Fleur shares the story of Deborah, a Judge and Prophet, whilst considering this stained glass window by John Francis Bentley.

We meet Deborah during a dark time in Israel’s history in the Book of Judges, chapters 4 and 5. God’s people lived in the Promised Land but worshipped both the true God and the Canaanite gods. God handed them over to their enemies so that they would repent and return to him. During peacetime, judges settled disputes and oversaw local legal matters, but when the people needed deliverance, the judge became their military rescuer.

Deborah – Stained Glass window. Architect and designer: John Francis Bentley. c.1892-3. Corpus Christi Catholic Church, Brixton, London.

There aren’t many pictures of Deborah despite her astonishing array of gifts. Most artists prefer to portray the gory episode of her female collaborator Jael, driving a tent peg through their enemy, Sisera’s head. This beautiful Victorian stained glass window in the Gothic revival style is therefore, rare. Unlike most of the paintings that do exist, Deborah is not sitting under her palm tree, she is combining judging and praying – her right hand is open, with prophesying – her eyes are focused beyond our gaze, and making music – her left hand is holding a ‘D’ shaped stringed instrument.

This is a wonderful example of multi-tasking enhanced by Deborah’s clothes symbolising her various roles. Deborah wears a long linen Alb-like gown with a green and gold edged tunic. As the Old Testament priests had hemmed tunics so she also has blue balls trimming her garment. She is further cloaked in a blood red robe indicating her military prowess. The use of gold for her coronet, shoes, tunic detail and lyre create a spiritual unity of colours since she followed God’s command in all her affairs. Her layering of clothes refers to the religious integrity of her roles as prophet, judge, military leader and musician.

Deborah’s distinctive role as a prophetess means that she spoke on God’s behalf, and this role is mentioned first, taking precedence over everything else she did. Deborah is the only woman who is both prophet and judge alongside two other men in Israel’s history – Moses and Samuel. The only woman among the twelve judges in the Old Testament. Her role shows that women weren’t always inferior to men since Deborah was called upon by God to deliver Israel. Yet in order to establish Deborah’s credibility she needed to be connected to the leading men. So she is introduced via her husband: ”At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel” in Judges 4: 4. Her headquarters were under the “Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim” (Judges 4:5) which was a central spot north of Jerusalem. The Palm tree was a symbol of justice as it provided an open, neutral place to arbitrate; and where everyone could hear. Not all her negotiations were resolved under a tree however, since blood and murder were just around the corner.

God allowed the Canannite King Jabin, to oppress the disobedient Israelites. Jabin’s General – Sisera, had a huge army and 900 iron chariots. Deborah, with guidance from God, sent for the warrior Barak telling him the Lord had commanded Barak to gather 10,000 men from the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali and lead them to Mount Tabor. Deborah plotted to lure Sisera and his army into the Kishon Valley where Barak would defeat them (Judges 4:5–6). Barak refused to go unless Deborah accompanied him to inspire the troops. She agreed but prophesied that the victory would be credited to a woman: And she said, “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.” (Judges 4:9).

We read in Hebrews 11:32 that Barak is mentioned as a great man of faith “who conquered kingdoms.” Barak is the man who came when Deborah summoned him because he believed that God spoke through her as his prophet and was with her in a special way. Much like Moses who refused to go forward unless God went with him and his people in Exodus 33, Barak was General-of-the-troops to Deborah’s Commander-in-chief. This was unusual especially since Deborah’s additional prophecy was that the Lord was going to hand Sisera over to another woman who would be praised for her courage. This did not deter Barak.

