WHO IS DEBORAH?
Before immersing ourselves in the illuminations, let us look into the text to discover what we can of the character and circumstances of this unique Israelite woman hero, and to understand her actions, the place of her story in Jewish ritual, and how she is regarded in the traditional rabbinic sources. Through probing these questions, we will come to understand the nature of her heroism and, consequently, how I approach her character in the illuminations.
Who is Deborah? Deborah is the first woman in the Hebrew Bible at the center of a continuous story, and indeed her story includes not only a complete narrative but also an epic poem, a shirah, entirely devoted to her exploits. Whereas the Pentateuch includes copious mentions of Eve, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, and Miriam, none of these archetypal women has sections of text focused specifically on her deeds; descriptions of their actions are widely dispersed in the tales of the forefathers and Moses. In contrast, two full chapters focus on Deborah's deeds; indeed, as Arnold Band shows in his essay below, Shirat Devorah is distinguished as one of the earliest texts in the entire Bible. Despite the uniqueness of her character, however, the text provides startlingly few biographical details. She is described as "the woman of Lappidoth," a formula that invariably indicated marriage; we understand "the wife of Lappidoth." No character named Lappidoth appears again in the story, but the relationship between the meaning of lappidoth, "wicks," or "torches," and the meaning of the name of her general, Barak, "lightning," is taken by the rabbinic sources and modern commentators as evidence that Barak and Lappidoth are one and the same and that Barak and Deborah are, in fact, husband and wife. We hear nothing about children, so her reputation cannot relate to motherhood; while she describes herself as "a mother in Israel" in the shirah, this assertion clearly relates to her national leadership rather than biological motherhood in much the same way that American tradition describes the childless George Washington as the "father of the nation."
Remarkably, it is the woman — Deborah, rather than her husband, who is a general — who receives the gift of prophecy. Moreover, as Barak asserts, it is her voice rather than his that can muster the tribes to battle. Her reputation has nothing to do with motherhood, landholding, household management, or success at farming. Rather, quite independently of her husband, she is a shofet: an informal judge, governor, or chieftain whose reputation derives from settling disputes among Israelites across what appears to be a wide swath of tribal territories. Arnold Band notes that of all the shoftim, Deborah is the only wholly good and effective leader who is unstained by personal misconduct. We also infer that she is physically fit and able to accompany Barak in leading troops into battle. We are told nothing about her residence in a town — only that she holds court under the "Palm of Deborah." The midrash compares her to a solid stone house; consequently, I imagine her living a solid life in a such a house, perhaps near a crossroads of some kind in the Israelite lands. Given the breadth of her reputation when the story begins and her physical ability to ride off to war, I surmise that Deborah is probably in healthy, active middle age. She is certainly not some old crone hidden away in a mountaintop shrine, far from her people, as, for instance, Greek oracles were; she appears to be an integral part of her local community, with a reputation that commands respect even in the lands of distant tribes spread across the Israelite territory.
Deborah is remembered for a triumphant gamble, daring even for a woman with the prophecy of Israel's rescue from the Canaanites under her belt. The gamble succeeds, and that triumph seals her importance in the national folk memory. In brief, the text implies that the Israelite farmers and herders, who lived on the hilltops (the lowlands tended to be dominated by Canaanites), have complained to her of Canaanite raids. Deborah sends for Barak, telling him of her prophecy that he should fight Sisera at the wadi, the dry riverbed of the stream of Kishon near Mount Tabor. This is the gamble: at this dawn of the Iron Age, Barak's relatively ragtag forces of lightly armed farmers and herders were to draw the technologically superior, iron-reinforced army of Sisera into battle at a riverbed ... and hope to prevail. Sisera, however, knowing the terrain, would have realized that if the winter rains had begun, his heavy chariots would become mired in a muddy stream bed; he would have avoided the Kishon. So how could Deborah hope to trap Sisera in a situation where his superior army might be vulnerable to Barak's men? Clearly, the moment that Deborah chooses for the battle must be at the very beginning of the winter rainy season, when there is a chance of the first rainfall but when Sisera might expect the stream bed to be dry. And, as we read, with the help of Israel's providential God, Deborah's gamble pays off; the rains come — indeed, all the forces of nature, in the heavens as well as on earth, conspire to bring Deborah and Israel to victory. While Sisera escapes the rout, he is finished off, unexpectedly and gruesomely, by a female descendant not of Jacob but of Cain. Deborah's prophecy that Sisera would be destroyed not by Barak but by the hand of a woman is thus fulfilled in a most surprising way.
