The First Deborah

Zahava Lambert

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Who is not familiar with the Song of Deborah - Deborah - prophet, judge, leader in battle and martial poet? She is one of the few women whose name and significance are recorded in the Tanakh. But she is not the only Deborah recorded there; she had a predecessor.

The popular prophet Deborah is one of the few female role models in the Tanakh, where she exemplifies a Hebrew woman possessed of respect, authority, leadership and decisiveness. To some of the rabbis such strong character in a woman was very threatening. Rabbi Nahman, in his dislike of "strong women" twists the true translation of her name from "bee "to "wasp" (Genesis Rabbah 18:1). This resistance to women in an active role by male commentators is one factor that makes it difficult to uncover the true memory and significance of the first biblical Deborah. Let us proceed to examine this first, decidedly overshadowed, Deborah.

And Dvorah, the nurse of Rivka died, and she was buried below Beth-el- underneath the oak, and he called the name of it the Oak of Crying. (Genesis 35:8)

What an important woman the first Deborah must have been! Not only is she mentioned by name, but her death, burial and burial site are recorded. The site is renamed in her honour. And her death either marks or precipitates a critical juncture in the life story of the founding of the house of Jacob. She bridges the three generations of the formative life of the Hebrew people. Her death marks a change in the character of the founders. But her role and her life are glaringly omitted in the classical literature

Immediately after Deborah's death, God blesses Jacob and orders him to change his name to Israel. Soon afterwards Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin, the twelfth son. The stage is now set for the next generation to advance the foundation of Judaism. Jacob's twelve sons will be the actors. But no woman of the stature of Sarah, Rivkah, Leah or Rachel will have a recorded role in this generation.

In the traditional of study of Torah texts it is explicitly stated that chronology is not only insignificant, but, as it applies to the record, does not exist. The rule is: Ein mukdam o meukhar batorah. i.e. "There is neither sooner nor later in the Torah." But when chronology is treated as important, the text reveals meanings and relationships that otherwise remain hidden.

Why is Deborah's death and burial so significant? Let us look at what preceded it. Just before Deborah's death, Jacob is given all the foreign gods as well as the earrings worn by his household for burial under the terebinth near Shekhem.1 Following her death Jacob changes his name; Rachel, who had stolen her fathers household gods, dies ; Reuben humiliates Bilhah; Isaac dies; and Rivkah pointedly disappears from the record. The old order passes. A new one is established.

Let us examine the significance of Deborah herself. What does the name Deborah signify? It is traditional to find meaning in the names of all the characters in the Tanakh and in this case the meaning is perfectly appropriate to the person. Dvorah, means "bee." Bee colonies revolve around the queen and the female workers. When it is time to form a new colony the queen flies off to a new location, surrounded by a nucleus of workers, and sets up a new hive.

Working bees are female and cooperative. They assist each other in raising their young, providing sustenance, and setting up homes. The first Deborah typified many of these qualities in her relationship to the matriarchs. In examining her role and her life it becomes obvious that women can help and support one another. Deborah's experiences balance the competitive picture presented by Sarah and Hagar, and Leah and Rachel..

Sarah and Abraham travelled together to set up their home. However, when it came time for the patriarch Isaac to begin his family, he could not leave the land . It was necessary for his mate to come to him. And so Rivkah did..

Rivkah, unaccompanied by her own family, chose to follow a stranger, her future father-in-law's head servant [usually identified as Eliezer of Damascus], to travel to another land in order to marry a distant relative but a stranger. Where did she get the self-confidence and courage? The text hints that the person who gave her the support and courage was her nurse Deborah.

