Deborah, the only female judge in the Bible, is notable in that, unlike the male judges, she does not act but directs. She is described in Jud. 4:4-5 as follows:
Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at this time. She
used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel, in the hill country
of Ephraim; and the people of Israel came up to her for judgement.
The association of a holy and/or wise woman, called a prophetess in the text, with a special tree
calls to mind the worship of Asherah. The location of the palm as being near Bethel could
be significant in that Gen. 35:8 states that another Deborah, the wet-nurse (Heb. yanaq,
"to give suck") of Rachel, died and was buried under an oak below Bethel, so it was
named Allon-bacuth or "oak of weeping." While this might only be of significance in that
it explains the origin of a place name, and while this Deborah may only be important in
that she was Rachel's beloved nurse, it is equally possible diat the mention of her death is significant in that the author(s) of E saw fit to include it in their document, even
though this is the only time Rachel's wet-nurse is mentioned. Following Deborah's death in
E is the story of Rachel's death in childbirth, which is followed by the story of Joseph. So
Rachel's death ends a sequence in which Jacob, having been sanctified as Israel, builds a
series of altars to El, much as his grandfather Abram had done for Yahweh in the J document.
It is notable that both of them build altars at or near both Shechem and Bethel.
This indicates not so much a renewal of the covenant as two opposing traditions, the
Yahwist, in which the covenant is established between Yahweh and Abraham, and the
Elohist, in which it is between El and Israel.
Associated with the altar at Bethel is Deborah's death, and though we have almost no
information about her at all, she was a noteworthy enough person to be buried under an
oak. All other references to oaks in narratives dealing with the patriarchs involve altars,
oracles or sacred burial sites. Following the death of Deborah, Rachel dies in childbirth
and is supposedly buried at Bethlehem. As I noted previously, Savina Teubal saw Arab
men and women praying at what is called Rachel's tomb following the Six Day War, begging
her to give them back the territories they had just lost. However, Gen. 35:19 says that
Rachel died and was buried on the way to Bethlehem. Jeremiah 31:15a says:
Thus says the LORD: "A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;...
Since Ramah is on the way to Bethlehem from Bethel and since it is in Benjamin,
the tribe that sprang from the child Rachel died giving birth to, it is likely that Rachel's
voice weeping for her children is heard in Ramah because that is where she is buried. In
1 Samuel 10:2 Rachel's tomb is said to be at Zelzah, within the border of Benjamin. While
we do not know where Zelzah was located, it would seem to be quite near to Ramah. The
later tradition that Rachel was buried in Bethlehem could have been because of a misreading
of the text compounded by the mystique of Bethlehem as the home of David.
All of this means that the Deborah of Judges has stationed herself between the burial
sites of Rachel and the Deborah of Genesis. If this first Deborah was a priestess, as
Rachel might have been, and as seems likely from her burial under an oak, then perhaps
there is a reason that the judge and prophetess of Judges has the same name. Deborah is
Hebrew for "honey bee." The Greek word for bee is melissa, and either the nymph Melissa, or a hive of bees (depending of the interpretation and/or the version), fed
the infant Zeus with honey. There were also priestesses of Demeter who bore the title
Melissa. Nectar (or honey) and ambrosia were the foods that kept the Greek gods eternally
young. One reason for the association of honey with rejuvenation is that bees often
start new colonies in mammalian carcasses, as we will see in greater detail in the story of Samson (with the bees in the lion carcass).
As a result, they were seen as symbols of rebirth. In Minoan Crete, as well as in
Rhodes as late as 700 BCE, there are a number of representations of a bee goddess, which
would seem to represent Demeter in her role as the regenerator of life. Thus, just as the
Melissae were priestesses, the two Deborahs would also likely have merited the title
kohenet or "priestess." If the meaning of the name seems a bit thin as a basis for calling
either Deborah a priestess, bear in mind that the burial of the first under an oak is a
strong hint that she was something more than a mere nursemaid, and remember also that the Deborah of Judges is called in the text not only a judge but a prophetess, Such
women among the Bedouins today are given the title kahina, the Arabic variant of
kohenet. So, despite the all male priesthoods of Shiloh and Hebron, there might still have
been in the time of Judges women who could be called priestesses.
