A Judge or Not a Judge? Deborah’s Story

Deborah-AJudge?I was ticked.

I was so outraged that I looked like Yosemite Sam: my red hair stood on end, steam billowed out of my ears and I stomped….a lot.

I was surrounded by books, working on a research paper on Deborah in the Book of Judges. The books offered two interpretations of her actions, neither of which were biblical! The more liberal explanation, held by many evangelical feminists, is that Deborah is a female warrior who because of her amazing leadership skills was able to serve God in a typically male role. They also claimed that women have the right, with God’s approval, to teach and to rule over men even though Scripture says the opposite. The more conservative interpretation said that women are not to teach or have authority over men in the church (1 Tim. 2:12) and that woman was created as complementary helpmeet for man (Gen. 2). But they often concede that when men disobey God and refuse to step up in time of need that it is okay for women to step in and take over the man’s role. They say that the lack of courageous male leaders demanded Deborah step up, even though it wasn’t in line with God’s original design for women found in Gen. 2:18.

Both interpretations view Deborah as defying God’s design for her and taking on a male role. HELLO! Does no one else see a problem here? If Deborah had God’s approval to disobey His “restrictive” commands, it means God was contradicting Himself. That means Scripture is not true, or authoritative, or inerrant! MAJOR PROBLEM.

You can see why I was ticked.

According to these views, either Deborah rejected God’s design or God contradicted Himself. Since my knowledge of that passage was limited, I dug deeper into the text and consulted  Hebrew scholars for help. (If you have never read this story, check out Judges 4-5.)

The Situation in Judges

“And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” Judges 4:1. The introductions in Judges 2:11, 3:7, 3:12, and 4:1 describe a cycle of sin, punishment and restoration between the people of Israel and their God. The people of Israel forgot God and turned from Him, so He gave them over to their enemies. The Israelites then called out to God from their oppression and He raised up judges to free the people from their oppressors. Then the people enjoyed a time of peace….until they sinned again. And the cycle begins all over.

The Role of Male Judges in Scripture

To appreciate Deborah’s unique story, we have to compare her to all the male judges that came before and after her. Hebrew word ‘shaw-fet,’ is translated to judge. This verb was used in Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 & 2 Kings to mean “Deliverer.” The male judges, of the book of Judges, are not legal judges serving in a court of law. They were military leaders, delivering the nation from foreign threat or oppression; “And the Lord raised up judges, who saved them from the hand of those who plundered them,” Judges 2:16. The major judges, Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson, were recorded as military leaders. The minor judges, Shamgar, Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon, are only mentioned in passing and are not said specifically to have delivered Israel, so there is no reason to think they were deliverers. The only judge in Scripture that did not serve as military leader was, you guessed it… Deborah.

How Deborah Was Different.

        1. Deborah alone acted in a judicial capacity.

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. Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. 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.” Judges 4:3-5 Deborah is the only “judge” identified as having a legal function. Clearly Deborah is not providing military deliverance under her palm tree. The Israelites sought her out to obtain justice. The verb form of the word “judging” tells us that she was doing the action of legal judging rather being named “Judge” a.k.a. leader of Israel and military deliverer. This is different from the male judges, who did not hold court, listen to complaints, or make legal decisions.

       2.God did not call Deborah “to arise.”

Deborah is the only significant character in the book of Judges whose call is not described and who is not said “to arise,” a call that was given to every deliverer-judge. Ehud personally killed the enemy king (Judges 3). Gideon led 300 men to fight the enemy army (Judges 6-7). Samson died killing more enemy Philistines than he had in his entire life time (Judges 16). Deborah was not called to arise and deliver the people as judge, because that call was given to Barak. In Judges 4:6-7, it says “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. 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’?” In this passage Deborah was clearly acting as prophetess by exhorting Barak with God’s own words and authority. As prophetess, she knew that Barak was the one raised up to deliver Israel from the oppression of Jabin. She pointed out to Barak that God had already chosen him for the task and promised to be with him. Barak’s was so lacking in confidence that he felt too weak to carry out God’s command. When he refused to obey God without her participation, she agreed to his wishes, but never took over his command or assumed his role as military leader.

      3. Deborah was not a Military Leader.

Throughout the book of Judges, the judge was someone who acted as military deliverer of the Israelites. Yet it was Barak who led the Israelites into battle and rescued them from Sisera. In Judges 4:9, Deborah states that “the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman,” instead of “into my hands” indicating that she was not the deliverer. The soldiers recognized Barak as their leader. It was the man himself that doubted God’s ability to deliver the people through him. The author makes the observation that “she went up with Barak,” (4:10), but avoids placing her at the head of the troops, where God’s chosen leader (Barak) would stand. Deborah also announced to Barak in verse 14, “This day the Lord has given Sisera into your hands” rather than “my hands,” which showed that she recognized him as the military leader and deliverer. Deborah’s exhortation to Barak in this verse shows that Deborah stayed at the rear of the battle and spoke only with Barak to give him the courage necessary to obey God’s command. It was Barak who delivered Israel. This is why the Book of Hebrews records Barak as the one who conquered through faith. “For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions.” Hebrews 11:32-33.

