Updated: Feb 4
In the lectionary readings for the twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (Year A), the Book of Judges comes to the schedule. The verses found in Judges 4:1-7 bring the prophetess Deborah into focus. As I read those verses, the translated words that describe Deborah made her seem vague and atypical of the standard judges of Israel. Still, Deborah is raised high as a statement for the importance of women, even though those verses telling about her make her seem weak; so I looked deeper at the meaning of the Hebrew text and came away with a new view of Deborah.
Judges 4:1-7 go as follows (according to the New International Version translation):
1 Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, now that Ehud was dead. 2 So the Lord sold them into the hands of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. Sisera, the commander of his army, was based in Harosheth Haggoyim. 3 Because he had nine hundred chariots fitted with iron and had cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years, they cried to the Lord for help.
4 Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading [as a Judge] Israel at that time. 5 She held court under the Palm [“tomer”] of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided. 6 She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor. 7 I will lead Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.’”
Verses 1-3 set up the situation of need for Deborah to act. Verses 4-5 describe who Deborah was. Verses 6-7 explain what Deborah did. As is the case with many Old Testament stories, many names are written, and no one cares to examine what the words behind the name mean, and use that as part of the translation. This is important to fully realize what the above verses state.
Here is a list of the name of people and places that are mentioned above:
Ehud means, “Joined” or “Oneness.”
Jabin means, “He [God] Perceives,” or “He [God] Will Understand.”
Canaan means, “Humbled, Subdued, Subjected.”
Hazor means, “Village, Trumpet, Enclosure.”
Sisera means, “Keen and Swift,” or “Hawk-eye.”
Harosheth-hagoyim means, “Carving of the Nations” or “Silence of the Gentiles.”
Deborah means, “Bee” of “Fly,” as something that “Buzzes,” derived from “Speak”
Lappidoth means, “Flames” or “Torches,” and does not mean a husband, or a place.
Tomer means, “Palm tree, Palm tree trunk, Post – like a Scarecrow in a field.”
Ramah means, “Lofty place, High, Established, Deceit, Loose.”
Bethel means, “House of God.
Barak means, “Lightning” or “Thunderbolt.”
Abinoam means, “Father of Pleasantness” or “My Father is Delight.”
Kedesh means, “Sacred Place” or “Sanctuary.”
Wadi Kishon was a pool (wadi) along the river of water named Kishon,
Where fish were trapped, as Kishon means, “Catcher, Place of Catch,” or “Place of Ensnarement.”
Ephraim was the region north of Jerusalem (Tribe of Benjamin), south of Manasseh.
Naphtali means, “My Cunning, Crafty, My Wrestling.”
Zebulon means, “Glorious Dwelling Place.”
Naphtali and Zebulun were the regions to the left of and to the north of the Sea of Galilee, with Mount Tabor near the southern edge of Naphtali, in Issachar’s tribe land.
Tabor means, “Purifying, Declaring, Stone Quarry.”
Now, when these name-word meanings are realized, let’s look at what verses 1-3 say, when the meaning is substituted for the name.
1 Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, now that Oneness [or Unity with God] was dead. 2 So the Lord sold them into the hands of a king of Subjection who God will Understand, who reigned in Enclosed fortress. Swift, the commander of his army, was sitting on the Silence of the Gentiles. 3 Because he had nine hundred chariots fitted with iron and had cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years, they cried out for help.
When the names are removed (since Westerners and Christians know nothing of Hebrew and are blind to the name meanings), we see the need that had come to the point of making the people seek a return to God was they had turned away since the last rescue, finding a repeating of God’s lack of protection. Thus, the Lord sold them into subjection, which means they brought about their own state of humility, but God allowed one to rule over their subjection so harshly their eyes would be opened and force them to call upon the Lord again.
The meaning of King Jabin’s name says that God will Understand what motivates this Gentile. Because Canaan also means Low, Servant, and Merchant, the commerce value of the land is why Jabin sought control. The commander of his army would be nicknamed “Hawkeye,” due to his keen foresight as a military strategist. With Jabin’s castle fortress upon a high place, to see the surroundings, he could send out his military to swiftly quell any potential uprisings. He would then bring about Silence in the oppressed, as the Gentile ruler. As a Gentile, the Israelites would be forced to go against their Covenant with the Lord, or face extreme persecution. Their cries to the Lord for help is thus a statement that they refused to sacrifice their beliefs, despite having turned away from God.
This brings us to the one who the cries of the people reached, and the identification of just who Deborah was. Again, following the replacement system, where meaning is inserted instead of proper names, verses 4-5 state:
4 Now the Bee’s Buzz created by the cry for help reached a woman prophet, a woman of Torches, who was judging Israel at the time. 5 She sat enthroned on earth as a Post of Communication between the High in the temple and the House of God in the hill country of Shechem near Ephraim [in Manasseh], and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided.