The two armies fought at the foot of Mount Tabor. The Lord sent rain so that the River Kishon swept away some of Sisera’s men and his heavy iron chariots were immobilised by the mud. Barak chased the retreating enemy to the fortress base of Harosheth Haggoyim, where the Israelites slaughtered them. None of Jabin’s army was left alive. Sisera had the weapons of mass destruction but Deborah possessed the armour of faith. (Ephesians 6:10 and 1 Timothy 6:12 develop this idea of Godly protection). In the heat of the battle, Sisera deserted his army and ran to the camp of Heber the Kenite, near Kedesh. Heber and King Jabin were allies so this would have made perfect sense. As Sisera staggered in, Heber’s wife, Jael, welcomed him into her tent. The exhausted Sisera asked for water, but Jael gave him curdled milk, (a drink that would make him drowsy), and a rug to sleep under. Sisera asked her to guard the tent’s door and divert any enemies. When he fell asleep, Jael crept in with a tent peg and a hammer. She drove the peg through Sisera’s head. Then Barak arrived and Jael showed him the dead body of Sisera.

After the victory, Deborah and Barak sang a hymn of praise to God in Judges 5 called the ‘Song of Deborah’. From that day on, the Israelites grew stronger and destroyed King Jabin.

“So perish all your enemies, O Lord!
But may your friends be like the sun as it rises in its might.”
And the land had rest forty years. (Judges 5:31)

The poetry in Chapter 5, of the ‘Song of Deborah’ tells a fast-paced story with eyewitness details. Like the Book of Lamentations and Mark’s Gospel, it leaves the reader breathless. It shares parallels with Judith who beheaded Holofernes, an Assyrian general, and thus saved her people in the Book of Judith chapter 13:23–25. Deborah sings about the Lord but to the Israelites such as “the earth trembled, and the heavens poured, the clouds indeed poured water.” (5:4–5). This was a cosmic battle since the stars in heaven fought against the doomed Sisera and the Canaanites (5:20). It required Deborah’s reliance on God in this Holy War and its victory given over to Yahweh (5:5). Deborah’s Song echoes some of the nature imagery found in Moses and Miriam’s Song in Exodus 15:1-21 and follows the model of immortalising a victory in music. Nature is included in our stained glass window in the elaborate foliage framing Deborah, ensuring that she is perceived as at one with the world because she is at one with God.

Deborah’s concluding words support Jael’s action, pronouncing her “most blessed of women” in Judges 5:24. Similarly, Elizabeth calls Mary ‘Blessed’ in Luke 1:39-56. Mary’s Magnificat Song in which the proud are scattered and the mighty brought down from their thrones, repeats some of the same ideas found in Deborah’s “victory song,” a common genre in Egyptian and Mesopotamian literature. According to rabbinic tradition, Deborah also wrote Psalm 68 since it clearly resembles both chapters 4 and 5.

Judges 4–5 is unusual in that it chronicles a slice of biblical history first in narration and then in poetry (as does Joshua 10:13). Deborah’s war changed ancient history by removing the Canaanites from the world stage. Thanks to Deborah’s faith and intelligence, and strategic assistance from Jael, the land enjoyed stability and peace for 40 years. In this male-dominated culture, Deborah exercised authority collaboratively and as God guided her rather than through her own devices. Deborah calls herself a mother in Israel (Judges 5:7, 15). One of the highest designations in Scripture because it indicates authority. (Joseph called himself a father to Pharaoh in Genesis 45:8). Deborah challenges stereotypical definitions of a woman’s abilities by combining both feminine and ‘masculine’ qualities and talents.

The Hebrew word Deborah is often translated as ‘bee’. Bees are mentioned in Deuteronomy 1:4; Psalm 118:12 and Isaiah 7:17-19. These verses all relate to conflict and biblical authors regarded bees as dangerous pursuers, which might explain Deborah’s role as “pursuer” in her battle against the enemy, in Judges 4:23-24. Other scholars believe Deborah means to ’speak’ which supports her role as a prophetess in Judges 4:9,14, and as a judge in Judges 4:5–6 and in her Song in Judges chapter 5. Deborah’s surname also has possibilities as ‘Lappidoth’ is often translated as ‘torches’ in Judges 7:16, 20; 15:4-5, and Deborah was a torchbearer for Israel’s faith, peace and security.

Handel composed a successful early Oratorio based on the story of Deborah in 1733.

Further Reading:
From Deborah to Esther: Sexual Politics in the Hebrew Bible by Lilian R. Klein. Fortress Press, 2003.