And they sent away Rivkah their sister and her nurse (meniktah) and the servant of Abraham and his men. (Genesis 24:59)

The commentary follows the translation of "and they sent away" with the words "Laban and his kinsmen escorted her," addressing the question of why the text says, their sister, rather than his sister. The real question is why her kinsmen did not take her all the way to Abraham's home. They obviously did not escort her but , as the text states and restates very clearly, they sent her away with a servant whom they did not know and had no reason to trust beyond the fact that he gave them gifts. Her only companions were her nurse, Deborah, and some maids. It seems that Deborah was deemed a sufficiently competent counsellor and protector for her charge, Rivkah, daughter of the influential Bethuel, the Aramean from Padan-Aram. According to some rabbinical accounts Rivkah was only fourteen at the time.

The text does not indicate that Rivkah's mother accompanied her. What was her relationship with her daughter? The text gives us a hint. When she speaks to Abraham's servant at the well, Rivkah describes herself by her lineage. I am the daughter of Bethuel, the son of Milcah, whom she bore to Nahor (Genesis 24:24). She does not link herself directly with her mother. We do not learn her mother's name, then or later. But we do learn the name of her nurse, Deborah.

When Rivkah receives the jewellery from Abraham's servant, who then reveals his identity, she runs home to tell her news. But to whom does she bring the tidings? To her mother? Not exactly: And the young girl ran and told her mother's house of these words (Genesis 24: 28).

It is significant that she told her mother's house, as opposed to her mother. Rashi [R. Solomon Yitzchaki (R. Solomon ben Isaac), 1040-1105, France] says that a girl confides only in her mother; but not according to this text. Is this the text's way of letting us know that she felt no special confidence in her mother but felt impelled to speak to others in her household, her nurse in particular?

How did Rivkah relate to her brother Laban? The text tells us:

And it came to pass, when he saw the nose-ring and the bracelets on his sister's hands, and when he heard the words of his sister Rivkah , saying, ÎSo did the man speak to me,' that he came to the man, and behold, he was standing over the camel at the fountain. (Ibid 30)

And the servant took out silver articles and gold articles and gave them to Rivkah and he gave delicacies to her brother and to her mother. ( Ibid. 53)

Rivkah needed no one's permission to receive or keep these gifts. One commentary says that Laban suspected she had obtained them by illicit activity, but the text itself gives no hint of this. She keeps the jewellery which she has earned by virtue of her own good nature. Rivkah openly tells the entire household what had transpired and openly displays the jewellery. And even later, she is the only one to whom additional gifts of gold and silver are given.

The rabbinic commentators had difficulty with the concept of a single young woman keeping gifts from a stranger. They attempted to equate them with the exact monetary amount of the ketubah, although they can not explain why all the valuables are given to Rivkah herself. They explain that the valuables were not given to Bethuel because he was dead, presumably killed by divine retribution for opposing Rivkah's marriage. The Tanakh hints that there is a lack of warmth in Rivkah's relationship with her mother, who acts only in concert with her son Laban. She and Rivkah are never spoken of together. But as soon as Rivkah accepts the servant's offer, her mother and brother together immediately send her away.

But not alone. The text tells us; "and they sent away Rivkah their sister, and her nurse, and Abraham's servant, and his men." The mother and her son are a dyad, to the extent that they refer to Rivkah as their sister. The mother's relationship to the daughter is hinted at by this description. But Rivkah and her nurse are together, close enough to leave home and the familiar in the company of a stranger, a servant, and his men. Rivkah is bold and brave, but she is not alone. She has with her Deborah, her nurse, the one who raised her and supports her now, the source of her confidence.

Once she has arrived in Isaac's household there is no mother-in-law to either support or hinder Rivkah. Sarah is dead. Isaac and Rivkah wed. Isaac has flocks and servants to be managed. It is Deborah who must teach her how to run a large household.

After twenty years of barrenness, Rivkah conceives. Her pregnancy is difficult. True to her independent nature she follows a bold course of action and addresses God directly, and receives a direct answer in return.

And she said, if so why am I and she went to question God. (Genesis 25:22)

Rivkah has been raised by Deborah to be a decisive and active person. She goes out to the well, waters the servant's camels, invites him to her father's house, accepts his proxy proposal of marriage and leaves home. Now, during her difficult pregnancy, she demands an explanation from God directly.

