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I have no skill at reading Hebrew, so I was using some tool to try and parse the sentence in Judges 4:4. I noticed that the definition given for the second word (אִשָּׁה) is "woman"; but what I'm unable to figure out is whether it is a modifier of some other word (like prophetess), or whether it stands on its own.

No major English translations seem to retain it as a separate word (i.e. "Deborah, a woman, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, she was judging Israel at that time."), suggesting to me that the word is subsumed under "prophetess". However, it also seems from the lexicon that the word for "prophetess" already includes gender.

I realize that the grammars are very different; but are the English translations dropping something that is present in the Hebrew?

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Was this prompted by my earlier question on Deborah? –  Jon Ericson Feb 13 '12 at 18:33
@JonEricson I read quite some time ago that the first 5-6 phrases in the Hebrew all identify Deborah as a woman, as if the author is going out of the way to point this out. Your question definitely prompted me to follow up on this and try and search it out for myself. –  Soldarnal Feb 13 '12 at 20:52

3 Answers 3

up vote 12 down vote accepted

According the the NET Bible translator note on the verse:

1 tn Heb “ a woman, a prophetess.” In Hebrew idiom the generic “woman” sometimes precedes the more specific designation. See GKC 437-38 §135.b.

Interestingly, since her husband, Lappidoth, is identified the text must reorient itself to point back to Deborah when talking about her leadership role:

2 tn Heb “she was.” The pronoun refers back to the nominative absolute “Deborah.” Hebrew style sometimes employs such resumptive pronouns when lengthy qualifiers separate the subject from the verb.

The text goes out of its way to identify her as a woman in this verse by:

  • Giving her a feminine name (Dĕbowrah <01683>)
  • Calling her a prophetess (nĕbiy'ah <05031> is feminine)
  • Identifying her husband
  • And redirecting the subject to a woman when talking about her national role.

Finally, the translator mentions that her role could either be "leading Israel" or:

3 tn Or “judging.”


Having a woman in this role was no doubt unusual enough that the text seems to go out of its way to avoid confusion on that point.

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Jon Ericson has already given a thorough interpretation, but just to answer the Hebrew query in your question:

וּדְבוֹרָה אִשָּׁה נְבִיאָה, אֵשֶׁת לַפִּידוֹת--הִיא שֹׁפְטָה אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בָּעֵת הַהִיא.

(From Mechon Mamre)

אִשָּׁה (woman) is the feminine form of אִישׁ (man). The other Hebrew words in this passage that are explicitly feminine are: prophetess, wife, she, and judged. (In "woman" and "prophetess" the grammatical marker is the same: the final hei preceeded by the vowel qametz. That's a normal transformation for feminine nouns, though not a guarantee in either direction.)

Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of a religious belief or doctrine.

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Thanks for the information about the marker. That's a helpful thing to know even beyond this verse. –  Soldarnal Feb 13 '12 at 20:49
@Monica I suppose you are intentionally simplifying this - but the final ה only indicates a feminine word when it is preceeded by a letter vowelized with a qamatz (ah). Also - I have never seen the word איש written חסר (without the י) - again, I assume this is an intentional simplification. –  sq33G Feb 14 '12 at 9:46
@sq33G, yes -- I was just trying to provide a hint, not a full-on lesson in feminine nouns in Hebrew. I should have included the qametz, though, and will edit. Also, for everybody else, final hei != feminine noun; it's a pattern, but not all final heis are f. nouns and not all f. nouns have final hei. I mentioned it here because of the specific word in question. –  Gone Quiet Feb 14 '12 at 20:46
@sq33G: If I may sneak in a quick: "Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics", I will. (And just did!) Sounds like you know a lot more about Hebrew than I do and I hope you have time to answer (and ask) some questions at some point. Thanks for the comment (which went right over my head ;-). –  Jon Ericson Feb 14 '12 at 23:20
@sq33G, oh, I just realized what you meant about ish. That was a typo. :-( –  Gone Quiet Feb 15 '12 at 1:35

There is no ambiguity about Deborah’s sex. The reason you have not seen a translation render this “Deborah, a woman, a prophetess, etc.” is the awkwardness of such a translation. And there are many other instances of this in the Bible: ish mitzri (to take an example from this morning’s Torah reading), “an Egyptian man” or just “an Egyptian”, not “a man, an Egyptian”. The Masoretic trop therefore explicitly combine the two words into a single phrase.

Note that the next instance of the word for woman in this verse is in the construct form and must be translated “woman of” (or “wife of”) and is attached to the next word. The usual translation is “wife of Lapidoth” and the midrash Eliyahu Rabbah identifies Lapidoth (meaning “torches”) with Barak (meaning “lightning”). However, in ArtScroll’s The Prophets, Rubin Edition, the words esheth lapidoth (אשת לפידות) are instead rendered “a fiery woman”. This seems to follow another midrashic tradition, as explained by Metzudath David ad loc. (translation my own):

Esheth lapidoth, that is to say, a woman of valor, enthusiastic in her service as a flaming torch; this is a colloquialism.

This translation is perhaps informed by the Midrash quoted in the Talmud (Megilla 14a):

אשת לפידות שהיתה עושה פתילות למקדש
She is called esheth lapidoth because she made wicks for the sanctuary.

If the text is read “a fiery woman” (lit., “woman of torches”), this Midrash would be a hyper-literal reading of her description. If the text refers to her husband, one might expect the Midrash to describe his fieriness instead.

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Interesting. I see that Lapidoth comes from לַפִּיד (lappid or lappid) which means "torches". –  Jon Ericson Feb 15 '12 at 17:23
@JonEricson, yes, exactly. –  J. C. Salomon Feb 16 '12 at 20:24
Excellent answer. Thanks for updating. +1 from me :) –  Dan Jan 9 at 13:31

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