When we read that Deborah “used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel,” we get the impression that Deborah was like a guru on a mountain top, who people would have to go to for advice. That is not how to read this statement.
The Hebrew meaning of the words and places can change this to a statement, so that the intent is to state how Deborah “dwelled beneath the post [palm tree] of Buzz [Deborah] between Height [Ramah] and between the House of God [Bethel].” Even the verb “dwelled” [rather than “sat”] has to be seen as the act of “living,” where she was an active member of the Israelites, who “lived” as a judge. Thus, as a “prophetess,” Deborah then received impulses from God, as the “antenna” that was tuned in to that holy station; and she should not be seen as some witch with a sign in the front yard advertising, “Psychic Medium,” who sat and peered into a crystal ball.
When Deborah is identified as “wife of Lappidoth,” the Hebrew actually states, “’ê-šeṯ lap-pî-ḏō-wṯ,” from “ishshah lappidoth.” The word “ishshah” is repeated, from where it states, “Deborah ‘ishshah nebiah’ immediately prior to “ishshah lappidoth,” and that has been translated simply as “prophetess.” That word “ishshah,” if “wife” is seen as the meaning, says, “wife of prophecy,” which is senseless. The alternate and appropriate translation of “ishshah” is as “female” or “woman.” Thus, Deborah was a “woman of prophecy” [a prophetess], and she was a “woman of flames” [the actual translation of “lappidoth”].
This translation removes all focus on her being a wife, who lived in a specific place [capitalized Lappidoth], or with a specific person [capitalized Lappidoth]. When certain other words are read within their translation parameters, along with the meaning of names, one is now able to see that Deborah was a female priest in the temple of Shechem, who acted as a Judge because of a talent she had, as a prophetess, communicating with God. She did not sit under a tree, as if idle and without work, as a gypsy crystal ball reader, who made a living predicting for money. She was indeed a High Priestess, and thus a worthy person to Judge the Israelites.
In the study of The Tarot, which some believe is based on the Arabic word “turuq,” meaning “ways,” one of the four basic “suits” is that of “Wands.” These are not like a magician’s wand, but “Torches” or “Flaming sticks,” which act as “Lights.”
The symbolism of Torches.
The symbolism has to do with “Ideas” or “Insights.” As such, when one reads that Deborah was a “woman of torches,” this is then related to her being a “woman of prophecy,” such that her talent was through “Ideas of Insight,” sent by God. The fact that she was probably some man’s wife plays no role in understanding this part of the Book of Judges.
This position of importance is supported when the remaining verses (6-7) are once again read with the substitute meaning inserted into the text. They now say:
6 She cast the plea for help to God and read the tools of divination used for a Flash of insight came to her as the son of Divine Ecstasy, delighting in the answer from the Lord from that Sacred Place of her Wrestling with her Craft. And she said to the querent, “The Lord the God of Israel commands you, ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun [northern lands by the Sea of Galilee] and lead them up to Mount Tabor [the Mountain of Purification]. 7 [The Lord] will lead Swift action, to command the army of Him who God Understands, with his chariots and his troops to the Entrapment River and give him into your hands.”
Because the current President of the United States is named Barak, much interest has been put into seeing how one with that name acted as a servant of a woman prophetess. Instead of only seeing person named Barak as a man “sent” to Deborah, the story gains more meaning from seeing the reason those named people were called to act in this time of need.
“Barak” means “Lightning,” which symbolizes a “Flash of light” a “Thunderbolt” of awareness, which is how sudden the Lord answered her petition. Deborah stopped being a woman human being and became the oracle of the voice of the LORD. She opened her mouth and God spoke through the one whose name is derived from the Hebrew verb “to speak.” From those commands of military action, Israel would return one more time to the fold. One can see how Deborah sat in a Sacred Place, a Sanctuary in the holy city of Shechem. From her Wrestling came a Stratagem of Craftiness, which along with God leading the minds of Gentile persecutors to follow their misinterpretations of an uprising near the Kishon River, they would be overwhelmed in a Trap and Caught in a position of defeat.
The rest of the story of Deborah and Barak take one away from this understanding, although the same symbolism of a Buzz of Insight and a commander of Lightning going together could make one envision the Ark of the Covenant again in use. The feat of God cannot be overlooked by seeing two human beings acting on the Lord’s command.
This reading is tied in with Jesus’ parable of the talents, due to one being able to see Deborah as filled with the Holy Spirit and able to allow the voice of God to flow through her. The ability to prophesy is but one of seven talents the Holy Spirit brings to believers. All talents are for the purpose of saving those who have lost sight of God.