Judging Deborah

by Allison Quient | March 06, 2013

Many times the leadership of certain women in the Bible are deemphasized because they are in conflict with a pervading thought concerning what women can and cannot do. One notable woman who has needed some explanation from those who say women cannot lead is Judge Deborah. Her life story can be found in Judges 4 and 5.

After Joshua had brought God’s people into the Promised Land they rebelled and continually turned to other gods. As a result, God let their enemies gain the upper hand and enslave them. However, God did not abandon his people. When they cried out to him for help, he would raise up judges (Judg. 2:16). These judges were special individuals appointed by God to bring the people back to him, defeat their enemies and lead. One of these was Deborah—a woman.

As a judge, Deborah functioned as the people’s spiritual and civil leader, their highest authority. Her leadership is evident from the text when it says that she “was judging Israel at the time” and “the people came up to her for judgment” (Judg. 4:4, 5). In addition, as commander-in-chief, Deborah summoned Barak, the general. Barak insists that Deborah go into battle with him, and Deborah responds “I will surely go with you,” but warned him that God was going to give the glory to a woman. God won the victory for Israel, and true to Deborah’s prophesy, used a woman named Jael to put a final end to the Canaanite military leader Sisera, when she drove a tent peg into his temple.

Deborah serves as a clear example of a woman appointed by God to the highest levels of leadership over his people, politically and spiritually. So, what do people do with Deborah when she does not fit their interpretive mold? In various ways they make her out to be less of a leader than she was.

Some decide that she was not really a judge, that her service as prophet made her leadership a passive one. In this view, Deborah is believed to be ill equipped to handle cases and so God had to tell her everything she needed to say and do. However, reliance on God’s power is central to Christian leadership.

In other biblical cases the dual function of prophet and leader does not minimize the prophet’s leadership. For example, no one attempts to minimize the leadership of Moses and Samuel who functioned as both prophets and leaders. Like Deborah, Samuel “held court for Israel” (1 Sam. 7:15-17) and actively relied on God (1 Sam. 8). Both Samuel and Deborah’s leadership led to peace in the land (1 Sam. 7:13, Judg. 4:23, 5:31). Moses, one of Israel’s most influential leaders, is rarely questioned for his reliance on God and, unlike Deborah, he originally asked God to send someone else (Exod. 4:13)! 

Some minimize Deborah’s leadership by suggesting she was a last resort judge because God couldn’t find any good men around. They claim she was merely “honorary” and held no real authority. Barak was the real judge and she was a helper to Barak. There is no evidence in the text for any of these assumptions.

Nothing in the Bible indicates that Barak was the judge, but the Bible does say Deborah was judging. However, people often interpret biblical facts in light of their conclusions.

Many take Barak’s request for Deborah’s presence in battle to be a sign of his weakness—hiding behind a woman instead of trusting in God. The NIV translation makes it sound as though the victory going to a woman is a negative consequence for Barak’s lack of faith (even though the ESV and NASB do not put this slant on the incident).

Nothing in the text indicates Barak is demonstrating weakness, quite the contrary. Going into battle with God’s appointed leader and prophet was not cowardly, but probably a sign of faith. In Exodus 17:8-31 we recall that Moses acted as God’s representative in battle and it could be that Barak was requesting something similar. Even Moses told God “if your presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here” (Exod. 33:15). Barak’s request is similar: “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go” (Judg. 4:8). The Song of Deborah praises Barak (Judg. 5:12, 15) and  Hebrews 11:32 calls him a great man of faith. If Barak was acting as a great man of faith, then he was not acting cowardly and was certainly a “good man” at this time. Perhaps reliance on God and the woman God has placed in leadership is not a sign of cowardice, but evidence of being a man of faith.

Not only did God choose Deborah to judge, but the text indicates that God was pleased with her leadership. The place of her ruling is named after her: at the “palm of Deborah” it is said that the people “came up to her” indicating her status as a leader.

The inspired author shows approval and praise for Deborah’s leadership by giving her a relatively lengthy introduction. Even Judges chapter five celebrates Deborah’s leadership as “Israel’s mother.” In addition to all of this, she is responsible for one of the oldest poetic works in the Bible (Judg. 5) and her praise of Jael “most blessed of women,” was applied to Mary the Mother of Jesus.

Scholar Tokunboh Adeyemo observes that Deborah’s “achievement should put an end to the debates about whether women can provide leadership” (Africa Bible Commentary, 300). Even though some evangelicals today might have difficulties with Deborah’s God-given leadership, it should not surprise any of us that God uses those the world deems weak to reveal his glory.

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