Women of History: Deborah the Political Leader

March is Women’s History Month, and today (March 8) is International Women’s Day.

To recognize Women’s History Month, I am highlighting a woman from history beginning today and every Wednesday during March. Many strong, intelligent women from the past have paved the way for us. However, I want to specifically look at the significant women from the Bible who are godly models for us today.

The middle-aged woman lived in a modest home near a towering date palm tree. Besides the sweet fruit the tree supplied, it offered a cool respite in the barren hill country. Daily she would sit beneath its leafy shade. It was her office where she fulfilled her job as a prophetess, counselor, and judge to her people.

Because of her wisdom, people traveled far to seek her counsel and advice. But more and more, it wasn’t just the usual guidance for personal disputes the people wanted. It was to air their grievances and ask for divine judgment from their country’s crisis.

It was the 12th century BCE, and the Israelites struggled under the reign of Jabin, King of Habor in Canaan. For 20 years, he oppressed the Israelites, relegating them to reside in the hills, unproductive for crops. He denied access to major roadways, which prevented Israel’s trade opportunities. He governed the area literally with an iron fist — for he had a formidable army, including 900 chariots built with iron. (Judges 4:3)

So how did the Israelites, the children of God, get to this point? Weren’t they to be living in the Promise Land God gave them?  

Military history, conspiracy theories, and political intrigue wrapped up with soap opera chaos – that’s the book of Judges, which details Israel’s rollercoaster ride of the ups and downs of defeat and deliverance. The Israelites wanted to do things in their own way. And that led to trouble.

The Queen Bee

Deborah was a prophetess and Israel’s fourth and only woman judge. We find her story in the Bible’s book of Judges, chapters 4 and 5. Her name means “bee” — a befitting name, for she was undoubtedly industrious and a servant leader for her people, who looked to her for help in legal disputes. She would have been a “sweetness for her people, but a sharpness to her enemies.” (Matthew Henry)

Yet the position of judge wasn’t only to serve as a judicial magistrate but as the country’s leader, directing the Israelites into battle when necessary. Deborah would carry on the same strong leadership as the men before her: Othniel, Ehud, and Shamgar.

The Israelites

Some quick background. After 40 years in the wilderness with their leader Moses, they were finally at the boundary of their new land. Moses died, and it was then under Joshua’s leadership that the Israelites completed successful military campaigns to conquer the land of Canaan with its 7 tribes. The land was then essentially theirs, with only a few small victories remaining to be won. Near his death, Joshua reminded the people they needed to finish conquering Canaan as God commanded. This was for their protection; otherwise, it would cause traps and snares. (Joshua 23:12-13) Israel promised to follow God and obey Him (Joshua 24:19-27).

But soon, they forgot their promise to God and the warnings from Joshua about complications that would occur from disobedience. The Israelites didn’t finish clearing out the Canaanites as God commanded but instead allowed them to stay. Israel lived among their enemy, traded with them, and married them. And then, they began to worship their Canaan’s idols.

This was when God appointed judges to save the Israelites from themselves. “The Lord was with each leader and delivered the people from their enemies . . . the Lord felt sorry for them when they cried out in agony because of what their harsh oppressors did to them.” (Judges 2:18)

Now it’s the time of Deborah and the only period of the judges when Israel’s enemy came from within. The enemy was the Canaanites, who had gotten the upper hand. That is, until Deborah called on God.

Time for Battle

God heard His people’s call for liberation and charged Deborah and her army commander, Barak, to stop the oppression of King Jabin. The action begins in Judges 4:6-7 when Deborah has Barak come to her:

“Is it not true that the Lord God of Israel is commanding you? [God said] ‘Go, march to Mount Tabor! Take with you 10,000 men from [the tribes of] Naphtali and Zebulun. I will bring Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army to you at the Kishon River, along with his chariots and huge army. I will hand him over to you.”

Depending on the translation you read, Deborah could be giving Barak his first directive or confirming the order.

And Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go. But if you do not go with me, I will not go.” (Judges 4:8)

Scholars have different thoughts on Barak’s response. Some think that Barak lacked faith and was hesitant to go into battle. Yet you couldn’t blame him — his 10,000-foot soldiers against an army with 900 chariots and horses wasn’t a fair battle. However, Barak is listed in Hebrew 11:32, the Bible’s Hall of Faith. This distinction makes a lack of faith in God about this battle seem unlikely.

