Articles Archive -- Topical Index -- Textual Index

by Al Maxey

Issue #872 -- September 25, 2023
In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man.
If you want anything done, ask a woman.

Margaret Thatcher [1925-2013]

The Honey Bee of Israel
Deborah - Prophet, Poet, Patriot

Abigail Adams (1744-1818), one of the "founding mothers" of our great nation, was the only woman in our history (other than Barbara Bush) to be both the wife of a U.S. president (John Adams) and the mother of a U.S. president (John Quincy Adams). Her letters to both of these men provide tremendous insight into the inner workings of the leadership of this new nation, and her advice and counsel to these early founders was frequently sought and highly valued. In a letter to her son John Quincy Adams, dated 19 January 1780, she wrote these words of wisdom: "It is not in the still calm of life, or in the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. ... Great necessities call out great virtues." And those of great virtue will rise to the occasion when great necessities present themselves. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) wrote, "Greatness means: to give direction." Truly great leaders provide direction to those whom they lead, and that direction is toward that which ennobles and enriches them in every area of life.

Great leaders also lead by example, not by edict. They show the way by their attitudes and actions as they confront life's challenges. Confucious (551-479 B.C.), the great Chinese philosopher, once observed in his Analects, "Go before the people with your example, and be laborious in their affairs." Genuine leadership is evidenced by those who feel no need to command, but who rather rally others to a cause by their depth of passion, conviction, and courageous example. Lao-Tzu (6th century B.C.), in his classic work The Way of Life, advised, "Be the chief, but never the lord." In like manner, the apostle Peter urged the shepherds of the church never to be "lords over those entrusted to you," but rather to be "examples to the flock" (1 Peter 5:3). Walt Whitman (1819-1892) summed it up nicely when he wrote, "He or she is greatest who contributes the greatest original practical example." People are truly inspired by, and are willing to follow, those who manifest by their lives that they are worthy to be followed. "Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith" (Hebrews 13:7, ESV). The Message phrases it this way: "Take a good look at the way they live, and let their faithfulness instruct you."

When we consider those biblical leaders who displayed faithfulness and trustworthiness, who truly inspired the people of God and were examples worthy of being followed, we cannot help but think of Deborah, whose story is found only in Judges 4-5. She was "the only woman in the Bible who was placed at the height of political power by the common consent of the people" [Edith Deen, All of the Women of the Bible, p. 69]. This woman lived during the time of the "Judges" of Israel, a rather chaotic period of time for the various tribes of Israel socially, religiously, and politically. They had not yet come together as a unified nation, they had not yet appointed a king, and their wavering faith caused them to be easy prey for the hostile peoples around them. Thus, God would raise up "judges" to lead the people back to Him and to restore their fortunes, a process that repeated itself time and time again for many generations. Deborah would be the fourth of these "judges" of the people of Israel, and was "one of the most notable women in the OT" [Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 331]. She was "the militant heroine in Israel in the days of the judges" [William Barker, Everyone in the Bible, p. 78]; "One on whom the Spirit of God descended, and who was the instrument of conveying to the Israelites the knowledge of the Divine will in things sacred and civil" [Adam Clarke, Clarke's Commentary, vol. 2, p. 116], and perhaps "best remembered by later generations as the one able to rally the scattered tribes of Israel to loyalty to Jehovah" [Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 444]. "This sense of unity and loyalty to Yahweh was of crucial importance for the establishment and continuing life of the nation of Israel" [The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 1, p. 809].

But who was this remarkable woman? What do we know about her? Actually, we know remarkably little (she is only mentioned in two chapters of the Bible - Judges 4-5), yet what we do know elevates her in our view to one of the greatest characters of the Bible. Her name, Deborah, means "honey bee" - "which was a symbol of a monarch in Egypt; a honey bee to her friends, a stinging bee to the enemy" [Fausset's Bible Dictionary, e-Sword]. "It has been sometimes regarded as a title given to her as a prophetess, just as the priestesses of Delphi were called 'Bees,' and the priests were called by the title 'Male-bees'" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 2, p. 190]. A reader in California, with whom I was discussing the meaning of Deborah's name during the time I was doing research for this article, wrote me the following, "Just an interesting thing about bees: in the Middle Ages, a beehive forming in your area was considered a blessing from God. Unlike game, which was the property of the King or the Duke, bees were 'fair game.' The serfs would say a prayer of gratitude to God because they were able to literally get a little 'sweetness' in their lives. They would try not to disturb them too much, but finding a beehive was truly something random and very much appreciated. I'm not sure if that has anything to do with your upcoming article, but I found it fascinating." Well, Deborah, the "Honey Bee of Israel," certainly proved to be a "little bit of sweetness in their lives" as she guided the people both spiritually, communally, and militarily.

