Monday, August 11, 2008

Women Rulers in Ancient Israel

Alice C. Linsley

In Genesis we note many women of high social standing. Some are known as the wives of rulers: Adah and Zillah, Sarah and Keturah, and Rachel and Leah . Others are known as the daughters of famous priests: Asenath and Zipporah. Some are remembered for doing something extraordinary, such a when Zipporah circumcised her son, or when Jael [1] drove a tent peg through the skull of an enemy commander. In this essay, we will consider women rulers in ancient Israel from Deborah and Huldah to Salome Alexandra who ruled from 76-67 B.C.

Deborah, a Ruler in Israel

Judges 4:4-6 tells us, “Deborah, the wife of Lappidoth, was a prophet who was judging Israel at that time. She would sit under the Palm of Deborah, between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites would go to her for judgment."[2]

Ramah is where the prophet Samuel resided. The elders of Israel came to Ramah to demand that Samuel appoint a king to rule over them. David fled to Ramah for Samuel's help when Saul sought his life. Bethel also has numerous references, all indicating that it had cultic significance. Deborah is associated with a tree midway between these two important shrines. [3]

The idea of being at the center is reminiscent of Abraham's setting up his tent at the Diviner's tree (called the “Oak of Moreh”) between Ai and Bethel (Gen. 13). In this between place God visited Abraham in the heat of the day (Gen. 18). Here Abraham deliberated with the Lord about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. This information rounds out our picture of Deborah as one who deliberated with the Lord on behalf of Israel as a judge and a prophet, and we see the significance of sacred trees in connection to those elevated to leadership. She judged from her date nut palm [4] between Ramah (meaning high or lifted up) and Bethel (meaning house of God).

Though Deborah had great authority, she didn’t rule over all of Israel. She lived at a time before the monarchy in Israel. This period of time is described in the book of Judges, which records the deeds of a dozen judges: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Gideon, Tola, Jain, Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon and Samson. Though they are presented in what appears to be chronological order, some of these judges were contemporaries, each with his or her tribal jurisdictions.

Deborah's duties would have been like those of other judges. We are told that judges were called by God, helped to settle disputes, gave direction to people from God, and were respected by all the people. Judges 4 and 5 tells us that under Deborah’s rule, the land had peace for forty years.

Palm Trees and Oaks

The association of palm trees with rulers and prophets is a common among many African tribes. Fresh palm tree fronds are used ceremonially at the installation of rulers. Palm tree branches are also used to decorate places of worship. The tamar is a sacred symbol in Africa and the Negev, analogous to the oak for the Jews and the Greeks.

In Africa, rulers and oracles sit in the shade of such trees. That Deborah did so indicates that she was indeed both a judge and a prophet in Israel. "Torah" [5] means that which is thrown by the hand of the Moreh (oracle or prophet). Abraham received guidance when he pitched his tent at the Oak of Moreh. The word "Torah" is usually rendered guidance or instruction, but the word is also associated with a prophet sitting under a tree.

When the people used palm fronds to greet Jesus as he entered Jerusalem, they greeted him as one to be enthroned. The connection between rulers and trees at sacred centers is found among the tribal peoples of West Africa. Among the Yoruba, fresh palm tree leaves are “employed on occasions of installation to the position and rank of a sovereign, and to the office of a priest of high rank.”[6]

Palm tree branches are commonly employed to decorate places and objects of worship in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The palm tree’s height, strength, durability and the upward direction of its younger branches represents the righteous heart. The palm tree was regarded as sacred both by the Etrurians and the Greeks, just as the oak was considered sacred by Jews, Greeks, and the ancient Celts of Gaul and Britain.


Huldah lived approximately 655 years after Deborah. She too served as a judge in Israel. We read in 2 Kings 22:14 that King Asaiah sent his priests to consult the “prophetess” Huldah. She was living in Jerusalem, in the new section. Her name indicates that she belonged to the tribe of Hul, a son of Aram (Gen. 10:23).

