Deborah is introduced in the Bible with three pieces of information, “Now Deborah, a woman prophet, a woman of Lappidoth, she judged Israel . . .” (Judges 4:4). Her story shows that she was an impressive woman, a prophet and a judge, who served God’s people well. Her name “Deborah” and her identification as a “woman of Lappidoth” may signify her brilliant leadership. In this article, I look at what “Deborah” and “Lappidoth” mean.
Deborah: Leader and Pursuer
The Hebrew word deborah is widely recognised as meaning “bee.” Bees are mentioned four times in the Old Testament. Three times they are mentioned metaphorically in the contexts of 1. Amorites pursuing the Israelites (Deut. 1:44), 2. enemy nations surrounding the psalmist (Psa. 118:12), and 3. the Assyrians invading as agents of divine retribution (Isa. 7:17-19). 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.
Richard S. Hess believes Deborah’s name, which is made up of the consonants DBR, may mean “lead” or “pursue.” If Hess is correct, then the word deborah is fitting for Deborah the judge as the Canaanites were aggressively pursued and destroyed by the Israelites under her leadership (Judg. 4:23-24).
Deborah’s name is derived from a Hebrew word made up of the consonants DBR, but a few scholars are not convinced the word means “bee,” or “lead or “pursue” as Hess proposes. These scholars believe “Deborah” comes from the word dabar. Dabar is a common word and, while it has a range of meanings, its primary verbal and nominal meanings are “speak” and “word.”
As a prophetess, Deborah heard from God and spoke prophecies (e.g., Judg. 4:9, 14). As a judge, she arbitrated disputes and spoke judgments (Judg. 4:5). As a leader, she spoke encouragements as well as decisive commands that included summoning and commissioning Barak the general of Israel’s army (Judg. 4:6, 14). Moreover, Deborah and Barak sang words that 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., Judg. 4:9).
Woman of Lappidoth: Fiery Lady
In Judges 4:4, Deborah is identified as a “woman of lappidoth” (eshet lappidot). In patriarchal societies, such as those of Bible times, women are typically identified by their relationship to a man, usually a father or husband, and it is commonly thought that “woman of lappidoth” means Deborah was the wife of a man called Lappidoth. However the Hebrew word lappidoth has a feminine plural ending, and this ending was not usually used in names.
Furthermore, from the little information we have, it wasn’t unusual for prophets and prophetesses in Israel and early Judaism to be single. Miriam, Anna, and Philip’s daughters, for example, were single. Deborah may also have been single. (More about these female prophets, and others, here.)
People in Bible times could also be identified by their hometown. So perhaps Deborah was from a town called Lappidoth. Apart 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” (eshet lappidot). Rather than being a proper noun, lappidot in Judges 4:4 could be the plural of lappid, a word usually translated as “torches” elsewhere in the Old Testament, including the book of Judges where the word occurs in two fiery and fierce situations (Judg. 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 (e.g., Exod. 20:18). 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 recorded in Judges 5 where Deborah is described as a matriarch, a “mother in Israel,” who had the support of the princes of Israel (Judg. 5:7, 15). There is not one negative word said against her. She was a formidable woman, a blessing for Israel who prospered under her leadership, and was 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.
 The Hebrew text of Judges 4:4a is as follows.
 Judges 14:8 is the only verse in the Hebrew Bible where actual bees (a swarm of bees to be precise) are mentioned.
Some scholars highlight a sense of “order” in the word deborah and connect it with bees. 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 [deborah] swarm of bees, may be in this [orderly] line, as led by their queen.”
 Anon., “Turkish Delight: Ancient Israelites Import Honeybees” in Biblical Archaeology Review 36.6 (Nov/ Dec 2010) (Source) Ezekiel 27:17 shows that honey was a product exported from Judah and Israel in his time.
 Richard S. Hess, who is Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Denver Seminary, begins his paper by stating “I study names.” He 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.
Hess, “The Name Game: Dating the Book of Judges” in Biblical Archaeology Review 30.6 (Nov-Dec 2004), 38-41.
 The Geneva Bible (1560) mentions that Deborah’s name means “a worde or a bee.”
 Hebrew scholar Robert Alter notes the two roles of Deborah as judge.
The [Hebrew] word shofet, traditionally translated as “judge,” has two different meanings —”judge” in the judicial sense and “leader” or “chieftain.” The latter sense is obviously the relevant one for [the book of Judges], though the sole female judge, Deborah, in fact also acts as a judicial authority, sitting under the palm tree named after her.
Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, Vol. 3 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2018) (Google Books)
 “The feminine plural ending, –ôt, used on a personal name, though rare, is attested (see, e.g., Naboth, 1Kgs 21:1; Jeremoth, 1Chr 7:8; Sasson: 255) …” Robert C. Kashow, “Lappidoth” in Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception (EBR) (Berlin/ Boston: Walter de Gruyter), 2017, 827-828.