But to whom was Deborah a priestess? Given the association of the Melissae with
Demeter, one possibility is Asherah, consort of El, to whom Jacob dedicated his altars.
Since Asherah was probably appropriated by the early Yahwists as that god's consort,
there is good reason to believe that Deborah might have venerated both Asherah and
Yahweh, particularly the latter in times of battle since he was a warrior god. When Deborah
summons Barak to go to war against Sisera, general of Jabin of Hazor, who is now
oppressing Israel, she does so in the name of Yahweh. At first Barak demurs, saying that
he will go to Mt. Tabor, where Deborah has told him to assemble his troops, only if she
will go with him. She agrees but tells him he will not get the glory for the coming victory,
for Yahweh will,".. .sell Sisera into the hand of a woman" (Jud. 4:9).
For all his seeming timidity, Barak possesses a good warrior's name in that it means
"Lightning." Interestingly enough, Deborah's husband is named Lappidoth, which means
"torch." Whether there is any connection between the two is hard to say. Nothing is said
of Lappidoth but that he is Deborah's husband, and, even though he is her chosen general,
Barak remains a rather shadowy figure. He does not even initiate the battle. Rather,
Deborah commands him to engage the enemy (Jud. 4:14):
And Deborah said to Barak, "Up! For this is the day in which the LORD has given Sisera
into your hand. Does not the LORD go before you?" So Barak went down from
Mount Tabor with ten thousand men following him.
Yahweh routs Sisera, whose army falls by the edge of the sword, not a man escaping
but Sisera himself. He flees to the tent of Heber the Kenite, who has separated himself
from the other Kenites, who live in Judah. Heber has good relations with Jabin, so Sisera
has reason to think that Heber's wife Yael will harbor him. He is weary from his flight and
begs her for water. She gives him milk instead and covers him with a rug. Once his fatigue
and the soporific effects of the milk have put him to sleep, Yael takes a tent peg and a mallet
and drives the peg into his temple, clear into the ground. Barak, pursuing Sisera,
comes to the tent, and Yael shows him his enemy lying dead within. After the fall of Sisera
Jabin's power is broken, and he is eventually destroyed by the Israelites.
This story is sketchy and leaves us witii many questions. First of all, how did Barak's
troops manage to defeat Sisera's 900 iron chariots? Why did Yael kill Sisera, since her husband
had good relations with Jabin? Another question that comes to mind is, since Deborah
summons Barak from Naphtali, yet he has only 10,000 troops, how wide or narrow
is her sphere of influence? Fortunately, Judges 4 is not the only source of information on
the battle. Judges 5, which consists of the Song of Deborah, gives us considerably more
detail. Its claim to some historical validity is that it seems to be one the oldest bits of
Hebrew literature in the Bible. While the rest of Judges is believed to have been written
between 600 and 850 BCE, the Song may well have been written ca. 1125; that is to say
that it might well have been written at the time of the Judges. One problem with it as a text is that its early Hebrew is difficult to translate. Hebrew scholars have compared the
differences between the Hebrew of the Song of Deborah and the Hebrew of the rest of
the Book of Judges to the difference between Latin and modern Italian. The meanings of
as many as 70% of the keywords of the text maybe in doubt. Nevertheless, some important
facts can be inferred from the Song. Along with the Song of Deborah, we have the
clues given by the meaning of various names of people and places and other clues such
as the location of Yael's tent.
