From her seat in the shade of a palm tree, Deborah looked out over the highlands of Israel. These dry hills were her people’s home, and she could see all was not well. In the valley below, armed bands preyed on Israelite peasants. Travelers and caravans, the lifeblood of her region, were too frightened to take the main roads. It was a time of chaos, a time that called for strong leadership.
In answering the call, Deborah became a singular biblical figure: a female military leader. She recruited a man, the general Barak, to stand by her side, telling him God wanted the armies of Israel to attack the Canaanites who were persecuting the highland tribes. Barak was reluctant, and he insisted that Deborah go with him to the battle. Her answer was assertive and prophetic: “I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.”
So it was an unlikely commander who led the Army to a decisive battle with the Canaanites. Faced with “900 chariots of iron,” the height of military technology at the time, Deborah’s army of 10,000 Israelites rushed down from the hills, clashing with the Canaanite general Sisera near the Kishon River. The “Song of Deborah,” one of the oldest in the Bible, says the stars strayed from their courses and the river washed Sisera’s armies away in a massive flood. The battle was a total victory. “All the Army of Sisera fell by the sword; no one was left.”
Defeated, Sisera fled, taking refuge in an ally’s tent. Expecting refuge from the army chasing him, the Canaanite general was greeted by a woman named Jael. Sisera demanded shelter and water. Instead, Jael gave him a bowl of milk—and a tent peg through the skull.
The violence of Deborah’s story is a radical departure from standard biblical themes, which rarely place women in roles as warriors and generals. “Every other instance we have of women acting in a military context is of a woman acting as an assassin, using sexual attraction to lure male war leaders to their deaths,” says Susan Ackerman, a religion and women’s and gender studies professor at Dartmouth College. “Deborah, in terms of the portrayal of her taking the lead as a military commander, is unique.”
Deborah’s story would stand out even without her unusual role as a military leader. It’s essentially told twice: first in a sort of prose summary in Judges 4 and then in a poem or song in Judges 5. The song may be one of the Bible’s oldest texts, “probably composed not long after the original events, possibly by Deborah herself,” writes University of Chicago Divinity School Prof. Tikva Frymer-Kensky in Women of Scripture. The song’s archaic language also sets it apart. Ackerman says the song’s Hebrew is as distinct from the Hebrew in the rest of the Bible as the English of Beowulf is from the modern tongue.
Though the two accounts relate the same basic story, telling details set them apart. The prose account, probably written much later, is more traditional: Deborah is a sort of cheerleader and prophet, urging the troops into battle from the sidelines. Jael kills Sisera in his sleep after slyly convincing him to hide under a carpet.