As noted above, Deborah was "the voice of God" to her people. Although she was of the tribe of Issachar, God spoke to all of Israel through her. "Her home was between Bethel and Ramah in the hill-country of Ephraim, and here the Israelites came to her for judgment and guidance" [Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible, e-Sword]. She was one of five women who lived under the old covenant who were mentioned by name as being prophetesses of the Lord God: the others being Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), Noadiah (Nehemiah 6:14), and Anna (Luke 2:36). There were a number of other unnamed women under the old covenant who were also prophetesses (the wife of Isaiah being an example - Isaiah 8:3). God was not one to discriminate between men and women when it came to the gift of prophecy, and this would apply to both old and new covenants. "I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind, and your sons and daughters will prophesy. ... Even on the male and female servants I will pour out My Spirit" (Joel 2:28-29; cf., Acts 2:16-18). See my article titled, "Philip's Prophetess Daughters: A Reflective Examination of Acts 21:9" (Reflections #653). "This prophetic gift qualified her to judge the nation (the Hebrew participle used here expresses the permanence of the act of judging), i.e., first of all to settle such disputes among the people themselves as the lower courts were unable to decide, and which ought therefore, according to Deuteronomy 17:8, to be referred to the supreme judge of the whole nation. The palm where she sat in judgment (cf., Psalm 9:5) was called after her the Deborah-palm. The Israelites went up to her there to obtain justice. The expression 'came up' (Judges 4:5) is applied here, as in Deuteronomy 17:8, to the place of justice, as a spiritual height" rather than a location physically elevated [Drs. Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 2, p. 301].

"Deborah plays a number of vital leadership roles. As a judge, she is involved in military activity as are those other judges whom the Lord raised up 'to deliver Israel.' But also, uniquely among the judges, Deborah renders 'judgment,' or legal decisions, as she sits 'under the palm of Deborah.' In addition, she is the only figure in Judges who is called a prophet, ... one who mediates God's word to the people. Deborah also bears the title 'Mother in Israel' (Judges 5:7), perhaps because she gives wise counsel to those who seek her help (cf., 2 Samuel 20:19). More likely, 'mother' is the honorific title for a female authority figure or protector in a family or the larger community" [Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 331-332]. "A personality of great power and outstanding character, she was looked up to as a 'mother in Israel'" [Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible, e-Sword]. In these ways, and by virtue of these gifts and qualities, "she directed the affairs of the tribes from a spot between Ramah and Bethel, later known as Tomer Deborah (i.e., the palm tree of Deborah - Judges 4:5)" [International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 904]. Clearly, she was a woman of great influence and power, to whom even the commander of the Israeli army appeared at her summoning (Judges 4:6), as did "the sons of Israel who came up to her for judgment" (Judges 4:5). Those who suggest that a woman is not allowed by God to instruct and lead His people have never truly read their Bibles very well. Just the opposite is true with regard to the role of women in the furthering of the Divine Purpose, and it is true under both old and new covenants!

"Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time" (Judges 4:4). The phrase highlighted is a most interesting one; it is also a bit puzzling to biblical scholars. "Deborah seems to have been supreme both in civil and religious affairs; and Lappidoth, her husband, appears to have had no hand in the government" [Adam Clarke, Clarke's Commentary, vol. 2, p. 116]. This does seem a bit strange, but the problem may be easily resolved when one understands the phrase in question a little better. The word translated "wife" is just the word for "woman." Thus, a man's wife is indeed a woman, but not all women are wives. The problem is made more interesting when one realizes that the word "lappidoth" is feminine in form in Hebrew!! It literally means "a fiery torch." Thus, this phrase in Judges 4:4 "could equally mean 'fiery (or spirited) woman' (lit., 'a woman of torches'), because Lappidoth, elsewhere unknown in the Bible, is unlikely to be a man's name," because of its feminine form [Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 331]. It is felt by a good many scholars, therefore, that Deborah was not married, or was now widowed, and that this phrase "speaks of her shining gifts and of her fiery spirit" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 2, p. 190]. One Jewish source speaks of Deborah as the "triumphant 'mother of Israel,' sitting under her palm, full of the fire of faith and energy." She had a fiery spirit of loyalty to God and a burning patriotism for her people, a zealousness that served her well as she took on the forces arrayed against them. "She was like Joan of Arc, who twenty-seven centuries later rode in front of the French and led them to victory" [Edith Deen, All of the Women of the Bible, p. 69].

"As a counselor in time of peace, Deborah became known far and near" [ibid, p. 70]. Yet, as we know from the book of Judges, these times of peace did not last for long, and when the difficult times came upon the people of Israel, Deborah was already in place. "The next major oppression came at the hands of a coalition of Canaanite forces led by Jabin and Sisera, and it affected primarily the northern tribes" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 3, p. 403]. Jaban was the king of Canaan, and Sisera was the commander of his army (Judges 4:2). His army was powerful, having 900 iron chariots, "and he oppressed the sons of Israel severely for twenty years" (vs. 3). As a result of this harsh affliction, "the sons of Israel cried to the Lord" (vs. 3). The Lord heard the cry of His people, and He revealed His plan for delivering the oppressed tribes to His servant Deborah, who then summoned Barak, telling him what the Lord had commanded (vs. 6-7). One should not fail to take note of the fact that God did not speak to the man (Barak), but rather to the woman (Deborah), who then told the man what God had commanded! Jesus followed the same pattern, by the way, when He first revealed Himself, and the fact of His resurrection, to women, who then proclaimed the Good News to His apostles and the rest of the brethren!

Well, we all know the story that follows. Even though God had promised victory to His people in the coming battle, saying, "I will draw out to you Sisera, the commander of Jabin's army, with his chariots and his many troops to the river Kishon, and I will give him into your hand" (Judges 4:7), yet Barak said to Deborah, "If you will go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go" (vs. 8). Many have speculated as to the motivation behind this reluctance to go into battle without Deborah, some even calling him a "wimp" and a "coward." Others suggest that he didn't trust God's promise, or that he had little confidence in a woman's ability to "get right" God's instruction to him. Some say he wanted a "scapegoat" (someone to blame) in case the battle didn't go well ("We would have won, but she was there distracting us and getting in the way"). More nobly, some have suggested he simply wanted the presence of God's spokesperson with him during the conflict in case further advice was sought or further instruction needed to be conveyed to him and his troops. This is along the lines of carrying the ark of the covenant into battle; it boosted morale to have "God's presence with us" in these times of mortal conflict. This, they reason, shows respect for Deborah; she was being honored by his request. In the Septuagint, for example, there is a sentence added to Barak's request in Judges 4:8 - "...because I know not the day in which the Lord will send His angel to give me success." This is justified, some say, for in vs. 14 we find Deborah telling Barak, "Up! For this is the day in which the Lord has given Sisera into your hand." Adam Clarke suggests that Barak's request "was quite natural, and quite reasonable, and is no impeachment whatever of Barak's faith" [Clarke's Commentary, vol. 2, p. 117]. All of these and more have been offered as reasons for Barak's request, with some having more merit than others. The problem with them, however, is that Judges 4:9, in which we find Deborah's response, contains, in the minds of most scholars, a rebuke of Barak, with a stripping of some of the renown that could have been his. Deborah says, "I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the honor shall not be yours on the journey that you are about to take, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hands of a woman." Scholars are divided as to whether this "woman" is Deborah herself, or, more likely, Jael, who killed Sisera by driving a tent peg through his skull (Judges 4:17-22; 5:24-27).

Deborah did indeed go with Barak, and "preparations were everywhere made by her direction for the great effort to throw off the yoke of bondage. ... She and Barak organized this army, and she gave the signal for attack" [Easton's Bible Dictionary, e-Sword]. She didn't lead from a tent in the rear, she led from the site of the battle itself. A great victory was won that day, for "the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and the army ... and all the army of Sisera fell by the edge of the sword; not even one was left" (Judges 4:16). Although Sisera fled the scene and hid in the tent of Jael, yet, as we know, that didn't end well for him! "So, God subdued on that day Jabin the king of Canaan before the sons of Israel" (Judges 4:23), "and the land was undisturbed for forty years" (Judges 5:31), which is a tribute to the leadership and wise counsel of this patriot prophetess Deborah!

In addition to the above qualities of this woman, she was also a poet. The actual historical narrative of her exploits is found in Judges 4. This is the prose version. However, the whole thing is retold in a poetic version, and that is found in Judges 5. Most believe it was Deborah herself who actually wrote this epic poem, although Judges 5:1 indicates she and Barak both "sang" it before the people of God in commemoration of that great deliverance from their decades' long oppression. "Somewhat in the form of Hebrew parallelism, Judges has two supplementary accounts of the victory over the Canaanites. The first is in narrative fashion; the second is a majestic poem" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 3. p. 403]. It is "a poem of rare beauty. Called the 'Song of Deborah,' this masterpiece expresses heartfelt praise to God for leading His people in triumph" [ibid, p. 408]. "In every line of the song one senses Deborah's extreme devotion to God and to the well-being of her nation. At the end of the song, her courageous voice sounds forth like the clear notes of a trumpet of freedom! ... Such fire as Deborah possessed literally never died out of Israel" [Edith Deen, All of the Women of the Bible, p. 73-74]. Dr. Charles Ellicott wrote, "The Song of Deborah is one of the grandest outbursts of impassioned poetry in the Bible" [Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol 2, p. 195]. This poem is ancient, and it "is one of the oldest examples of Hebrew literature still in existence. It is the one contemporary source of any length from this period and is therefore of unparalleled importance for the study of early Hebrew literature, history, and religion" [The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 1, p. 809]. "This original piece of ancient poetry extant from the 13th century B.C., is one of the oldest fragments of the Hebrew language in the Hebrew Bible. It has beautiful lyric parallelism and contains many precise expressions drawn from Ugaritic and possibly other, older literature. It is difficult to translate and exegete because of its antiquity and obscurity. However, the joy of Israel's deliverance is stated gloriously" [The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 2, p. 79].

Let me conclude this reflective piece on Deborah with a few quotes from a noted biblical dictionary in which the importance of the place of women in the biblical record is highlighted: "Both the compelling irony of the prose account, which begins and ends with the decisions and deeds of women, and the vivid passion of the poetic version, which concludes with two striking women's scenes, testify to victory against great odds in a decisive battle. Indeed, the Song of Deborah can be identified as a 'victory song,' a genre of stirring poetic outbursts acknowledging the miraculous intervention of Yahweh to save the people, who otherwise seem doomed. In ancient Israel, female composers and performers typically sang such songs. Besides belonging to a genre attributed to women authors, the Song of Deborah exhibits thematic aspects, such as gender cooperation and solidarity, that characterize female texts. The prominence of Deborah as a woman in the largely male world of military and political leadership is often viewed as unusual and remarkable. However, ... women could and did act in various public roles in Israelite society. Because the male biblical canon-makers typically exhibit androcentric bias, the deeds of few are remembered. Yet periods such as that of the judges, with decentralized ad hoc leadership patterns, typically provide greater possibilities for the talents of women to emerge. Deborah, still visible to us millennia later, may represent many other such 'mothers' in early Israel" [Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 332].


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Readers' Reflections
NOTE: Differing views and understandings are always welcome here,
yet they do not necessarily reflect my own views and understandings.
They're opportunities for readers to voice what is on their hearts, with
a view toward greater dialogue among disciples with a Berean spirit.

From a Reader in Arkansas:

Hello Al, I hope all is well with you and yours. I know that you added me to your subscription list for Reflections several years ago, and I had been receiving them, but for some reason I have not been receiving them for a while, nor do I see them in my trash/spam files. So, if you would confirm that I am still on your mailing list I would appreciate it. Also, would you add my wife to your list? I was recently married and was telling my wife about you and your excellent articles, and she wished to be added. So, thanks for doing that. I know she will enjoy reading them. We were both raised in the Church of Christ together, and both attended elementary school together. Like me, she is open-minded and recognizes the freedom we each have to think for ourselves. You provide an impeccable format for such an opportunity, and we look forward to reading your publications together. May God bless you and your family with good health.

From a Reader in California:

Al, it wasn't until I started reading your Reflections articles that I came to realize, and was humbled by the fact, that there are so many different subjects in the Bible about which I know very little or nothing at all. In my 50+ years of studying the Bible, there are so many topics and areas of the Scriptures that you have been, and are, the first and only preacher/teacher to address and tackle. Further, your articles provide a more detailed and comprehensive explanation of the subjects you present than any other teacher I've ever known. As I've mentioned to you many times, Al, the more I read your Reflections articles, the more I learn and am enlightened, and the more I realize just how little I actually know about the Bible. I mentioned being "humbled" by this, because I used to think that I knew a lot about the Bible. Actually, I know very little. Thank You for providing a wealth of information for us readers!!

From a Minister in Tennessee:

Al, I was talking to our ministry team yesterday, and I told them that you are one of my heroes! What you have done to help others break free from their old chains, and what you have done to introduce people to the love of God and His Son is amazing! You have changed countless lives for the better. If there is anything we can ever do to help you, please reach out to us. You are highly esteemed here!

From a Reader in Arkansas:

Al, have you written about the significance of a church's candlestick, and the consequences of it being removed, as the church at Ephesus was told could happen? I wish the Lord had chosen to tell us much more about this topic.

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, your articles continue to fascinate me and cause me to think more intelligently. You are amazing at researching and bringing to light TRUTH. Please, keep it up!! Blessings to you, always!

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

Dear Al, Would you please send me the thumb drive containing the handouts and audio recordings of your class titled "From Law to Liberty: Reflecting on our Journey away from Legalism and into Freedom in Christ." My check is enclosed. Thank you very much!

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Al, I would like to order a signed copy of the second edition of your book "Down, But Not Out: A Study of Divorce and Remarriage in Light of God's Healing Grace." My check is enclosed. Thank you.

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Good Morning Al, I was looking through your NT Textual Index and didn't see an article by you on the piercing of Jesus' side (John 19:31-37). Have you done one on this? I am particularly interested in reading your thoughts on two issues: (1) Why is John adamant that others know he is telling the truth about seeing the blood and water coming from Jesus' side?, and (2) What do you find significant about the "double cure" reference in the hymn "Rock of Ages"? Thank you.

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

Al, I was discussing the Bible with a young lady yesterday and she quoted some OT passages that she considered binding today. Now, I know that we have always taught that the old law was abolished; nailed to the cross. I think a lot of us considered that to be a reference to the entire OT. Yes, there are a lot of good teachings there, but not generally considered to be priority items. Now, I have some questions. What was the writer referring to when he said the old law was abolished? Are there items in the OT writings that are binding today? - and I'm not necessarily referring to those that have been restated in the NT, like the ten commandments (less the Sabbath). If you have written on this subject, I would really like to read those studies. Love you, brother.

From a Minister's Wife in New Mexico:

Thank you, Al, for your article "Maligned Mary of Magdala: Special Favor Shown by the Risen Savior" (Reflections #871). When we look at the fulness of the gospel story, we see Jesus' love and appreciation of women and children, rather than viewing them, as some often do, as inferior or unimportant. Oh, if only we could understand that truth fully in the church today, rather than falling back on a few verses to "keep women in their place."

From a Reader in Texas:

Excellent article on Mary Magdalene, brother!! We continue to overlook the lesson that Jesus gave us when He sent Mary to declare what she had seen to His disciples "at a time in history," as you noted in your article, "when women were considered to be lesser than men." Two thousand years later we still treat women in the church, in the areas of teaching and worship, as lesser than men! We silence the giftedness of our women, rather than letting them be heard during our "worship" through helping to lead that worship, thus allowing them to use their gifts to lift us up and greatly enhance our worship. Al, I shared your article on Facebook, and wrote this intro to my friends on there: "I have known Al Maxey for at least a couple of decades. He is one of my favorite biblical teachers, and he is very much worth reading. He will challenge the reader with his biblical studies! This is his latest article on Mary of Magdala, also known as Mary Magdalene. It will be time well spent to read this study!"

From a Reader in Georgia:

Al, I don't know why, but I was struck by the viciousness of those over the centuries who have attacked Mary Magdalene. I guess the sin of women is far worse than the sin of men??!! Hardly. Also, it's hard to reconcile the liberation of women by Jesus with the limitations placed upon women (and even censorship) within the "modern" church! Keep on stomping out ignorance, brother!!

From a Reader in California:

Powerful stuff, Brother Al. I believe our sister Mary Magdalene was a perfect stand-in for ALL women. Yes, women were the first to bring sin into the world, but a woman was also the very first to be given the charge by the Lord to announce His resurrection to the world! That's some pretty powerful stuff! The salvation of mankind was first declared by Jesus to a woman ... in a garden, no less! Anyone who believes that women are less important than men in the work of the Lord need only to read the Scriptures and your Reflections articles (in that order) to be set straight on their place in the Body of Christ. Christ put "Paid" to any misunderstanding about how He viewed women by honoring them with the first and most important of all the Good News messages - The Message upon which all others rest: He Is Risen!! Yes, women are indeed precious in His sight!

From a Reader in Mississippi:

Al, thanks for this article on Mary Magdalene! I, like many, assumed too much about this woman. Your comments directed to the person seeking suggestions for his talk on "passion," made me think of something I believe God has put on my heart (something I'm passionate about). Have you ever read the book "To Train Up a Child" by Michael and Debi Pearl? About 20+ years ago, I found myself trying to raise two toddlers while my teenage daughter from a previous marriage had decided to live with her dad, who was not living for God. After crying out to God to help me raise these two girls so that they would have a true love in their heart for Him, I came across this book. I had never read a book that dealt with discipline in such an easy, succinct way. When I read it, and incorporated its teaching, I was amazed at how it transformed my life. I purchased many copies and gave them away. I thought it was that good. In this crazy upside down world we live in today, it seems like the hand that is rocking the cradle hasn't read this book. I would love to hear your thoughts on it if you have read it.

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