Deborah is one of the most famous of the Old Testament women, for she is the only woman among several men in the book of Judges. She comes on the scene as did all the judges when the nation of Israel was backslidden an under oppression. In Judges 4:4, we learn that Deborah was a wife, a judge, and a prophetess. The argument from egalitarians and Christian feminists (so-called) is that since these women seemed like leaders in spiritual matters, then why is there an objection to women pastors? Does the case of Deborah in Judges, point to egalitarianism? Some observations about Deborah’s ministry may help with this question.
Her mode of ministry
Often I have heard Deborah’s case explained in this way: (1) The men wouldn’t take the lead. (2) So a woman had to do it. (3) Therefore, the men are at fault. That explanation never sat well with me because it would still be a woman usurping authority over a man. God never said that women were to be submissive only when the men were leading correctly. So what other reason could there be for God including these events?
Deborah (and Miriam and Huldah and other prophetesses) did not proclaim their message in the streets or in any public place. Rather the leaders came to her to inquire of the Lord or to receive the Word of God. Deborah exercised “judgment” over the matters that were brought to her because God used her as a vessel for His Word, but she didn’t rule over the nation. Also she only sent for Barak in the first place because the revelation she had received from God was specifically for him.
Today, we do not have direct revelation from God through dreams or visions or prophets. God speaks to us through His completed Word. So in one sense, the status as prophetess is not applicable to us today. Pastors, for instance, do not have to go to another individual to inquire of the Lord because they have the Word of God as every believer does.
On the other hand, we can draw some conclusions from the way God used women to convey his message in the Old Testament. It is true that women have just as much a capacity as men to understand and convey God’s truth. That is not the issue in a woman being in leadership. The reason I do not believe God calls women to be pastors or preachers has nothing to do with whether a woman is capable of doing the task. Women in Scripture and throughout church history, not to mention many ladies I know personally, are incredibly intelligent and knowledgeable of the Bible. The story of Deborah reinforces this truth.
Deborah simply conveyed God’s truth to the nation. She did it in such a way as to promote Barak’s leadership and in such a way as to not violate any other established leadership position.
Her sphere of authority
While we do observe women prophetesses and teachers in Scripture, we do not see women in the priesthood or in the pastorate. There is an inherent authority in those positions, and we do not see women in these roles in the Bible. It is significant to note that even though the priesthood were not functioning correctly as the mediator between God and Israel, God did not put Deborah as a new priestess. Rather, God gives new revelation through the prophetess, and she begins her work of communicating God’s Word within her sphere of influence. In Deborah’s interaction with Barak, she tells him that he will have victory. When he insists on her participation, his consequence for his reluctance is that a woman will receive the victory instead of him, a great embarrassment.
Deborah was not a “deliverer”. Interestingly, the account of Deborah and Barak does not include the familiar declaration that “God raised up a deliverer”. One commentary notes,
If the author looked upon Deborah as one of the deliverers of Israel:
1. Why is she not introduced as one whom Yahweh had raised up?
2. Why is there no reference to her inspiration and empowerment by Yahweh’s Spirit (rûaḥ yhwh)?
3. Why does she need Barak to accomplish the deliverance?
4. Why is the verb yāšaʿ, “to save,” never applied to her?
5. Why does she say, “The LORD will sell Sisera into the hands of a woman” instead of “into my hands”?
6. Why does the author observe that “she went up with Barak” (4:10) but avoid placing her at the head of the troops?
7. Why does Deborah announce to Barak, “This day the LORD has given Sisera into your hands” rather than “my hands” (4:14)?
8. Why is she absent from the description of the actual battle (4:15–17), and why does she never meet Jabin or Sisera?
9. Why did the poet prefer the title “mother in Israel” over “savior of Israel” (5:7)?
10. Why does the poet avoid the root qûm, “to rise,” let alone referring to Yahweh as the causative subject, when he speaks of Deborah’s rise?
11. What is this woman doing in what everyone acknowledges traditionally as a man’s world—leading soldiers into battle?
12. Perhaps most intriguing, why does the narrator portray her character so different qualitatively from most of the other deliverers? …
When “the sons of Israel” come to Deborah for “the judgment,” they are not asking her to solve their legal disputes but to give them the divine answer to their cries, which is described in the following verses. The fact that the Israelites come to her instead of the priest reflects the failure of the established priestly institution to maintain contact with God, a spiritual tragedy explicitly described in the early chapters of 1 Samuel.1
I encourage you to read the account of Deborah again (Judges 4-5). If we take the view that a prophetess is not a formal leadership role, but rather she is simply a conduit of God’s revelation to mankind, then the account reads very much as a woman who sees clearly the path that God wants the nation to take (because she was a prophetess). She then encourages Barak to lead, not taking the lead herself. She reminds Barak that he already knew what to do (Judges 4:6-7). It was only then that Barak reluctantly called out the tribes to come fight. It was Barak who lead the troops in battle. Then in Deborah’s and Barak’s song, they extol God for helping the leaders take the lead (Judges 5:2). Deborah rejoices that the commanders, not herself, finally offered themselves to be used of the Lord (Judges 5:9).
