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

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 suggested 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


Related Articles

Deborah and the “no available men argument”
The Shame of the Unnamed Women of the Old Testament
Abigail: A Bible Women with Beauty and Brains
Jezebel of Thyatira: A Female False Prophet
Junia in Romans 16:7 (ESV)

Posted November 28th, 2015 . Categories/Tags: Bible Women, Equality and Gender Issues, , ,

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10 comments on “What’s in a Name? Deborah, Woman of Lappidoth

  1. 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.

    • Marg says:

      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.

  2. […] What’s in a name? Deborah: Woman of Lappidoth […]

  3. […] What’s in a name? Deborah, Woman of Lappidoth […]

  4. Donald Johnson says:

    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.

    • Deb says:

      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.

  5. Deb says:

    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.

  6. […] Hugenberger has a shorter list of queens and female rulers in his article but he includes Deborah in his list: “Deborah, the wife of Lappidoth, who was both a prophetess and judge (presiding elder over Israel) in Judges 4-5.” (1992:345, footnote 11) Sheerah could be added to this list. […]

  7. […] Barak, the general of Israel’s army, depended on Deborah’s leadership. And the Israelites (presumably both men and women) came to Deborah for her decisions on matters of law (Judges 4:4-6, 8). (More on Deborah here and here.) […]

  8. […] Deborah was an excellent and versatile leader. She was a matriarch, a prophetess, a judge, and a military leader (Judges 4-5). Deborah’s prophetic insight was accurate and she showed decisive leadership in military matters. Her words have been preserved in Scripture and thus have the authority of Scripture. More about Deborah here and here. […]

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