Judge Deborah

The Hebrew Prophetess in Christian Tradition

by Patrick Henry Reardon

Early in the history of the Chosen People’s occupation of the Promised Land appears the matriarchal and prophetic Deborah, the only woman listed among the “Judges” that guided Israel’s various tribes during the two centuries or so between the Conquest and the rise of Saul. Most of what we know of this lady comes from chapters 4 and 5 of the Book of Judges,1  a historical account followed by a canticle showing signs of great antiquity. This material, prior to its incorporation into the literary sources of the Book of Judges, was probably preserved for a long time in Ephraim’s narrative traditions at the shrine of Bethel, not far from which stood the palm tree under which Deborah was known to sit and deliver oracular guidance to the people. Although we are not explicitly told so, the reference to forty years of peace in Judges 5:31 has suggested to some readers that this was the length of Deborah’s ministry.2 

It is the purpose of the present article to examine the story in Judges 4 and 5 within the context of traditional Christian approaches to it, and more especially the characters within it, but most especially the character of Deborah herself. As we shall see, the traditional approaches to this narrative laid a particular stress on soteriology and the moral life. Toward the end of the study, I hope to offer some suggestions for further exegetical avenues to the story of Deborah.

With respect to both of our proposed lines of approach, soteriology and the moral life, another introductory comment may be in order.

Within the Deborah account itself, of course, there is already present an explicit interest in soteriology. Taken within the full context of the Book of Judges, this interest is certainly not concealed. The story is, first and last, an account of God’s deliverance of Israel from her oppressing enemies (“And the Lord routed Sisera”—Judges 4:15), and it stands within a lengthy series of such stories united mainly by this common theme. Indeed, if the several traditions within Judges, drawn from quite diverse local settings and tribal traditions, are joined by any element beyond mere chronology, the motif of God’s deliverance is certainly that element. The Book of Judges is essentially a detailed account of God’s repeated deliverance of his people through the agency of charismatic figures prior to the rise of the monarchy. The key to understanding Deborah, surely, is through that general consideration.

With regard to the theme of the moral life, on the other hand, one readily admits that this consideration is of far less importance to the purposes of the Book of Judges. Truly, if the inculcating of moral example ranked very high among those purposes, it would be difficult to explain how some of the juicier stories in Judges ever managed to find their place at all! In the Deborah account, nonetheless, such a moral interest is certainly present, at least in a minor key, and it is to be discovered chiefly in the accented contrast between the timid Barak and the more decisive and “executive” activities of the two women, Deborah and Jael. But more of this along the way.

The Queen Bee

The medieval German abbot Rupert of Deutz was of the opinion that the account of Deborah was “a plain story”; 3  consequently, he did not comment on it at great length. Other Christian readers, however, have ventured most interesting observations about that same narrative, finding arcane and mysterious significance in its structure and details. They reasoned that, if Deborah truly was a prophetess, as the sacred text says (Judges 4:4), serious readers should study her story in search of those deeper levels of spiritual meaning that might not be obvious to the more casual reader. Hidden mysteries, after all, are the very substance of prophecy, and such mysteries are to be explored and unraveled with spiritual insight, the wisdom given by the Holy Spirit (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:6). As in all of Holy Scripture, therefore, Christian readers have endeavored to find in the Deborah story the nourishing fruit of sacred doctrine concealed within the shell of its bare facts and historical meaning.

Instructed in etymologies mainly from the onomastica of Origen and Jerome, Christians always knew that Deborah’s name means “bee.” Though precious few of them could read Hebrew, this point was familiar to both Greeks4  and Latins.5  In addition, the name Deborah sounded as though it might have something to do with dabar, the Hebrew word for “word” or “speech.” While it is very uncertain that these two expressions, dabar and debora, do actually share a common root,6  it is sufficient for our purposes to observe that generations of Christian readers believed something of the sort, and they went to some lengths to exploit the exegetical possibilities of such a connection.

Jerome set the tone of the discussion. For him, Deborah meant “bee or talkative” ( apis vel loquax),7  or “bee or eloquence” ( apis sive eloquentia).8  Furthermore, apparently taking the word debora to be a diminutive of dabar, meaning “word,” Latin writers rendered it into an appropriate equivalent, apis sive loquela, “bee or (small) speech.” With this interesting suggestion the possibilities of meaning were dramatically enriched. The “speech” of Deborah was holy prophecy, and what could be sweeter than the words of prophecy? But sweetness suggested the image of honey, and bees, after all, make honey.

At this point the exegete could draw on another common tradition, found in the prophetic literature itself, that spoke of prophecy as having the sweetness of honey. Thus, the scrolls eaten by the prophets Ezekiel (3:3) and John (Revelation 10:9f.) are described that way. Likewise, in the “received text” of Luke 24:42–44 (e.g., KJV), Jesus is portrayed as chewing on a honeycomb just as he was about to interpret the prophetic Scriptures to the Church. Rather early in patristic literature, likewise, we begin to find the honey contained in the honeycomb as an image of the sweetness of Christ contained within Old Testament prophecy. For example, explicitly describing Christ the Word as honey ( epi tou Logou . . . hos estin meli), Clement of Alexandria alluded to Psalm 18(19):10 to comment that “prophecy frequently extols ( anagei) him above honey and the honeycomb.”9  This analogy of Clement’s appears elsewhere among the church fathers,10  nor would it require much imagination to apply this symbolism to the case of Deborah. Deborah, that is to say, was equally a prophetess and a bee, and for the identical reason.