Let us first consider the reason for Barak's victory over Sisera. Judges 4:15 says that
Sisera alighted from his chariot and fled the battle on foot, a rather odd thing to do if one
is being pursued by foot soldiers and has a horse-drawn chariot at his disposal. That Sisera
abandoned his chariot indicates that it was no longer functioning effectively. This
seems to be borne out by the Song of Deborah, which says that not only the stars in their
courses fought against Sisera (i.e. his fate was written in the stars, Jud. 5:20) but that the
"torrent" Kishon swept Sisera's army away (vs. 21). In fact the "river" Kishon, north of
Mt. Carmel, is actually the wadi Kishon, a wash, a stream bed that is sometimes dry, and
seems to have been such in ancient times as well. So for this wash to have become a torrent
implies a cloud burst and a flash flood, or at the very least enough of a downpour
to make the ground near the stream unusually soggy. Even assuming Sisera's chariots
escaped the flood, their wheels might well have been mired, rendering them useless. It is
likely that Sisera's force of 900 chariots, each with a driver and a warrior, the latter armed
mainly with a bow, was vastly outnumbered by Barak's force. The Israelites are referred
to as peasants in the Song (Jud. 5:7, ll).1
Thus, Sisera would have regarded them as little
more than an untrained rabble and could have been confident of beating them with his
trained soldiers and the superior weapon of his chariotry despite having barely more
than 1,800 troops against Barak's 10,000. A sudden downpour would not only have
immobilized the chariots but would have rendered bows and arrows virtually useless. Sisera's
elite corps would have then found itself almost defenseless against an army five
times its size. Of course I am speculating a good bit here. Yet Sisera's flight on foot only
makes sense if his chariot was out of commission. There is, however, a mythic component
to this story. The wadi Kishon being turned into a flood and sweeping Sisera's chariots
away is an obvious parallel to the sea sweeping away the chariots of the Pharaoh.
As to the geographical extent of Deborah's judgeship, her song lists Ephraim, Machir
(i.e. Manasseh east of the Jordan, Machir being Manasseh's eldest son), Benjamin, Zebulun,
Issachar and Naphtali as tribes who sent troops to fight under Barak and chides
Reuben, Gilead (most of Israel east of the Jordan), Asher and Dan for not sending troops.
Neither Judah nor Simeon is even mentioned. From the Song then it would seem that
Deborah did not even feel that she had a claim on die allegiance of these last two tribes.
Her claim on the Transjordan tribes other than Machir was tenuous at best, the same
being true of the coastal tribes of Asher and Dan. So the seat of her power was the tribe
of Ephraim and its sphere of influence, which included the hill tribes of Issachar, Zebulun,
Naphtali, Manasseh, as well as the little tribe of Benjamin. This is evidence that not
only were the tribes loosely bound together, but that the 12-tribe confederacy was more
of a religious unit than even a loose political entity at this time. As to Deborah's enemy, Sisera's stronghold of Haroseth lies on the Kishon at the border between Naphtali and Asher. Quite
possibly Jabin's sphere of power roughly matched Deborah's.
That Sisera's base is called "forest of the Gentiles" is a clue as to who he might have
been. Given that the Israelites might well have had Canaanite elements among their
tribes, and given that they often referred to the Philistines disdainfully as "the uncircumcised"
a taunt not used against any of the Semitic peoples of the region, it is quite possible
that Haroseth ha-goiim was a Philistine fortress. Sisera is not a Semitic name, which
further strengthens the likelihood that he and his men were Philistines in service as mercenaries
to a Canaanite king. That the Philistines were already in the land is attested to by
the Song's reference to the time of Shamgar as being in the past. Shamgar was noted for
single-handedly killing 600 Philistines with a cattle prod. Sisera's name may be derived
from the Greek sysera meaning a robe made of goat-skin, specifically one with the hair
outside, a shaggy outer garment, which is highly significant when we consider that Yael,
his executioner, means "wild goat" or "Ibex." That her tent is at the oak of Zaanannim near Kadesh is also significant. Kadesh in Naphtali is Barak's home, and the
name means "holiness" or "sanctuary." That the authors of the text thought it worth
mentioning that Yael's tent is pitched at a particular oak, that the oak is near a sanctuary
and that Yael's name relates to Sisera's could all point to a priestess to whose shrine Sisera
fled hoping for sanctuary. While the curious means of his death may just have been a
result of Yael using whatever was handy, and the fact that Barak seemed to know where
to find his defeated enemy might be nothing more than good tracking skills, the whole
affair seems to have a ritualistic aspect. The use of the mallet and peg seems a bit clumsy.
