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Judges were charismatic political and military leaders who ruled over the tribes of Israel in the approximately two-hundred-year period between Israel’s appearance in Canaan and the formation of the monarchy under Saul (circa 1200–1020 B.C.E.). The tales of 12 judges are told in the biblical book of Judges. Their stories are framed by cycles of sin, punishment, repentance and then deliverance—that is, the Israelites do “what is evil in the eyes of the Lord” and a foreign king is allowed to oppress them, then the people “cry out” and God raises up a judge to overthrow the oppressor (see Judg 3:7-9, Judg 3:12-15). Deborah is the only female judge whose story is recounted in the book of Judges.

Were women warriors in ancient Israel?

Unlike other judges, Deborah is called a prophet and is depicted adjudicating disputes under the “palm of Deborah” (Judg 4:5). Hence, she is the only judge who is also a spokesperson for God and who acts in ways that are associated with what judges do today. She may or may not be married: “wife of Lappidoth” (Judg 4:4) can also be translated “woman of torches” or “fiery woman.” She may or may not be a mother: “mother in Israel” (Judg 5:7) may be a title of honor and authority. Like other judges, her story focuses on her military conquests. Deborah and her general Barak lead the Israelite army in a battle against the Canaanite king Jabin and his general Sisera. 

Deborah’s story of victory has several unique elements.  First, she rides into battle not alone but with her general Barak. In fact, Barak refuses to go into battle without Deborah. His hesitancy is met with a sharp rebuke as Deborah predicts that glory will not be his; rather, Sisera will be killed by a woman. You may think that she is predicting her own triumph, but instead her words foreshadow the second unusual element of the story: Sisera will not be killed on the battlefield at all. He will be killed by a tent peg wielded by Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite, a most ignominious death for a soldier.

Despite the fact that Deborah is indeed a woman warrior who displays both wisdom and courage (more so than even her general), for a man to be killed by a woman was still considered shameful. During the period of judges, when political organization was loose, leaders emerged from among the people based upon their personal charisma and military prowess. Consequently, exceptional women could and did become judges. However, gender biases still operated in Israelite society and women warriors were rare.

Why didn’t Deborah assassinate Sisera herself?

The Israelites rout their enemy, slaughtering all the Canaanite soldiers. Sisera escapes the bloodbath on foot. He runs by the tent of Heber the Kenite, and Heber’s wife Jael comes out to meet him, assuring him that he has nothing to fear in her tent. Acting in ways both motherly and seductive, Jael lays him down, covers him, and gives him milk. While he sleeps, she takes a tent peg and drives it into his head, all the way through his skull and into the ground beneath.  

At least according to one version of the story… Immediately following the narrative account (Judg 4) is the Song of Deborah (Judg 5). Some scholars think that Deborah’s song was written well before the rest of the book of Judges, and is thus one of the oldest passages in the Hebrew Bible, while others believe that it was written during the time of the Babylonian exile.  In the song, Deborah lauds Jael, calling her “most blessed of women” (Judg 5:24). Instead of performing her murderous act while he is asleep, in this version Jael drives the tent peg through Sisera’s skull while he is awake and standing. The passage is also full of sexual innuendo. The song ends with Sisera’s mother awaiting his return. This poignant moment turns gruesome when one of her servants assures the anxious mother that he is late because he is busy dividing the spoil: a girl (literally a “womb”) or two for every man (Judg 5:30). Her words remind us that rape has been a weapon and sexual slavery a consequence of war for millennia. Jael’s actions can be understood as a reverse rape—seducing and killing the aggressor before he had a chance to rape her (and others). In Deborah’s song, Deborah and Jael are both warriors, and as a pair they are a triumphant Thelma and Louise.

  • Jennifer L. Koosed

    Jennifer L. Koosed is professor of religious studies at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania. She is the author of Gleaning Ruth: A Biblical Heroine and Her Afterlives (University of South Carolina Press, 2011). She has edited The Bible and Posthumanism (SBL, 2014) and, with Stephen Moore, Affect Theory and the Bible, a special issue of the journal Biblical Interpretation (2014).