I have always admired Deborah. She is a woman, but she embodies both “traditionally” male and female characteristics. She just doesn’t fit into stereotypical boxes of masculinity and femininity. Further, Deborah’s relationship with Barak is a beautiful picture of biblical equality that I deeply appreciate—as well as both leaders’ relationships with their communities.
Deborah had a very important role in Israel. She was a judge and prophet for Israel at the end of a time of oppression at the hands of Jabin, King of Canaan. In studying her story further, I took note of all the characteristics displayed by Deborah, Barak, and Jael in the two chapters focused on Deborah:
1. "Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was a leader of Israel at that time” (Judges 4:4).
Deborah was married. She was a wife, given the gift of leadership, and yet there is no evidence that anyone questioned her or thought that a man—or perhaps her own husband—should have had her position instead. A beautiful picture of biblical equality can be seen both in her work as a judge and prophet, and in her mutual relationship with fellow leader, Barak.
2. "She would sit under Deborah’s palm tree between Ramah and Bethel in the Ephraim highlands, and the Israelites would come to her to settle disputes" (Judges 4:5).
The people of Israel clearly looked up to Deborah. They trusted her with their problems, and they had faith in her ability to solve them fairly. Men and women alike sought her wise counsel, indicating that she was not only a judge, but a respected and celebrated figure in the Israelite community.
3. “She sent word to Barak, Abinoam’s son, from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, 'Has not the Lord, Israel’s God, issued you a command? Go and assemble at Mount Tabor, taking ten thousand men from the people of Naphtali and Zebulun with you. I will lure Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, to assemble with his chariots and troops against you at the Kishon River, and then I will help you overpower him’” (Judges 4:6-7).
This is a very specific prophesy and command that Deborah reminds Barak of. But she does not condemn him for not obeying the command immediately. She gently reminds him and awaits his response. She shows strong leadership, and yet also offers to collaborate with him.
4. Barak replied to her, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if not, I will not go.”
Barak so respected Deborah that he wanted her at his side when they went into battle. He so valued her gifts and leadership that he would not go to war without her. Deborah is clearly more than just a leader in name—Barak expected that she would fight beside him. Barak expected that she, a woman, would lead warriors into battle, and that when she did, she would achieve victory. This is a powerful testament to the potential of female leaders.
And, Deborah was so in tune with God's Spirit that she received an immediate reply from God to Barak.
5. "Deborah answered, 'I will definitely go with you. However, the path you are taking will not bring honor to you, because the Lord will hand over Sisera to a woman' Then Deborah got up and went with Barak to Kedesh" (Judges 4:9-10).
Barak, a commander of the army, allowed the honor of victory to go to an unknown woman. He was humble in trusting the word of God—that however the battle was accomplished and whoever got the glory didn't matter. Barack offers himself as a defender of Israel, willing to sacrifice not only his life, but also the honor and glory of winning the battle. He trusted God and he very evidently trusted Deborah, a woman, in a time where most leaders would have been male.
6. "Then Deborah said to Barak, 'Get up! This is the day that the Lord has handed Sisera over to you. Hasn’t the Lord gone out before you?' So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with ten thousand men behind him. The Lord defeated the entire army, but the final victorious blow was made by Jael when she invited Sisera into her tent and she drove a tent-peg through his head” (Judges 4:14).
Deborah encouraged and admonished Barak before he went to battle—she again fulfillled the role of wise leader and counselor. Both Deborah and Barak knew that the honor was going to go to an unknown woman, but rather than just accept that reality, they actually went a step further. These humble leaders found out who the woman was, found out exactly what she did to kill Sisera, and made sure that everybody knew that she was the woman who won the battle. They shared their recognition with her.
7. "Hear, kings! Listen, rulers! I, to the Lord, I will sing. I will make music to the Lord, Israel’s God" (Judges 5:3).
Both Deborah and Barak responded in a song of victory. Whether they sang the whole song together, or took turns singing lines in response to the Lord, we don't know, but what they sang was to glorify the Lord, celebrate each other, and declare victory by honoring the people who deserved it. Deborah and Barak were leaders who gave glory to God for their success.
8. "Villagers disappeared; they disappeared in Israel, until you, Deborah, arose, until you arose as a mother in Israel" (Judges 5:7).
Deborah was ultimately responsible for a forty year period of peace in Israel after a time of intense oppression. Israel called her a mother—one who brings peace. It is significant that Deborah’s role as a leader is likened to motherhood in Judges 5:7. This becomes even more significant when you consider the maternal images often associated with God—mother eagle, mother bear, mother hen, etc., which connote strong protection, provision, and love. Deborah is honored as a fierce leader not in spite of her womanhood, but in celebration and recognition of it.
9. "My heart is with Israel’s commanders, who willingly offered themselves among the people—bless the Lord!" (Judges 5:9).
Both Deborah and Barak are dedicated leaders, willing to give of themselves for the sake of their people and community.
10. "May Jael be blessed above all women; may the wife of Heber the Kenite be blessed above all tent-dwelling women. He asked for water, and she provided milk; she presented him cream in a majestic bowl. She reached out her hand for the stake, her strong hand for the worker’s hammer. She struck Sisera; she crushed his head; she shattered and pierced his skull. She is very brave to invite the enemy leader into her tent without shaking in fear so that he would trust her, and be willing to kill him with her own hands.” (Judges 5:24-26).
I recently performed my senior vocal recital, and one of my favorite pieces, "Aria del Vagante" by Vivaldi from dell'Oratorio Juditha Triumphans, is inspired by Jael's perspective as she declares that she has killed Sisera and the victory is won. Vivaldi must have been captured by her story and impressed to compose a piece based on her victory. As small of a character as she is in the Bible, her courage and story are continuously remembered. This is yet another example of God’s use of female leaders in unconventional ways in the biblical narrative.
This account of Deborah and Barak shows a beautiful picture of biblical equality and interdependence where both leaders were encouraged to flourish in their gifts in humility and community. Both Deborah and Barak demonstrate a willingness to serve and encourage each other, and the wisdom to step aside to give God and others the glory.