Again, Jerome led the way: “In the Book of Judges we read ‘Deborah,’ which means ‘the bee,’ whose prophecy is the sweetest honey.”11  This double dimension of Deborah’s name passed into common usage through the “ordinary glosses,” or explanatory notes, employed throughout the Middle Ages: “Deborah means bee or speech ( apis vel loquela) which signifies prophecy, and which brings together the delightful honeycombs of heavenly doctrine and the sweet honeys of divine speech.”12  The theme became part of popular homiletics. “Deborah,” wrote Rhabanus Maurus in the ninth century, “which is interpreted ‘bee,’ signifies the savor of prophecy ( suavitatem prophetiae) and the sweetness of heavenly doctrine ( coelestis doctrinae dulcedinem).”13 

But why should the sweet significance of Deborah’s name be limited to prophecy? What about the Law? In this connection Christian readers remembered that the psalmist also speaks of the sweetness of God’s Law, comparing it to honey. The favored text here was Psalm 118(119):103—“How sweet are your words to my lips, sweeter than honey to my mouth,” a psalm verse that Latin Christians loved to quote when explaining the meaning of Deborah’s name, apis vel loquela.14  The mere letter of the Law, however, as they were prompt to remark, was only the outer structure that carried the rich, sweet, and nourishing meaning within, and in this respect it resembled the honeycomb containing the honey of the Spirit: “Deborah means bee, because it signifies the law like honey in the wax; that is, it contains in the letter the sweetness of the Spirit.”15  Deborah’s very name, then, was the key to understanding her.

Prophetess and Type of the Church

In Deborah’s story, however, the character most resembling Israel’s other Judges is not Deborah, but Barak, as the Epistle to the Hebrews (11:32) had early observed. While most of the heroes of the Book of Judges were charismatic warriors, Deborah is called, rather, a “prophetess” (Judges 4:4). That is to say, unlike Gideon, Jephthah, Samson, and the other Judges, Deborah “governed Israel by prophetic oracles.”16  In so identifying her, the Book of Judges links her to Moses and Miriam, making her Israel’s first prophetic figure after the Exodus. In this respect her ministry more closely resembled, perhaps, the last of the Judges, Samuel, a figure whom the New Testament more readily linked to the prophets.17  Both as a prophetic figure and as a woman, therefore, she is unique among the Judges: “Though there were many judges in Israel, no prior woman was a judge; after Joshua were many judges, but none was a prophet.”18 

As Israel’s second prophetess after Miriam, Deborah often appears in lists of prophetic women, among such high company as Miriam herself, Hulda, Judith, and the daughters of Philip,19  as well as Sarah, Rebecca, the New Testament Hannah (Luke 2:36), Elizabeth, and even Mary, the Mother of Jesus.20 

It is curious that some effort was also made to regard Deborah as a widow and thus to hold her up as a model of consecrated Christian widowhood. For example, an apocryphal work handed down among the writings of Athanasius interpreted Deborah’s ministry this way, comparing her to Judith.21  Moreover, the great Ambrose held this opinion as well, even claiming that Barak was Deborah’s own son.22  So great was the authority of the bishop of Milan that these views might well have prevailed in the West, had it not been for the superior critical reputation of Jerome, who easily repudiated both notions as not sustained in Holy Scripture.23  It was as a prophetess, therefore, that the Church has always remembered Deborah.24 

If the whole ministry of Deborah was prophetic, however, this quality especially describes her canticle in Judges 5. The latter fits a certain established pattern of biblical canticles, and Procopius of Gaza observed that it was the fourth such in Holy Scripture, after Exodus 15, Numbers 21, and Deuteronomy 32.25  Understood in its spiritual significance Deborah’s song was to be sung in the Church: “spiritualiter in Ecclesia . . . canendum est.26  Christians have especially compared her paean of victory with that of Moses and Miriam at the Red Sea after the destruction of Pharaoh’s army.27  Deborah sang this canticle, after all, “in the person of the whole of Israel.”28  While not leaving out the song of Moses and Miriam, other writers also drew attention to the affinities joining the canticle of Deborah to those of David and, more especially, Hannah, the mother of Samuel.29 

Now, if Deborah was a prophetess, exactly what did she prophesy? This was somewhat less easy to say with precision. While there is no doubt, wrote Augustine, that “the Spirit of God worked through her,” the actual meaning of Deborah’s “prophecy is so little evident ( aperta) that without a lengthy exposition we could not demonstrate how it refers to Christ.”30  Ambrose, for his part, ventured a couple of suggestions on the point. First, he said, Deborah prophesied Barak’s victory and the exploit of Jael.31  Second and more important, however, she prophesied the coming of the Church of the Gentiles. Now, exactly how did she do that? Simple, answered Ambrose, Deborah prophesied that the victory of Israel would come from the hand of a woman, and this woman was the Gentile, Jael, who symbolizes the Church drawn from the Gentiles. So Deborah was the prophetess of the calling of the Gentiles.32 

