What does it take to be included in the Hebrews “Hall of Faith” (Heb. 11:1– 40)? How could anyone hope to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with such notables as Abel the righteous (Gen. 4:1–10; Matt. 23:35); Enoch who walked faithfully with God (Gen. 5:22–24); saintly Noah who was graced with the Lord’s favor (Gen. 6:8); Abraham and Sarah who believed against all odds that God’s promise was certain (Gen. 15:6; 21:1; 22:12); Moses the friend with whom God spoke face- to-face (Num. 12:6–8); Samuel who was respected for his integrity from Dan to Beersheba (1 Sam. 3:20); and King David, a man after God’s heart (1 Sam. 16:7; Acts 13:22). The inspired list goes on to name a total of sixteen men and women, including Deborah’s military general, Barak (Judg. 4–5). All of these are commended for their faith, true heroes of whom “the world was not worthy” (Heb. 11:38).
In contrast to many of the others in the Hebrews list, we are not told exactly what Barak did to demonstrate his extraordinary faith. But, thankfully, the account of his work under Deborah, the respected prophet and judge, in Judges 4–5 provides helpful clues to answer this question from the Scripture.
Deborah: God’s prophet and judge
Understanding Deborah’s position as prophet and judge in ancient Israel is critical to evaluating Barak’s response to her leadership.
As a prophet, Deborah received the inspired Word directly from God; then, in turn, she delivered it to the people of God. In other words, she spoke with divine authority — not her own. She addressed her audiences having been anointed with spiritual power as an ambassador for the one true God of Israel. People were expected to listen — and they did!
Moreover, Deborah had an established base of operation at Israel’s central crossroads (between Ramah and Bethel in the territory of Ephraim), where people from across Israel sought her out to decide on domestic disputes too difficult for local tribal judges. Deborah’s successor Samuel chose this same place for his headquarters not too many years later. Both were highly respected as regional judges. As with their prophetic ministries (Deborah and Samuel), their position as judges carried a great degree of authority. When they passed judgment on a case, their ruling was binding.
But, as a wise and discerning leader, Deborah also knew when to seek a ministry associate to complement her own exceptional gifted- ness. On this occasion she sent for Barak from the northern Galilee territory of Naphtali (over 100 miles north of where she ministered). Barak was chosen to lead Israel’s troops into battle against the Canaanite coalition that seriously threatened his region.
So, why choose Barak? Maybe it was because his local reputation enabled him to muster an army of 10,000 warriors on short notice. Or, it may have been because he knew the Galilee region well, where the battle would take place, and could plan the specific military strategy from the local vantage point high atop Mt. Tabor. Deborah ministered in the central hill country and most likely would not have been familiar with the terrain in Galilee. Certainly, Barak’s physical strength as a man would have made him a better fit for the vicious hand-to-hand combat required against the Canaanite general Sisera and his 900 iron chariots.
Yet, beyond these reasonable speculations, the biblical text points to other inner qualities in this man, ones that show him to be the “man of faith” for which he is remembered by the New Testament author of Hebrews. Let’s look closely at what it says!
Barak: The general who served God’s chosen leader
When Barak hears Deborah’s prophetic voice ordering him to battle, he responds, “I’ll will go, but only if you go with me” (Judg. 4:8, NLT). Why does this man of faith insist on having Deborah along on his mission? The text gives us the clue: she is a prophet of God who can provide divinely-inspired military advice if a field decision is needed in the heat of battle (compare with King Jehoshaphat and the prophet Micaiah in 1 Kings 22:1–28; 2 Chron. 18:4–27). These are not the words of a coward merely wanting a woman to hold his hand! On the contrary, they reveal the heart of a courageous man of God, ready to obey, as soon as he’s sure that God will guide him. Thus, Barak demonstrates his heart of faith by submitting to God’s chosen leader — yes, even a woman!
But, the general’s chosen path will not be easy to travel; nor will it bring him personal honor. In fact, our brave prophet responds, “I will surely go with you [at great personal risk]; nevertheless the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (Judg. 4:9; NRSV). Barak’s willingness to submit to the voice of God — especially when it has a feminine tone — is nothing short of amazing. By doing so, he shows respect to Deborah’s prophetic ministry by obeying God’s authoritative Word delivered through her. Moreover, he is willing to risk his life against a significant military force knowing in advance that credit for the promised victory will go to yet another woman! (You can read the story of Jael, another capable woman of valor in this text, for yourself in Judg. 4:17–22.)
The willingness of Barak and Deborah to forego personal glory speaks to their humility. Certainly she had initiated the plan; and, he carried the weight of responsibility in the mission. But, both are quite willing to give Jael the honor — and, by doing so, give God the honor. In the end, they sing a song of victory (Judg. 5:1–31), in which Deborah is remembered as a “mother in Israel” who arises and commands the people (Judg. 5:7–8). And, the land experienced peace for forty years.
Walking in Barak’s footsteps
Several enduring lessons present themselves to those of us who have the privilege of serving under the leadership of godly Christian women in the church. My wife and I have personally welcomed this opportunity in the Whittier Area Community Church here in California where four of our full-time pastoral staff are women.
1. Warmly embrace the leadership that godly and gifted women provide.
There is no hint of hesitation discernible in the story of Deborah and Barak on the part of the people who sought Deborah’s council or on the part of General Barak who obeyed her orders. All recognized her gifts and calling and responded appropriately. It’s time our evangelical churches move past the mere acceptance of women in ministry and begin to genuinely encourage them.
2. Be willing to serve in a secondary role when God has called a woman to the primary role.
God chose these leaders to serve at a critical time in Israel’s history. Israel was paralyzed with fear until Deborah inspired the nation with her courage and faith (Judg. 5:7). As a godly man of faith, Barak was happy to be part of her leadership team. In fact, his insistence on her presence in the battle shows just how much he valued and honored her leadership.
3. Move past the worldly stigmas and stereotypes related to gender.
Certainly Barak felt the social embarrassment in his patriarchal world of both serving under a woman and allowing the credit for victory to go to a woman. But, a man of faith does not let these pressures deter his commitment to obey God’s will as it is delivered through God’s ambassador. In short, when God speaks with a feminine voice, listen!
During my time in ministry (over 40 years now), I have heard a number of Mother’s Day sermons on Deborah. But, I cannot recall one Father’s Day sermon on Barak. In fact, when he is mentioned, he is usually stereotyped as weak and cowardly because of his response to Deborah. But this is not the view of Scripture! The Old Testament text presents him as a great military leader who honored Deborah’s leadership, and the New Testament remembers him as a hero of faith!
As a man, I strongly encourage other men (and women) reading this essay to take Barak’s example more seriously and honor the women leaders in your life.