Deborah was one of the rulers of the Israelites prior to the monarchy period that began with Saul (circa 1047 B.C.). These rulers were called "judges," an office that traced back to a time when Moses appointed assistants to help him resolve disputes among the Hebrews (Exodus 18). Their practice was to seek guidance from God through prayer and meditation before making a ruling. Therefore, many of the judges also were considered prophets who spoke "a word from the Lord."
Unfortunately, details of her time as a judge of the Hebrews are nearly as sparse as her personal details. The opening Judges 4:4-5 tells this much:
At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment.
This location, "between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim," places Deborah and her fellow Hebrews in an area controlled by King Jabin of Hazor, who had oppressed the Israelites for 20 years, according to the Bible. The reference to Jabin of Hazor is confusing, since the Book of Joshua says that it was Joshua who conquered Jabin and burned Hazor, one of the main Canaanite city-states, to the ground a century earlier. Several theories have been put forth to try to solve this detail, but none have been satisfactory thus far. The most common theory is that Deborah's King Jabin was a descendant of Joshua's defeated enemy, and that Hazor had been rebuilt during intervening years.
Having received instruction from God, Deborah summoned an Israelite warrior named Barak. She told him to take 10,000 troops up to Mount Tabor to confront Jabin's general, Sisera, who led an army made up of 900 iron chariots.
The Jewish Virtual Library says that Barak's response to Deborah "shows the high esteem in which this ancient prophetess was held." Other interpreters have said that Barak's response actually shows his discomfort at being ordered into battle by a woman, even if she was the ruling judge at the time. Barak said: "If you will go with me, I will go; if not I will not go" (Judges 4:8). In the next verse, Deborah agrees to go into battle with the troops, but tells him: "However, there will be no glory for you in the course you are taking, for then the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman" (Judges 4:9).
Hazor's general, Sisera, responded to news of the Israelite uprising by bringing his iron chariots to Mount Tabor. Deborah lead an army of 10,000 men and she won! Deborah had faith in God. Barak did not have Faith!
The Israelite warriors won the day, and General Sisera fled the battleground on foot. He escaped to the camp of the Kenites, a Bedouin tribe that traced its heritage back to Jethro, Moses' father-in-law. He asked for sanctuary in the tent of Jael (or Yael), wife of the clan leader. Thirsty, he asked for water, but she gave him milk and curds, a heavy meal that caused him to fall asleep. Seizing her opportunity, Jael tiptoed into the tent and drove a tent peg through Sisera's head with a mallet. Thus Jael gained fame for killing Sisera, which diminished Barak's fame for his victory over King Jabin's army, as Deborah had predicted!
Judges Chapter 5 is known as the "Song of Deborah," a text that exults in the victory over the Canaanites. Deborah's courage and wisdom in calling up an army to break Hazor's control gave the Israelites 40 years of peace.