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Published Date: April 30, 1993

Published Date: April 30, 1993

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Principles of Female Ordination in the Old Testament

Origin Of The Office Of Judge

Where did judges like Deborah come from? We read in Acts 13:20-21 that the Israelites settled in Canaan and “After this, God gave them judges until the time of Samuel the prophet. Then the people asked for a king….”

The first mention of such a judge we find in Exodus 18:13ff: “The next day Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people…” Moses explained his actions to Jethro, his father-in-law: “the people come to me to seek God’s will. Whenever they have a dispute it is brought to me, and I decide between the parties and inform them of God’s decrees and laws.” Jethro could see that this was an impossible task for one man and advised Moses to appoint subordinate judges to help him. The qualifications for such judges are similar to the qualifications required of New Testament elders today —well taught, capable, God-fearing, trustworthy, haters of dishonest gain (Judges 18:20-21). Jethro’s advice continued: “Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter because they will share it with you.” Moses listened.

Like other societies of the day, the Israelites already had ancestral heads of families called elders, and it was from these that Moses chose seventy judges with the requisite qualifications. God acknowledged these judges by putting his Spirit on them (Num 11:16-17). The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, in its section on bishops, says about them that “The chief function of the elders was to study and teach the law, and apply it against offenders” (p.618). Moses continued to be the chief judge and from then on there was: “the judge who is in office” (Deut 17:9), who functioned as chief judge and leader of the people.

Unfortunately, Israel forgot God after the death of Joshua’s generation and became prey to her heathen enemies. In spite of her unfaithfulness, God was merciful when Israel repented. We are told: “Whenever the Lord raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived” (Judges 2:18).

Some of the judges were military leaders, such as Gideon and Samson; Eli was a priest-judge, and Deborah and Samuel were prophet-judges. Interestingly, at times both accompanied the army to the battlefield. Deborah even gave instructions as to when the battle was to start: “Go! This is the day the Lord has given Sisera into your hands. Has not the Lord gone ahead of you?” (Judges 4:14). Barak obeyed Deborah and the resultant victory ensured forty years of peace for Israel.


We find that during the initial period of her leadership the people of Israel had already, because of their rebellion against God, been cruelly oppressed for twenty years. Under the godly influence of Deborah and because of their dilemma “they cried to God for help” (Judges 4:3). At that time the Ark of the Covenant was at Bethel, and Deborah “held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel … and the Israelites came to her to have their disputes decided” (Judges 4:5).

This was a suitable place for those seeking spiritual and legal counsel to come (Judges 20:18). Later Samuel also held court in Bethel and Ramah. We do not know when it started, but by the time of Elijah and Elisha, a school of prophets flourished in Bethel. Amaziah warned Amos: “Don’t prophesy any more at Bethel, because this is the king’s sanctuary, and the temple of the kingdom” (Amos 7:13). Deborah’s prophet/judgeship was not a private little cottage industry being practiced out of her home. In view of the text mere can be little doubt that Deborah was the recognized, appointed leader/judge of the Israelites at that time. I mention this fairly obvious fact only because of the persistent rejection or downplaying of Deborah’s authority by traditional patriarchalists: Deborah does not fit into their male “headship” theory of God’s economy.

Biblical Data:

1. Deborah was appointed by God (Acts 13:20) as a leader, judge and true prophet of Israel (Judges 4:4), and ordained to the office (II Sam 7:11, Deut 16:17, 17:9, 19:17). God did not appoint the Old Testament elders to their positions, their society did. Judges held ordained office in the theocracy of Israel.

2. She was in authority over males, elders, generals, tribal heads, even her own husband (Judges 4:5).

3. Her authority was legitimate and accepted by males and females alike. Barak not only came from Naphtali at her bidding but felt he needed Deborah’s personal authority to raise an army (Judges 4:8-10). He waited for her orders before engaging in battle and immediately obeyed when she gave the command (Judges 4:14).

4. Her authority was accepted by the elders and they submitted to her. Later, when Samuel appointed his two sons as chief judges for Israel, the elders rejected his choice and the sons were deposed (I Sam 8:1-4).

5. She was a prophet, and as such, taught God’s word to the people and tried to get them to follow God (Judges 4:4, Ezra 7:25, Heb 1:1, Luke 2:38).

6. She is author of a larger chunk of the Bible than the part Jude wrote and had named after him (Judges 5:1-31).

7. Everybody in Israel knew who “the judge” was. Her ministry was public and not done in a corner (Judges 4:5).

From The Above We Can Draw The Following Principles:

1. God is not averse to having a woman judge/prophet lead/teach his people (both male and female) or he would not have chosen Deborah to be Israel’s chief judge.

2. God is not averse to giving his Holy Scripture to humankind through a woman. God chose Deborah and other women to do this (Hannah, Huldah, Mary).

3. God gives the same superior good judgment and leadership gifts to Deborah, a woman, as he gave to other good judges such as Samuel. God gifts women to be leaders of men as well as of women. No so-called “headship principle” is violated by a female holding a God-ordained office of the highest order in both the spiritual and civil realm.

4. We may be slow to understand everything mat was involved in being a prophet but, at the very least, it involved preaching God’s word. Not everything Deborah or Samuel and other prophets said was infallible Scripture, but as a true prophet of God, Deborah’s preaching was always scriptural. God is not averse to gifting women to be public preachers of his word.

5. Deborah had to be well taught in God’s laws. Israel was a theocracy and she was not just a civil judge of some man-made code, because there was only one law for Israel — God’s law. Indeed judges and priests often worked together to determine the interpretation of the law if the case was difficult (Deut 17:9) and the chief judge gave the final verdict. God is not averse to gifting women to be public exegetes of his written word and giving them the authority to put it into practice over males as well as females.