The commentaries again have difficulty accepting this bold strategy in a female. They explain either that Rivkah went to a yeshiva to ask her question ö the academy of Shem according to Aggadath Bereshit, ch 73, to Shem and Eber academies in Genesis Rabbah 63.6, or to the prophets of her generation according to Rashba [R. Solomon ben Abraham Aderet, 1235-1310, Spain] and Targum Onkelos [Aramaic translation of the Torah, c. 120 B.C.E.]. But the Tanakh reports her direct question and direct answer.

And God said to her two nations are in your belly. (Genesis 25:23).

The story of Rivkah's support for Jacob against Esau, are well-known. Once Jacob has received Isaac's blessing through Rivkah's intervention she is willing to send her beloved son away from home, back to her brother Laban's house. But certainly Rivkah could not have foreseen that he would stay there twenty years .

When Jacob first marries Leah is it not likely that word of the nuptials comes to his mother? After all, it is ostensibly to find a wife that she sent him to Laban. The text does not say that she travelled there for the wedding nor does Isaac leave the land. But it is not farfetched to believe that Deborah may have attended the festivities as her emissary, as the one knowledgeable enough to help Jacob navigate his way through the treacherous home life that Rivkah had been so eager to leave.

Deborah was travelling with Jacob as he was returning to his mother and father. She obviously joined him at some point. When did she join him? Most logically after his marriage to Leah and Rachel, his cousins.

An old woman by then, Deborah as a nurse must have been wise about women's concerns. Only after her death does a woman die in childbirth: Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin. The words of the midwife who attended the unfortunate Rachel are recorded. "Don't worry", she says. "It's a boy." Would Deborah have expressed these succinct, rather unsympathetic, sentiments?

But death in childbirth is not the only misfortune to befall the matriarchs for the first time. Sarah and Rivkah were pro-active figures in the Bible story. Sarah travelled alongside Abraham. Tradition says that Sarah actually preached to women while her husband preached to the men. When the three angels come to their tent God asks Abraham where Sarah is, as though it is not to be taken for granted that she is shyly hiding in her tent. When we are introduced to Rivkah, she is boldly coming to the well. She has no difficulty dealing with a stranger. Rachel too comes to the well and meets with a stranger. But now things start to change.

Leah and Rachel openly state that their possessions have been stolen by Laban. If this were common practice they would not think to complain about it. Their outrage impels them to agree to leave home with Jacob.

And Rachel and Leah answered (Jacob) and said to him:'Is there still any portion or inheritance for us in our father's house? Are we not considered by him to be strangers because he sold us and also has he not consumed our valuables? (Genesis 31:14,15).

Rivkah, raised to be independent by Deborah, was ready to leave her homestead immediately. Leah and Rachel, lacking the support of such a tutor, must wait six years beyond Jacob's indentured service before they agree to leave their birthplace, all the while feeling that their father has deprived them of what was rightly theirs.

Matters deteriorate further in terms of women's rights. Sarah starts off on a more or less equal footing with Abraham. Her active resolution and authority in relation to Hagar and Ishmael are even confirmed by God. Only in her later life does Abraham take an authoritarian role regarding Isaac, in which Sarah has no say.

Rivkah goes out freely to the well and obtains a dowry and a husband. She addresses God when necessary and receives an answer. She is an active person, even in regard to differentiating between her two sons. She is willing to accept the consequences of her deception and works to protect Jacob from his brother.

Rachel is also found at a well, and receives the love of a husband. But in the story that follows we receive another prototype of matriarch. Leah is a passive character. She too is involved in a deception, but in a passive and manipulative manner. The commentators say that Rachel saved Leah from humiliation by giving her the signs Jacob and Rachel had prearranged for themselves. But nowhere in the commentaries is it suggested that Leah should not have participated in the deception of Jacob. Here the two possible roles of women are highlighted.

Deborah was involved in raising the decisive matriarch, Rivkah. Rivkah deceived her husband, but she was willing to pay the price.