Because God chose Deborah to lead Israel, we know she was obedient and had strong faith and courage. I believe that Barak had great respect for his leader. As Matthew Henry says in his commentary, “Barak could do nothing until he had his commissions and instructions from Deborah. He had the patience to wait for God’s word.” The Israelites were up against a formidable foe. Barak wanted Deborah there, not to fight but surely to bolster the soldiers’ faith. “The greatest and best are not self-sufficient but need one another.” (Matthew Henry)

She said, “I will indeed go with you. But you will not gain fame on the expedition you are undertaking, for the Lord will turn Sisera over to a woman.” Deborah got up and went with Barak to Kedesh. Barak summoned men from Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh, and 10,000 men followed him; Deborah went up with him as well. (Judges 4:9-10)

I wonder what Barak thought when Deborah agreed to go but learned Sisera would be delivered into the hand of a woman. Did he think that it would be Deborah? Yet it seems that to Barak, gaining fame meant much less than having Deborah’s support.

It wasn’t long before Sisera and his massive army were on the way to meet up with Barak and his men at the battleground: the Kishon River.

God’s plan was in place.

Fighting the Enemy

Deborah said to Barak, “Spring into action, for this is the day the Lord is handing Sisera over to you! Has the Lord not taken the lead? So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with 10,000 men following him. (Judges 4:14)

No doubt, Sisera’s ego gave him the confidence to bring his army to a riverside battle when flat lands are better for chariots and horses. He probably saw this as an easy win for his King and victory spoils for him and his army.

We get more battle information from Deborah’s victory song in Judges 5 about what happened next.  

Sisera and his army arrive from one direction, and Barak and his men come from the mountainside to the Kedesh River. Now the Lord does what He promised. Rain begins to fall. Not just a little rain, but a deluge that floods the river.

The two armies meet near the Kishon River.

Sisera and his forces panic (Judges 4:15). Chariots get bogged down in the mud, and some soldiers probably get swept away by the flood. It was like a flashback to what happened to Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea (Exodus 14:23-28)

Now Barak chased the chariots and the army all the way to Harosheth Haggoyim. Sisera’s whole army died by the edge of the sword; not even one survived!

None of Sisera’s men survived, yet he somehow escaped on foot. What happened to him? As Deborah prophesied, he dies at the hands of another strong and brave woman, Jael. (Read what happens in Judges 4:17-22)

This victory spurred the Israelites to continue to press even harder to overwhelm King Jabin until they destroyed him. (Judges 4:24)

What We Can Learn from Deborah

There is a reason that Deborah’s story is included in the book of Judges: to learn from her example. She was a woman of strong character, revealed through her actions.


Chosen by God to be the judge of Israel, she was endowed with divine wisdom to make judicial decisions, counsel disputes, and lead well. Today we may live in the information age, but we must remember that the ‘Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding.” (Proverbs 2:6)


Deborah had a heart that honored and obeyed God. She trusted God and followed His direction to benefit her people. She remembered the words of God: Keep my decrees and laws, for the person who obeys them will live by them. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 18:5 NIV) She was not after power, but by her obedience, God gave her insight and confidence to lead. Sometimes obedience can be hard, but Deborah trusted when the Lord said victory against Sisera was theirs. It is obedience to God that we are given freedom from our enemy, the devil. (2 Corinthians 3:17)


As a woman leader, she had the respect of her people. Barak looked to her for leadership, and she inspired him to battle, as iron sharpens iron. (Proverbs 27:17). Through her effective delegation, advice, and planning, she could move Barak and her people forward toward the victory that God promised them.


A true leader is a servant, as Jesus taught (Mark 9:35; 10:42-25) and modeled (John 13:4-9). Deborah accomplished great things by making herself available to God for His service. As a servant leader, she loved and cared for her people rather than getting recognition for herself. (Philippians 2:4) Because of her love for the Lord and her obedience, she helped lead her people to overcome the enemy and have peace for 40 years.

Modeling Deborah in Our Lives

No matter what level of leadership or position of authority we may have, God can use us, just as He did with Deborah. She was a woman leader in a male-dominated world. Yet, she was confident in her calling and able to do remarkable things. She showed what can be accomplished when God is in control, and we obey Him.

Deborah was able to lead her people to victory over the enemy. It teaches us that we, like the Israelites, don’t have to live in oppression. We can also win over our enemy, the devil, who loves to distract and weaken us.

As the Israelites learned, real freedom isn’t going in our own way. They thought their decision to live among the Canaanites would let them live their best lives. However, they were not obedient to what God told them to do, which gave their enemy the upper hand. It wasn’t freedom after all. It is in the path of righteousness that there is life. (Proverbs 12:28)

It is a lesson for today: living in freedom isn’t the ability to go in their own ways and make decisions in their own wisdom. Following the Lord and His ways brings defeat to the enemy, allows us freedom, and gives us joy in life. (Galatians 5:1)

Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible
Adventuring Through the Bible by Ray C. Stedman
Biblical Archeological Society (BAS) and map image


Illustration from work by Otto Stemler, in the public domain.
All Scripture is taken from the New English Translation unless otherwise noted.
Scripture references are linked to BibleGateway for the reader’s convenience.

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