It is the water miracle that has lifted the Deborah story from simple inclusion in the Judges to a prominent place in annual Jewish ritual. In Ashkenazic tradition, the narrative in chapter 4, along with the epic poem (the shirah in chapter 5), serves as the haftarah (additional reading) accompanying the Sabbath Torah portion Beshallakh (Exod. 13:17–17:16), the account of the most magnificent of the water miracles, the crossing of the Red Sea. In Sephardic tradition, Shirat Devorah alone is chanted as the haftarah. Given the eminence of the events of Beshallakh, considered by rabbinic authorities such as Rabbi Akiva as the formative moment of the Israelite nation, the moment when the love between Israel and its God was first declared, granting Shirat Devorah the signal honor of being its haftarah testifies to the importance with which the story was held. In the Targum, or Aramaic paraphrase, of the Song of Songs, Shirat Devorah numbers among the ten great songs to be sung during the course of pre-Messianic history.
The Rabbinic Tradition
For all this honor, for all that Deborah is the only fully effective figure among the Judges, the classical rabbinic sources discussing Deborah are few, and their attitudes toward both the story's female heroines tend to be less than wholly positive. The Babylonian Talmud records a handful of mentions of Deborah, and she is mentioned occasionally in other works of aggadah and biblical paraphrase. These works are quick to criticize the bold women of this story. For instance, in the Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 14b, Deborah's pride is criticized: "Pride is unbecoming to women; the prophetesses Deborah and Huldah were proud women and both bore ugly names (Deborah = "bee"; Huldah = "weasel"). Pseudo-Philo, whose first-century CE retelling of portions of the Hebrew Bible, Biblical Antiquities, often embellishes the theological content of the given story, describes the notion of a woman judge governing Israel as a punishment for Israel's breaking the covenant. He also has Jael taunting Sisera that he can tell his father in hell that he was conquered by a woman. Balancing the critical attitude, however, Pseudo-Philo states that Israel mourned Deborah upon her death, recognizing that she had "firmed up the fence" of her generation. Eliyyahu Rabbah, a midrashic work redacted in the tenth century — in Palestine, Babylonia, or Italy — begins its discussion of Deborah by inferring that her gift of prophecy sprang not from her own merit directly but in the fact that by making fine, thick wicks for Barak to use in the ritual at the Temple in Shiloh, she burnished his reputation. Nonetheless, Barak is described at the beginning of the same passage as am ha'aretz, an ignoramus, like, as the midrash asserts, most of his peers in this chaotic period.
While the author of the midrash needed to tie Deborah's prophetic gift to her support of her husband, suspicion of women's uncontrolled sexuality colored the understanding of Jael's canniness at executing Sisera. Pseudo-Philo describes Jael's welcome of Sisera almost like a courtesan welcoming a lover — and we already know the treachery hidden behind her smile: "When Jael saw him approach, she went to meet him arrayed in rich garments and jewels. She was unusually beautiful, and her voice was the most seductive ever a woman possessed. ... When Sisera, on stepping into her tent, saw the bed strewn with roses which Jael had prepared for him, he resolved to take her home to his mother as his wife, as soon as his safety should be assured." Judith Baskin observes that "admirable biblical women are represented in negative terms because their actions question rabbinic Judaism's constructions of appropriate female roles."
