The story of Deborah can be read in the book of Judges, chapters 4 and 5. The backdrop is an exhausting one. The whole book of Judges documents a circular pattern that goes around and around the same cycle: “The Israelites did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord,” followed by the Israelites’ repentance and God’s mercy, followed by, “The Israelites again did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord,” and so on. It’s a ceaseless “God we’re sorry” then “Let’s worship other gods and act wickedly” loop. No matter how many times the Israelites traveled around it, they landed back in the same old pattern of unwise decisions. Throughout this cycle, God appoints prophets and judges to act as the mouthpieces of His will:
Nevertheless the Lord raised up judges, which delivered them out of the hand of those that spoiled them. And yet they would not hearken unto their judges, but they went a whoring after other gods, and bowed themselves unto them: they turned quickly out of the way which their fathers walked in, obeying the commandments of the Lord; but they did not so. And when the Lord raised them up judges, then the Lord was with the judge, and delivered them out of the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge: for it repented the Lord because of their groanings by reason of them that oppressed them and vexed them. And it came to pass, when the judge was dead, that they returned, and corrupted themselves more than their fathers, in following other gods to serve them, and to bow down unto them; they ceased not from their own doings, nor from their stubborn way. (Judges 2:16–19)
Judge Othniel’s post begins with, “And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord” (3:7); it ends with, “And the land had rest forty years” (3:11). Judge Ehud’s post begins with, “And the children of Israel did evil again in the sight of the Lord” (3:12); it ends with, “And the land had rest fourscore years” (3:30). The next judge, Shamgar, has only one verse mentioning his role—“And after him was Shamgar the son of Anath, which slew of the Philistines six hundred men with an ox goad: and he also delivered Israel” (3:31)—and then we’re back to the old drawing board in the next verse with, “And the children of Israel again did evil in the sight of the Lord” (4:1).
For twenty years during this interim, King Jabin of Canaan, with his nine hundred chariots of iron and his military commander, Sisera, oppressed the Israelites with cruelty. They once again cried out for help, and, once again, God raised up a judge over all His people.
This time, the judge was a woman.
The Word tells the following story: King Jabin is oppressing the nation of Israel. God calls Judge Deborah into service, and she calls for Barak, an Israelite general, to follow God’s command to attack Sisera and his men. Barak tells her that he won’t go without her, so she agrees to accompany him—but she warns him that because of his hesitation in following the Lord’s command, he would not have honor in the fight, and the final victory blow will be dealt by a woman’s hand: “I will surely go with thee: notwithstanding the journey that thou takest shall not be for thine honour; for the Lord shall sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (4:9). Together with Deborah, Barak goes to the battle lines with ten thousand men. At this moment, Barak is either lacking in confidence or waiting for his judge to give the order to fight, because it’s not until after Deborah tells him to get up and go that he leads the Israelite army against Sisera’s men: “And Deborah said unto Barak, ‘Up! for this is the day in which the Lord hath delivered Sisera into thine hand: is not the Lord gone out before thee?’ So Barak went down from mount Tabor, and ten thousand men after him” (4:14). Sisera proves to be a coward and flees the scene, leaving every last one of his men behind to die by the hands of the Israelites. He arrives at a tent on the plain of Zaanaim and seeks refuge with a woman inside, who then waits until he’s asleep to drive a tent peg through his head, bringing the fulfillment of Deborah’s prophecy that Sisera would be killed by a woman.
Chapter 5, known as the “Song of Deborah,” repeats the same story in poetic form.
I can’t begin to tell you how often, while digging through research on the subject of women in Church leadership positions, Judge Deborah is considered only “kind of” a judge. Arguments for this line of thinking state that, unlike the other judges, she “didn’t lead any victorious battles” or “bring defeat to any enemy rulers,” or that she is irrelevant to the women-as-leaders issue because she “bowed to the command of another” and “didn’t speak out in public; she just sat around under a tree.” Another popular opinion is that God only chose a woman because “the men weren’t doing their jobs,” so “a man was not available.”
All of these assertions are wildly inaccurate, and they strip God’s sovereignty out of the picture entirely. Those who marginalize Deborah’s role as a judge over God’s people can’t possibly be doing so because they truly believe she was a lesser judge, because the facts of the story are glaringly clear. Those people are either doing so because they’re misinformed or because they’re looking for reason to prove that women aren’t supposed to rule over or teach men. Deborah, however, did both of these things, and she did so with a higher level of excellence and morality than did many of the men who were called before and after her (consider the humiliations of David, the controversial decisions of Samson, and the revolting acts of all the numerous Israelite kings on the “wicked” list).
