The Old Testament authors did not hesitate to show the prominent role of women in die history of Israel. Within the narratives of the Hebrew patriarchs, it is clear that the people honored the deeds of Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel. Miriam, the sister of Moses, was esteemed in spite of her untimely rebuke of her brother (Num. 12). Even the Canaanite women like Rahab and Tamar, along with Ruth, the Moabitess, were retained in the historical records of the nation.
The best example, however, of a woman in leadership over Israel is Deborah, one of the judges, all of whom were responsible for keeping the Promised Land free of foreign domination. Judges 4 is the prose account of Israel’s victory over the Canaanites from Hazor. Judges 5 is the “Song of Deborah” which tells the same story in poetic form. In these biblical accounts of Deborah’s life and exploits, two other women play leading roles: 1) Jael, who killed Sisera, the enemy general, and 2) Sisera’s mother, waiting at home for her son to return.
This remarkable woman who led the Israelite nation in the thirteenth century BCE, during times of war, had a name meaning “honeybee.” She is listed with the six most outstanding leaders in the book of Judges, when measured by the amount of narrative and detail given for each one. The Hebrew term for judges is shophetim, rarely found as a noun, but often used as a verb for the act of leading or ruling. Judges 4:4 reads “Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time.” But the verb is shophet and could be translated “judging Israel.” The Ras Shamra (Ugaritic) tablets have a parallel term that clearly means “to rule.” The judges were, therefore, political officials in charge ofthe national well-being, and were often military heros as well.
Deborah was also known to have the prophetic gift, commonly reserved for men in Israel. She could speak for God and convey to the people the word and will of God. The men of Israel did not know what God wanted them to do, until Deborah told them! Because she was known to be a true prophet, the people came to her with their disputes and legal complaints. Of all the judges, only Deborah is pictured in the actual work of jurisprudence. “She held court under the palm of Deborah… and the Israelites came to her to have their disputes decided” (4:5).
Deborah had not always exercised these duties of high authority over the tribes of Israel. She reminds us in her song that the LORD had raised her up from being “a mother in Israel” (5:7). This should not surprise us. In this century too there have been a number of prominent and capable world leaders such as Golda Meier, Indira Nehru and Margaret Thatcher, all of whom had been mothers before they entered into political life, and — like Deborah — could understand the fears and feelings of the people in both times of war and peace.
Most Old Testament scholars would credit Deborah with the authorship of Judges 5, recognized as one of the most brilliant and exacting examples of early Hebrew poetry. This places her among the inspired authors of the sacred Word of God. Her skill with the language, as displayed in this poetic version of the defeat of the Canaanites from the north, is widely admired and certainly worthy of praise.
Deborah agreed to accompany Barak, captain of the Israelite troops, to the battlefield which was west of Mount Tabor in the valley of the Kishon River and on the plain of Esdraelon. The foot soldiers from the tribes could not hope to defeat Sisera’s 900 chariots of iron, but the LORD entered the conflict with torrents of rain and hailstones. “From the heavens the stars fought” (5:20), and “the river Kishon swept them away” (v. 21). When the Canaanites saw their chariots mired in water and mud, they fled on foot and the battle was won, as Deborah had predicted.
The story is not yet over, for the enemy general, Sisera, was still alive and running away in the opposite direction. There would be no victory for Barak until Sisera was found and punished with death. We read that “he fled on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber, the Kenite” (4:17). Most Kenites were down in the land of Median or in the Sinai, related to Jethro and the family of Zipporah, Moses’ first wife. But the family of Heber had migrated northward and settled in Galilee, near Kadesh.
When Jael (a Hebrew name meaning “mountain goat”) saw Sisera approaching, she must have recognized him, because she cleverly made a plan to end his life. First she made him feel welcome and safe in her tent, giving him milk to drink. After making him comfortable in a bed on the floor, she promised to watch over him. She then came in with a tent pin and hammer and pinned him to the ground, causing his death. Finally, she showed Barak what she had done, thus fulfilling Deborah’s prophecy that a woman would rob him of the victory (4:9).
Jael was honored for years by the women of Israel for her resourcefulness and courage, and perhaps served as a model for women who entered into warfare beside their husbands. Many documents from the Near East tell us that there were women on the battlefields (viz. Deut. 21:10-14). Although it is assumed that they are there either to bring supplies, or to serve as prostitutes, some may have engaged in armed conflict and combat in support of the men of their tribe.
The Queen Mother
Deborah is not content to close her song with the account of the battle and defeat of the Canaanites. She adds a few lines to taunt and shame the mother of Sisera, whom she pictures looking anxiously out of the palace window, waiting for the son who will never return. Interestingly, not the enemy general’s wife but his mother is chosen for this scene of pathos and grief. She asks her servants to explain why “his chariot is so long in coming,” then, impatient with their answers, she tells herself all the probable causes for his delay, not knowing that he has been killed.
In every clan of the East there is a “great lady,” one of the grandmothers who is responsible for sustaining the members of the clan and for directing the life of the family. Bathsheba played this role to make sure that Solomon, her son, was crowned king after David (1 Kings 1:1-21). Another example is that of Maacah, a “queen mother” removed from her position by Asa for her idolatry (1 Kings 15:11-13). This shows that the men (elders) did not have all the power in ancient Israel, but that certain women also exercised authority over their respective homes as well.
Deborah was an exceptional woman. She is also the exception that kills the rule. If at one time God called a gifted woman to lead his people, then God can do it again. The rule of male domination over the offices of the church has been broken. Women, like Deborah, with Spirit-given gifts for pastoral work or teaching, cannot, on biblical grounds, be denied appointment to posts of leadership of God’s people.