Deborah is a vitally important character in the Old Testament. She is often overlooked, even ignored, because she doesn’t quite fit our preconceptions of what godly women should be like. But her story is among the most ancient in scripture.
After the Israelites invaded Canaan, defeated some of the pagans who lived there, and settled into the hill country, much of Canaan remained unconquered, especially the fertile coastal plains.
During this time after Joshua and before Saul and David, the Israelites were led by a series of “judges.” There was no king and no nationwide civil government.
(Jdg 4:1-3 ESV) And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD after Ehud died. 2 And the LORD sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. The commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-hagoyim. 3 Then the people of Israel cried out to the LORD for help, for he had 900 chariots of iron and he oppressed the people of Israel cruelly for twenty years.
Israel had not yet entered the iron age, and so they were at a technological disadvantage to the surrounding Canaanites.
God chose Deborah to lead the people out of Canaanite oppression:
(Jdg 4:4-5 ESV) 4 Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. 5 She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment.
Notice that Deborah was a female prophet, meaning that God chose to use her to declare his will to the people. Surely, she spoke with authority.
She was a judge. In fact, the people came to her to have disputes decided. And speaking as an attorney, judges have very real authority.
Clearly, she had authority in both religious and civil matters, although I doubt that a Bronze Age Israelite would see much distinction. They saw God as king, and hence saw civil government and religious government as the same thing.
Note that many translations translate “judge” to mean “lead” because it’s clear that many of the “judges” in Judges were leaders of the people more than deciders of cases. For example, Samuel, the last judge, anointed both Saul and David king. Joshua and Gideon led the people in war against the Canaanites. And there are places in the Old Testament where the word clearly refers to leadership from a position of authority rather than being a judge in the modern sense.
Deborah and Moses
Bruce Herzberg recently pointed out several parallels between Deborah and Moses —
1. Both defeat better-armed forces that are equipped with chariots.
2. Both victories are followed by a song, and the two songs are seen by many to be the earliest strata of the Old Testament.
3. These are the only pairings of a narrative poem with a prose narrative of the same event.
4. Both are connected to the Kenites, descendants of Moses’ father-in-law.
5. Deborah, like Moses, is described in the Bible in the act of judging.
6. Deborah, like Moses, is a prophet who speaks the Word of God to the people.
7. Moses judged in a tent, Deborah under a tree (location specified).
8. Deborah, like Moses, orders a military leader into action, presenting herself as the voice of God, but stays behind the troops at the top of a hill to inspire rather than fight.
9. In the battles of both chariots are disabled by a sudden rush of water.
10. Both Moses and Deborah sing victory songs.
The Jewish rabbis apparently saw the parallels, too —
The Medieval rabbis read Exodus 14-15 with Judges 4-5 in their lectionaries.
Interesting. And so, why is that Moses is seen as a hero, an authority figure, and a godly ruler, while Deborah is seen as a submissive wife by many Christian authors?
In fact, one can additionally argue that in our passage, although Deborah is called a mother of Israel. (Judges 5:7), she does not draw attention to herself as leader, but seems to stay as much in submission as possible to the male leadership that she is leading militarily as judge (see her relationship with Barak for instance).
Simply put, Deborah as judge is a rebuke to Israel’s male leadership and should have served as a humiliation to the men of Israel. Is there an example for young women today to look to Deborah and learn? Yes! Learn from her faithfulness and love to God and her husband; learn from her knowledge of God’s Word; learn from her submission and inner character and virtues that were developed by Gods grace from within her heart (because Deborah is not described outwardly in her appearance, cf. 1 Peter 3:1-7).
Well, because we’re so in love with our traditional views that we’re willing to invent facts to support them. After all, absolutely nothing in the Bible suggests that God made Deborah a prophetess and judge to rebuke the men of the land. That idea is just not in the text.
And while I’m sure that, as a married Jewish woman, she treated her husband with respect, the text says nothing of her submission to her husband. That is clearly not the point of the story.
Nor is there the least suggestion that she refuses to draw attention to herself. I mean, she was a prophet declaring the word of God. How could she be a prophet and yet hide herself away? Again, the text just doesn’t say that.
We really need to let the Spirit tell the story the Spirit wants told and not read our preconceptions into the inspired text.
It is undeniable that Deborah had authority over men. She sat in judgment. Moreover, she orders the head of the Israelite army into war!
(Jdg 4:6-7 ESV) 6 She sent and summoned Barak the son of Abinoam from Kedesh-naphtali and said to him, “Has not the LORD, the God of Israel, commanded you, ‘Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking 10,000 from the people of Naphtali and the people of Zebulun. 7 And I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the river Kishon with his chariots and his troops, and I will give him into your hand’?”
(Jdg 4:14 ESV) 14 And Deborah said to Barak, “Up! For this is the day in which the LORD has given Sisera into your hand. Does not the LORD go out before you?” So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with 10,000 men following him.
Deborah is not in the kitchen baking cookies for the soldiers. She’s telling the commander of Israel’s army what to do.
Reconciling Judges with 1 Timothy
So how do we reconcile Deborah with what Paul says in 1 Timothy 2 about women? Here are some theories —
1. Deborah was specially gifted by the Spirit and so her story doesn’t authorize modern women to do similar things.
But what if the Spirit were to give a woman the gift of leadership? You see, the Spirit still gives gifts to women today, and if a woman’s giftedness authorized her to have authority over men in 1200 BC, it does today. After all, if God gives the gift, surely he intends for it to be used.
2. God only empowered Deborah to shame the weak men of Israel.
But the Bible doesn’t say this, and if so, wouldn’t this mean that gifted women may be in authority when the men show weak leadership?
3. The Book of Judges is about ancient Israel and says nothing about the modern church.
But Paul doesn’t base his reasoning in 1 Timothy on some new command for just the church. Rather, he plainly bases his reasoning on Genesis 2. And whatever Genesis 2 says about men and women, it said in 1200 BC as authoritatively as today.
4. Then what we do we with 1 Timothy 2:11-15? We can’t just repeal it because of Judges 4!
True. But neither may we repeal Judges 4 just because of 1 Timothy 2:11-15. Perhaps the thing to do is let the Bible be its own best interpreter, let Judges 4 tells us that we’ve misunderstood 1 Timothy 2:11-15, and take a fresh look at it.