But Deborah was more than a prophetess. A woman devoted entirely to the service of God, who was also a “mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7), who rallied God’s servants to fight his enemies, and a woman who, like Miriam, sang praises to God for his deliverance, a leader and judge who proclaimed God’s words to his people—in all these respects Deborah was a true figure of God’s holy Church. Like Moses, she stood praying on the mountain during the battle.33  More than a prophetess, she was also something of a prophecy, a prefiguration of that final Lady who is the Bride of the Lamb. Deborah was supremely an ecclesial woman, typum Ecclesiae, figura Ecclesiae.34  It was Ambrose, perhaps, who most eloquently expressed this large dimension of the ministry of Deborah:

According to the historical meaning of this story (secundum historiam), therefore, in order to stir up the minds of women, a woman judged, a woman set everything in order, a woman prophesied, a woman triumphed, and, intruding herself into the dispositions of battle, taught men to fight under a woman’s command. According to this story’s meaning as mystery (secundum mysterium), it is the warfare of faith. It is the victory of the Church.35 

Ambrose emphasized the aspect of ecclesiology in this account: “So the commencement of the victory was with the ancients ( a majoribus), but the end of it with the Church ( finis in Ecclesia).”36 

Deborah and Barak

In addition to her being a prophetess and a symbol of the Church, Christian comment has also drawn attention to Deborah as an exemplar of virtue, especially virtue of the more executive and aggressive sort that characterizes the Book of Judges.

Once again, it was Jerome who set the tone of such comment, observing that, if Barak had been a brave and decisive man to begin with, Deborah’s intervention in the battle with Sisera would not have been necessary. He went on to compare her to Mary Magdalene, whom the Gospels likewise show to have been a courageous woman at the time of the Lord’s death and burial, in conspicuous contrast to the intimidated, bewildered, and discouraged apostles.37  Elsewhere Jerome observed that God’s use of a woman to bring deliverance on this occasion was a reproach ( reprehensio) to the people of Israel. He thus compared Deborah to Hulda, who prophesied “when the men were silent.”38  Still elsewhere, Jerome compared Deborah’s victory to those of Esther and Judith, remarking that “Hulda prophesied when the men were silent, and Deborah, both a judge and a prophetess, overcame the enemies of Israel, while Barak was fearful.”39 

It is not surprising, then, that Christian readers have always seen the Deborah story as evidence of God’s equal regard for men and women. Thus, Theodoret of Cyr, citing the testimony of Galatians 3:28 that in Christ “there is neither male nor female,” remarked that Barak did not dare ( me tolmesai) go off to battle without Deborah. Citing this example, as well as the parallel prophetic ministries of Moses and Miriam, Theodoret went on to comment: “There is one nature ( mia physis) of men and women, for woman was formed from Adam and partakes of reason ( logou meteilechen) as he does.”40  (While all of this is manifestly true as doctrine, it is difficult to see how the equality of men and women is evident in Judges 4–5, where, if one may safely venture the remark, the women seem to be quite a bit more reliable than the men.)

Sentiments about the strength of women were understandably common when Christians read the biblical account of Deborah. Ambrose, for example, used it to show that widows really had no need for new husbands, since Deborah,

not held back by the weakness of her sex, undertook the responsibilities of men, and amply accomplished what she had undertaken. At length, when the Jews were being ruled by the discretion of the judges, because they could not be governed with manly justice, nor defended with manly strength, while wars raged all around them, they chose for themselves Deborah, by whose judgement they might be ruled.41 

Similarly and five centuries later, Rhabanus Maurus observed that the story of Deborah provides “no small encouragement to women,” telling them “not to despair of the weakness of their sex.”42  Likewise, Verecundus of Junca regarded Deborah’s governance of the people as evidence that “heavenly grace is poured out in like manner ( pariter) on both men and women.”43 

Such comments about men and women are rooted, of course, in the particulars of the story itself. Indeed, the contrast between the forthright Deborah and the timid, reluctant Barak is one of the most obvious and entertaining examples of this literary technique in all of Holy Scripture. The robust directives of Deborah in Judges 4:6f. (“Go . . . Deploy . . . Take”) are met by the poltroonish foot-dragging of Barak in verse 8. His pathetic response is composed of two hypothetical pronouncements that leave all the initiative to Deborah: “If you go with me, I will go. If you will not go with me, I will not go.” The very sounds of the Hebrew text mimic both the bee-like, rapid-fire delivery of Deborah ( lek wumashakta . . . welaqahta) and the lifeless, melancholic mumbling of Barak ( ’im telki ‘immi wahalakti, we’im lo’ telki ‘immi lo’elek).