THEOLOGIAN: JESUS HIMSELF STARTED THE FIRST WOMEN’S LIBERATION MOVEMENT
But whether or not she served her role better than many of the men, it’s crucial to remember that the holder of the judge’s seat was not chosen by human election or lineage. It didn’t matter who the people liked, and it didn’t matter what family you were born into. A judge was chosen by God, and by God alone. He chose Deborah, a woman and prophetess, to judge His entire nation. Some say that Deborah is irrelevant to the women-as-church-leaders argument because she wasn’t a priest or a preacher. Again, that’s humanity’s “title” game, not God’s. If the God of the Israelites is the same God of Christianity, and He is, then His choice to appoint a female judge over the whole of His people is extremely relevant to the argument of women leaders in the Christian Church today. Or are we Christians, God’s current nation, going to tell Him He’s not allowed to do that?
The Hebrew word for “judge” is shaphat (sometimes shofet), and it means “to judge, i.e. pronounce sentence (for or against)…to vindicate or punish…to govern…[and to] rule.”[i] Earlier in this book, we discussed the role of a prophet or prophetess, which means to give the word of the Lord to the people, and has less to do with law directly. Put more simply, a judge enforced the laws (Mosaic as well as ethical) while the prophet delivered the will of God. Deborah was both judge and prophetess! She was the central governing authority—and deliverer of God’s bidding—at the same time, over all the children of Israel, including the men.
What a powerful woman God chose to speak in the “Church” of her day!
Scripture tells us: “And she [Deborah] dwelt under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in mount Ephraim: and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment” (4:5; the tree was named after her). This verse continues to stock the arsenal for biased researchers who say Deborah couldn’t have been a true judge because she “didn’t speak in public.” But if we take something as menial as “she sat under a tree” to mean that she didn’t speak in public, we’re grasping at straws. There is no evidence anywhere that says Deborah kept her mouth shut at all times unless she was asked to speak while under her tree out in the boondocks. If we read the Bible without a bias, all the judges over Israel spoke loud and clear, and Deborah is no exception just because she liked the outdoors.
As for her only being chosen because “men weren’t doing their jobs” so “no man was available,” that logic, when applied to the fullest extent of its potential meaning, is even worse than the palm-tree argument. First, God had an entire nation to choose from if He wanted to select a man. He also has all the power in the universe if He had wanted to empower a weaker man into service, like He did with Moses. And while we’re on the subject of Moses, had God felt that a woman shouldn’t speak, He could have chosen Deborah to be judge and positioned a man to do all the speaking for her so that she wouldn’t be guilty of “ruling over” male Israelites, but as we all know, that’s not what He chose to do. God didn’t pick from the “leftovers,” and those who say He did are placing unfounded and unscriptural limitations on His supremacy. Second, this argument has backfired and actually has fueled the aggressive and religious “women’s-lib” agitators in several recorded debates, because there are those who feel that Church leadership today is failing the lost, so the “men weren’t doing their jobs in Deborah’s day” claim only leads the more determined women to say that we’re facing such a time again, and women need to get loud like Deborah did. (Under no circumstances should this be seen as my own counter-argument. I do not, in any way, see linking Deborah to a women’s lib movement as appropriate. I’m simply illustrating how quickly this logic fails in the ongoing debate.) But the most glaring error in this assumption is answered in the following questions: “Would God contradict Himself? Would He sin? Would He tell His people that something is wrong and then carry out that act on His own end?” The answer to these questions is an obvious “no.” Therefore, if allowing a woman to teach men or have authority over men is scripturally wrong, as so many modern ministers believe, then would God have used Deborah to do this very thing? Again, the answer is “no.”
However, before we wholly dismiss any merit in this conclusion, a few parallels are worthy of mention. Roberts Liardon, pastor of Embassy International Church and author of such historically minded works as On Her Knees and The Great Azusa Street Revival, took a deeper look at what was being said in Judges 5. His conclusion, as shared from a pulpit during a sermon on Deborah, was as follows:
Throughout biblical and world history, there have always been women who have broken the barrier of cultural [and religious] regulation…and fulfilled a destiny role of leadership that changed the course of nations, and history, and the Church. In this book of Judges, we have one of those great women. Her name is Deborah… She is a very unusual character, because when she first starts coming on the scene, she had no plans to do what she ended up doing…. She was looking for the leaders of Israel to give themselves willingly among the people…and she found that they were all “busy,” “distracted,” moved [toward other goals] besides the ambition of making Israel a great, productive, and prosperous nation. It sounds a little bit like what we’re going through today in our world.[ii]
Liardon then reads from Deborah’s own words in Judges 5:6–9: “In the days of Shamgar the son of Anath, in the days of Jael, the highways were unoccupied, and the travelers walked through byways. The inhabitants of the villages ceased, they ceased in Israel, until that I Deborah arose, that I arose a mother in Israel. They chose new gods; then was war in the gates: was there a shield or spear seen among forty thousand in Israel? My heart is toward the governors of Israel, that offered themselves willingly among the people. Bless ye the Lord.” Yes, these issues were in regard to an earthly condition that had spread throughout Israel, but the earthly condition was a symptom of a spiritual disease: The people had forsaken their God.