Hence, where I find that the rabbinic discussions actually add to our understanding of the story, I certainly work with them. However, my visual interpretation relies primarily on a close reading of the biblical text itself. As I have written in the Introduction to this work, the close reading of the text is complemented by a variety of other interpretative elements, including an appreciation of the era's material culture derived from the archaeology of the period, from an appreciation of the centrality of the agrarian nature of the community, and as keen as possible an awareness of the emotions within the story.
Heroism and Legend
Deborah's heroic reputation springs from the people's trust in her wisdom as an arbiter and a leader over an apparent period of years, her gift of prophecy, and the sheer gutsiness of her gamble at Wadi Kishon. Whether through luck or divine intervention, her courage won the Israelites "forty years" of relief from trouble with the Canaanites, and she enters the realm of legend in the shirah. It is important to note here that Deborah is not a larger-than-life figure dropped to earth by an eagle, or found in a basket in a river, or produced through any other miraculous event. Rather, she is of her people, lives directly among them, and while God grants her the special gift of prophecy, she was evidently already exercising straightforward common sense and good judgment in solving daily problems. She arrives at her heroism through courageous implementation of her prophecy and with the cooperation of tribes whose experience leads them to trust her judgment and actions. It is this kind of heroism, grounded in the agrarian Israelite tribal culture with its attachment to the providential God, that I attempt to capture in the paintings that you find here.CHAPTER 2
LITERARY COMMENTARY DEBORAH
In the memory of ancient Israel, the period of the Judges is a chaotic interlude between the epic sweep of the Exodus, including the revelation at Sinai and the establishment of the Davidic monarchy. The narratives in the Book of Judges are usually brief and violent, often retelling the cycle of apostasy, punishment, and delivery. The people of Israel stray from the covenantal Lord to worship other gods; they are punished by the Lord, who subjects them to the ravages of hostile powers; in response to their pleas for help, He sends a hero, often called a "judge" (Ehud, Deborah, Gilead, Jephthah, for instance), to save them; Israel enjoys a period of tranquillity but inevitably returns to its wayward ways.
Recent scholarship by Yaira Amit, attentive to the editing of the text and its contextualization, arrives at a sophisticated formulation: "[I]t would seem that the book of Judges reflects the beginning of a process, that took place after the exile of the kingdom of Israel [722 BCE], of setting in order the world of beliefs of the kingdom of Judah, and the first attempt to understand the process of history and understand its underlying principles." As such, "the Book of Judges expresses the earliest signs of the taking of shape of an absolute monotheism."
However fascinating this formulation of the importance of the book might be in the history of ancient Israelite religion, it is undeniable that the Book of Judges is a compilation of bloody events: murder, mayhem, pillage, and rape. Of the twelve so-called Judges in the book, only one transcends the violent paradigm of the other heroes, even though she is the one who summons men to battle: Deborah. Deborah is sent by the Lord to deliver Israel from its oppressor — here, Jabin, king of Hazor — but she differs radically from the archetype of the "judge" we have become accustomed to from a serial reading of the book from chapter 1 on. The first three judges — Otniel, Ehud, and Shamgar — are portrayed as warriors. But Deborah — a woman, not a man — is presented as an inspired leader, a prophetess through whom God gives instructions to Barak, the general of the Israelite forces.
Deborah clearly was an inspiring figure to generations of Israelite audiences, since she is enshrined in the book of Judges in two different literary genres: a prose narrative (chapter 4); and a poem (chapter 5), which she ostensibly sings. We are told little about her: she is assigned no father, which is rare for a biblical figure. She is given a husband, Lappidoth, but that name might be a misunderstanding, since it exists nowhere else in the Hebrew Scriptures. Some readers imaginatively take the word lappidoth in its basic meaning, "torches," and translate the phrase aptly as "a spirited woman." In the prose narrative, she is a prophetess accorded a known seat of prophecy called "The Palm Tree of Deborah," to which people came for "judgment." In her, judgment is merged with prophecy. In the poem, chapter 5, she is both a consummate, inspired, forceful poet and, as she designates herself triumphantly, "a mother in Israel," an epithet that connects her to the matriarchs of Genesis.