This highly amusing contrast is further heightened by the fact that Barak’s very name means “lightning bolt.” The energetic Deborah is manifestly frustrated, having a difficult time convincing this lightning to strike! A few verses later, Deborah must sting the sluggard again: Qum—“Up!” (4:14) This sharp command, qum, is repeated in the canticle in Judges 5:12.

A plain reading of this passage would hardly seem to cast much glory on the character of Barak, though I am aware of no Christian assessment of him so severe as the Talmud’s depiction of him as a sort of dunce.44  Nor, on the other hand, did any Christian interpreter follow the lead of the Pseudo-Jonathan Targum which, in an apparent reference to Barak, changed “the angel of the Lord” to “the prophet of the Lord” in Judges 5:23. Nonetheless, perhaps more than one reader of the Epistle to the Hebrews felt that its author was perhaps overly generous in listing Barak among the heroes of faith.45 

The author of Hebrews was not the last reader of Judges, nonetheless, to adopt such a positive attitude toward Barak. Indeed, in the longest commentary on Judges 5 to come down to us from former times, the medieval Latin writer, Verecundus of Junca, saw in Barak a type of the Savior himself ( figuram . . . Salvatoris). In his relentless search for every possible arcane meaning in the various names in the story, Verecundus managed to overlook certain rather clear aspects of the characters as they were actually developed in the narrative. Thus, he completely missed the contextual irony of Barak’s own name, “lightning bolt.” Skipping the obvious sarcasm intended in Judges 4, Verecundus jumped up to the Gospels to explain the name: “For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of man be (Matthew 24:27).”46  Fortunately for the history of exegesis, this resourceful effort of Verecundus remained rather singular in the interpretation of Judges.

Other Christian readers, struck by the manifest weaknesses of Barak’s personality, have better appreciated the irony of his name. Following the lead of Josephus,47  Greeks translated it literally as a noun, astrape, “lightning bolt.”48  The Latins varied it slightly, some translating the name as a participle fulgurans, “lightening,”49  others as the adjective coruscus, “brilliant,”50  others yet as the nouns fulmen, “lightning bolt,”51  and coruscatio, “flashing.”52  In traditional Latin usage, these words were often interchanged anyway.

Another problem posed itself in this respect, however. What about “Lapidoth,” the name of Deborah’s husband? This name, taken as the plural of lapid, literally means “lamps,”53  but it was also understood by some readers to be a virtual synonym for Barak’s own name. For this reason there developed an obscure but curious rabbinical interpretation that identified Lapidoth, the husband of Deborah, as Barak himself.54 

This rabbinical identification of the two men, Lapidoth and Barak, for which the Bible provides not the faintest support beyond the names themselves, became a considerable feature of the medieval Latin understanding of Judges 4 and 5. Thus, Rupert of Deutz wrote: “Lapidoth is interpreted ‘lightning’ ( fulgur), and Barak ‘lightning bolt’ ( fulmen).” He took both names to refer to the same man, whom he identified as Deborah’s husband ( vir Debborae).55  Rupert was not alone in holding this strange view. For instance, Andrew of St. Victor wrote: “This Barak is believed ( creditur) to be the same person ( idem ipse) as Lapidoth. . . . This Barak is Lapidoth, her husband ( maritus), whom the woman summoned as she went to battle.”56  The same opinion (creditur, again) about Barak and Lapidoth was voiced by Peter Comestor.57 

The most noticeable aspect of a lightning bolt, for nearly all Latin writers, was the unstable and transitory nature of its illumination. Lightning is designed, in its nature, to pass away rather quickly. Thus, still following an allegorical approach to the story of Deborah, undependable Barak came to represent the transitory mission of the Jews. His light flashed, as it were, but quickly faded away. Likewise, lamp-bearers for a time, the Jews were not destined to be the permanent light of the world. When Peter Damian, in the eleventh century, identified Barak as a symbol of the Jews, the identification was already so traditional that he did not even need to explain it.58  Isidore of Seville had long before explicated the matter: “Lightning certainly has a light, but not a permanent one; it flashes for a time, but then it stops.” In this respect, he said, it symbolizes the inability of the Jews to maintain their light in the world.59  Isidore may, in fact, have been quoting a commonplace, because later Rhabanus Maurus would twice make the same observation nearly verbatim and without attribution.60  Rupert of Deutz, on the other hand, still applying both names to the populus Judaicus, made Lapidoth ( fulgur, “lightning flash”) refer to those Jews who “fizzled out,” while the name Barak ( fulmen, “lightning bolt”) indicated the Jews who turned violent in persecuting Jesus and the early Church.61 

In general, then, and notwithstanding the positive reference in Hebrews 11:32, the Christian assessment of Barak has tended to be on the negative side, and the moral contrast between him and Deborah, in Judges 4, provided the basic outline of traditional interpretation.

The Church of the Gentiles

Because of his reluctance to go forth against the enemies of Israel, Deborah warns Barak, he will gain no glory from the triumph. A woman, rather, will be given credit for the victory. Thus Deborah foretells the coming activity of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite (Judges 4:9). To prepare the reader for Jael’s meeting with Sisera, the author of the Book of Judges then takes explicit care to place Heber’s household in the vicinity of the battle (4:11);62  earlier in Judges, after all, the Kenites had been positioned much further to the south (1:16).