 Jack Sasson, who was Professor of Jewish Studies and Hebrew Bible at Vanderbilt Divinity School before retirement, translates eshet lappidot as “a wielder of flames.” He also speculates that fire may have been used in her art of prophecy. See Jack M. Sasson, Judges 1-12: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Yale Bible; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014), 250, 255. (Google Books)
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Postscript: Josephus on Deborah’s and Barak’s names
So they continued to that hardship for twenty years, as not good enough of themselves to grow wise by their misfortunes. God was willing also hereby the more to subdue their obstinacy and ingratitude towards himself: so when at length they were become penitent, and were so wise as to learn that their calamities arose from their contempt of the laws, they besought Deborah, a certain prophetess among them (which name in the Hebrew tongue signifies a Bee) to pray to God to take pity on them, and not to overlook them, now they were ruined by the Canaanites. So God granted them deliverance, and chose them a general, Barak, one that was of the tribe of Naphtali. Now Barak, in the Hebrew tongue, signifies Lightning.
Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 5.5.2 §200-201 or § 1375.
Jennifer L. Koosed, Deborah, Bible Odyssey
Tikva Frymer-Kenskey, Deborah: Bible, Jewish Women’s Archive Encyclopedia
Deborah and the “no available men argument”
The ‘Shame’ of the Unnamed Women of the Old Testament
Jael: “The Lord will hand over Sisera to a woman”
Abigail: A Bible Women with Beauty and Brains
Huldah’s Public Prophetic Ministry
Every Female Prophet in the Bible
Bible Women with Spiritual Authority
11 thoughts on “What’s in a Name? Deborah, Woman of Lappidoth”
Interesting post. The ancient Jews and Christians did have a strong interest in the meaning of the names of prophets, so I would not be surprised if there is significance to Deborah’s name. We should not seek the scientific etymology of the name, but we should speculate instead on the folk etymology at the time. Names can have meanings that are different from their historical etymology. Barnabas may be an example. That is to say, Hess’s point does not require that the name derived historically from the word for bee. He requires only that the name could have been understood as meaning “bee”. It is possible that she was given that name after the episodes recorded in Judges 4-5 to mark her successful pursuit. Roman generals were sometimes given new names to mark their military victories.
Concerning Lappidoth, a prophet, like a torch, reveals hidden things. So should the word be interpreted as “revealer” rather than “fiery”? On the other hand, if Hess is right that Barak might mean “lightning”, then your point that “Lappid can also refer to lightning flashes” might be worth pursuing.
The Old Testament is not my field, so don’t quote me on any of this. Maybe you or someone else can break further ground here.
I’ll have to go back to Hess’s article to double check, but he emphasises the derivation of Deborah’s name from DBR meaning to “lead” or “pursue”. From memory, he doesn’t actually mention that deborah means bee.
I wrote my own thoughts when I stated, “. . . deborah is fitting for the bee, and fitting for Deborah the judge . . .”
Hebrew and the OT are definitely not my forte, so any further ground will have to be broken by others. I just have a little rummage around in the OT from time to time.
When the post and comments pointed out that “lightning” is associated with both Deborah and Barak, as a history buff, I immediately associated that with “blitzkrieg” which means “lightning war” which is a way of fighting that completely overwhelms the enemy by being both fast and deadly. One really does not want to get hit by lightning.
I’ve often said she was the fiery thunder to his lightning! The science of how the two are related makes for an interesting meditation.
I have long been interested in these possibilities on account of it’s being my name. Part of me resists the idea that she was not married to a Lappidoth, as sometimes I think there is an agenda to prove she did not outshine her husband. We need to elevate the idea of husbands who are willing to be Spirit filled prayer warriors for wives in the public eye. But either speculation is beautiful.
One thing that I noticed recently really moved me. I saw that the Latin Vulgate translates the holy of holies as oraculum due to its relationship to dabir. Of course, dabir itself like most Hebrew can have multiple meanings. And tying the name and the place would be an indirect anachronism. Also you note that Hess disagrees on the root of her name–although I believe I’ve also seen that root also connected to dabir. In any case, I was blessed by the personal encouragement from a fresh angle that Deborah could be one who lives in his presence, one who hears his words, even one who serves like a priest. It was fantastical to think that in a very real but figurative way, she lived there in the OT and had a ministry born from it as an example for us.
I’ve just read a commentary that spent some time repudiating the suggestion that because lappidot is the feminine form of a word, Deborah’s husband may have been hen-pecked/subordinate. Was it unusual for men to be named with the feminine form of a word? If so would this indicate that lappidot may be describing Deborah rather than a husband?
