The stories of Deborah and Jael appear in Judges 4-5: Deborah is the judge of Israel during a war against the Canaanites, and Jael aids the Israelites by killing the Canaanite general Sisera. While the narrative of these two women is compelling enough on its own, understanding the meaning of their names can offer deeper insight into their roles in Israel’s history, as well as the importance of their actions for furthering the purposes of God. Deborah and Jael embody the divine desire to protect the land and people of Israel, and thereby reinforce the Lord’s covenantal promises.
According to Judges, when king Jabin of Canaan threatens God’s people they cry out for help from heaven. The Lord responds through the military might of “Deborah, a prophet, wife of Lappidoth, [who] was judging Israel” (Judges 4:4). While English versions tend to translate the Hebrew אשׁת לפידות (eshet lappidot) as “wife of Lappidoth,” an equally plausible rendering is “woman of flames”— אשה (ishah) can mean either “wife” or “woman,” and a לפיד (lapid) is a “flame.” It’s possible that “Lappidoth” (לפידות) is Deborah’s husband, but the name is attested nowhere else in Israel’s Scriptures. More, the title “woman of flames” seems more appropriate insofar as Deborah goes into battle alongside her soldier Barak (ברק), whose name means “lightning.” When lightning touches the land, it can cause fire, so it’s appropriate that these two military leaders—the man of lightning and the woman of flames—enter the battlefield together.
In the midst of battle, the Canaanite general Sisera retreats to the tent of Jael. Since there is a peace treaty between the Canaanites and Jael’s husband, Sisera believes that he will find safety inside the tent. Jael supports this assumption when she gives the general a blanket and “milk” (חלב; halav), which lulls him to sleep (Judges 4:21). Once Sisera falls asleep, Jael grasps and tent peg and drives it through his skull! The name Jael (יעל; Yael) means “goat.” This seems like an odd appellation until we realize that “Deborah” (דבורה) means “bee.” In rescuing Israel from destruction, Jael, the milk-giving “goat,” combines with Deborah, the bold “bee,” to keep the land “flowing with milk and honey.” Thus, the work of these women symbolizes the ongoing vitality of divine promises, and God’s dedication to covenantal relationship with Israel.