(Judg. 4:4-5) Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites came to her to have their disputes decided.
Plainly, Deborah was literally a judge. She decided disputes, and thus had authority over men and women. Moreover, the Bible calls Deborah a prophetess and a leader. How could this be true if God has decreed for all time that women can have no authority over a man and cannot teach a man? How silent was Deborah when men were present?
“Leading” in v. 4 is translated “judging” in many translations. The root word is shaphat, which means not only to judge, but also to lead or to exact vengeance or retribution. Judges 2:16-19 refers to all the heroes of Judges as “judges [shaphat] who saved them of the hands of these raiders,” clearly emphasizing the role of “judges” as military leaders, rather than adjudicators.
Only a few of the “judges” are referred to as actually judging disputes. Therefore, modern commentators and translators, including the NIV, often prefer to translate shaphat as “leader” in the book of Judges. R. K. Harrison, in Introduction to the Old Testament (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI 1969), pp. 680-681, concludes,
The term “judge” carried a wider meaning in antiquity than does its English counterpart. … In this latter sense of “ruler” the Hebrew term shaphat corresponded the shuphetim or regents of Phoenicia, the Akkadian office of shapitu, and the sufetes or chief magistrates of Carthage, who were similar in status to the Roman consuls. The concept of the “judge” in Judges can thus be seen to be related to similar offices in the ancient Near East and the Mediterranean regions on the one hand, and to the situation that existed in days of Moses (cf. Exod. 18:21ff; Deut. 1:9ff) on the other.
As Harrison was writing in a context far from the dispute over the role of women, his conclusions carry considerable weight.
(Judg. 4:6-9,14) She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead the way to Mount Tabor. I will lure Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.'”
Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.”
“Very well,” Deborah said, “I will go with you. But because of the way you are going about this, the honor will not be yours, for the LORD will hand Sisera over to a woman.” …
Then Deborah said to Barak, “Go! This is the day the LORD has given Sisera into your hands. Has not the LORD gone ahead of you?” So Barak went down Mount Tabor, followed by ten thousand men.
Here we see that Deborah gave orders to the general of Israel’s army, and he obeyed. She was obviously the highest-ranking person in the nation. She was married, and yet God granted her a role of genuine authority and leadership over men.
To celebrate the victory won at Deborah’s command, Deborah wrote the Song of Deborah with Barak, which is an inspired writing and which comprises the fifth chapter of Judges. And so we add to her accomplishments: author of a chapter of the Bible.
F. Lagard Smith argues that Deborah is an apparent exception to the universal, eternal rule of female subordination only because God could find no man in Israel to act as judge. God thus called Deborah to urge “a return to strong male leadership.” (Men of Strength for Women of God, pages 114-118.)
The problem with Smith’s interpretation is that nothing in the Bible indicates that God was unhappy with existing male leadership. God was unhappy that Barak refused to honor Deborah’s command to attack without Deborah’s going with Barak (Judges 4:8-9), and thus Deborah declared that Barak would not have the honor of the victory. But nowhere does God declare that he is displeased with male leadership in general or that Deborah was called to be a judge to teach the men a lesson.
Moreover, the “evidence” that Smith relies on, the reluctance of Barak to go to battle without Deborah’s presence, occurred well after Deborah was made a judge and leader — indeed, after Deborah had command over Barak. Most importantly, Barak’s mistake was in failing to take orders from a woman, not in failing to give orders!
Besides, there are numerous cases where God raised up a male leader who initially refused to take on leadership. For example, Gideon was reluctant to honor God’s call to leadership (Judg. 6:11-15) if not downright cowardly (Judg. 6:11). It has often been suggested that Gideon chose to thresh his wheat in a winepress to hide from the Midianites, rather than confronting the enemies of God’s people. But God made Gideon into a mighty warrior.
Similarly, Moses was very reluctant to honor God’s call to leadership (Exo. 4:1-17), and yet God raised Moses up as the greatest of all leaders.
In Slaves, Women & Homosexuals — Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL 2001), William J. Webb points out that the judge Shamgar ruled at the same time as Deborah, so that God clearly had a male judge available had He preferred a male ruler. The text says that Shamgar ruled “after Ehud” (Judges 5:6, compare to 3:31 and 4:1). It is clear that many of the judges had overlapping terms of office.
It’s just downright impossible to hold that God’s eternal rule is that it’s sin for women to exercise authority over men when God himself made Deborah a leader over Israel, a judge, and commander-in-chief of the army — and God himself celebrates her victories in his scriptures. Obviously, somehow or other, we’ve misunderstood Paul. We’ll get there.