Tag Archives: Deborah

Deborah: Prophet, Warrior, and Judge of Israel

6 Dec

ImageThe account of Deborah can be found in the book of Judges, chapters 4 & 5.  Let’s start by pointing out some of the basics.

  1. Deborah was a woman.
  2. Deborah was a prophet.
  3. Deborah was married.
  4. Deborah was leading Israel.
  5. Deborah held court under the “Palm of Deborah.”
  6. Deborah led Israel into battle.

I will address these basics in reverse order.

Deborah led Israel into Battle

If you are familiar with the Biblical account, you will see that Deborah led the people of Israel into battle. In fact, the general, Barak, refused to go without her!  It’s also recorded in Deborah’s song that the army waited on her, and called out for her before they marched.  This is significant for a number of reasons.  It validates her position as the temporal and spiritual leader of Israel.  It reveals the true extent of her influence, and it portrays her in a position women did not typically occupy.  Israelite women did not fight in battles.  Now, let’s be clear.  There is no evidence that Deborah personally wielded a weapon or fought in battle.  It’s not outside the realm of possibilities, but let’s not confuse her with Xena or anything.  She wasn’t a warrior princess.  However, it is clear that her presence was considered essential to the success of the battle (it wasn’t- only YHWH’s presence was required, but the people felt they needed her).  It also shows that Deborah was versatile and exhibited leadership in many ways.

Deborah held court under the “Palm of Deborah”

This reveals a couple cool things.  First, we should note that Judges was written centuries after Deborah’s life and reign, yet the place where she administered justice was still referred to as the “Palm of Deborah.”  It obviously carried historical/cultural significance.  Also, the fact that she administered justice from one location, and that people traveled to her, gives us an idea of how respected she was in Israel.  Would you walk a hundred miles to present your case before someone you’ve a) never heard of or b) don’t respect?  I sure wouldn’t.

Deborah was leading Israel

Deborah’s lived during the period of the judges.  She probably reigned around 1150 BCE (note the approximation there).  At this time, Israel had no king.  The Tribes were mostly self-sufficient.  However, when Israel was threatened by another nation/people the tribes would have to be unified and God would raise and empower a person to defend the Promised Land and lead the people.  They were referred to as judges.  This is where Deborah’s account gets even more interesting.  She was leading before the enemy advanced.  She is the only judge to have been administering justice (or exercising any kind of temporal authority) before the crisis arrived.  We’re also told that she continued to judge after the enemy was subdued.  Hmmm.  The plot thickens.

Deborah was married.

Okay, this little tidbit probably doesn’t strike anyone as significant, but it was.  You see, ancient Israelites took the whole, “be fruitful and multiply” thing very seriously.  They thought it applied to every physically capable person, thus celibacy was not an option.  It goes without saying that her culture was patriarchal.  Married women were under the authority of their husbands.  Granted, the Laws of ancient Israel gave women more protection and status than most other cultures of the ancient near east, but let’s not forget she did not live in a culture comparable to our own.  So the fact that she was married- likely even had children- and was the leader of Israel is HUGE!  We cannot know for sure if she was a mother, but considering how shameful barrenness was for women, it seems unlikely that it would have gone unmentioned in the text.  Yet, it was not her husband who was called to lead Israel, it was Deborah.

Deborah was a prophet

Let’s begin with a brief description of the role of prophets in the Old Covenant.  YHWH was the ultimate king of Israel.  However, he divided his administrators on earth into three categories:  prophet, priest and king (once the office of king was established).  The King administered justice, was in charge of judicial matters, etc.  The priest represented the people to God and offered sacrifices on their behalf.  The prophet, on the other hand, represented YHWH to the people.  The prophet was, literally, the mouthpiece or spokesperson for God.  The word of the prophet was the word of the LORD.  Prophets were powerful.  The prophet could even call out kings!  Think Nathan.  The prophet is not born, nor is the office inherited.   He/she is called, and anointed by the Holy Spirit.  The prophet is caught up in the divine council (Isaiah is a good example), and given a message, which the prophet takes to the people.  If the prophet changes the message, then there would be significant consequences.  Dt. 18 declares that the prophet is the one who takes God’s message to the people.  The prophet has more power than anyone else in God’s administration.  And this is the position that YHWH has called and anointed Deborah for.  And remember, ONLY God can call and empower someone to be God’s prophet!

Finally, Deborah was a woman.

I recognize that Deborah’s gender is obvious (although some Bible translators do try to turn a woman’s name into a man’s in Romans 16!), but too many people fail to recognize how truly significant Deborah’s life and leadership were when it comes to understanding biblical womanhood.  In my last blog, I addressed the “curse passage” in which God told Eve that her husband would rule over her.  The story of Deborah makes it abundantly clear that it was only “descriptive” and not “prescriptive.”  By that I mean that it was not (and is not) God’s will for men to rule over women.  It’s also a beautiful testimony to the willingness of God to call and equip women and men, for all rules in the church, the home, and society.

The Other Side of the Argument

The Complementarian argument against Deborah as a model for female leadership is probably the weakest in their arsenal (they aren’t all weak.  I’ll give credit where credit is due).  I was originally taught, and have since read, that Deborah was chosen as a way to shame Barak; or that there were no righteous men so God had to call Deborah to get the job done. I’ve even been told that she was actually a model for submissiveness because she rebuked Barak in private.  First of all, Deborah was called before Barak, and remained in leadership afterwards.  He was “shamed” because he did not trust God to deliver the Israelites from such a huge army.  The same things would probably have happened if he’d been instructed by a male prophet.  Secondly, I have a hard time believing that Deborah was the only righteous person left in Israel.  Heck, a lot of the other judges weren’t even that righteous and God still found a way to use them.  Besides, if having a female judge was meant to be a point of shame on Israel’s unrighteous past, wouldn’t the author have judges have mentioned it, or at the very least mentioned that no men were available for the position?  This argument is a stretch from what the text offers us.  Finally, there’s nothing to suggest that Deborah rebuked Barak in private.  In fact, she summoned him to her place of administration!  That alone suggest she was in a position of authority over him.

In conclusion

I think Deborah is a great example of God calling, anointing, and empowering women for his service.  She was certainly the exception, rather than the rule, but what a magnificent and significant exception she was.  If nothing else, it shows us that God includes women and men in his story and invites both to partner with him in ministry and leadership.