Possible Objections: The Male Priesthood

Some might agree with the above, but do not see how the totally male priesthood of the Old Testament fits into the picture. God wanted all Israel to “be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). They were afraid and wanted Moses to be their mediator: “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die” (Ex 20:19). Only in the New Testament is God’s purpose accomplished (I Pet 2:9). God chose to teach the seriousness of sin and the way of redemption to a primitive, illiterate people through pictures and symbols — the high priest, the tabernacle, the sacrifices. Sacrifices involved killing and lifting heavy animals. Hardly the average woman’s work; it was given to strong young men between the ages of 30 and 50 (Num 4:3ff).

To maintain some egalitarian balance in a heavily male-dominated society (this oppression had been predicted but not sanctioned in Gen 3:16), the firstborn male of every woman (not the firstborn of man) was to be holy to God to serve in the tabernacle or to be redeemed by a Levite (Num 3:12). This explains why Samuel could become a priest though he was not a Levite — Hannah did not redeem him but chose to dedicate him to God. Added to this, God had promised that it would be the seed of the woman (not of the man) that would represent humanity in the Messiah. (From Eve to Mary many Israelite women dreamed of giving birth to the Messiah.) Christ’s human side was totally female and yet he was born a male — showing the unity that exists in humanity. Indeed, the Bible is careful in every instance to say Christ become flesh (or human) and never that he became male.

Priests had to learn the law and follow it without deviation. Their primary function was to facilitate the rituals of the Mosaic law and read and explain the law to the people. Because they were teachers of the law some people see their counterpart in today’s preachers. This is not so; only Judaisers would preach the law today. The church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, with Christ himself as the chief corner stone” (Eph 2:20). The priests have no counterpart in the New Testament church. Their work was done, finished, when Christ fulfilled the law perfectly and “entered the most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption” (Heb 9:12). Christ is the only high priest today, and all Christians, male and female, are priests with access to God through Christ (I Peter 2:9).

The Office Of Prophet

“Christ executes the office of a prophet by revealing to us by his Word and Spirit the will of God for our salvation” says the Shorter Catechism. Though some today would like to downplay the office of prophet because women have been prophets and that has implications for today’s church, Scripture will not allow such de-emphasis. Prophecy is foundational to the church.

Those who spoke, taught, and preached the Word of God were the prophets: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways” (Heb 1:1).

As Christ said, God sent them “apostles and prophets” (Luke 11:49) and, after the resurrection, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Peter in Acts 2, 3, and 4 does the same thing.

Joel was an Old Testament prophet who knew exactly what a prophet was. He prophesied that under the New Covenant both men would prophesy, not in a new way (as some claim) but in greater numbers with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Joel 2:28,29). Joel’s prophesy and the fact that Philip had four daughters who prophesied (Acts 21:9) should be sufficient evidence that women too can “reveal to us the will of God for our salvation” in the worship service (I Cor 11) and hold the office (Acts 11:27) of prophet. In Old Testament times, Huldah the prophetess was consulted by the king and priests (II Kings 22) even although Jeremiah and Zephaniah were her contemporaries; her authority was God-given and her office was publicly recognized by the highest men in the land. Would the New Testament then put so-called “male headship” restrictions on the prophetesses that were not in force even in the Old Testament?

The New Testament itself nowhere restricts prophetesses; both men and women prophets are required to dress morally for men and women of their culture (I Corinthians 11) but they are not required to prophesy differently. By dressing as women, Deborah, the queen of Sheba, Margaret Thatcher and other female national leaders do not thereby indicate a “role” distinction — they are still the true leaders of their countries. God made humanity male and female in his image with joint rulership over creation, and through the redemption of Christ that joint rulership is restored, but our male/ female distinction was and will remain part of the image of God in humanity throughout all eternity. In secular society women do not have to become men to be equal in any area; in the same way our gender does not have to change for us to become equal in the church. Male dominance is the hindrance to joint rulership, not female anatomy.

“Prophets were of particular importance in continuing the work of the apostles in proclamation of God’s message and in exhortation and encouragement of Christians. Their ministry might be itinerant (Acts 11:27) or local (I Cor 14). In the local churches it seems probable that prophets, pastors and teachers were all appointed to the single office of elder. The helpers and administrators may likewise have been found in the ranks of the deacons” (Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia, Bishops, p.618). This would fit in with the biblical evidence about the office of prophet and prophetess.

What About Male Apostles?

Christ came to a society where women were not only second class but where they were considered flawed beings. Their testimony was not allowed in a court of law; far less could they become the judge as had Deborah. The rabbis had become recognized teachers, but contrary to the Old Testament they refused to have female disciples. Christ contradicted both those cultural sins by teaching women and by sending “women as witnesses of the resurrection to the apostles. However, to start the church, which was to begin preaching in Jerusalem to unconverted Jews, Christ could choose neither Gentile nor female apostles. We see Paul (who did not believe in New Testament circumcision and was no people-pleaser) use the same common sense accommodation in having Timothy (a half-Gentile Jew) circumcised (Acts 16:3), so that Timothy could gain access to preach to Jews. Later, when the infant church was stronger, Paul absolutely refused to have Titus (a Gentile) circumcised (Gal 2:3). Gradually women too began to gain a higher standing in the Christian church, until Paul could write: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

That was true until the Dark Ages almost stifled the Gospel, and sin once more crushed women underfoot. Has that sin been cleansed from the church? Would Deborah be welcome to preach in evangelical churches today? Are there female prophetesses (or their equivalents) ordained to preach in evangelical churches today? The conservative churches I am most familiar with encourage women in all types of social work but insist that women leave their higher (I Cor 14:1-5) gifts at the sanctuary door. We can fairly ask: Is this in keeping with the biblical record?

Three women smiling at the camera, each is holding a present.

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