Judges 4:4, 5: Who Is Deborah?

Verse 4:[1] And Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, she judged Israel at that time.


[Deborah] It is the same thing as bee: She, like a bee, was chaste, industrious, honey-sweet to her own, stinging to enemies (Lapide).


[A prophetess] It is no new thing for women to be prophets. Such were Miriam, Exodus 15; Huldah, 2 Kings 22; Elisabeth, Luke 1; Anna, Luke 2; the daughters of Philip, Acts 21 (Lapide, Bonfrerius).


A prophetess: As there were men prophets, so there were also women prophetesses, as Miriam, Exodus 15:2, Huldah, 2 Kings 22:14, and divers others; but the word prophets or prophetesses is very ambiguous in both Testaments; sometimes being used of persons extraordinarily inspired by God, and endowed with a power of working miracles, and foretelling things to come; and sometimes of persons endowed with special, though not miraculous, gifts or graces, for the better understanding of and discoursing about the word and mind of God, for praising of God, or the like; of which see 1 Chronicles 25:1; 1 Corinthians 11:5; 14:1, 3, 4, etc. And of this sort were the sons of the prophets, or such who were bred in the schools of the prophets, who are often called prophets, as 1 Samuel 10:5, 10-12. See, also 1 Kings 18:4; 19:10. And because we read nothing of Deborah’s miraculous actions, peradventure she was only a woman of eminent holiness and prudence, and knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, by which she was singularly qualified for the judging of the people according to the laws of God. If it be alleged that she foresaw and foretold the following victory, so did all the sons of the prophets foresee and foretell Elijah’s translation, 2 Kings 2:3, 5, which yet were not extraordinary prophets.


[The wife of Lapidoth (thus Jonathan, Syriac, Munster, Tigurinus, Pagnine, Montanus), אֵ֖שֶׁת לַפִּיד֑וֹת] A woman of Lapidoth (Junius and Tremellius); the wife of a prince (Arabic). A woman of lamps, that is, who would trim the wicks for the lamps of the Sanctuary (Rabbis in Bonfrerius). לַפִּידוֹת signifies lamps, torches, flashes (Bonfrerius). A woman of splendors, inasmuch as she was imbued and illuminated with divine splendors (Montanus’ Commentary). I rather think that she was the wife of Lapidoth (Bonfrerius). But, when she was moved by the prophetic spirit, she dwelt at a distance from her husband (Vatablus). But it is not incompatible for married women, and women free from marriage, to be imbued with the prophetic spirit (Bonfrerius).


The wife of Lapidoth; or, a woman of Lapidoth; and so Lapidoth is not the name of a man, but of the place of her birth or abode.


[Who was judging the people] Question: Whether she was therefore the Judge? Response 1: Some answer in the affirmative (Malvenda, Ambrose[2] and Jerome in Lapide, Bonfrerius): For the Scripture speaks of her function in exactly the same way as of the other Judges. And many examples demonstrate that this is not foreign to women (Malvenda). Response 2: Others answer in the negative (Tostatus, Lapide, Bonfrerius, Estius, Menochius, Tirinus). For, 1. They had not thoroughly considered that before this war Jabin and Sisera were ruling over the Hebrews (Lapide, Menochius), and after the war Barak was Judge (Menochius). 2. She calls herself a mother in Israel,[3] not a princess, or mistress (Estius). 3. What was the first and principal duty of the Judge, namely, to defend the people, and to act as General in war, she did not do (Bonfrerius). 4. If as sovereign she had ruled, she would have gathered the army by her own authority; but, on the other hand, she gathered it from voluntary soldiers, Judges 5:2, 9 (Bonfrerius, Estius), and not even from all the tribes: whence it is evident that she conducted the affairs of the people more by counsel than by power (Estius). She was judging the people, yet without the principate (Menochius). She held court for the people, and she settled lawsuits; but without jurisdiction, or judicial power (Serarius, Lapide, Tirinus). Because she was a Prophetess and a prudent woman, the people willingly submitted their controversies to her (Estius, Lapide, Menochius, Tirinus). Thus Deioces initially, before he was made King, from his wisdom alone, and the authority thence following, acted the part of Judge among the Medes,[4] Herodotus’[5] Histories 1. Thus also Samuel was responding to those asking advice concerning difficult matters (Lapide). I acknowledge that this matter is obscure; yet I would rather that she were properly the Judge. Granted that in the war she was not the General, because that was less fitting; but she was a companion in the war, and the author of the war, verse 9. Indeed, Barak was also Judge, according to Hebrews 11. And why should there not be two Judges, as there were two High Priests, Zakok and Abiathar?[6] Although it could also be said that Deborah, who had received the principate for that time, that is, as long as that office was not being permitted to any man by the prohibition of the tyrant, afterwards abstinuisse, abstained from, the principate and office of judging [for thus it is to be read, not obtinuisse, she obtained or held fast, as the sense indicates], and only aided Barak with counsel. Now, she calls herself a Mother, because of her love and concern from the public welfare. Finally, since she herself was not leading the army, it was not fitting that the army be gathered by her as the sovereign, but by Barak, to whom she knew by revelation sufficiently numerous soldiers were willingly going to adhere (Bonfrerius).