Barak’s victory, for which the Lord alone is given credit, not Barak, is described in a bare two verses (4:15f.), because it is the action of the woman Jael that receives the longer and detailed attention. This non-Israelite woman, of the family of Moses’ father-in-law, becomes a genuine heroine in the story, and the striking fashion by which she finishes off Sisera certainly puts her in equal rank with more violent characters in this very violent book of the Bible.

So, what have Christian readers had to say about Jael? Actually, their enthusiastic comments about the woman sometimes bordered on rhapsody. After all, Deborah had called Jael “blessed among women” (Judges 5:24). This expression, tborak minnashim, was translated into Greek variously as eulogetheie ek gynaikon (Alexandrinus) and eulogetheie en gynaiksin (Vaticanus), either expression close enough to Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary in Luke 1:42 to raise Jael into rather exalted company.63  To Christian readers, who prayed the Ave Maria many times each day, “blessed among women” was about as exalted and laudatory a pronouncement as one could imagine. And among what sort of women was Jael called blessed? Such women, said Rupert of Deutz, as “Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, and nearly all the rest of the women.”64 

Since the enemy of God’s people, Sisera, was an image of Satan, a point undisputed among believers, then what should be said for the blessed woman who slew him? Jael could be no less than a type of the holy Church, the Ecclesia. She was, preeminently, the ecclesial woman: “Jael, id est Ecclesia.”65  Indeed, it was in killing Sisera that Jael proved this.66  Jael was, moreover, a gentile woman, mulier alienigena, and therefore symbolized the Church drawn from the Gentiles.67  “The gentile woman, Jael, signifies the Church,” wrote Walafrid Strabo.68  In contrast to Barak, whose fizzled lightning represented the inconstant Jews, Jael represents the permanent and victorious Church drawn from the Gentiles.69 

This Latin medieval line of interpretation of Jael was especially indebted to St. Ambrose of Milan in the late fourth century. It was Ambrose who had viewed Jael’s victory over Sisera as a foreshadowing of the coming of the gentile Church and her triumph over the demons. For Ambrose the whole story symbolized something that takes place now, in our own lives in Christ:

Deborah, therefore, prophesied the outcome of the battle; being commanded, Barak, led the army; Jael seized the triumph, for she fought on behalf of this prophecy in Deborah, who mystically revealed to us the ascendancy (ortum) of the Church that was to arise (surrecturae) from among the Gentiles, and for whom would be quested a triumph over the spiritual Sisera, that is, over the adverse powers. For us, therefore, the oracles of the prophets do battle; for us, those judgments and arms of the prophets have triumphed. Therefore, it was not the people of the Jews, but Jael who sought victory over the enemy.70 

After this elaborate exposition by Ambrose, there remained for the Middle Ages only the task of filling in some smaller details of the account. This they did with dispatch. For example, while there was no doubt that Sisera represented the devil, “the head of all the perverse,”71  what exactly was meant by that mallet with which the strong-armed Jael dispatched him? Was it, as Peter Damian thought, a symbol of the Cross? Mallets are made of wood, after all, so that would seem to settle the question.72  But it may also be the word of God, so feared by Satan.73 

In summary, then, for the traditional Christian reading of the story of Deborah, the major directions of exegesis were those laid down by Jerome and Ambrose. These directions ran along soteriological and moral lines. Compared with Jerome and Ambrose, the only significant variant during the medieval period was its odd identification of Barak with Deborah’s husband, Lapidoth, which several Christian commentators had picked up from rabbinical sources. This curious development is an instance where the narrative dynamics of a biblical story were obscured by a philological interest. The latter, being detached from the story itself, amounted to little more than a distraction; it provided no helpful insight into these chapters of the Book of Judges.

The Sexes & Warfare

Nearing now the end of this small study on the Christian reading of the Deborah account, it seems worthwhile to venture two other considerations with respect to it.

The first remark has to do with the relations between the sexes in this story. In particular, I believe that there is another important lesson to be learned from the account of Jael, and specifically from that combination of deception and violence with which she put an end to Jabin’s general, Sisera.

The obvious biblical parallel here, of course, is Judith. In both cases the villains, Sisera and Holofernes, the two of them generals of invading armies, were lulled to sleep with drink, whether milk or wine, and then quickly, efficiently dispatched with each lady’s wielding her chosen weapon in an arching downward swing of the arm. Holofernes is thus decapitated with a sword, and Sisera has a spike driven through his skull and is thus fixed to the earth. Their passings were quick and gory and occasions of universal mirth, frolic, and mutual congratulations all around.

What hardly anyone seems to have mentioned as exceptional about these two stories, however, is that the women themselves are not blamed for their actions. On the contrary, they thereby become the heroines, and hymns are chanted in their honor. Now, this is most curious, because such would not be the case if Jael and Judith were men. This is a clear instance in which men and women are treated in Holy Scripture by recourse to a “double standard”: Women are praised for deeds that would be reprehensible in a man.

