Exegesis of Deborah and Barak


I finished my first semester in the at Pacific School of Religion (PSR) in Berkeley in the Master of Arts in Social Transformation degree program. I am heading to Mexico soon for a two week immersion course in Spanish and Social Justice. At PSR, I am learning a great deal about social justice, spirituality, race and ethnicity, and exegesis – the critical explanation or interpretation of a text, especially of scripture.  Exegesis is a new skill for me and I am enjoying it, even if I have to become expert on using the Turabian bibliographic citation style, and learning to use words like pericope (an extract from a text) and hermeneutics (theory and methodology of interpretation).  Here is my first exegetical paper from the Rhetorical Use of Texts course taught by Professors Aaron Brody and Sharon Jacob:


For my first exegetical paper on Judges, I have selected the passage about Deborah and Barak, in Judges 4:1-10. In this pericope, Deborah is presented in a way that is unique in the Hebrew Bible, and yet both the Bible and scholars seem to underrate her importance. She is introduced as a prophetess and a judge, and we soon see that she is, in addition, an insightful war leader who successfully reverses the declined fortunes of her people. In this analysis, I will primarily use a feminist hermeneutical lens because Deborah’s story is such a contrast to that of most women in the Bible, whom J. Cheryl Exum describes as being “…in a subordinate role, usually as someone’s wife or mother or daughter…”[1] Deborah is indeed the wife of Lappidoth (Judges 4:4) but he is only referenced that once in the Hebrew Bible. She is also said to be a mother (Judges 5:7) but her individual children are not mentioned. As a feminist and professional today, I admire Deborah for fulfilling her traditional female roles (wife and mother) while at the same time being successful in three capacities usually reserved for both men in the ancient world and today (prophet, judge, and general).

Before moving into a deeper review of this pericope, it is important to reflect that the men who wrote the Bible did not consider Deborah important enough to be a referenced elsewhere as a role model. This is an example of institutionalized patriarchy, as described by Exum.[2] Three men in the pericope, Israelite enemies King Jabin and his commander Sisera, and Deborah’s hesitant colleague Barak, are celebrated outside of the Book of Judges but Deborah is not. Jabin and Sisera are found again in 1 Samuel 12:9 and Psalm 83:9. Barak is included in 1 Samuel 12:11 and Hebrews 11:32. It seems that it is more notable to be an enemy or a cowardly man than a successful woman. Or, as J. Cheryl Exum writes, “…the gender code operates independently of the question of who is on which side or which side is the ‘right’ side…”[3] Even Jesus’ ancestor Ruth is only mentioned once outside of her own book, in Matthew 1:5.

Of the three non-traditional roles Deborah fulfills, being a prophet is the least common duty for a woman in the Bible. In his essay on narrative criticism, Richard Bowman presents a table called “Attributions of Divine Presence” in which he lists three options: “The Lord is with X,” “Spirit of God,” and “Acknowledgement by Character.” In the table, Bowman only accords Deborah “Acknowledgement by Character.”[4] He does not mention that Deborah and Gideon are the only two persons in Judges called prophets. Deborah is indeed only one of five women in the Hebrew Bible to be called a prophet (or prophetess). The five honored women are: Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Deborah (Judges 4:4), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), Naodiah (Nehemiah 6:14), and an unnamed prophetess in Isaiah 8:3. Lists of female prophets in Judaism can also include Sarah, Hannah, Abigail, and Esther but those women are not explicitly called out as prophets.[5] It seems that Bowman underrates Deborah and her status of prophet. Being a prophet is important, someone worthy of speaking on behalf of God, as in Deuteronomy 18:18, “I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.” Yet, Bowman only writes, “The narrator does not explicitly state that the spirit of God is given to either Ehud or Deborah… Yet, both successfully deliver Israel from the oppression of its enemies, and both voice their conviction that God gave them their victories.”[6] Ehud only mentions God once when he quips to King Eglon, “I have a message from God for you.” Compared to him, Deborah does a great deal more than simply express conviction; she performs as a true prophet, confidently speaking on behalf of God, saying, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you…” (Judges 4:6), and “…the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (Judges 4:9), plus two references in Judges 4:14.

