Chapter 4

                                          Was Deborah, the only female judge, judged properly?


Deborah and Samson are the most famous of the fourteen[1] or fifteen judges, and both are unusual, Deborah because she was a woman and Samson because of his unique un-judge-like behavior and super-human powers.


The story of Deborah

Judges 4 describes how Deborah, a prophetess[2] and judge, summoned Barak[3] to assemble troops to wage war against the Canaanites. Her story is retold in chapter 5 in poetry with many apparent changes.

Ehud, the prior judge died, Israel resumed improper acts, and God gave them into the hand of Yavin, king of Canaan, whose general was Sisera. Sisera had 900 chariots of iron[4] and inflicted the Israelites for twenty years.[5]

Deborah tells Barak[6] that God commands him to fight Sisera. He agrees, but only if Deborah accompanies him to the battle field.[7] Deborah agrees bur chastises him saying a woman, not he, will get credit for the victory. This cryptic prophecy may refer to Deborah herself or to the non-Israelite Yael who slew Sisera after the battle.[8] Judges has Deborah ridicule Barak with the idea that a woman will best him. This fear of being surpassed by a woman is repeated in 9:54 where Abimelech fears that people will mock him saying a woman killed him.[9]

Barak agrees to do as God willed. The Israelite force was made up of 10,000 men (or ten military units) from just two tribes Naphtali and Zebulun. They are successful.[10] However, chapter 4 does not reveal how Barak achieved victory or even if he and his 10,000 men even fought. Verse 15 states “And the Lord discomfited Sisera.” The story of the battle unfolds only if chapters 4 and 5 are read in conjunction, for what is in 4 is not in 5, and vice versa.[11] However, as we will see, chapter 5 is filled with hyperbole and some of the events it describes conflict with what is narrated in chapter 4.

Sisera abandons his chariot and runs for his life.[12] He finds what he thinks is shelter in the tent of the non-Israelite Yael, but after offering him milk[13]and after he falls asleep,[14] she kills him.

A third woman appears in chapter 5, Sisera’s mother, who stands by her window watching hopefully for the return of her son.

In 5:7, the poetic version of this tale calls Deborah a “mother.” What is the author saying? There are several possibilities. A mother protects her children, and Deborah is protecting her people; this may be a literary device to contrast Deborah with Sisera’s mother who could not protect him. Similarly, the Bible sometimes calls large cities “mother cities”[15] because they protect the surrounding towns when necessary in a military manner, as did Deborah. However, the phrase calling her a mother fails to note that Deborah was a prophet and judge. Is it possible that this is still another denigration of women?


Women in Judaism

The Babylonian Talmud[16] lists seven female prophets: Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Hulda, and Esther.[17] One opinion in the Talmud rates Sarah as a prophet superior to her husband Abraham. Many people read the Genesis tale and feel that the first female, Eve, was superior in intelligence and initiative to her passive husband Adam.

Yet, there were unfortunately many sages who read this chapter and made disparaging views about women. For example, Abarbanel asks, if Yael’s husband made a treaty with Yavin, king of Canaan, how could Yael breach that treaty. His answer: women are not bound by treaties; they must only do what their husbands tell them to do. Abarbanel also asks: how come Deborah, a judge and prophet, needs to sit under a tree. The Aramaic translation of Judges, Targum Jonathan, answers that she dwelt in a house that was shaded by a tree. However, Abarbanel responds, she felt that it was inappropriate for a woman to be alone with a man in a house, so she arranged her meetings with men outside under a tree.[18] Zohar[19] reads: “Woe unto the generation whose leader (judge) is a woman.” Several sources[20] state: “Prophetess though she (Deborah) was, she was yet subject to the frailties of her sex. Her self-consciousness was inordinate…. The result was that the prophetical spirit departed from her for a time while she was composing her song.”[21]

Unfortunately, many rabbis even today insist that women cannot serve as judges. They explain that Deborah was an exception because of hora’at sha’ah, the “extraordinary needs of the time.” The rule states that sometimes a situation is so extraordinary that unusual steps must be taken to save Judaism or the Jewish people.[22]



As with Deborah, various commentators made positive and negative remarks about Yael. We saw some negative view above. Since 5:6 lumps Shamgar with Yael,[23] many commentators opine that the two were non-Israelites, especially since chapter 4 specifically identifies Yael as a Kenite. However, Abarbanel and Gersonides take the opposite approach; both were Israelite judges.