In general, the Bible seems to approve of the accepted chivalrous code of not killing one’s enemy while he is asleep, much less of putting him to sleep for purposes of killing him! Who can forget, for example, David’s revenge (2 Samuel 4:5–12) on those who beheaded Ishbosheth in his sleep? David himself had earlier refused to take violent advantage of the sleeping Saul (cf. 1 Samuel 26). Likewise, the Bible recalls that the cruel reign of the Syrian Hazael began with his smothering of Ben-Hadad while he slept (2 Kings 8:15). Indeed, Holy Scripture appears to take a dim view of any man’s “sneaking up” on his unprotected opponent, or approaching him with a pretense of friendliness, in order to do him injury. This just “isn’t done among gentlemen.” The great offender here, of course, is Joab, who thus slew both Abner (2 Samuel 3:27) and Amasa (20:9f.). No reader has been known to weep when, later, Joab receives the bloody recompense justly deserved by a crude, unchivalrous cad (1 Kings 2:32).

There is one clear exception to this rule, of course, which appears rather early in the Book of Judges. It is that sneaky tale of political assassination by Ehud, the left-handed judge from the “right-handed tribe” (Benjamin). This enterprising revolutionary, one recalls, stealthily employed a rather hefty carving utensil on the unsuspecting and lamentably overweight Eglon the Moabite (Judges 3:12–25). The inspired author of this biblical passage apparently felt not the slightest moral scruple about the rightness of Ehud’s ruse and butchery. The case remains something of an exception in the Bible, nonetheless, and at least the hapless Eglon was conscious when the deed was done.

Yet, this combination of deception and violence is exactly the sort of thing that brings glory to Jael and Judith. The praises of these two, after all, were sung in special canticles. Whatever Ehud’s merits, the Bible at least records no hymn composed in his honor. And were men and women held to the same standard in this respect, Joab would be one of the great heroes of biblical history.

In this respect, the story of Jael fits a very discernible pattern, in which women are praised for robust deeds of gore and violence. Indeed, one is hard pressed to think of a single instance in which the Bible suggests even the faintest whiff of criticism against a woman for an act of physical ferocity. This observation is not to suggest that there should be such criticism. Doubtless, for example, when Abimelech was slain by the female citizen of Shechem in Judges 9, the scoundrel got exactly what he deserved. Nor is one disposed to censure the lady at Abel Beth-Maachah who improvised a beheading in 2 Samuel 20. In the cases of Sisera and Holofernes, as well, the reader’s sympathies, like those of the authors, are entirely on the side of Jael and Judith against the military generals.

Except for the glaring murders commissioned by Jezebel, Athaliah, and Herodias, however, it is not only curious but also instructive that there appear to be no instances where the Bible blames a woman for an act of violence, even if that act would have been blameworthy in a man. That is to say, men and women in combat are not treated in the same way in Holy Scripture.

The reason would seem to be plain: Men and women are not related to fighting in any sense of parity. The Bible assumes that making war, if war must be made, is for men, not for women. Thus, the proper codes of combat are manly codes, regulations and expectations established for men, not for women. The Bible regards women in battle as an egregious exception, and exceptions require departures from normal rules.

Sacramental Foreshadowing

The second observation has to do with sacramental symbolism, and it is prompted by the parallel between the song of Moses and Miriam in Exodus 15 and the song of Deborah and Barak in Judges 5. This parallel, long perceived by Christian readers, may be further exploited with profit.

One may begin by considering how the Exodus canticle itself has been regarded by Christians. For example, it is well known that the setting of the Exodus canticle was very early employed in an eschatological sense in the Christian Church. The text is Revelation 15:2f., which describes the company of the saved, those delivered from the beast and his mark, standing beside the sea and giving voice to a triumphant song, like the Israelites of old after the defeat of Pharaoh: “And I saw something like a sea of glass mingled with fire, and those who have the victory over the beast, over his image, and over his mark, and over the number of his name, standing at the sea of glass, having the harps of God. They sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb.” In this passage the destruction of Pharaoh’s host has become a symbol of the final victory over the demonic enemies of God’s people, those redeemed by the blood of the Lamb and who now sing once again at the seaside.

Inasmuch as the passage through the Red Sea was early interpreted as a symbol of the sacrament of Baptism (“all passed through the sea, all were baptized in Moses in the cloud and in the sea”—1 Corinthians 10:1f.), it is not surprising that the canticle of Exodus 15 should early have become a song associated with baptism. The most obvious evidence for this development is its solemn chanting by the congregation immediately after the reading of Exodus 14 during the annual Paschal vigil in both the Eastern and Western liturgies.

The canticle of Deborah and Barak, as we have seen, has often been juxtaposed with that of Miriam and Moses. In each case, after all, an enemy had been defeated by God’s intervention at a body of water, whether the Red Sea or the Brook Kishon (Psalm 82[83]:10). Thus, when Cassiodorus drew attention to the parallel between the two canticles, he particularly commented how the victory at the Red Sea was a type of baptism.74  Peter Damian went further, seeing Sisera’s debacle at the waters of Kishon as itself a foreshadowing of this sacrament: “For when the catechumen is immersed in the bath of the sacred fountain, like Sisera with his army, that most wicked spirit necessarily perishes with all those vices that make war on his behalf.”75  This liturgical typology of the Deborah canticle seems amply justified by the parallel symbolisms of the two biblical accounts and is worthy of further consideration.


