Translation commentary on Judges 4:5

She used to sit …: Used to sit translates a Hebrew verb (yashab) that can mean “inhabit,” “dwell,” or “sit” (see verse 1.9). The verb is a participle, showing habitual action, so it is well rendered here by Revised Standard Version. We could also begin this verse with “She usually sat…” or “It was her custom to sit….” In Israel, even up through the time of the New Testament, “sitting” was associated with “teaching.” In this case she is speaking forth, giving advice, and counseling people.

Under the palm of Deborah: Part of the goal of the historic books like Joshua and Judges is to explain place names. The palm of Deborah is the popular name given to the place where she sat to pass judgment. In many parts of the world trees are places for community gatherings, providing shady, cool spots where people can meet. The text does not say when the palm got its name, if this was during her lifetime or only in retrospect. Good News Translation leaves out Deborah’s name, saying “a certain palm tree,” but there seems to be no justification for this. The type of palm tree in view here is the date palm, which is well known around the world, growing both in desert and tropical environments (see comments on verse 1.16). If the palm tree is not known, this phrase can be rendered “under a tree that took her name” or “under Deborah’s tree.” The preposition under may be translated “by” or even “near” if appropriate. In many African cultures judgments are often conducted under a “palaver” tree, usually a very large tree in the village that provides a shady area where lots of people can sit. So a literal rendering for this clause will be easily understood in such languages.

Between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim gives the location of the tree. Both Ramah and Bethel (see verse 1.22) were well-known towns, located near Jerusalem, in central Israel. This means that Deborah did not live or prophesy in the far northern area where Israel’s battle against Jabin and Sisera took place. It may be necessary to indicate that Ramah and Bethel are town names. At first the name Ephraim referred to a tribe and later became the name of a mountainous region in the northern kingdom. For the hill country of Ephraim, see verse 2.9.

And the people of Israel came up to her for judgment: Came up renders a Hebrew verb (ʿalah) that occurs frequently in this book. In certain contexts it refers to going up for battle (verse 1.3), but here it has its primary meaning, designating upward movement in altitude, as the Israelites came up to the hill country to consult Deborah. However, in many languages it will suffice to say they “came” or “traveled” to her. Judgment translates the nominal form of the Hebrew verb shafat, which figures throughout this book. However, whereas in most other contexts this verb is parallel to the verb “save,” here it has the same meaning as in verse 4.4. The people came to Deborah so that she could make legal decisions or judgments concerning their disputes. Rather than keep the nominal form, many languages will prefer to express for judgment as a verbal clause by saying “The Israelites came to her so she could settle disputes among them” or “The people came there so she could pass judgment on the legal cases they presented her.”

Translation examples for this verse are:

• She regularly could be found at “Deborah’s Palm Tree” between the towns of Ramah and Bethel in the Ephraimite mountains. The people often came there for her to judge their cases.

• She used to settle disputes for people who came to her at a place known as “The Palm of Deborah,” situated between Ramah and Bethel in the mountains of Ephraim.

Quoted with permission from Zogbo, Lynell and Ogden, Graham S. A Handbook on Judges. (UBS Helps for Translators). Miami: UBS, 2019. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .