higher technology than anything available to the Israelites. This made the Canaanites a formidable opponent.

Yahweh told Deborah to free his people from the oppression caused by King Jabin and his military chief, Sisera. She sent for Barak, a military commander, and requested him to gather an army from several tribes to fight the Canaanites. He agreed, on condition that she would accompany him into battle.10 She agrees, but then predicts that the glory of the war will fall to a woman.

Regardless of his motivation, Barak’s conditional reply to Deborah (‘if you don’t go with me, I won’t go’) was an unfitting response to a commander chosen by God. Perhaps Barak simply wanted to be assured of divine presence in battle.11 One commentator suggested that when Barak wanted Deborah to go with him, it was to honor Deborah as the expedition leader.12 I think Barak was very concerned about the enemy’s iron battle chariots and wanted to make sure God’s representative was along for the military action. And, some other academics say that his conditional response indicated a loss in faith that such a battle could actually be won. God did withhold the final victory from Barak, as we will see as the story unfolds, the men have less to do with the outcome of victory than yet another woman.13

Barak raised ten thousand troops and, along with Deborah, they all head off to war. Meanwhile, King Jabin’s military commander, Sisera, “learned of the battle being planned against his Canaanite army. He brought out his iron chariots and cavalry in preparation, confident that he would be able to crush the ill-prepared Jewish army.”14

Deborah gave the signal for the army to attack and at first it appeared that the Israelite army was destined for sure defeat, “but suddenly Sisera’s army was thrown into confusion and terror, causing his terrified warriors to flee in all directions. Sisera, unable to regain control of his demoralized army, also took to his heels and fled to a house,” where he intended to hide until it would be safe for him to regroup.15 Barak followed his path searching for the Canaanite enemy.

So what happened? What caused Sisera’s panic? The song about the adventure in chapter 5 adds insight: “the earth trembled, and the heavens poured, the clouds indeed poured water” (Judges 5:4, NRSV).16 Apparently, Yahweh caused an earthquake which broke-up the ground, and then he sent a great thunderstorm. The rain caused a muddy mess of the area, making Sisera’s 900 heavy iron chariots useless in the muck.17

The home Sisera had fled to was the tent of a Canaanite couple, but only occupied at the time by the wife, named Jael. Knowing she was living in the jurisdiction of King Jabin’s territorial dominion, Sisera felt safe hiding there. What he didn’t know was that Jael did not approve of the oppressive treatment of the Israelites.

Sisera was exhausted from the battle and his hurried escape and soon fell asleep in Jael’s tent. Cautiously, Jael “took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground — he was lying fast asleep from weariness — and he died. Then, as Barak came in pursuit of Sisera, Jael went out to meet him, and said to him, ‘Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.’ So he went into her tent; and there was Sisera lying dead, with the tent peg in his temple” (Judges 4:21-22).

Not long after this event, the king of Canaan was completely defeated and removed. From that point, the Israelites enjoyed forty years of peace. Deborah’s fame in the biblical record was in her role as a military leader. Along with her military commander, Barak, she successfully led a coalition of Israelite tribal militias to victory over a superior Canaanite army.18 Because of her role as a leader, she is described as ‘a mother in Israel’,19 for she delivered God’s people.



Some people are unlikely leaders. On the surface, they appear to lack the qualities we usually associate with greatness. David was like that, he was an unlikely candidate for his calling, but had the faith in God needed to carry out his mission. Likewise it was with Deborah in the time of the judges; she, too, had the faith to carry out her combat operation.20

The Bible teaches that our time on Earth is very short. “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14b). “Many people may shake mountains with their credentials and build kingdoms with their skills. But in the end, what will count for eternity will not be what we accomplished with our abilities but what God accomplished through us with our faith.”21

The song to emphasize this story of faith in God is by Charity Gayle; it is called ‘Seed of Faith’. It is based on the words in Isaiah: “Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand” (Isaiah 41:10). This song was recorded at The Mulehouse, in Columbia, Tennessee, USA. Selected lyrics are below and a link to the music video is listed in References & Notes.22

Fear not,
I am the Lord your God.
And trust,
That I’m working all things out.
So in the field of doubt,
Plant a seed of faith,
And I’ll send the rain.

Copyright © 2024, Dr. Ray Hermann

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References & Notes

  1. Isbouts, Jean-Pierre, “Deborah” in 50 Most Influential Figures in the Bible, (New York: Meredith Operations Corp. for National Geographic Partners, 2017), p. 53.
  2. “Hebrew Bible judges”, (Wikipedia, Wikipedia Media, 1 February 2024),
  3. Payne, J. P., “Book of Judges” in New Bible Dictionary, (Eds.) I. Howard Marshall, et al., (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996), pp. 630-631.
  4. Deborah was of the Tribe of Ephraim; see Judges 4:5.
  5. Barak was probably a member of the tribe of Issachar.
    Singer, Isidore, (Ed.), Jewish Encyclopedia: A Descriptive Record of the History, Religion, Literature, and Customs of the Jewish People from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, (New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1906), vol. 2, p. 521.
  6. Orr, James, et al., (Eds.), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, “Sisera” by C. E. Schenk, (Chicago: The Howard-Severance Company, 1915), vol. 4, p. 2812.
  7. Elwell, Walter A., (Ed.), Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), vol. 2, p. 1087.
  8. Mindel, Nissan, “Deborah the Prophetess”, (Kehot Publication Society, retrieved 17 February 2024),
  9. “Deborah”, (Encyclopedia Britannica, 20 July 1998),
  10. Ibid.
  11. Walvoord John F. and Zuck, Roy B., (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), vol. 1, p. 388.
  12. Singer, Isidore, (Ed.), Jewish Encyclopedia, (see #5 above), vol. 2, p. 521.
  13. Duguid, Ian M., CSB Study Bible: Notes, (Nashville TN: Holman Bible Publisher, 2017), p. 369.
  14. Mindel, Nissan, “Deborah the Prophetess”, (see above).
  15. Ibid.
  16. All scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989). Used by permission.
  17. Youngblood, Ronald, et al. (Eds.), Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995).
  18. Meyers, Carol L. in The Oxford Companion to the Bible, (Eds.) Bruce Metzger and Michael Coogan, (New York, Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 161.
  19. Scalise, Pamela J., in Holman Illustrated Bible, (Eds.) Chad Brand, et al., Dictionary, (Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 2003), p. 408.
  20. Simcox, Lorna, “Deborah a Mother in Israel”, (Israel My Glory Magazine, January-February issue 2002),
  21. Ibid.
  22. “Seed of Faith”; Artist: Charity Gayle; (uploaded to YouTube 2023; no licenses listed; no copyright listed, but assumed to be owned by Charity Gayle). Used under ‘fair use copyright’ for teaching under Section 107 of United States Copyright Act of 1976 – MUSIC VIDEO:
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