Hebrews 11 is widely known as a chapter that acclaims the men and women heroes of the faith—powerful, bold, and courageous. Led by that strong faith, these heroes "shut the mouths of lions," "conquered kingdoms," and "quenched the fury of the flames."
I've been a Christian for a long time. I was saved at the age of five, called into ministry at fifteen, ordained at twenty-three, and a doctoral ministry candidate by thirty-nine. And in all of those years, I never questioned the people celebrated in Hebrews until a friend of mine brought up a poignant question: "Why isn't Deborah mentioned as a hero of faith instead of Barak?"
This question stumped me. As someone who loves research, I firmly resolved to settle this issue within a week's time.
Searching for Answers
My search for the answer led down several paths. Scholarly articles on this topic were few and far between. Somewhere in the midst of my studies, it hit me. To answer this particular question, other questions need answering first, such as authorship, genre, historical background, and context of Hebrews.
While contemporary New Testament scholars such as Craig Keener believe the author to possibly be Silas or Apollos1, scholar Ruth Hoppin2 wrote a significant book expanding on Adolf von Harnack's hypothesis3 that Priscilla was the author of Hebrews.
This theory has gained credibility over the years as Hoppin continued her work. Hebrews is only book in the New Testament without an author's name, and anonymity for a female author of Hebrews in a Roman-Greco patriarchal society makes sense. Whoever authored Hebrews was a highly-educated Hellenistic Jew, trained in the art of rhetoric.4
As an accomplished rhetorician, the author of Hebrews utilized various tools of rhetoric. One such rhetorical device is called asyndeton. When speaking of various lists of people, the use of asyndeton carries the notion that the list could go on and on, and thus remains incomplete.5
Genre of Hebrews and Audience
Hebrews was created as a homily addressed to a particular group of Hellenistic Jews within the metropolitan Roman church. According to an early twentieth-century contemporary of von Harnack, Friedrich Michael Schiele, three of those churches are listed along with their leaders in Romans (16:3-5: Priscilla and Aquila), (16:14: Asyncritus) and (16:15: Philologus).6 Well-versed in Jewish narratives and rabbinic traditions, these house church congregations would be well aware of the backstories of those mentioned.
The majority of the people recognized in Hebrews 11:32 possessed a counterpart: Samson (Delilah), Jephthah (his daughter), David (Bathsheba), and Barak (Deborah). This list, similar to 1 Samuel 12:11, is purposefully unfinished, implying that many more could be named. Perhaps by implication, it was unnecessary to place Deborah's name on the list.7
One of the main scholarly contentions concerning Judges 4 is Deborah's leadership. Judges 2:16 attributes the Lord himself with raising up all the judges, without distinction. Contrary to most complementarian theology8, Deborah was not a punishment because male leaders failed to meet God's expectations.
Just as God appointed Gideon, Samson, Jephthah, and other great judges, God appointed Deborah as a leader over the nation of Israel.9 Perhaps Barak was noted among these heroes of faith to dispel the argument that he was a "weak" man.10 More than an afterthought, Deborah was called and fully equipped for her task.
Was Barak a Judge?
In a conversation with a friend of mine who is an Old Testament professor, we discussed the possibility that Barak was also a judge, though Scripture fails to specifically confer this title to him.
My friend posed the question, "Why can't it be both?" If this is the case, Deborah, God's mouthpiece, chose Barak to lead under the guidance of the Spirit of the Lord. God knew they could work together to accomplish the task before them.
God used Barak's strengths, but he also knew his weaknesses. The Judges 4 account depicts Deborah as the leader who sent for Barak and gave explicit instructions to be carried out immediately.
Instead, Barak refuses to go without her. Scripture is largely silent on whether this action is an outright act of disobedience or simply an act of a man who wants a tangible symbol of the presence of the Lord with him in battle.
The Gospel Coalition's Barbara Mouser believes it to be an act of outright disobedience.11 However, Pentecostal theologian Stanley Horton believes it to be an act of courage.12
In Judges 4:9, Deborah replies, "Because of the course of action you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the LORD will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman."
This is where it gets controversial.
My friend believes this means that Deborah "chided" Barak. Adversely, I believe her to be "guiding" Barak and stating a well-known fact in their patriarchal culture—his course of action would be perceived as a weakness.13
Complementarians who question Barak's manhood and Deborah's leadership miss the point.14
In its context, Hebrews 11:33-34 highlights the full scope and reasons why these specific men were listed: "who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised... whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies."
In the midst of all the strengths listed, six words stand out: "whose weakness was turned to strength."
Clearly, the author of Hebrews was not emphasizing a gender preference for Barak's leadership over Deborah's. Instead, Barak is a beautiful illustration of a person God used to lead despite his glaring flaws.
Beyond imposed gender roles, church leadership is all about God using us despite our weaknesses and strengths, in our failures and successes. Much of the church today forgets this important principle. Leonard Sweet powerfully summarizes this ideal:
"On the cross, leadership dies. On the cross, success dies. On the cross, skills die, and excellence dies. All of my strengths—nailed to the cross. All of my weaknesses—nailed to the cross. All of my yearnings for bigger and better, for anything other than Christ himself—nailed to that same cross."15
Despite past mistakes, preconceived ideas, or the supposed strengths of Barak or Deborah, we can learn from both leaders. It is God who turns our weaknesses, both men and women, into strength to "conquer kingdoms" and lead in his name.
1 Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 637.
2 Ruth Hoppin, "Priscilla and Plausibility: Responding to Questions about Priscilla as Author of Hebrews," Priscilla Papers, 25:2, Spring 2011, 26, accessed February 16, 2016,http://www.cbeinternational.org/resources/article/priscilla-papers/priscilla-and-plausibility
3 Adolf von Harnack, "Probabilia uber die Addresse und den Verfasser des Hebraerbriefes,"Zeitshrift fur die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der aelteren Kirche 1 (1900), 16-41.
4 Michael J. Cosby, "The Rhetorical Composition of Hebrews 11", Journal of Biblical Literature107/2, Society of Biblical Literature, 1988, accessed February 17, 2016,http://www.jstor.org/stable/3267699?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents, 269
6 Friedrich Michael Schiele, "Harnack's 'Probabilia' Concerning the Address and the Author of the Epistle to the Hebrews" The American Journal of Theology, 9:2, 1905, University of Chicago Press, 290-308. Cosby and Schiele agree that the author is highly educated. A clue that the person is highly educated for Schiele according to him, the whole eleventh chapter reads almost like a Philonian writing, De Migratione Abrahami.
7 Shimon Bakon, "Deborah: Judge, Prophetess and Poet," Jewish Bible Quarterly 34, no. 2 (2006), accessed February 15, 2016, http://jbq.jewishbible.org/assets/Uploads/342/342_DEBRAH.pdf, 9.
8 Barbara K. Mouser, "The Council On Biblical Manhood and Womanhood," The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, accessed February 15, 2016,http://cbmw.org/uncategorized/the-womanliness-of-deborah/. Her work on Deborah is used as the part of the scriptural foundations for complementarianism as The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) is considered the flagship organization which coined the word "complementarity."
9 Ronald Pierce, "The Feminine Voice of God: Women as Prophets in the Bible," http://www.cbeinternational.org/resources/article/feminine-voice-god?page=4.
11 Mouser, "The Council On Biblical Manhood and Womanhood."
12 Stanley Horton, What the Bible Says About the Holy Spirit, rev. ed. (Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 2012), 389-472.
14 Mouser, "The Council On Biblical Manhood and Womanhood."
15 Leonard Sweet, I am a Follower of Jesus: The Way, Truth and Life of Following Jesus, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2012), 153.