If lappidoth is the name of Deborah’s husband, I strongly doubt that we are meant to understand that he was hen-pecked or subordinate, given that the meaning of lappidoth is “flashes of lightning” or “fiery torches.”
Here is the entry on Lappidoth written by Robert C. Kashow in Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception (EBR) (Berlin/Boston: Walter de Gruyter), 2017, 827-828.
Lappidoth (MT Lappîdôt; LXX Λαφιδωθ) is only mentioned in the Bible in Judg 4:4. There is some debate over the etymology of the name, but it likely derives from lappîd, meaning “torch” or lightning” (HALOT): 533). The feminine plural ending, –ôt, used on a personal name, though rare, is attested (see, e.g., Naboth, 1Kgs 21:1; Jeremoth, 1Chr 7:8; Sasson: 255); it is possible, however, that the term originally read lappîdût (with the abstract –ût ending).
In Judg 4:4, Lappidoth is mentioned in relation to Deborah, whom the text describes as ēšet Lappîdôt. This phrase is traditionally translated “wife of Lappidoth.” Ernst Axel Knauf thinks however that one should translate “a woman from [the village or clan] Lappidot, because ôt is a common ending of toponymes” (cf. Anatot; Knauf: 68).
Jack M. Sasson argues that one could also understand the phrase to mean “wielder of flames,” or more literally, a “woman of torches” (Sasson: 250, 255; cf. the medium of Endor, who is described as ēšet ba ălat -ôb [1Sam 28:7]). This view is possible but a stretch, since nothing in the Deborah narratives suggests she ever wielded torches.
A similar interpretation is found already in bMeg 14a, where the phrase is understood as a reference to Deborah’s occupation(“a woman of wicks” [i.e., she prepared wicks for the Tabernacle]), and later in Rashi and various Jewish translations, where Deborah is thought to be a “fiery woman” (for discussion, see Sasson: 491 n.12).
. . .
Bibliography: Knauf, E. A., Richter (ZBK.AT 7; Zurich2016). Sasson, J. M., Judges 1–12 (AB 6D; New Haven, Conn. 2014).
Thanks very much for your thoughts.
I thought it was odd to assume that lappidoth referred to Deborah’s husband if it really was the feminine form of a word. But I guess that’s the traditional interpretation – which is contrary to my own preference for it to be describing Deborah herself!
This post was active on Twitter, and I’ve enjoyed reading your posts, so I clicked through.
Everything here makes sense. I would add, from a Hebrew studies background, that if lappidoth was intended to be understood as a husband instead of an adjective, we should expect “ishah lappidotheka” instead of “eshet lappidoth”
It is clear that the Hebrew scribes did not see lappidoth as a person at all, and certainly not Deborah’s husband. In light of that, this is at least one Biblical reference to a significant woman (leader) without any reference to her husband.
Hi David, but isn’t eshet just the construct form of ishshah meaning “woman of” or “wife of” (depending on context)?
I often see people trying to downplay and even denigrate Deborah’s ministry as prophetess and judge of Israel. Josephus, who wrote a history of the Jewish people back in the first century, is not one of these people. Here are a few highlights from Josephus’s version of Deborah and Barak’s deliverance of the Israelites from the Canaanites. (See Antiquities 5.5).
~ Josephus says that when the Israelites came to their senses after being oppressed because of their sin, they sought Deborah’s help and asked her to speak to God on their behalf.
~ When Deborah summons Barak and tells him what to do, “Barak said that he would not be the general unless she would also go as a general with him.” According to Josephus, Barak asks Deborah to be his co-general (participle of συστρατηγέω) in battle.
~ Josephus has Deborah saying that even though Barak has cheaply handed over the authority, honour, or perhaps order (ἀξίωμα) from God to a woman (Jael), Deborah would not reject the authority/honour/order given to her by God. (At least, that’s how I understand this difficult-to-read statement.)
~ Deborah stops the Israelite soldiers and Barak from running away in terror when Sisera arrives.
~ In Josephus’s account, Deborah is the hero, but note that the author of this popular English translation (here) has Barak’s name first in the (long) title: “How the Canaanites brought the Israelites under slavery for twenty years. After which they were delivered by Barak and Deborah; who ruled over them for forty years.”
~ In the last line of Josephus’s account of Judges 4, with extra info about the razing of Hazor, he says that Barak was the general (στρατηγέω) of the Israelites, meaning he was the general of the Israelite army, but the English translation can be understood as saying that he’s in charge of all Israel.
~ Missing in Josephus’s account is the idea that Deborah was a judge. Rather, she is a powerful, prophet courageously calling the shots and a general with Barak.
Judges 4 in the Hebrew Bible, and also Judges 5 where Deborah and Barak are singing from the same hymn sheet, are what we consider to be authoritative, but it’s interesting to compare versions.