1. Josephus adds at least one item, the total destruction of Jabin’s capital; Antiquities of the Jews 5.5.209. This detail will be quoted much later, with proper ascription, by Peter Comestor, Librum Judicum 7 (PL 198.1276D).

 2. Thus, Theophilus of Antioch, Ad Autolycum 3.24 ( Bibliotheke Hellenon Pateron [hereafter BHP, followed by volume and page numbers] 5.64); Quodvultdeus of Carthage, Liber Promissionum 2.17,31 ( Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina [hereafter CCL, followed by volume and page numbers] 60.100f.). Josephus ( Antiquities 5.5.209) says that Barak “directed” (strategei) Israel for forty years. The “forty years” in Judges 5:31 follows a set scheme of chronology in the Book of Judges (cf. 3:11,30; 8:28; 13:1) that divides the period into a sequence of “generations” following the “generation” of the Desert Wandering (cf. Joshua 5:6; 14:7).

 3. “Plana historia est”: Rupert of Deutz, In Librum Judicum 4 (PL 167.1026D). As there will be occasion to note later, however, Rupert does comment on the story at greater length elsewhere.

 4. E.g., Procopius of Gaza, In Judices (PG 87A.1049B).

 5. E.g., Verecundus of Junca, Super Cantica Ecclesiastica 9.2 (CCL 93.173); Peter Comestor, Librum Judicum 7 (PL 198.1276B).

 6. Cf. W. H. Schmidt, “Dabar,” Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), p. 95.

 7. Jerome, Liber Hebraicorum Nominum (CCL 72.99).

 8. Ibidem (CCL 72.64).

 9. Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogos 1.6 (BHP 7.103); also his Eclogae 31 (PG 9.713D).

 10. Cf. Nilus of Ancyra, Epistolae 1.264 (PG 79:180C); Basil of Seleucia, Orationes 37:1 (PG 85.389A); Theodoret of Cyr, Epistolae 143 ( Opera Omnia edited by Schultze & Noesselt, vol. 4, p. 1237).

 11. Jerome, In Ezechielem 1.16.13 (CCL 75A.178).

 12. Walafrid Strabo, Glossa Ordinaria, Liber Judicum 4 (PL 113.524C).

 13. Rhabanus Maurus, De Universo 3.1 (PL 111.56A).

 14. Thus, Isidore of Seville, In Librum Judicum 2.1 (PL 83.380C); Pseudo-Bede, Quaestiones Super Librum Judicum 2 (PL 93.423B); Rhabanus Maurus, In Librum Judicum 1.12 (PL 108.1134D–1135A); Peter Damian, Sermones 39.5 ( Corpus Christianorum, Continuation Medievalis [hereafter CCM, with volume and page numbers] 57.243f.).

 15. Rupert of Deutz, In Librum Judicum 6 (CCM 22.1158).

 16. Peter Damian, Sermones 68.5 (CCM 57.415).

 17. Cf. Acts 3:24; 13:20; Hebrews 11:32.

 18. Ambrose, De Viduis 8:44 (PL 16.261A).

 19. The Apostolic Constitutions 8.2 (BHP 2.142); Jerome, In Ezechielem 4.13 (CCL 75.145f.); Verecundus of Junca, Super Cantica Ecclesiastica 9.1 (CCL 93.173).

 20. Hippolytus of Rome, Chronica 720 (BHP 6.262); Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 1.21 (BHP 7.288); Didymus the Blind, De Trinitate 41.3 (BHP 44.156).

 21. Pseudo-Athanasius, De Patientia 7 (BHP 33.206).

 22. Ambrose, De Viduis 8.45–47 (PL 16:261–262).

 23. Jerome, Epistolae 54 ( Ad Furiam).17 ( Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum [hereafter CSEL, with volume and page numbers] 54.484).

 24. Hippolytus of Rome, Chronica 68 (BHP 6.255); Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 1.21 (BHP 7.280); Jerome, Epistolae 54 ( Ad Furiam).17 (CSEL 54.484); Isidore of Seville, In Librum Judicum 2.1 (PL 83.380C).

 25. Procopius of Gaza, In Judices (PG 87A.1049B).

 26. Rupert of Deutz, In Librum Judicum 5 (PL 167.1034D).

 27. Eusebius of Caesarea, In Isaiam 28 (BHP 23.163); Walafrid Strabo, Glossa Ordinaria, Liber Judicum 5 (PL 113.526A).

 28. “Hoc Debbora in persona totius Israelis dicit,” wrote Rupert of Deutz, In Librum Judicum 4 (PL 167.1031).