A multifaceted figure — judge, prophet, poet, matriarch — she is convincingly fit to play a role in a complex plot. While chapter 4 supposedly tells the story of a victory of the Israelites led by Barak over the army of Hazor lead by Sisera, the entire battle scene amounts to one successful charge. The real triumph is in the deceptive plot. When Barak insists that Deborah accompany him to the battle, she agrees but warns him: "However, there will be no glory for you in the course you are taking, for then the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman." The reader assumes that she means that fame for the victory will be accorded to Deborah, a woman, and not to Barak the general, the normative masculine hero of Judges. But the plot is shrewder than the reader is.
As his army is routed, Sisera takes refuge in the tent of Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite, a putative ally of his master, Jabin, king of Hazor. Heber, we have been informed in what seems to be a misplaced verse (11), was a distant relative of Moses' father-in-law but had separated from him. Jael, in a famous, memorable act of deception, welcomes Sisera to her tent, feeds him milk, covers him, and as he sleeps, drives a tent peg through his skull into the ground. The scene is carefully wrought with many innuendos. Sisera, for instance, instructs Jael to say to any man who comes by that there is no man in the tent — and she will ensure that there is no (live) man in the tent. When Barak approaches (she apparently recognized both warriors), she welcomes him in to show him the corpse of his enemy. In a sense, she did not betray Sisera, thus since he was already dead, not a man. Deborah's prophecy came true, but not as we expected. Sisera was killed not by Barak but by a woman, Jael. Significantly, Deborah emerges with her hands clean. She did not kill Sisera. Jael did.
What we enjoy as readers, then, is not the tactics of the battle but the tactics of a clever emplotment. We have deception here, as in the stories of Ehud or Gilead, but Deborah, unlike Ehud or Gilead, is not involved in murder.
Chapter 5, "The Song of Deborah," is often considered the oldest extant sizable fragment of Hebrew literature. It is unintelligible in some places. Though basically a hymn of praise for deliverance, it is infused with the forceful fictive personality of the poetess, Deborah, who is supposedly singing this song. In the agitated proem (vv. 2–3), she declares that she sings this song of praise and thanksgiving to the Lord in a time of national upheaval. Just as people have dedicated themselves to the struggle, she will sing this song to the Lord of Hosts, not to herself, but to the kings and potentates of the earth. The exalted tone is enhanced in verses 4 and 5, which evoke the traditional images of the theophany at Sinai that one might find in Psalms. She graphically portrays the conditions in the country prevalent in the period of the Judges
In the days of Jael, caravans ceased,
And wayfarers went
By roundabout paths. (v. 6)
At that point she, "a mother in Israel," arose to save her people, since there were no fighters in the gates for Israel. Again, the woman must rally the men, and she enacts how she did so in the stirring battle cries and vivid descriptions of verses 10–12. Her challenges lead to victory:
Then was the remnant made victor over the mighty;
The Lord's people won my victory over the warriors.
In a dazzling series of names and bits of history reminiscent of scenes from the Homeric epics, Deborah praises the tribes who participated in the battle and chides those who shirked their duty (vv. 14–18). Turning to the enemy, "the kings of Canaan," she presents a brief battle scene in which we learn that Sisera's army of chariots was actually swept away by a heaven-sent torrent of the Kishon stream where the battle was fought. The excited climax of the battle is rendered by three cries of the same central term: nahal (torrent) in nahal Kishon,nahal kedumim (raging torrent), and nahal Kishon in verse 21. As in the narrative account of chapter 4, there is little attention paid to the battle itself; rather, victory is attributed to a torrent sent, obviously, from heaven.