I love my name. It’s no pseudonym. Deborah. Devorah. Queen Bee. Just dare to call me Debbie as a child and my father would swiftly correct the error. The Hebrew Bible was his standard work of choice, and his daughters bear Biblical names. I got particularly lucky with mine.

Poet. Prophetess. Judge. General. I remember telling a middle school classmate that my namesake gave me several career choices: Poet Laureate? General Authority? Supreme Court Justice? Commander in Chief? Plenty to aspire to.

Deborah’s story is found in Judges 4 and 5 and bears retelling. . .

Israel is captive, and the Canaanite king patrols the valleys with 900 iron chariots. Deborah, Israelite judge and prophetess, sits beneath her palm tree in the hills of Ephraim, solving disputes. But one day a voice comes to Deborah, telling her to “Awake, awake and utter a song.” Her people live in fear and avoid the highways, but she can lead them to a vibrant peace. “The inhabitants of the villages ceased, they ceased in Israel, until that I Deborah arose, that I arose a mother in Israel.”

She calls up General Barak, tells him to raise an army. He responds, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I will not go.” She agrees, but notes that ultimately victory will be delivered to “the hand of a woman.” When word reaches Sisera that Barak has amassed an army in the hills, he is fearless – he has 900 chariots after all, and he parks them all in the valley, waiting for the Israelites to come down or starve.

Barak may lead the army, but Deborah leads Barak. “Go,” says Deborah. “This is the day God has given Sisera into your hands. Has not God gone ahead of you? “

As the Israelite forces step onto the valley floor, thunder claps, the skies open and rain like spears pour into the river. It seems to Deborah that the stars leave their courses and fight from heaven. The swelling river leaps over its banks and begins to chase Sisera’s army. Soon the horses falter and fall in the torrents, and the chariot wheels spin and sink in the black mud.

Naturally, Sisera abandons his chariot and flees on foot. When he reaches the tent of Jael, she greets him warmly. After giving him milk and tucking him in with a warm blanket, he falls fast asleep. Alone, staring at the oppressive yet defenseless leader, she picks up a tent peg and a hammer and drives it through his temple. When Barak comes in hot pursuit, she calmly greets him as well: “Come, I will show you what you are looking for.”

In celebration, Deborah sings, “I will sing to the Lord, I will sing; I will make music to the Lord, the God of Israel. May we be like the sun when it rises in its strength.”

The land had peace for forty years.

Sometimes we try to draw tidy lessons from Scripture Heroes. Esther teaches us about Courage. Abraham teaches us about Obedience. Job? Strength in adversity. Of course, careful reading of any of these Old Testament stories reveals plenty of delectable messiness. I’m not sure what Deborah “teaches.” I love the poetry, the directive to “awake awake,” and of course I love her leadership. I am struck by the phrase “mother in Israel” – it seems to denote a stewardship absent literal children, and it is a phrase Eliza R. Snow and other 19th century LDS women regularly employed for varying purposes.

What do you make of this tale? What stories do you keep returning to?

P.S. LisaB/Julie — have you come across any good artwork depicting this story?


Deborah is K-12 educator who nurtures a healthy interest in reading, writing, running, ethics, mystics, and interfaith dialogue.

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9 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    I also love the story of Deborah. It’s one of the few biblical stories I can think of where a woman does not seem to be constrained by her gender. She is prophet, judge, warrior, protector. And she really seems to have the respect of men and women around her. Sometimes I really love the Old Testament. How I wish the B of M or Doctrine in Covenants, scriptures specific to our Mormon religion, featured at least one story of such an influential, powerful woman.

    Regarding your last question, check out these depictions of Deborah. They are the best I could find.

  2. LisaB says:

    I’ll give you the artwork if I can use your telling of the story!

    I have a Dore etching and a print (xeroxed from a collection of Bible women) but neither are great. I’ll try to find the details on the sources again.

  3. LisaB says:

    Oh, and Caroline, come on over to FMH and help me out w/ graphics there, too! Under Women of the Bible, Women of the Restoration

  4. Deborah says:

    Lisa — I’d be honored to have you use this in your scrap-book 🙂 Actually, I’m toying around with the idea of turning her story into a picture book text and shopping it around.

  5. LisaB says:

    Oh, and I love that, becoming a figurative mother in Israel, the land has peace for forty years–the number respresentative of human gestation. 40 days fasting in the wilderness, 40 days of rain, 40 years wandering in the desert…

  6. Deborah says:

    Lisa: OK, I have read this story a thousand times and never paid attention to “forty years” — thanks for opening up a whole new channel of thought.

    I first began thinking of the “Mother in Israel” connection while reading about the organization of the Relief Society. The early RS leaders, and Joseph Smith, embraced this phrase much as they did the title of “queens and priestesses.” Eliza R. Snow was euligized as both a “prophetess” and “mother in israel” by men and women alike (she was childless). I assumed that the name originally refered to Sarah (of Sarah and Abraham) but the phrase used there is: “Mother of Nations.” It seems that the term “Mother in Israel” originates with Deborah. Anybody have more history on this term?

    Oh, and just for fun, this is from the meeting notes of an early Relief Society gathering:

    The Spirit of God rested upon us insomuch that every one present rose and bore their testimony … [one sister] blessed Sister Mamie Steed in tongues, the spirit was so powerful it ran like electricity to the hearts of all present [Nellie Taylor interpreted] “I bless you that your blood shall be renovated and flow from the crown of your head to the souls of your feet, and you shall become a mother in Israel and a mighty instrument in the hands of the Lord in doing good among your Sisters.”

  7. Caroline says:

    OK, LisaB, I’ll see what I can do for you 🙂

    I think it’s really interesting that Deborah does indeed appear to be the first woman ever referred to as a mother in Isreal. Having the term refer to her really does expand its definition. If I ever need to give a mother’s day talk, I think I know what track I would now take…

  8. JB says:

    I had a classmate/friend from BYU (2000–2005) whose name was Deborah. She’s the one who told me that Deborah was a prophetess. That did a lot of good things for my faith and made me respect the name, in general, a lot more. You have a great name!

  1. May 9, 2012

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