What’s in a Name? Deborah, Woman of Lappidoth

Deborah is introduced in Judges 4:4 as “Now Deborah, a woman, a prophetess, a woman of Lappidoth, she judged Israel . . . .”[1] Her story shows that she was an outstanding woman who served God’s people well. Her name “Deborah”, and her identification as a “woman of Lappidoth”, may also signify that she was an outstanding woman.

Deborah: Leader and Pursuer

The Hebrew word deborah means “bee”. Bees are mentioned four times in the Old Testament. Three times they are mentioned metaphorically: in the contexts of Amorites pursuing (Deut. 1:44); of enemy nations surrounding (Psalm 118:12); and of Assyrians invading as agents of divine retribution (Isa. 7:17-19).[2] From these verses it is apparent that biblical authors regarded bees as dangerous and aggressive pursuers. Bees in the land of ancient Israel are known to have been aggressive.[3]

Richard S. Hess believes Deborah’s name is derived from a Hebrew word, made up of the consonants DBR, which can mean “lead” or “pursue”.[4] If Hess is correct, then the word deborah is fitting for the bee, and fitting for Deborah the judge: the Canaanites were aggressively pursued and destroyed by the Israelites under Deborah’s leadership (Judges 4:23-24).

Deborah: Speaker

Most scholars agree that Deborah’s name is derived from a Hebrew word made up of the consonants DBR, but they believe it is a different word to what Hess proposes. These scholars believe “Deborah” comes from the word dabarDabar is a common word and, while it has a range of meanings, its primary verbal and nominal meanings are “speak” and “word”.[5]

As a prophetess, Deborah spoke prophecies (e.g. Judges 4:9, 14). As a judge, she arbitrated disputes, made legal decisions, and spoke judgements (Judges 4:5). As a leader, she spoke encouragements as well as decisive commands which included summoning and commissioning Barak the general of Israel’s army (Judges 4:6, 14). Deborah and Barak’s sung words are recorded in Judges chapter 5. Deborah was not just a woman of words, however; she backed up her words with faith-filled actions (e.g. Judges 4:9).

Woman of Lappidoth: Fiery Lady

Deborah is identified as a “woman of Lappidoth” (eshet lappidot) in Judges 4:4. In patriarchal societies, such as those in Bible times, women are typically identified by their relationship to a man, usually a father or husband, although some can be identified by their home town. So “woman of Lappidoth” may mean that Deborah was the wife of a man called Lappidoth, or from a town called Lappidoth. Aside from the reference in Judges 4:4, however, no person or place is called Lappidoth in the Bible.

There is a third way of interpreting “woman of lappidoth”. The Hebrew word lappidot is the feminine plural of lappid, a word usually translated as “torches” elsewhere in the Old Testament, including in Judges where the word occurs in two fiery and fierce situations (Judges 7:16, 20; 15:4-5). Did Deborah have a fiery or fierce personality? Does eshet lappidot mean “fiery lady”?

Lappid can also refer to lightning flashes. This has led a few scholars and rabbis to suggest that Deborah was a “woman of splendours”.

Whatever the precise meaning of eshet lappidot, Deborah was a splendid woman. We see this in the song of Judges 5 where Deborah is described as a matriarch, a “mother in Israel”, who had the support of the princes of Israel (Judges 5:7, 15). She was a formidable woman and much appreciated by her people.

Deborah continues to be a shining example of a strong, fierce woman whom God used to lead and rescue his people. Her brilliant words, as well as her actions, continue to bless and encourage:

“. . . May those who love you [LORD] shine like the rising sun at its brightest!” Judges 5:31b NET.


Endnotes

[1] A literal translation from the Hebrew text of Judges 4:4a:

Behind the Name: Deborah, A Woman of Lappidoth

[2] Judges 14:8 is the only Old Testament verse where actual bees (a swarm of bees to be precise) are mentioned.

[3] Anon., “Turkish Delight: Ancient Israelites Import Honeybees”, Biblical Archaeology Review 36.6 (Nov/Dec 2010) (Source)

[4] Scholar Richard S. Hess, who begins his paper by stating “I study names”, writes,

The name Deborah probably stems from a root (DBR) meaning to lead or pursue, also preserved in Debir, the name of a Biblical town in Judah near Hebron. Debir is mentioned as a town only in the time of the Judges, what archaeologists call Iron Age I (1200–1000 B.C.). The king of Eglon is also named Debir (Joshua 10:3). He is mentioned as ruling in this same period, during the Israelite appearance in the Promised Land.

Deborah may be a shortened form of a name that included the name of a deity, which in the case of “Deborah,” was omitted. Thus the name may have originally meant “(God) leads.” Such names are common in the ancient Near East and can appear with and without the name of a god or goddess attached.

The prophetess Deborah is mentioned in the Bible only in this episode. One other Deborah appears in the Bible, the nurse of the matriarch Rebecca (Genesis 35:8). Thus, in the Bible the name is used only in accounts of early periods.

Outside the Bible, a woman whose name contains the same DBR root as Deborah is mentioned in an Egyptian text of the time of Ramesses II, who reigned in the 13th century B.C.

In short, we can find insights into the name Deborah only from this early period, the late second millennium B.C.

“The Name Game: Dating the Book of Judges”, Biblical Archaeology Review 30.6 (Nov/Dec 2004), 38-41.

[5] The connection between “bee” and “speak” is obscure. Dabar, however, can also be used in the sense of “order”. James Strong has suggested that dabar “in the sense of orderly motion” is associated with the bees’ orderly movements or “systematic instincts”. In keeping with this sense the Hebrew Lexicon Brown-Driver-Briggs points out: “Hebrew דְּבוֺרָה swarm of bees, may be in this [orderly] line, as led by their queen.”

Others have speculated that “honey” (a product of the bee) and “speak/word” is the connection behind the word deborah, though this association seems a stretch.

“Honey was the only available sweetener in [Bible] days, and honey was recognized as a great source of strength (1 Samuel 14:27). . . The judgments of the Lord, as well as his words, were deemed sweeter than honey (Psalm 19:10; 119:103). . . . Ezekiel tastes a scroll that was given to him by The Word Of God, and it tastes sweet as honey (Ezekiel 3:3), and the same happens to John the Revelator (Revelation 10:9-10). (Abarim Publications Theological Dictionary).

Further Reading:

Jennifer L. Koosed, Deborah, Bible Odyssey
Tivka Frymer-Kenskey, Deborah: Bible, Jewish Women’s Archive Encyclopedia


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