In her second non-traditional role, Deborah is a judge. Professor Brody said that those called judges in Judges are “Charismatic leaders, ‘judges’ rise to lead in times of trouble then return to former occupation.”[7] In addition to being a charismatic leader, Deborah uniquely functions as an actual judge, “She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment” (Judges 4:5). Bowman writes, “…Gideon doubts his own ability, Jephthah doubts the ability of God, and Samson overconfidently abuses his talents.”[8] Unlike many of the other leaders in Judges, Deborah is wise, and her opinion is respected and sought. However, her wisdom is not celebrated outside of the Judges 4:5 passage, perhaps because good counsel is expected of a capable wife in a patriarchal society, as we see in Proverbs 31:26, “She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.”

In her third unusual role, Deborah is a war leader or general. Exum credits Deborah as “…an example of the exceptional famous woman – prophet, judge, and military leader…”[9] However, surprisingly for a feminist scholar, Exum devotes most of her detailed analysis in the section “Deborah/Jael (Judges 4-5)” to Deborah as a good mother figure. Exum criticizes Barak and Sisera for falling short of being hero-warriors but does not go on to laud Deborah for her bravery or wisdom.[10] And yet, Deborah is capable as a general and her actions are worthy of celebration. In Judges 4:6-10, Deborah, who is from the tribal area of Ephraim (in the middle of Israel), summons Barak from the far northern area of Naphtali, north of the Kishon River and Mount Tabor. That is, she wisely picked for her colleague a man who knew the area where they would fight and who could bring an army of ten thousand from the northern tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. Deborah’s original battle plan is to split her forces, saying “’I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and troops; and I will give him into your hand’” (Judges 4:7). However, when Barak refuses to go without her, she patiently changes her plan to make it succeed despite his trepidation. At this point in the story, we get a glimpse of what it must be like for Deborah to be a woman war leader when she says, “’I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman’” (Judges 4:9). I envision Deborah saying this in a patient and sardonic tone, as a strong woman who must make a partnership work despite the shortcomings of her male partner. Her words can be taken either as a foretelling (that is, Deborah sees the future of Sisera being killed by Jael, in Judges 4:21), or a simple statement that if Deborah is with Barak, he will not win glory. In either case, Barak’s accomplishments are dimmed.

At the beginning of the pericope, because of doing evil, the Israelites are oppressed like slaves by a foreign ruler based in the tribal area of Naphtali, “So the Lord sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera…” (Judges 4:2). At the end of the pericope in Judges 4:7, Deborah prophesies that the Lord will sell Sisera, that is, the tables will be turned and Israel will triumph. At the very end of Deborah’s story, it says simply “And the land had rest for forty years” (Judges 5:31). That is, she did her work and did it well. Deborah is surprising not only because of her success in both traditional and non-traditional women’s roles but also because her story was recorded in detail and survived from a time when, as Exum writes, “…the writers of history [were] men, and men have recorded only those events they considered important and have interpreted them from their point of view.”[11] I would argue that feminists and feminist critics of the Bible today should celebrate Deborah as one of the few multi-faceted and exceptional women of the ancient world.

Footnotes

[1] J. Cheryl Exum, “Feminist Criticism: Whose Interests are Being Served?,” in Judges and Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies, ed. Gale A. Yee (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 66.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Exum, “Feminist Criticism,” 70.

[4] Richard G. Bowman, “Narrative Criticism: Human Purpose in Conflict with Divine Presence,” in Judges and Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies, ed. Gale A. Yee (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 36.

[5] Tracey R. Rich, “Prophets and Prophecy,” Judaism 101, accessed 26 October 2018, http://www.jewfaq.org/prophet.htm.

[6] Bowman, “Narrative Criticism,” 38.

[7] Aaron Brody, “Ugarit & The Late Bronze Age – Circa 1300-1200 BCE; prior to Iron I, period of the Judges” (lecture, Pacific School of Religion, Berkeley, CA, 4 October 2018).

[8] Bowman, “Narrative Criticism,” 28.

[9] Exum, “Feminist Criticism,” 66.

[10] Ibid, 70-74.

[11] Exum, “Feminist Criticism,” 65.

 


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1 Comment

Filed under Church, News & Reviews

One response to “Exegesis of Deborah and Barak

  1. I took my 2nd year of Greek, New Testament Pericopes, at GTU. In 1975.

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