Deborah is one of the few women in scripture depicted as a strong leader who does not need the help of a man. The start to Deborah’s story appears bland, a mere introduction to a narrative that will later become juicy, surprising, and even a bit gory. Judges chapter four merely introduces us to a woman named Deborah, a judge over Israel. Judges is a book that records a time when Israel was without a king, so judges had to arbitrate justice, command, lead, and settle disputes. The book of Judges involves a constant downward spiral in which the people of Israel experience God’s grace; they forget God and do evil; they get into trouble and cry out for help; a judge arrives to help; the people get better; the judge dies and the people repeat the cycle.
When Deborah appears on the scene, the people have gotten themselves into trouble. We, as readers, know that because she is a judge, she will deliver them. But it’s easy to pass over Deborah’s uniqueness in reading her seemingly boring introduction. As in most texts, when we take time, we realize there is much more than meets the eye.
The text tells us, “Deborah, a female prophetess, a fiery woman was judging Israel.” These facts alone are enough to shock the patriarchal senses of an otherwise oppressive and misogynistic culture. So, we know that the Bible was written during a time when women didn’t have many rights, and it was edited and canonized in a time when women didn’t have many rights. Amidst that patriarchal time of living, writing, editing, and later canonizing, this fiery prophetess and judge survived. That alone is enough give us pause.
But there’s more. Most often, the text is translated as “Deborah, wife of Lapidoth, a prophetess, was judging Israel.” Because women in scripture are most often named in relation to a man—wife, mother, daughter—translators assume that Lapidoth is the name of Deborah’s husband, even though his name has appeared nowhere else in scripture. Women rarely stand on their own in the bible. Not surprisingly, the word for woman and the word for wife are identical in Hebrew, one in the same. But eshet lappidot can also be translated as “fiery woman,” “woman of fire,” “spirited woman,” “woman like a torch.” Not merely a wife, Deborah may have been a bit feisty, fiery. Or some scholars contend that this fire-and-torch-like woman may have had red hair. Either way, she stands autonomous as a prophetess and a judge. All her other judging counterparts have been and will continue to be men. Deborah serves as the lone woman who arbitrates justice. According to Susan Ackerman, her titles as judge and prophetess “indicate her role as someone who serves as an intermediary between the human world and the divine (Susan Ackerman, Warrior, Dancer, Seductress, Queen, 29).”
Dwelling under a palm tree between Ramah and Bethel, this fiery woman stood for justice, leading her people in a manner unheard of for women. The Song of Deborah in chapter five recounts the ways in which she led the Israelites in battle and is likely the earliest written example of Hebrew poetry. It is the only example that describes a woman as a warrior. Warrior. Singer. Leader. Judge. Prophetess. Fiery woman, indeed. Deborah defied the Israelite paradigm of gender-appropriate behavior by stepping into the traditionally male sphere of leadership. Her gifts of leadership could not be bound by antiquated understandings of women’s roles. Her gifts for prophecy could not be bound by oppressive understandings of what it is that women can say and do. Deborah was a judge with unique gifts that were bigger than the opposition that would otherwise hold her captive. Deborah shared her gifts in a way that was uniquely subversive, far from traditional, and of more value than we have the ability to comprehend.
So, it is no wonder that this fiery woman joins my Holy Women Icon with a folk feminist twist. With flaming red hair flowing wildly, befitting of a feisty and fiery woman, she sways underneath an arching palm tree, the bright blue sky big and bold enough for all women who dare to dream as big as this fearless prophetess. With arms reaching out, providing justice for all, her heart cries out to us:
And arbiter of justice
Her heart pulsed with
God’s deep, abiding love
Deborah made the world a better place and I’m convinced that we’d all be better off with some more fiery women in our midst. Spirit, or fire, or whatever you have to offer, be fearless. Be fiery. Be bold.
Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship, Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today, Holy Women Icons, and Tearing Open the Heavens: Selected Sermons from Year B. She has been a clergywoman and professional dancer and artist since 1999. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: www.angelayarber.com