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.
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