What Was a Judge in the Bible?

Judges 4:5 – She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment.

Deborah was a judge. This is very unique, as there may have been other female judges in the Old Testament, but she is the only female judge that is named or mentioned. A Bible dictionary says, “Deborah is identified in Judg. 4:4 by two terms: ‘a prophet’ ((NRSV) ‘prophetess’), lit., ‘a woman (Heb. ʿiššâ), a prophet’; and as one who was ‘judging Israel’ at the time of a 20-year period of oppression by the heavily armed Canaanites.” (1)

A Bible dictionary summarizes her life saying, “Deborah plays a number of vital leadership roles. As a judge, she is involved in military activity as are those other judges whom the Lord raised up ‘to deliver Israel.’ But also, uniquely among the judges, Deborah renders ‘judgment,’ or legal decisions, as she sits ‘under the palm of Deborah.’ In addition, she is the only figure in Judges who is called a prophet. That designation may be related to the song attributed to her in ch. 5, for poetic outbursts recounting Yahweh’s saving (or punitive) powers are frequently related to the activity of prophets, who mediate God’s word to the people. Deborah also bears the title ‘mother in Israel’ (Judg. 5:7), perhaps because she gives wise counsel to those who seek her help (cf. 2 Sam. 20:19). More likely, ‘mother’ is the honorific title for a female authority figure or protector in a family or the larger community, just as ‘father’ is for a male authority (cf. 1 Sam. 24:11; Isa. 22:21).” (2)

Although unusual, Deborah’s leadership roles were not sinful as one Bible dictionary says, “The prominence of Deborah as a woman in the largely male world of military and political leadership is often viewed as unusual and remarkable. However, unless forbidden by custom or law (as for monarchs and priests), women could and did act in various public roles in Israelite society.” (3)

In summary, in serving as a judge, Deborah would be something like a high-ranking judge in our day, perhaps a federal judge or member of the Supreme Court. Her involvement in military affairs would make her something like a senior White House cabinet member such as a Secretary of Defense or Secretary of State. As a prophetess, she gave wise counsel from the Holy Spirit to various leaders who came to her. 

Judges 4:5 says, “She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the people of Israel came up to her…” A Bible dictionary explains her life saying, “Deborah is first introduced in Judg 4:4–5. She judges Israel while sitting ‘under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim,’ which is north of Jerusalem (Soggins, Judges, 64). While she is already serving as judge in the sense of arbitrating disputes, it is not until later in the chapter that she takes on the role of military advisor and leader.” (4)

Read Judges 4:1-5 to learn more about Deborah the judge.

(1)   Carol Meyers, “Deborah,” ed. David Noel Freedman, Allen C. Myers, and Astrid B. Beck, Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000), 331.

(2)   Ibid., 331–332.

(3)   Ibid., 332.

(4)   Brandon Grafius, “Deborah the Judge,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary(Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

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