Commenting on 5:24,[24] Ehrlich states that Yael bested Edomite women with her behavior, but not Israelite women who had a more developed culture and higher morals. Ehrlich castigates Yael for her murder of Sisera who came to her tent seeking security, but she violated the ancient rules of hospitality.[25] Rabbi Johanan degrades Yael in the Babylonian Talmud.[26] He states that Sisera had sex with her seven times before she killed him.

Neither Ehrlich nor Rabbi Johanan give Yael credit for handling an extraordinary difficult matter well and for saving Israel.

In short, while the story of Deborah appears at first glance to be simple, it is actually quite complex. We really don’t know exactly what transpired. Also, there are sages, rabbis, clerics, and scholars of all religions who disparage Deborah and Yael, some going so far as to minimize the humanity of women generally. But there are others who praise both women and recognize that women are people too.

[1] If we consider Shamgar a non-Israelite. See chapter 3 where some scholars say he was a non-Israelite. Some commentators add Yael as a judge, as we will see in this chapter. If so the number is fifteen or sixteen judges.

[2] Radak states that we see no indication that Deborah prophesized after this incident; she was only given this power to solve this dire event.  Did he say this because Deborah was a woman and he felt it was improper for women to lead men except under emergency situations?

[3] The New Testament, Hebrew 11:32 lists Barak after Gideon, followed by Samson, Jephthah, David, and Samuel as those “who through faith conquered kingdoms,” and does not mention Deborah. Is this author also disparaging Deborah because she was female?

[4] The precise rounded number, like all such numbers, means “many.”

[5] Twenty, also a round number, signifies about half a generation.

[6] Some commentators such as Gersonides suppose that it is possible that Barak was Deborah’s husband because the verse states she was the wife of Lappidoth, which means flashing, and Barak also means flashing.

[7] But not to the battle itself. Why, asks Abarbanel, did Barak question Deborah’s prophecy? He seems to think he will fail unless she accompanies him. Abarbanel answer that he did not question her prophecy, but wanted her to be present to help persuade the Israelites who might question what she predicted.

[8] Yael was a Kenite. Chapter 1 states that the Kenites settled in the territory of Judah. However, 4:12 states that Yael’s husband left Judah’s territory and apparently aligned his family with the Canaanites. Despite this, Yael handed the Israelites their victory by killing the general. The episode reveals that only Yael was in her tent; we can only speculate what happened to her husband.

[9] Abimelech led an army and besieged a city. “He approached the entrance to the castle to set fire to it. A woman tossed a millstone down upon his head and fractured his skull. He quickly called to his young armor-bearer and said, ‘Draw your sword and kill me, or men will say about me, a woman killed him.’ So the young man stabbed him and he died.” This is still another belittlement of women in this chapter.

[10] Another round number.

[11] In chapter 5:20, 21, there are words indicating a flood. Scholars differ as to what it means. It could be describing a sudden unexpected rain storm that muddied the ground beneath the 900 chariots and made them immobile. This demoralized the Canaanites who fled. Barak’s forces pursued them and according to 4:15 left none alive, none being a hyperbole. However, it could also mean that the water that Sisera’s army was crossing suddenly flooded, similar to what happened to the Egyptians in Exodus 14 during the days of Moses.

[12] He may have abandoned his royal chariot because it was mired in the mud or he was afraid: his royal chariot was easily recognizable and when the Israelites would see it they would rush it and kill him. Some commentators think he ran by foot, others that he took a horse,

[13] Some commentators translate the word as yogurt.

[14] Chapter 4 seems to indicate that he had fallen asleep, but some commentators read chapter 5’s version as saying she killed him while he was standing awake.

[15] As in II Samuel 20:19.

[16] Megillah 14a and b.

[17] There is no indication in the Bible that the women other than Deborah and Hulda were prophets. What is the sage saying and why did he employ the oft-used number seven? We do not know. Perhaps he wanted to argue against those who minimized the value of women.

[18] Some Midrashim imagine that the judge Deborah sat under the tree where the patriarch Jacob buried his nurse also named Deborah. The Midrashim seem to imply that people considered her burial place holy and a suitable site for consulting a prophet. See sources in Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, page 413.

[19] Zohar III, 19b.

[20] Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 66b; Zohar III, 21b-22a; Midrash Genesis Rabbah 40:4; and others. The quote is from Ginzberg IV, 36.

[21] There are dozens of other statements, pro and con, in rabbinical writings about women.

[22] The rule is mentioned in Midrash Sifrei Deuteronomy 175 and the Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 90b and Sanhedrin 46a, and Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei Hatorah 9:3, among other sources.

[23] “In the days of Shamgar ben Anath in the days of Yael.”

[24] “Blest above women is Yael.”

[25] As the old man discusses in 19:5.

[26] Yevamot 103a.