She judged Israel, that is, determined causes and controversies arising among the Israelites, as is implied, Judges 4:5. And this Jabin might suffer to be done, especially by a woman; and the frequent discharge of this part of the judge’s office, whereby she gained great power and authority with the people, did notably (though not observed by the tyrant) prepare the way for her sliding into the other part of her office, which was to defend and rescue the people from their enemies.


Verse 5:[7] (Gen. 35:8) 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 judgment.


[And she was sitting, יוֹשֶׁבֶת] Dwelling, or, she was dwelling (Munster, Pagnine, Tigurinus, Castalio, Jonathan, similarly the Syriac, Arabic). Others: sitting (Septuagint, Montanus). That is, when she was holding court; for that is wont to be the posture of those giving judgment (Bonfrerius).


[Under the palm tree, etc., תַּֽחַת־תֹּ֜מֶר דְּבוֹרָ֗ה] Under the palm tree of Deborah (Septuagint, Munster, Pagnine, Montanus, Tigurinus); under the palm tree that was afterwards named after Deborah (Vatablus). To others Deborah is nominative, Deborah was spending time under the palm tree (Syriac, certain interpreters in Vatablus).


[Between Ramah and Beth-el] These cities were on the borders of Benjamin (where Ramah was) and Ephraim (where Bethel was) (Bonfrerius).


For judgment: To have their suits and causes determined by her sentence.

[1] Hebrew: וּדְבוֹרָה֙ אִשָּׁ֣ה נְבִיאָ֔ה אֵ֖שֶׁת לַפִּיד֑וֹת הִ֛יא שֹׁפְטָ֥ה אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בָּעֵ֥ת הַהִֽיא׃


[2] Ambrose (340-397), Bishop of Milan, was a man of great influence, ecclesiastically and politically, and was instrumental in the conversion of Augustine.


[3] Judges 5:7.


[4] Deioces (seventh century BC) appears to have been the first king of the Medes after they gained their independence from the Assyrians.


[5] Herodotus (c. 484-c. 425) was a Greek historian, sometimes called “The Father of History”.


[6] See 2 Samuel 8:17; 15:24-35; 20:25.


[7] Hebrew: וְ֠הִיא יוֹשֶׁ֙בֶת תַּֽחַת־תֹּ֜מֶר דְּבוֹרָ֗ה בֵּ֧ין הָרָמָ֛ה וּבֵ֥ין בֵּֽית־אֵ֖ל בְּהַ֣ר אֶפְרָ֑יִם וַיַּעֲל֥וּ אֵלֶ֛יהָ בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לַמִּשְׁפָּֽט׃

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Dr. Steven Dilday holds a BA in Religion and Philosophy from Campbell University, a Master of Arts in Religion from Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia), and both a Master of Divinity and a  Ph.D. in Puritan History and Literature from Whitefield Theological Seminary.  He is also the translator of Matthew Poole's Synopsis of Biblical Interpreters and Bernardinus De Moor’s Didactico-Elenctic Theology.

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