Have we done this today?
Liardon continues: “She describes what the nation of Israel was like when there were no strong leaders. She articulates so well, [that] if she were to live today and look at the Western democracy, she could almost [say] the same thing. She lists about five things here…and because of the vacancy of strong, bold…leaders, [this is] what it was like.”[iii]
The first thing Deborah speaks of, as Liardon points out, was the highways. People of Israel were so vulnerable under their enemies’ oppression that, during travel, they were forced to go from place to place via the obscure side roads. Without a strong leader in Israel, the highways belonged to the enemy. Not only do we have this reality today in a literal sense between warring social factions—and some major US streets are dangerous to travel upon—Liardon makes the link in a figurative sense as well: When the Church is vulnerable in its function because of the enemy’s grip upon our spiritual welfare, then the enemy “occupies the highways” and causes the people of God to carry out their ministerial calling through the less-efficient side roads. Young people who are just being called into their positions of leadership don’t have a significant understanding of the gifts of the Spirit or the armor of God because they’ve been kept from the “highways.” Their only hope of understanding the fullness of God’s providence in ministry is via the outskirt roads appropriately named “human reasoning,” “intellect,” “talent,” or “popularity” instead of “anointing.”
The second item on Deborah’s list is the decrease in the population of Israel’s villages and towns. Liardon links this to the mass exodus of the Church today. Without the blessing and anointing of God upon His people, the Church is simply producing apathetic social clubs. (I spoke on this topic at length in my previous book, Radicals.) The lost hear the name of Christ, the Holy Spirit draws them in, they attend a church service for guidance toward an enriching faith life, and they leave shortly thereafter when they discover that “church” is an establishment or institution of routine.
Third, Deborah addresses how the Israelites were choosing new gods. Liardon said of this: “If there’s ever been a moment when this seems to be happening again, it is now in the Western democracies! The populations of our country seem to tolerate every religion but the one that made them great!”[iv] When the Israelites inherited the Promised Land, they had everything, including prosperity and the blessing of God upon their every need. Likewise, they had an incredible healthcare plan, because there “was not one sick or feeble among them” (Psalm 105:37). They traded this, as the Word documents, for “whoring after other gods” (Judges 2:17). Today, America has forgotten all we inherited when we were freed from our own pharaoh. We have traded freedom in Christ and the worship that made us great for a revival of pagan religion.
Fourth parallel: Deborah notes that there were wars throughout the land, and the “swords” and “shields” of Israel had all vanished. Today, as Liardon connects, it appears that our radical Christian leaders—those who will stop at nothing to fight for the truth of Christ above all else—have all but vanished. Where are our faith warriors? Where are our soldiers who will dig so deeply into Scripture that they understand the intent of the Word instead of memorizing pulpit-zingers for the self-righteous, one-two-punch, verse-dropping attacks of intimidation and control?
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW VIDEO:
WAIT… A WOMAN PREACHING IN A CHRISTIAN CHURCH… WHAT DOES GOD THINK ABOUT THAT?!
The last item on Deborah’s list is a praise offering to Yahweh for those leaders who did stand up to battle against the condition Israel had found itself in. However, the fact that she conveys this overwhelming gratitude for the minority who responded points to the majority who didn’t. The words, “My heart is toward the governors of Israel, that offered themselves willingly among the people” could be reworded contemporarily to say, “My heart goes out to those few Israelites who actually stepped up and did something about the state our people were in.” But ultimately, the boldest of these responders can be found in 5:7: “I Deborah arose, that I arose a mother in Israel.” Liardon rewords this: “I, Deborah, got up! You can’t do something sittin’ down!”[v] He goes on to describe her nature: She didn’t “arise” like a queen or princess who lives to bedazzle with costly array or exotic dancing, and she didn’t “arise” halfway like one who is obedient but stunted by her own lack of confidence. She arose as a mother! Liardon’s sermon got the highest level of reaction from his audience when he said, “When mama gets up, somethin’s gonna happen! Amen? When mama gets up, even Lucifer gets nervous! There’s something inside of a mother that no matter how tough it is, how big the mountain is, it’s going to get conquered!”[vi]
Whereas I would never say that Deborah was chosen just because “men weren’t doing their jobs” or because “a man wasn’t available,” the biblical narrative of Deborah shows without a doubt that sometimes, God’s people need a woman to get things done. It’s not a matter of God choosing from the weaker sex because the males were demoralized. God’s appointing Deborah was not a last resort. She was precisely the kind of feminine voice that was needed for such a time as this. If God saw fit to bring a woman into leadership of all His people, there is every reason to believe He would do it again, and every circumstance, as Liardon preached, is spiritually paralleled in our Western world today.
Where are you, ladies? Don’t let the archaic and false interpretations of only two sections of Scripture (1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2) cancel out the hundreds of others that are calling you to action right at this moment.
Let’s get back to our list of reasons some ministers refer to Deborah as only “kind of” a judge… Those who claim that she “bowed to the authority of another”—or that she “obeyed a man”—are referring to how she “obeyed” Barak when he “ordered her” to go with him to battle. I offer this answer: She chose to go with him; she was not coerced to do so. She was the judge over all Israel, and she was a woman. Nobody in his or her right minds in those days would have expected a woman to go to battle, or even go near it. Let’s look at Barak’s actual “order”: “If thou wilt go with me, then I will go: but if thou wilt not go with me, then I will not go” (4:8). This isn’t an “order” at all. Surely there is an ultimatum here, but this is not an order. Barak was not commanding her. He was telling her that he needed her for strength. Had she refused him, her refusal would have been acceptable on two grounds: 1) women didn’t fight; and 2) as the judge, she was ruler over him. This is not a scene of a meek and gentle woman bowing under the authority of a man, although many ministers today wish to think it was; it’s a scene of a woman so confident in the sovereign power of the Almighty God that she harnesses every bold and fearless bone in her body and rages to the enemy lines like a mad hornet shouting, “Get up! The Lord is already out there on the field! The battle is already won!” Only those following a bias to dilute her influence would say that Deborah was subordinate to Barak.
However, for balance, I believe now is a good time to address a popular misconception about Barak’s “cowardice.” Many derogatory things have been said of Barak. I heard a sermon over the Internet that actually went as far as to say that Barak asked Deborah to go with him because he “needed his mommy in battle” (this sermon was preached by a man, by the way). I personally believe that if Barak had asked a man to go with him, comments about his being a sissy or a wimp wouldn’t be handed out as easily. Only because he needed a woman is he remembered this way. Consider this: You don’t become the commander or general of tens of thousands of men unless you’re brave, strong, and have shown trustworthy character. Barak didn’t ask Deborah to go because he was a scared puppy hiding behind a skirt. If we take the whole two chapters of Judges in context, it’s clear that he asked her to go because he recognized the authority of God within her. God had appointed her as both judge and prophetess. She was the mouthpiece of God’s will! Who wouldn’t want that power at the battle lines? Barak may have lost some of his honor when Sisera fell to a woman because he hesitated in his mission, but he should be remembered not as a coward, but as the strong soldier who felt an extra hedge of protection when the mouthpiece of God was present.
Remember that if you ever preach about Deborah, ladies… If you take your stage and use it to emasculate the men God has called to work alongside you (as equal to you in their calling), you will be guilty of joining the same mud-flinging contest that started this whole thing in the first place, and if you truly want the anointing of God on your life, you won’t find it by stirring up dirt.
Finally, for those who say Deborah “didn’t lead any victorious battles” or “bring defeat to any enemy rulers,” I honestly can’t even dignify this claim with a lengthy or analytical answer. It’s all there in chapter 4 of the book of Judges. These folks can read it for themselves. She absolutely did lead that victory, and it’s blatantly clear that it couldn’t have happened without her. People who want to argue about whether or not she killed thousands of men are, again, only looking for reasons to downplay her as the judge God appointed her to be.
And the result of her influence as judge over Israel? Forty years of peace…
As a final thought on Deborah: The Israelites were a strictly patriarchal society. The last person they would have chosen to be judge was a female. But God chose her because He saw a leader within her. Today’s Church is largely under the power of a patriarchal order. But God will choose women to stand up today and preach the message of the great Messiah, because He sees leaders within the women He calls to serve.
The Deborah we know, thanks to generations of biased teaching, is one who sat around under a tree and followed the orders of men. The Deborah Jesus knew was a fearless trailblazer. Jesus came into this world studying Deborah and, like His Father and the Holy Spirit, He saw kenegdo equality in the gifts God gives to the ezer women for a Kingdom use.
UP NEXT: Jesus Knew of Huldah
[i] “Strong’s H8199,” Blue Letter Bible, last accessed August 2, 2017, https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H8199&t=KJV.
[ii] Roberts Liardon, “Deborah,” YouTube video uploaded on August 22, 2014, by Roberts Liardon, 5:09–6:16, last accessed August 3, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LD7Bpfk0wGA; emphasis placed where it was vocally delivered from the footage.
[iii] Ibid., 7:09–7:42.
[iv] Ibid., 12:56–13:12; emphasis placed where it was vocally delivered from the footage.
[v] Ibid., 17:45–17:51.
[vi] Ibid., 19:35–20:00; emphasis placed where it was vocally delivered from the footage.