(photo credit: screenshot)
The Book of Judges Chapter Four recounts the story of when the Israelites were subjected to the rule of Yavin king of Canaan, "and he mightily oppressed the children of Israel for twenty years" (Judges 4:3). At the time, a remarkable woman, Deborah, served as prophetess and judge. In essence she was the only female judge in a succession of 18 men who judged in Israel during this period. Deborah, who came from the tribe of Ephraim, sat under a palm tree and played a role similar to that of Samuel. She, too, would adjudicate disputes, speak the word of God, and reveal the future. In the song of Deborah she is called a "mother in Israel" (Judges 5:7), and it seems that this title, like the title "father," attests to her religious authority, both ritual and judicial – similar to the authority invested in men of God.
The difference between Deborah and the other judges who delivered Israel is that she does not turn into a different person, and her divine inspiration does not come to her only so that she might fulfill her particular destiny. She has a charismatic, self-reliant personality, like the ancient figure of the shepherd who knows the word of God and is conversant with the supernatural. In this sense, too, Deborah is similar to Samuel the shepherd, who dwelled in Ramah, at the edge of Mt. Ephraim. In ancient times, so it seems, there were women who served as religious leaders and were accorded a stature similar to that of the male leadership.
As an intelligent woman endowed with prophetic inspiration and creative talent, Deborah is not exceptional. Several biblical women are described as possessing similar courage, resourcefulness, initiative, and shrewdness.
In most areas of life, biblical women are markedly inferior to their male counterparts. But in two areas that touch upon one another, women have a clear advantage over men – motherhood (giving and nurturing life) and saving lives (overcoming death). When they work to save lives, biblical women must occasionally resort to ruses, deception, and lies. But in life-threatening situations, these are the legitimate weapons of the weak, women among them, who are at a disadvantage when it comes to physical, social, and political power.
Women save their own children and other young members of society, who--even if not their own biological children--are responsible for societal continuity, because they have an advantage when it comes to dealing with anticipated dangers. They are also capable of saving the society to which they belong. In each case a woman manages to accomplish what men cannot. For instance, the wise woman of Avel Beit Maacheh (whose name is never specified) saves her city from destruction and its inhabitants from annihilation. It is she who persuades the nation to accept the conditions of the agreement she reached with Yoav, who came to capture Sheva ben Bichri. In her ability to recognize the danger of the city's impending destruction and in her fervent desire to protect the city and avert tragedy, the wise woman exhibits political and rhetorical savvy, powers of persuasion, and psychological insight (II Samuel 20).
Esther, too, demonstrates courage, fortitude, and shrewdness and succeeds in delivering the entire nation with her feminine wiles. Like the rabbinic legend about Deborah the wife of Lapidot, the story of Esther also takes place in the human-historical realm, and the fate of Esther—like the fate of Deborah—is bound up in the fate of the nation. There is also a difference between these two stories of women who deliver their nation: whereas Esther's story takes place in the diaspora, with the struggle between Haman and Mordechai as a struggle between two members of the court in which Mordechai the Jew tries to save his nation from the encroachment of Haman the non-Jew, Deborah works to save the Jews from oppression in the land of Israel.
The story of Esther contains sexual as well as political tension: The haughty Haman attempts to seduce Queen Esther, but he is discovered in flagrante and summarily punished. These romantic and erotic motifs were of course very popular, and the exploits of the wise and beautiful woman who succeeds in deceiving a man appear in folk tales from the world over. But the Jewish storyteller adds national tension to the erotic tension, which is brought into even sharper focus by the fact that God's name is not mentioned in the Scroll of Esther, and so the national tension is devoid of religious overtones. Even so, it is possible that Jewish society of the time did not need any explicit mention of God because it was abundantly clear that the person pulling the strings behind the curtain was God, who resolves the narrative tension in favor of his people Israel.
The much-admired heroine of the Esther story is Esther, who saves her nation in an act that becomes known for all future generations as the miracle of Purim. Deborah the prophetess, too, belongs to the category of women who save their nation. According to the Biblical account it was Deborah who initiated the war against Yavin king of Hazor, and it was she who commanded Barak son of Avinoam: "Has not the Lord God of Israel commanded: Go and deploy troops at Mount Tabor; take with you ten thousand men of the sons of Naftali and of the sons of Zevulun. And against you I will deploy Sisera, the commander of Yavin's army, with his chariots and his multitude at the River Kishon; and I will deliver them into your hand" (Judges 4:6).
It is clear that according to the prevailing social norms of the time, some of which still continue into our own day, a woman could not take participate in active combat. But she could be the one to provide clear and detailed guidelines to Barak, who does not need to take any initiative himself, but needs merely to execute the orders he receives from a woman -- Deborah the prophetess.