What the example of Deborah reveals about gender authority: As women have gained increased influence in society, and as Bible scholars offer a consistent egalitarian interpretation of Scripture, gender traditionalists have had to work harder and more creatively to justify the subordination of women within the church and family—even to themselves.
Digging deeper into Prov 31:10–31 in context reveals it was never intended to be a how-to manual for becoming the perfect woman. In the context of Proverbs, this passage is the parting mnemonic incentivizing young men to pursue wisdom and marry wisely.
Over the past forty years, the remarkable presence of women in Prov 1–9 has drawn an equally remarkable number of studies, a gift from the rise of feminism and women in the academy. The combination of these two forces brings attention to the once invisible women in the text, figures generally overlooked or ignored as males have read and interpreted the text for other males. Now, however, the text again gives birth to these marginalized figures, providing them with bodies, eyes, ears, hands, feet, and especially, mouths for speech. Of 256 verses in Prov 1–9, 132 specifically mention or speak about women and another seventeen verses either introduce these texts or draw conclusions from them;hence fifty-eight percent of Prov 1–9. Yet, ironically, all this attention to women comes because of the writer’s interest and concern for young men (1:4), with a secondary appeal to older, wise men (1:5). For the sages, it would seem that the way to a man’s heart is not through food, but through women. After all, the author seems to assume, what better way to engage the attention of a young man than by speaking about or describing women?
Unwarranted criticisms by evangelical scholars of Deborah’s leadership in Judg 4–5 continue to devalue her work as “abnormal,” “wrong,” something done only in private or even in subservience to Barak. Some rabbinical scholars go so far as to brand her an arrogant woman who deserves God’s punishment. In contrast, this paper argues that a close reading of her story and song reveals an ’eshet hayil, a “woman of valor” (cf. Ruth 3:11, Prov 12:4, 31:10). This is evident not only in the direct references to her, but also in the narratives regarding her associates Barak and Jael.
Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the sons of Israel came to her for judgment. (Judges 4:4–5, NASB)
The Bible sets forth an ideal and calls the ideal woman an eshet-chayil, which is the Hebrew for a “virtuous woman” (KJV) or a “wife of noble character” (NIV). This Hebrew expression occurs only three times in the Old Testament, but a study of these three passages is likely to reveal what the Bible supports as an ideal of Christian womanhood.
For egalitarians, the book of Judges clearly demonstrates God’s approval of women leaders. Yet many who view women’s leadership as unbiblical dismiss the pattern of God-affirmed female authority in Judges.
A great leader practices holistic, radical, other-oriented love and service. In asking the church to empower women as pastors and spiritual leaders, we are asking it to activate women to fully and freely love, lead, and serve.