And his mother said to him let your curse be on me my son, only listen to my voice and go fetch for me.(Genesis 27:13)

In contrast, Deborah did not raise Leah, who acts as though there will be no consequences for her actions. Leah is involved in deceiving Jacob and committing emotional harm to her younger sister. Leah knows that Rachel and Jacob love one another but displays no qualms of conscience; rather she accuses Rachel of stealing Jacob from her!

And she(Leah) said to her (Rachel) is it a small thing that you have taken my man?(Genesis 30:15)

Leah's character is completely different from Rivkah's and from the more forward and decisive Rachel. As Rivkah's emissary to the equally deceptive Laban's home, Deborah witnesses the decisive choice between two models of womanhood. She probably aided the two competing sisters in childbirth and in raising Jacob's many children.

The time comes to leave Padan-Aram to return to the parental home of Isaac and Rivkah, the strong matriarch. But then Deborah dies. And the active, decisive matriarch, Rachel, subsequently dies in childbirth. The passive, manipulative Leah survives.

The life of Leah's daughter, Dinah, drives home the change in the status of women. Dinah, like her predecessors Rivkah and Rachel, also "goes out." But this time the results are tragically different. She is kidnapped and raped, precipitating a vengeful massacre by her brothers. Her name subsequently is expunged from the recorded text except as an example to limit the freedom of movement of all her female descendants. It is directly in the aftermath of Dinah's abduction, the destruction of the men of Shekhem and the captivity of their women that the old ways are put aside.

And then Deborah, Rivkah's nurse, dies. The death of Deborah's charge, Rivkah, is not even mentioned A few lines later we are told that Esau and Jacob buried their father, Isaac. But not one word about their mother, Rivkah. We are told also that Rachel died and was buried and had a stone pillar erected to mark her grave. The commentators struggle with this oversight. But the death that is recorded is that of Rivkah's nurse, the one who raised her, and who saw the woman-centred values she had taught Rivkah superseded..

This Deborah who is omitted from memory marks a great change in the status of women. She arrives on the scene as the woman who raised the very bold and pro-active second matriarch. She leaves after the rape of Dinah, the burial of the earrings and just before the death of Rachel, the too-active matriarch. Only Leah, the deceptive, resentful, passive matriarch remains, unchecked by any woman of stronger character.

Leah does not protect her status directly and openly. Her son, Reuben, ensures that no concubine will threaten her status as surviving wife, but at the cost of losing his father's blessing as first-born.

And it came to pass while Israel was dwelling in that land that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah the concubine of his father and Israel heard about it.(Genesis 35:22)

Whereas Rivkah took the consequences of her son's actions on herself, Leah allows Reuben to pay the price of helping her. She presents a very different example of behaviour than does Rivkah.

It is not until much later in the history of the Jewish nation that another forthright female like Deborah merits recognition. When we finally read about Deborah, the prophetess and judge, she does not represent a break with the past, rather her character is a return to that of the earlier role model : Deborah, nurse of Rivkah . Her namesake, Deborah the prophet, reminds us of the possibility of authority, leadership and spirituality as being within the province of a woman's character.


1 And they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods which they had in their hands and the rings which were in their ears and Jacob hid them under the terebinth that was near Shechem (Genesis 35:4)

It is not just the old gods that are buried. The earrings are buried too. Why the earrings? These are women's wealth. Even today in many parts of the world woman's jewellery is her bank account, inheritance, and indicator of her status. Following the Exodus, earrings provided enough precious metal to make the golden calf. But during the last days of Deborah, the nurse of Rivkah, the women willingly gave up their earrings to be buried along with their old gods.


By training and experience Zahava Lambert is a designer and craftswoman. She has designed and built both silver candlesticks and houses. Her trade has taught her that in order to bring a two-dimensional written description into multi-dimentional reality, it is necessary to see the invisible but essential connections between the visible lines.

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this page last updated on: 5/14/00
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