The fourth of the judges who ruled over the Jewish people after the death of Joshua, was not a man, but a woman, one of the most famous of all times, the Prophetess Deborah. Before her were Othniel, Ehud and Shamgar, the latter only for a short time.
After Ehud's death the Jews forsook the ways of the Torah and adopted many of the idols of the people about them. As a consequence G‑d delivered them into the hands of the King of Canaan, Jabin, whose royal residence was the city of Hazor. His cruel general Sisera oppressed the Jews for twenty years. Sisera possessed a well-trained army of cavalry. He also had iron chariots that were the "tanks" of those days. The Jews suffered terribly under the cruel rule of Sisera, and in great despair cried unto G‑d.
It was then that G‑d sent them Deborah the Prophetess. She was one of the seven women prophetesses whose prophecies are recorded in the Bible.
Deborah lived in the Mountains of Ephraim, between Ramah and Beth-El. In the midst of the sin and idolatry, Deborah remained true to G‑d and His Torah. She was wise and G‑d fearing, and the people flocked to her for advice and help. Deborah held court beneath a palm-tree, in the open air. There, where everyone could hear her, she warned the Jewish people and urged them to leave their evil ways and return to G‑d. The entire Jewish nation respected this great prophetess.
Deborah was the wife of a man whose name was Lapidoth, which means "torches." Our sages tell us, that at the advice of his wife he furnished large wicks and oil for the lights of the sanctuary of Shiloh, which burned like torches. Thus, our Sages say, was the effect of this holy woman on everyone around her: spreading the light of Torah. Similarly our Sages explain that she sat under a palm-tree to show to the world that the Jewish people was all united and turning their eyes again to G‑d, like the leaves of the palm turn upward together, towards heaven.
It was fortunate that Deborah had such a tremendous influence. For even the strongest and noblest of the men of those days had given up hope of turning the tide against the Canaanites' oppression and idolatry.
When Deborah felt that she had helped the people to return to G‑d, she sent for Barak, the son of Abinoam. Some say he was her husband, and that "Barak," meaning lighting, was another name for "Lapidoth." At any rate, Barak was the most influential man in Israel then, and Deborah asked him to raise an army of ten thousand troops from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun, and gather them at the foot of mount Tabor, in the Plains of Esdrealon. With this army he was to attack the Canaanite oppressors.
Barak refused to undertake this task by himself, knowing well that only the help of G‑d and the inspiration of the prophetess Deborah could succeed in the hopeless odds against the iron chariots and cavalry of Sisera. Deborah agreed to accompany him, but she warned him that although he would gain victory, the glory would not be his, but a woman's.
Sisera learned of Barak's approach and led his huge army against the Jews. Naturally, the well-trained and armored Canaanite troops had no difficulty at first. They quickly gained the upper hand. But suddenly G‑d threw confusion into their ranks. Rains turned the battlefield into mud, and the chariots were stuck. Terrified by the sudden turn of events, the mighty warriors of Sisera fled in all directions. The overjoyed Jewish troops pursued them to the very hometown of Sisera, Charosheth, and not a single soldier of the Canaanites escaped.
When Sisera realized his defeat, he quickly descended from his chariot and fled on foot. Seeking a place to hide, he chanced upon the tent of Heber the Kenite, who was a descendant of Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses. Heber had been on good terms with Jabin, the king of Hazor, the ruler of the Canaanites, and Sisera was only too happy to accept the invitation of Jael, Heber's wife, to bide him in the house until the Jewish army would have passed.
Jael gave him food and drink and, exhausted from the battle, Sisera soon fell into a heavy slumber. Seeing this, the brave Jael decided to make Sisera pay for all the cruelties he had committed against the Jewish people. Cautiously approaching the sleeping warrior, she drove a long nail, a tent-pin, through his temple, thus putting an end to the hated oppressor. In the meantime Barak had arrived at the house of Heber, in hot pursuit of Sisera. Jael came out to meet him and greeted him with these words: "Come, and I will show thee the man whom thou seekest." She then led Barak into the tent, and there lay the cruel general, dead.
Thus Deborah's predictions came true: the highest glory of the victory belonged to a woman, not to Barak, and Deborah herself glorified the brave Jael in the immortal "Song of Deborah."
The famous Song of Deborah is in many ways similar to the Song of Moses, which he and Israel sang after the miracle at the Red Sea. The extraordinary beauty and charm of her poem make it next to the "Shiroh" (Song) of Moses, the greatest of all poetic songs of gratitude to G‑d, in our sacred literature.
Deborah begins by praising the men in Israel who consecrated themselves to the war of liberation:
Then terror spreads in Israel;
Then the people offer themselves willingly,
Bless ye G‑d.
Hear, 0 ye kings; give ear, 0 ye princes,
I unto G‑d will sing;
I will sing Praise unto the G‑d of Israel.
Then the prophetess goes on to sing of G‑d's might in days of old; she describes Israel's plight under the oppression of the bands of Canaanites, when all travel on the highways was abandoned, and the people had no weapons with which to defend themselves.
The rulers ceased in Israel, they ceased
Until that I did arise, Deborah,
That I did arise a mother in Israel . . .
My heart goes out to the governors of Israel
That offered themselves willingly among the people
Bless ye G‑d . . .
Then goes out her war cry, and the tribes gather behind her banner:
Awake, awake, Deborah, awake, awake, utter a song!
Arise, Barak, and lead thy captivity captive,
Thou son of Abinoam! . . .
She rebukes those tribes of Israel who were slow in joining her, preferring to listen to the pipings of the shepherds. In contrast, she holds up the shining example of Zebulun and Naphtali who offered their lives on the battle-fields. Then she describes the terrible battle, and the wonderful miracles that helped Israel to victory:
They fought from heaven,
The stars in their courses
Fought against Sisera.
The brook Kishon swept them away, That ancient brook, the brook of Kishon.
O my soul, tread them down with strength! . . .
In the end Deborah praises the brave Jael for having with her own hands killed the worst of Israel's enemies. And she concludes her song of praise to G‑d with these words:
Blessed above women shalt Jael be,
The wife of Heber the Kenite,
Above women in the tent shall she be blessed . . .
At her feet he sank, he fell, he lay; At her feet he sank, he fell;
Where he sank, there he fell dead . . .
So perish all Thine enemies, 0 G‑d;
But they that love Him
Be as the sun going forth in its might.
Deborah's aim was accomplished. The oppressors were defeated and the Jews were free again to live their own life in happiness. Both Deborah and Barak saw to it that the Jews remained loyal to G‑d Whom they had forsaken during the Canaanite reign. For twenty happy years the Jews lived in peace under the wise guardianship of Deborah and Barak.