 29. Apponius, In Canticum Canticorum 1.16 (CCL 19.11f.); Jerome, In Esaiam 11.39 (CCL 73.452).

 30. Augustine, De Civitate Dei 18.15 (PL 41.572).

 31. Ambrose, De Viduis 8.45 (PL 16.261C); 8.47 (262A).

 32. Ibidem 8.47 (262B).

 33. Peter Comestor, Librum Judicum 7 (PL 1981276C).

 34. Verecundus of Junca, Super Cantica Ecclesiastica 9.1–2 (CCL 93.173).

 35. Ambrose, De Viduis 8.50 (PL 16.263A).

 36. Ibidem 8.48 (262B).

 37. Jerome, Epistolae 65 ( Ad Principiam).1 (CSEL 54.616).

 38. Jerome, In Esaiam 8.27.11 (CCL 73.351).

 39. Jerome, In Sophoniam, Prologus (CCL 76A.655). Similarly, Hulda prophesied “viris omnibus destitutis”—Verecundus of Junca, Super Cantica Ecclesiastica 9.1 (CCL 93.173).

 40. Theodoret of Cyr, Quaestiones in Judices 12 (PG 80.497C).

 41. Ambrose, De Viduis 8.44 (PL 16.261A).

 42. Rhabanus Maurus, In Librum Judicum 1.12 (PL 108.1134D).

 43. Verecundus of Junca, Super Cantica Ecclesiastica 9.1 (CCL 93.173).

 44. Babylonian Talmud, Megila 14a.

 45. Hebrews 11:32. Similarly, a plain reading of Genesis 18:10–14 also suggests that Hebrews 11:11 is very generous with Sarah.

 46. Verecundus of Junca, Super Cantica Ecclesiastica 9.2 (CCL 93.173).

 47. Josephus, Antiquities 5.5.201.

 48. E.g., Procopius of Gaza, In Judices (PG 87A.1049C).

 49. Jerome, Liber Hebraicorum Nominum (CCL 72.99 & 156).

 50. Ambrose, De Viduis 8.48 (PL 16.262B).

 51. Rupert of Deutz, In Librum Judicum 4 (PL 167.1026D).

 52. Isidore of Seville, In Librum Judicum 2.3 (PL 83.380D).

 53. The same triliteral root, lpd, appears in the Greek lampades, which, of course, is related to the Latin lampa and the English “lamp.”

 54. I regret my lack of access to the rabbinical sources cited by Etienne Nodet in an instructive footnote in the French edition of Josephus’s Antiquities, vol. 2 (Paris: Du Cerf, 1995), p. 162.

 55. Rupert of Deutz, In Librum Judicum 4 (CCM 22.1150), 6 (1158).

 56. Andrew of St. Victor, In Judices (CCM 53.221).

 57. Peter Comestor, Liber Judicum 7 (PL 198.1276A–B).

 58. Peter Damian, In Librum Judicum 2 (PL 145.1081A). He elsewhere gives the traditional interpretation; Sermones 39.7 (CCM 57.244).

 59. Isidore of Seville, In Librum Judicum 2.3 (PL 83.380–381).

 60. Rhabanus Maurus, In Librum Judicum 1.2 (PL 108.1135); De Universo 3.1 (PL 111.56).

 61. Rupert of Deutz, In Librum Judicum 6 (CCM 22.1158).

 62. Noted by Peter Comestor, Librum Judicum 7 (PL 198.1276C).

 63. Eulogemene su en gynaiksin; cf. also Judith 13:23.

 64. Rupert of Deutz, In Librum Judicum 4 (PL 167.1031).

 65. Rhabanus Maurus, In Librum Judicum 1.12 (PL 108.1138B); also De Universo 3.1 (PL 111.56).

 66. Quodvultdeus of Carthage, Liber Promissionum 2.17.31 (CCL 60.101); also Peter Damian, Sermones 48.14 (CCM 57.304).

 67. Pseudo-Bede, Quaestiones Super Librum Judicum 2 (PL 93.423D); Rhabanus Maurus, In Librum Judicum 1.12 (PL 108.1136); Peter Damian, In Librum Judicum 2 (PL 145.1081B).

 68. Walafrid Strabo, Glossa Ordinaria, Liber Judicum 4 (PL 113.525A).

 69. Isidore of Seville, In Librum Judicum 2.4 (PL 83.381A–B).

 70. Ambrose, De Viduis 8.47 (PL 16.262A–B).

 71. Peter Damian, Sermones 39:8 (CCM 57.245).

 72. “This woman alone struck the enemy of the faith by means of the wood, in which, through spiritual significance, is the salvation of believers (per lignum in quo spiritualibus sacramentis credentium salus),” said Pseudo-Bede, Quaestiones Super Librum Judicum 2 (PL 93.423D).

 73. Thomas of Chobham, De Commendatione Virtutum 1 (CCM 82B.36).

 74. Cassiodorus, Expositio in Psalterium 105 (PL 70.754).

 75. Peter Damian, Sermones 39.7 (CCM 57.245).

Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor emeritus of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois, and the author of numerous books, including, most recently, Out of Step with God: Orthodox Christian Reflections on the Book of Numbers (Ancient Faith Publishing, 2019).

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