       4. Deborah was a woman.

The text places specific emphasis on Deborah’s womanhood. Of all the military leaders in the book, it is Deborah alone who is called a prophet (ess), a role given to many women in Scripture, including Huldah, Noahdiah and Isaiah’s wife. Acts 2:17 says “in the last days your sons and daughters will prophecy.” Judges 5:7 specifically says “I, Deborah, arose as a mother in Israel,” not deliverer. The naming of Deborah as a mother reinforces her femininity rather than equating her job function with that of the male judges. Deborah becomes a powerful wisdom figure for the nation because she uses her gifts in the context of integrity and womanliness rather than militant force. Her strength is used to motivate men, not replace them.

Why Deborah Matters to Us

I was shocked to discover that Deborah was not a judge. I had wrongly assumed that Deborah was a judge (military leader), but research has clearly shown that while Deborah was greatly respected as a woman of God, she functioned in a very different manner from the male judges. Deborah was not a judge in the biblical sense of the title; she was a prophetess, a woman of God in one of the darkest times in Israel. Both liberal and conservative interpretations of Deborah’s story can be used to discredit Scripture. That is simply not acceptable. The Bible is inerrant; Scripture does not contradict itself. Genesis 2 clearly outlines the different roles that God designed for men and for women before the Fall. (For a detailed explanation of gender roles, read Sarah’s blog). Scripture recognizes her as a woman who obeyed God. Based on these truths, it is clear that Deborah was exactly what it says in Scripture – a prophetess who performed judging activities, rather than a Judge/Military Deliverer.

For us women today, Deborah demonstrates how we can be strong, talented women while living within the parameters of God’s design for womanhood. There was nothing manly about Deborah; she is a beautiful picture of a strong leader who functioned within her God-given gender role. Deborah did not defy God’s design for her and He blessed her for her obedience. Everything she did was in line with Scripture and God’s plan for her as a woman. She served as prophetess and simply said what God told her to say. Deborah lived within the limitations of her God-given design, and in doing so her talents and abilities were used in a powerful way….and God honored her for it by giving her a prominent place in Scripture.

As women, may we use our strength to motivate, challenge and encourage men, not replace them.

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7 thoughts on “A Judge or Not a Judge? Deborah’s Story

  1. Hey Gab,

    Just wanted to let you know I’m reading your stuff, and I really like what you have to say and what you choose to write about. I just wanted to be supportive and let you know!

    As to what you last wrote about …that must have been unbelievably frustrating reading several “christian” books and finding them stray from scripture on the topic of Deborah the Judge. But I do appreciate that article, as it is so very relevant I think. My favorite line was when you said Deborah was there to “motivate men, not to replace them.”

    Keep up the good writing Gab! Love you girl!

    Your Friend,
    JoAnna Weaver

  2. Gabrielle –

    I really appreciated your commentary on Deborah and your willingness to “dig deeper” than many modern authors, scholars and teachers whose interpretations of Deborah and her role seem to follow either of the two extremes – depending on which view they personally subscribe to…either she was a precursor to today’s “superwoman” or she was used by God to “fill the void” when the men of her time wouldn’t step up. And I agree, neither extreme is consistent with the character of God and the value He places on women throughout the Bible (just look at the lineage of Jesus!).
    The spirit of your blog (oh, and the red hair!!) reminded me of something I had forgotten. Thank you.

    -Joy

  3. Well Gab,

    after stumbling across this article I think I may have to rethink my entire research paper on Deborah. I’m currently the only guy in my Women of the Bible class at Florida Hospital College of Health Sciences, and I have to say after reading this I’m not sure I can in good conscious write my paper the way I was planning on writing it…

    Nice work on the research Gab, keep up the good work,

    Nick

  4. Hey Gab,

    Thank you for such an awesome article! The kind of exposition you did in this article is top notch, and there is much need for this topic to be cleared up. Keep up the awesome work!

    I’d like to point out also that in judges 5:12 is also a clear representation of the femininity that deborah displays in her role, and how this does not take on a masculine role. Check it out

    12 Awake, awake, Deborah: awake, awake, utter a song: arise, Barak, and lead thy captivity captive, thou son of Abinoam.

    Here Deborah sings while barak is the leader.

  5. Pingback: Thinking about Deborah in modern times… | ~ living journey ~

  6. Hi Gab.
    I´m glad to have found you. I´v been around this subject for a time. While I have thought of it from this side (your article), I am too outraged like you hearing and reading about Barak´s weakness, unfaithfulness and further misdemeanor of him.
    Come on, the man is in the hall of faith. We often hear or read sermons about Gedeon, Samson, David and even Jephthae (the names that come along with him in Hebrews 11:32.
    Truly, Deborah was a woman of God. And I see it more clearly now from your article. I seems that sometimes the woman´s role importance is underestimated, but see for example Zipporah (who´s faithful act prevented God from killing Moses, nevertheless she never attempt to usurp Moses as a deliverer), Rahab, Hanna, Anna, Lydia and many others.

    God bless you Gab. Your friend and brother, Gabriel

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