Most of the great women in the Bible either are married to a great man or related to one. For example, Sarah is primarily known as Abraham's wife and Miriam as Moses' sister. Even Esther, who saves the Jewish people from Haman's attempted genocide, is guided by her adviser and cousin Mordechai. A rare exception to this tradition is the prophetess and judge Deborah, perhaps the Bible's greatest woman figure.
Deborah stands exclusively on her own merits. The only thing we know about her personal life is the name of her husband, Lapidot. "She led Israel at that time," is how the Bible records it. "She used to sit under the palm tree of Deborah ... and the Israelites would come to her for judgment."
During Deborah's time, a century or so after the Israelite entry into Canaan, the valley in which she and her tribe lived was controlled by King Jabin of Hazor. Deborah summoned the warrior Barak and instructed him in God's name to take ten thousand troops and confront Jabin's general, Sisera, and his army's nine hundred iron chariots, on Mount Tabor.
Barak's response to Deborah shows the high esteem in which this ancient prophetess was held: "If you will go with me, I will go; if not I will not go."
"Very well, I will go with you," Deborah consents, but she can't resist gibing at Barak about the sexism of their society. "However, there will be no glory for you in the course you are taking, for then the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman" (4:8-9).
The battle takes place during the rainy season, and Sisera's chariots quickly bog down in the mud. The Israelites overwhelm Hazor's army, and inflict heavy casualties. Sisera, fleeing on foot, escapes to the Kenite camp, where Yael, the clan leader's wife, invites him to stay. He falls asleep in her tent, whereupon Yael lifts a mallet and drives a tent peg through his head.
The famed "Song of Deborah," in chapter 5, exults in the breaking of the Canaanite stranglehold over much of the country: "So may all Your enemies perish, 0 Lord," is Deborah's parting shot, though the true Jewish victory went even deeper than the destruction of Sisera and his chariots. According to the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest figures in Jewish history, was a direct descendant of Sisera, That a descendant of this great enemy of the Jews became a great Jewish rabbi and scholar represented the Jews' ultimate victory over their ancient Canaanite opponent.
Sources: Joseph Telushkin. Jewish Literacy. NY: William Morrow and Co., 1991. Reprinted by permission of the author.