Queen Salome Alexandra

The August '08 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review reports on a Judean queen named Salome Alexandra who ruled alone from 76-67 BC. Here is an excerpt:

When people hear the name Salome, they immediately think of the infamous dancing girl of the Gospels. Herod Antipas—the man Jesus denounced as a “fox”—had married his brother’s wife, Herodias. When John the Baptist denounced this illicit union, Herod Antipas cast him into prison. It was Herodias’s daughter, Salome, who danced before Herod at his drunken birthday gala. Her performance so pleased Herod that he promised her anything she wished: up to half his kingdom! At her mother’s urging, Salome asked for the head of Herod’s most famous prisoner on a platter. Fearful of breaking his word before his guests, Herod granted ­Salome’s request and ordered John the Baptist beheaded.

In antiquity there was a considerably more famous Salome, however, who was revered for centuries. She was so admired that generations of mothers named their daughters Salome in her honor. This Salome was the only woman ever to govern Judea as its sole ruler. She is even mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls: the sole woman, and one of only 18 people named in the scrolls. She presided over a number of religious reforms that shaped the Judaism of Jesus’ day as well as our own. During a time of chaos, men chose her to lead their nation and fight their battles. Centuries later, the authors of the Talmud regarded her reign as a golden age. Yet this remarkable woman has been largely erased from history. Her name is Queen Salome Alexandra.

The BAR article provides information about Salome from the Nahum Pesher which alludes to her as a prostitute. We recall that this same accusation was brought against Tamar when she sought to claim her rights (Gen. 38).

Related reading:  Deborah Warrior Bee; Mary's Ruler-Priest Lineage; The Daughters of Horite Priests


1. Read the story of Jael in Judges 4:17-22.

2. The population centers referred to in Judges 4–9 can be identified with reasonable certainty. These include Hazor, Ramah, Bethel, Kedesh-Naphtali, Taanach, Ophrah, Tabbath, Succoth, Shechem, Arumah, and Thebez. Hazor, Bethel, Taanach, Succoth, Shechem, and Thebez have been excavated thoroughly.

3. Mircea Eliade, a Romanian sociologist of religion, wrote about the significance of the sacred center for primitive peoples. See his Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return. Many ancient cultures regarded their most sacred places as the center of the cosmos. The ancient Incas regarded Cuzco as the “ombligo” (navel) of the earth.

4. The date nut palm is called a “tamar”. Tamar is also the name of two prominent females in the Old Testament: David’s ancestor, and David’s sister.

5. Torah is "what is thrown by the Moreh". This can be the 'arrow' from the archer or the 'direction' (teachings and instructions) from the teacher. The true Hebraic understanding of Torah is "instructions" and "teachings" such as from a father to his children. Read more about the meaning of Torah, here:

6. To Read more about the palm tree in connection with rulers, priests and shrines, go here:


Anonymous said...

The appropriation of palm trees (tamars) for establishing rank is a common practice among many African tribes. Fresh palm tree fronds are used ceremonially at the installation of rulers.
was this still the case in Jesus's time? Such as Palm Sunday?

Alice C. Linsley said...

Yes, Scott. The meaning of Palm Sunday is that Jesus was greeted as one to be enthroned. He entered the sacred center riding on a donkey, a lowly Lord and King. From His birth in a stable to His burial in a borrowed tomb, HE dwelt among us as humble King. And of His Kingdom there will be no end.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Jesus was buried in the tomb of the high ranked ruler-priest Joseph Ar-Mathea. This was a highly crafted tomb since we know that Joseph was a mining expert who also built tombs. See this:

It was a tomb fitting a ruler-priest.

Unknown said...

Wow! I was recently in Senegal a couple months ago, and went to a Fulani/Fula/Pulaar village and when ever there is conflict in the village the go take it up with the elders under the village tree.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Yes. the custom is very ancient and originates in Africa, which is where Abraham's ancestors came from.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Scott G,

You might find this interesting: