Women in the Text: Deborah

'Deborah Under The Palm Tree' by Adriene Cruz

Deborah is one of seven prophetesses in the history of the Jewish people. Judaism lists them as Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah, and Esther. An Old Testament prophet is one who speaks for God.

A Deliverer

In Deborah’s time, the clans of Israel lived independently throughout Canaan. They had no king to unify them; but they had blood, a shared history, and God’s Law. The scattered tribes were guided by Judges.  These Judges reminded Abraham’s descendants of God’s friendship and His promises.

The tribes were often persecuted by stronger, more technologically-advanced people. Canaan was a good land, rich in resources, and desired by the people surrounding it. For twenty years Jabin of Hazor persecuted Israel, along with his cruel general Sisera. Can you imagine living in fear of invading marauders who wished to kill you and your children and steal your labor? Who hated you because you were different from them and had something they wanted. No peace talk could rectify this envy. It could only be controlled with war.

Enter Deborah.

Queen Bee

I love Deborah’s name. Her name is Bee, connotative of a fiery spirit, a stinger.  She was one of the rare people chosen by God in the Old Times to hear His voice; an oracle. Not only did she communicate God’s will to the people of Israel, she was their civil representative. She made decisions regarding the breaking and keeping of the law, and served as a gathering head for the scattered families of Israel. She was respected. She did not abuse her power. She did not grasp it as her own, but as an extension of the rule of God. She served the Lord, not her own ambition.

The fact that she was appointed by God to be judge and prophetess while Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, was living, was to evidence that the spirit of God rests alike upon Jew and Gentile, man and woman, bondman and bondwoman. Read more: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?letter=D&artid=187#ixzz1IfMTfto7

To protect her people, God’s people, she must fight. The Bee begins to buzz.

The Hands of a Woman

Deborah delegates half the battle plan to Barak, her general. He takes 10,000 guerrilla soldiers to fight a superior, trained army with 900 chariots … and Deborah. He insists she be present with him. Who can say for sure why? Faith or fear? I don’t know. But in this, Deborah reveals something to us about her culture. She says to Barak.

“But because of the course you are taking, [insisting on her going with him] the honor will not be yours, for the LORD will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.”

In this sharp sentiment, I see a world of womanly courage and pizazz. The Bee was stinging. Deborah lead alone. A woman politician. A woman who spoke on God’s authority. Like every leader, I’m sure she faced ridicule and diatribe. In the thick of war strategy, her general refuses orders! He refuses to fight unless he had her skirts nearby for safety. Maybe he was thinking of failure? Maybe he wanted it clear that this was all her idea, not his? Regardless of motive, he wouldn’t lead. In Deborah’s  flash of irony, we know that even in that ancient time, it was insulting for man to be usurped by woman. A timeless shame. And Deborah turns the curse back on him. “For the LORD will deliver Sisera, not into your hands, but into the hands of a woman.”

The entire story is wrapped in the hands of women. Deborah rescues her people by leading them into war. Jael, the Gentile smithy, assassinates Sisera the archenemy, in an ironically familiar way.

She struck Sisera, she crushed his head, she shattered and pierced his temple. Jud 5:26 (Sound familiar? Woman crushing evil’s head?)

Her bravery and loyalty is praised! And the counter-woman; Sisera’s mother. She stands in contrast to Deborah. Deborah has the truth, Sisera’s mom is placated with lies. Deborah is active; Sisera’s mother passively waits and worries. Deborah has knowledge; Sisera’s mother is ignorant her son is dead and she is ruined. In contrasting the two, we see the classic Hebrew device; setting God’s people against His enemies with ridicule.

Deliverer & Prophet: the stuff of legend

Those who have studied and expounded on the Old Testament for thousands of years (the Rabbis) compare Deborah with Moses. Since I’ve never compared the two, maybe you haven’t either?

  • She is respected, decisive and full of authority. Moses also models these qualities.
  • Her title Mother of Israel is not literal. It is considered a political title, like “founding father.”
  • Like Moses, she  lead in politics, in religion and in war. She stands apart in this from the other Judges, and in scope. Deborah ruled all Israel like Moses, not her individual colony alone like her other fellow Judges.
  • She is a rescuer who is victorious over enemy chariots through a miraculous intervention of God. Like Moses.
  • The Song of Deborah is second only to the Song of Moses. Both are celebratory songs of deliverance! They are read together in the weekly portion of Sabbath Scripture.
  • Her reference as wife of the torch (Lappidoth) or literally “woman with fire” is speculated to mean she either kept the flame in the temple or her husband did. Or, it was another resemblance to Moses whose face shone after talking with God. The philosopher Gersonides (Provence, 14th century) concluded,
  • “She reached such a high level of prophecy that the light of fire surrounded her when she prophesied, just as the Torah reports of our master, Moses.”

Does Deborah Need a Disclaimer?

If you follow a hierarchical view of men and women in Scripture, Deborah is an enigma. She is hard to put into God’s neat gender box of roles, isn’t she? Is she an anomaly? Is she an accident? Did she disgrace the name of God in leading the men of Israel politically and spiritually? Can we use her example for men AND women in our churches today, or does she need a disclaimer? If so, how would you word it?

My husband  says, “People will always follow true leadership. It is irrelevant that Deborah was a woman. She lead because that is what God gifted her to do.” Amen.

More Reading

Go here to read an interesting article on the specifics of the battle. This article explores the topography of the region and how archeological evidence helps us understand what occurred.

Deborah – A Political Mother Myth by Pnina Navè Levinson

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11 thoughts on “Women in the Text: Deborah

  1. I was always taught it as, “Sometimes when men don’t step up, women have to.” Which is a lie, isn’t it? I just looked at the chapter and it starts with her ruling.

    … and I was taught that by women, too. Really sad when women actively oppress themselves. I guess, like men, women have their own way of being cowards. (But to call your cowardice Bible and teach it to kids? Sick.)

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  2. I’ve always loved the story of Deborah…interesting correlation on the two songs of Deborah and Moses. I, too, think it’s cool that God had a woman rule as a judge, but I do see it more as an anomaly. Thus, we make a point of holding it out there, right?

    The only other stated comment I have found in the Old Testament about women ruling is in Isaiah 3:12. “As for my people, children are their oppressors, and women rule over them…” (Of course, Isaiah concerns the lamentation of the sins and trials of Judah.) In context, it seems that God saw both of these “situations” in the verse as backwards – out of place; would you agree with that as far as the context goes? I defintely don’t think Deborah disgraced the name of God in judging; quite the opposite. God had a purpose to use her as judge (as He did with other prophetesses, too); whether it was to shame one or more specific men, we don’t know – scripture doesn’t say. It certainly was to glorify Him in that time and place.

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  3. I agree its an anomaly: An anomaly is any occurrence or object that is strange, unusual, or unique. It can also mean a discrepancy or deviation from an established rule, trend, or pattern.

    Curious how you would word the disclaimer? Or maybe you don’t think it needs one?

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  4. Okay, Kay, you’re pulling an “answer a question with a question”! I asked you first ; see question above: In context, it seems that God saw both of these “situations” in the verse as backwards – out of place; would you agree with that as far as the context goes?

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    1. Silly! I asked first in the post! “Can we use her example for men AND women in our churches today, or does she need a disclaimer? If so, how would you word it?” 🙂
      Trump! hehe. But I’ll answer you as best I can.

      1. The word used for Deborah is shaphat (judging). The word used of the women is mashal (domination). Mashal is the same word used in Eve’s curse, (Your desire is for him, he can rule over you.) and in Cain’s warning (His desire is for you, but you can rule over him.) My small understanding of this word is that it can be good, as in have dominion over the earth, or bad, as in being a tyrant. It infers total control. So the two verses are talking about a different type of “rule.” I have so many articles waiting to be polished! I have one on this word in Genesis; God’s word to Cain and Eve . Ever notice they are identical in phrasing?
      2. Understanding the word “rule” in Isaiah 3 helps me understand the situation a little more. I assume this “rule” is tyranny, total domination. God is proclaiming how weak Israel has become. Women and people acting like foolish children controlled the people! In what way were they domineering? By leading the people into paganism. The rest of the chapter describes Asherah (Diana) worship and the fertility rites that accompany it. Which is what women rulers “priestess” is most likely referring to. Those leading Israel into false worship.
      3. My conclusion is that since the context is false religion as led by the priestesses of Asherah, it doesn’t seem to be making a specific gender statement, but rather a reflection of the fertility/sex religion that was leading God’s people astray. It wasn’t woman rule that was disgraceful, but WHAT the women were domineering them to do.
      4. Deborah, on the other hand, led the people through justice. She wasn’t oppressing them through false religion and fear. She was deciding what was right, governing. Ruling with righteousness and fairness. I have a hard time drawing any conclusions about the disgracefulness of women rulers from either passage.

      So, now can I get your disclaimer? heh

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  5. Good answer/insight into the words used and application; glad you studied that out further for me – ha! I guess by saying that Deborah’s judging was an anomaly, it is a disclaimer in itself. Whether or not God would call a woman in this day and age to “rule” a nation, I’d have to say yes. And she could do it well and glorify God in doing it, should she so desire. Anomalies don’t have to be wrong – just different!

    Again, though, we are speaking of ruling a nation – not within the church, as a spiritual “ruler” – we’ll have to find a different example for that, I think.

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    1. Well, I was impressed with the Jewish teaching of her as prophet. She is a spiritual leader. She is listed as one of those who heard God and spoke on his authority. Re-reading the passage I’m not sure why…maybe because of her Song. She spoke the Words given to her by God. I’ll have to look into that more when I study the other prophetesses.

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    2. Something else to keep in mind.
      In the OT the priests ruled the spiritual house.
      When Jesus died, the temple veil tore from top to bottom.
      And Peter wrote that we were part of a royal priesthood and a holy nation.
      Question.
      If the way was made for all to enter the holy place in the NT and the OT doesn’t forbid women to rule, if there is mention of a female apostle and a female deacon and if the natural and plain reading of I John made the chosen lady a female elder, then what is the problem with female leadership in the church?

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  6. An anomaly is one thing. But the mere existence of an anomaly indicates that the general pattern is just that: a general pattern. A general pattern is different from a divine decree. God does not break His own rules. If He raised up Deborah to be a spiritual leader in Israel, then He has made no divine decree that women may not be spiritual leaders. It’s as simple as that.

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