“The leaders ceased in Israel — they ceased! Until I arose — Deborah arose — a mother in Israel.”
The translation of the second word of the Hebrew text (leaders) is debated. The Hebrew term in question is NØwz∂rVÚp (perazon). In technical terms, this word is a “hapax legomenon,” which means, it only shows up once in the Hebrew Old Testament. What makes it even more challenging is that the Septuagint (LXX) — the Greek translation of the Old Testament done by Rabbis between the 3rd and 4th centuries BC — simply transliterates the Hebrew into Greek.
The question that must then be asked is if there are similar words in Hebrew that might share the same root word, which then could assist in determining meaning. There are limited words to work with (at least in terms of Biblical usage), but we find in Esther 9:19 and 1 Samuel 6:18 the term yˆz∂rVÚp (peraziy), which refers to an unwalled village in the countryside (used in 1 Samuel to stand in opposition to walled and fortified cities). On this, many of our modern translations render NØwz∂rVÚp (perazon) as “villagers.”
The American Standard Version, along with its modern revision, the World English Bible, have chosen the word, “leaders.” This translation is rooted in the argument of the renown Hebraicist, William Gesenius, and his position that NØwz∂rVÚp (perazon) is derived from the Hebrew word, z∂rDÚp (paraz), as found in Habakkuk 3:14. This would tie the word to an old Arabic root, which means, “to divide” (implying the way a commander would separate troops into divisions). And while z∂rDÚp (paraz) is also a hapax legomenon, the Greek Septuagint offers a translation: duna/sthß (dunastas), which refers to a king, a ruler, or someone in a position of authority over others.
So, as we shift then, from the range of meanings possible for NØwz∂rVÚp (perazon), we then look to see which best fits the context, and that should be obvious. While some may suggest this word ties back to the previous verse about roads and pathways not taken, the location of the Sof pasuq (a cantillation mark, dating back to early Talmudic use, marking the Hebrew division between what we would call verses today), indicates clearly that this is part of the verse that speaks of Deborah rising up. That means, the most natural meaning of NØwz∂rVÚp (perazon) in the context is that of “leaders.” Thus, there were no leaders in the land — men rising up to do that which God has called them to do — and thus God raises up Deborah.
And what we see here is an exchange take place, when we look at the language used here…a male leader is not being replaced by another leader who happens to be female…for Deborah is introduced here as a “mother.” So, as Baraq and the other men of Israel are acting like fearful little children, God raises up a mother to chastise them and set them on their path — ironic justice. God had previously sent a command to Baraq to raise an army against the Canaanites…because of Baraq’s indecision, he ends up needing to bring his mommy along.
How sad it is that so many Christian churches in America are appealing to Deborah as part of their reasoning behind raising up women in leadership roles in the church — even as pastors. Yet, as one spends time looking at the text, Deborah is not only seen as an exception to the rule; she is seen as one raised up to shame the people into repenting of their sins…in particular, that of men rising up to the task.