According to traditional accounts, Israel was led by a series of judges after the deaths of Moses and Joshua (approximately 1200 to 1000 BCE). The Hebrew word shofetim translates as “judge” or “magistrate” but in earlier times meant something closer to “chief.” The Biblical judges were a series of tribal chiefs each ruling over their own clan. Each of these chiefs arose to power not through divine right or bloodline, as in the case of kings, nor through priesthood lineage, as in the temple priests from the tribe of Levi. On the contrary, these tribal chiefs came to power based off of their strength, wit, or through divine intervention. They are thus more closely aligned with the Greek tyrants than the Hebrew prophets.
Clear demarcations on political and religious rule in early Judaism are obscured by the narrative of Deobrah found in Judges chapters 4 and 5. According to the text, “Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, she judged Israel at that time. And she dwelt under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Beth-el in mount Ephraim: and the children of Israel came up to her for judgement” (4.4-5).
According to our text, the Israelites faced a formidable foe in Hazor where a general named Sisera led a Canaanite host of 900 chariots against Israel. Deborah calls forth Barak to lead the Israelite forces against the Canaanite army. Barak declares he will only go to war if Deborah accompanies him.
We are left with a series of interesting relationships and questions. Is Deborah the tribal chief or is Barak? Deborah is clearly called a prophetess. The fact that she dwelt under the tree of Deborah proves that she was the head of a religious cult or order. Cult sanctuaries were located by trees and in groves, and often the idea of “tree” and “cult image” were synonymous. In Judges 3.7 we read “And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord, and forgat the Lord their God, and served Baalim and the groves.” The word for groves is asheroth, who is the wife/consort of Baal (and many scholars believe also to be the wife/consort of Yahweh.)
In any case, the fact that Deborah dwells by a tree in a grove shows that she is part of a cult precinct. She is specifically labeled as head of that order. She has so much prestige that Barak, the assumed military chief of the tribe, will not engage the enemy without this woman at his side. We have here a representation of a matriarchal priesthood which is foreign to traditional readings of the patriarchal Jewish tribal and religious hierarchy. From whence did it come and where did it go? No one really knows.
The story finishes in fine fashion, as Deborah and Barak route the Canaanites and Sisera flees for his life. He comes upon a tent and a woman, who promises him safety and nourishment but who instead kills him with a tent peg (or beating stick, depending on how one reads the Hebrew). Here we have the most fierce opposition to Israel since Pharaoh led his armies against Moses. In ancient days, a chariot was like an Abram’s tank. 900 chariots is an invincible force against which Israel has no hope for success. Yet victory is theirs, led by a woman prophetess on the front lines and ratified by the slaying of the enemy general by a woman on the back lines.
The story of Deborah is a brief glimpse at the power of women in Biblical history. For a brief moment two women rose to eminence and glory by their wits and strength. No man had or could accomplish what they had done. In the the case of Deborah, she held actual religious and political authority as a chief in Israel.