Not only would Yael have had knives handy, but the tent of a Kenite, that is a smith, would
have had hammers and perhaps even swords. Another oddity of the situation is that
while she is called the wife of Heber the Kenite, she is alone in the tent when Sisera arrives.
Again, this could be mere happenstance, but it seems odd that Sisera does not even ask
to speak to her husband or wonder where he is, even though Heber is a potential ally of
Sisera's lord, Jabin of Hazor. The name Heber, by the way (spelled heth-beth-resh in
Hebrew), is a variant of Eber, the eponymous ancestor of the Hebrews. The name derives
from the verb chabar, meaning to join, to charm, to couple or to have fellowship. The
noun cheber means either a society or a spell. Either as a reference to a secret society or a
spell, such a name would support the idea of Yael as a priestess of some sort. It is also odd
that a woman alone would allow a man to enter her tent in the culture of that time and
place. Sisera's presence in the tent alone with Yael would have been considered evidence
in that society of adultery. Again, it is possible that this only refers to the urgency of Sisera's
situation. But if Yael was a priestess, and if her tent was considered a place of sanctuary,
then Sisera could enter it when she was there alone without violating a social taboo.
Yet another anomaly is that Sisera is at Yael's tent at all. Consider the odd course of
his journey. He sets out from Haroseth ha-goiim when he hears that Barak is at Mt. Tabor
in Issachar. Barak intercepts him and defeats him on the River Kishon. Logically his flight
should be toward the west back to his stronghold at Haroseth ha-goiim. Yet he flees
northeast into Naphtali. Perhaps this can be rationalized by assuming that Barak has flanked Sisera's army, forcing the defeated general away. However, the logical object of Sisera's flight would be Hazor, the Canaanite capital. Yet he ends up near
Kadesh, which is beyond Hazor. So it seems inexplicable that Sisera, in flight and fearing
for his life to the point that he tells Yael to keep watch at the door to her tent and to conceal
his presence there (Jud. 5:20), would bypass the powerful stronghold of his sovereign
to hide in a tent. I should point out in all fairness that while the location of the oak
of Za-ananim is north of Hazor in Judges, it is listed as south of Hazor in Josh. 19:33,
where it marks part of the southern border of Naphtali. If the location in Joshua is correct,
Sisera would logically have stopped there in his flight. I have used the location given
in Judges because that location is part of the story of Sisera and Yael. I offer a caveat, that
what I am about to propose is tentative, conditional and depends at least somewhat on
the admittedly disputed location of Za-ananim.
That caveat firmly in mind, one way to resolve the inexplicable aspects of the tale is
to consider it ritual in story form. The defeated general seeks sanctuary from a priestess,
who instead ritualistically kills him. Perhaps the rug Yael throws over Sisera is a goat-skin.
In the KJV Yael covers him with a "mantle" rather than a "rug." The Hebrew word used,
semiykah, can mean either a rug or a mantle. As a mantle it would approximate the Greek
sysera.. It is reasonable to assume that the milk she gave him was goat's milk. If Yael covered
her victim with a goat-skin just prior to killing him, it is possible that his name was
given to him later and is metaphorical. On the other hand, Sisera's name might mark him
as a member of a cult whose symbol was the goat, and Yael's name might mark her as a
priestess of that cult. One possible candidate for the deity such a cult would venerate is
Azazel, a desert demon to whom the scapegoat, symbolically bearing the sins of the people,