Editor’s Note: This article is one of a nine-part series on difficult Bible passages titled “What to Say…”
For egalitarians, the book of Judges clearly demonstrates God’s approval of women leaders. From Deborah to Jael, women lead the way in these passages. They demonstrate persistence and courage when others, including men, do not. Yet many who view women’s leadership as unbiblical dismiss the pattern of God-affirmed female authority in Judges. They attempt to dismiss Deborah and Jael as flukes or necessary concessions due to lack of available male leaders. But the text doesn’t support this erasure. In fact, the text depicts women in dynamic, authoritative roles. So, what should we say when someone dismisses women’s leadership in Judges? Let’s look at the passage:
“And a woman named Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. And she sat under the Palm of Deborah, between Ramah and Bethel, in the mountains of Ephraim, and the children of Israel came up to her for justice.”
Misogyny and Social Degeneration
Judges is a pro-monarchial text. This means that it favors the establishment of a monarchy and is written in such a way as to argue that a king is necessary. The very last verse in Judges says, “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit” (21:25 NIV). As the narrative progresses, Israel spirals into chaos, showing the reader that the people need the stability of a king. Things get progressively worse until the slaughter of the Benjaminites and rape of the Gileadites in chapters 20-21.
Judges contains some of the worst depictions of violence against women in the Bible. Yet it is possible to trace the degeneration of Israel by the treatment and status of women throughout the book. Early on, Deborah and Jael are women of valor who save Israel from its enemies. Later on, however, Jepthah sacrifices his teenage daughter. Delilah is portrayed as a destructive influence on Samson, who “steals his strength.” Finally, the rape and murder of the Levite’s concubine, who is not even named, in chapter 19 is probably the most disturbing story in the Bible.
The position of women trends downward throughout the book, and some commentators see this as connecting gender equality with success and God’s favor. Though stories about women are relatively rare in the Bible, in Judges alone there are seven, and two women have direct communication with God: Deborah in chapter 4, and the mother of Samson in chapter 13.
They cried to the LORD for help (4:3)
Deborah was Israel’s fourth judge. Like Othniel and Ehud before her, Deborah’s story begins with Israel having done “evil in the eyes of the LORD.” In each case, God is said to have punished Israel by giving them over to an oppressive foreign power, and in each case, God responds to their cry for help by sending a judge as a deliverer. Of the first four judges, Deborah’s story is the longest by a significant margin.
A prophet (4:4)
Like Moses and Miriam, Deborah was a prophet. In the Old Testament, prophets are people to whom God has sent his Spirit. In various ways, these people hear directly from God and communicate God’s truth to the people. This position of spiritual leadership was similar to today’s preacher or theologian. Prophets were distinct from priests, who handled the temple cult and sacrifices. While the priests communicated with God on behalf of the people, the prophets communicated with the people on behalf of God.
There is little evidence for or against female priests in the Old Testament, but the blood purity laws would have made it highly inconvenient for women of childbearing age to serve as priests. By Jesus’ time, this was almost certainly out of the question, though there’s evidence that women served as elders in local synagogues. They do not appear to have left us any writings, but there are several recorded examples of female prophets in the Old and New Testaments. There were certainly more whose stories did not survive.
The position of judge appears to have been one of both political and spiritual leadership. Deborah sat (the NIV renders the Hebrew word yoshevet “held court”) under the Palm of Deborah, where she settled disputes, much like Moses and, later, the kings. She accompanied the army to battle. On the other hand, she also reported the commands of God (v. 6 and 9).
The Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman (4:9)
The commander of the army refused to go into battle against Sisera without Deborah, likely because she served as the mouthpiece of God and would be able to guide his decision-making. Deborah agreed, but said that “the LORD will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman” (4:9 NIV). It is not clear to which woman she refers. Deborah does gain honor for the victory, but the decisive blow is delivered by Jael.
Jael’s family is descended from the family of Zipporah, Moses’ wife. As the Israelites’ advanced, Sisera fled to Jael’s tent, because he is allied with her clan. Jael killed him in his sleep.
The Song of Deborah (chapter 5)
The Song of Deborah is written in archaic Hebrew, and most scholars believe it’s one of the oldest pieces of writing preserved in the whole Bible. This likely means it came down as a song in oral legend before being written down. This is evidence that Deborah was a celebrated and culturally significant figure. The singers in Israel were often women, so it’s also quite possible that this chapter was composed and passed down by women long before Judges was written.
A mother in Israel (5:7)
Deborah sings that villagers in Israel would not fight until she arose, a mother in Israel. Deborah is a strong and charismatic leader who brings the word of God to bolster her people’s courage. “God chose new leaders when war came to the city gates” (5:8a NIV)—and throughout history many of God’s people have been surprised by his choice of a woman to lead in a time of war.
Most blessed of women (5:24)
Jael’s act of violence against Sisera is distasteful to us, but to Israel she was salvation from oppression. Much like the strong help of Genesis 3 and the woman of valor of Proverbs 31, Jael was a rescuer. The Song calls her “most blessed of women” (5:24 NIV).
So, what should we say to someone who believes that God doesn’t affirm women’s leadership in Judges?
- Judges contains the worst depictions of violence against women in the Bible. Some commentators see a link between the declining status of Israel and poor treatment of women in the book.
- Though stories about women are relatively rare in the Bible, Judges contains seven, and two women have direct communication with God. This suggests that God uses and speaks authoritatively through women.
- There is little evidence for or against female priests in the Old Testament. There’s evidence that women served as elders in local synagogues in Jesus’ time. And, there are several recorded examples of female prophets in the Old and New Testaments. Women’s spiritual leadership is not a new concept.
- Deborah was a prophet, a position much like today’s preacher or theologian. Judges appeared to serve as both political and spiritual leaders. Deborah settled disputes, accompanied the army into battle, and reported the commands of God with authority.
- God shows approval of both Deborah and Jael’s leadership. And throughout the Bible, we see God select women to communicate truth and lead the way—even when men were available.