This sounds very much like the many times in our day that the leadership simply will not follow the Lord in whatever area. A woman may absolutely be correct in her view of what must be done, but she ought not to take the lead because the men won’t! Encouragement may be in order, and polite appeals on the basis of God’s Word may be in order, but deposing the leadership and taking the authority is never observed by godly women in the Bible. Nor do we see a fundamental change in the hierarchy to allow for women to have leadership over men. Deborah is never seen usurping authority. Rather she encourages and appeals to Barak’s leadership. Then when Barak finally takes the lead and God blesses in the end, Deborah is relieved and rejoices in God.
Deborah is called “A Mother in Israel”, and this reminds us of that special relationship between a mother and an adult son. The mother’s authority over her son is not present, but she may encourage and appeal to his knowledge of the truth that she taught him. He ought to honor her by listening and applying himself to the task. This is what Deborah did for the nation of Israel and her leaders. That was her sphere of influence.
John Piper and Wayne Grudem see Deborah’s circumstances in this way:
God has no antipathy toward revealing His will to women, Nor does He pronounce them unreliable messengers. The differentiation of roles for men and women in ministry is rooted not in women’s incompetence to receive or transmit truth, but in the primary responsibility of men in God’s order to lead and teach. The instances of women who prophesied and led do not call this order into question. Rather, there are pointers in each case that the women followed their unusual paths in a way that endorsed and honored the usual leadership of men, or indicted their failures to lead….Deborah, a prophetess, judge, and mother in Israel, along with Jael, was a living indictment of the weakness of Barak and other men in Israel who should have been more courageous leaders. The period of the judges is an especially precarious foundation for building a vision of God’s ideal for leadership. In those days, God was not averse to bringing about states of affairs that did not conform to His revealed will in order to achieve some wise purpose.
We must also keep in mind that God’ granting power or revelation to a person is no sure sign that this person is an ideal model for us to follow in every respect. This is evident, for example, from the fact that some of those God blessed in the Old Testament were polygamists. Not even the gift of prophecy is proof of a person’s obedience and endorsement by God. As strange as this sounds, Matthew 7:22, 1 Cor. 13:2, and 1 Sam. 19:23-24 show that this is so. Moreover, in the case of each woman referred to above we have an instance of a charismatic emergence on the scene, not an installation to the ordinary Old Testament office of priest, which was the responsibility of men.2
Apparently Deborah had a husband (Judges 4:4) and her unique role as a channel of God’s revelation did not interfere with her duties as a wife and mother. It would be unusual for God to send a message of revelation to a rebellious or insubordinate woman, although not unheard of. We might even assume that she didn’t have any children or that they were already grown since the Bible gives no reference to her children. Perhaps she rejoices in being a “Mother in Israel” because she had no children of her own. We just don’t know. I tend to assume that Deborah acted the same way to her husband as she did to Barak. Perhaps her own husband did a better job at leading and under his leadership, she rose to her occasion just as Mordecai encouraged Esther to do.
When God gives the Word, we must obey. Under Grace, there is no mediator between God and man. Each individual has soul liberty before God. A woman does not need to ask permission from her husband, to refrain from sin, or to obey God’s commands (although priorities come in to play here and following her leadership in good things). When the Word of God came to Deborah, being a prophetess, she would have had no choice but to convey the message. Deborah’s husband must have recognized this and led her to fulfill God’s plan for her. At the very least, he cleared the way for her to do this. We don’t see her husband objecting or not being mentioned at all. In fact, the introduction to Deborah first describes her as the wife of Lappidoth. Perhaps he’s even right there with her. We don’t know! My point of view in this point is an argument from silence, but so is the opposing view. So I will take my liberty here.
So in the case of female judges or prophetesses, it is helpful to remember that men and woman have equal ability to relate to God Himself. The New Testament makes it clear that there is no mediator between God and any man or any woman (1 Timothy 2:5). So truth can be spoken and relayed by women just as much as by men.
This truth is not incompatible with the complementarian view of gender roles. No person needs to have authority or prominence to convey God’s truth. And when someone finds themselves being the only one speaking the desperately needed truth, she will stand out, just as Deborah did.
- Block, D. I. (1999). Judges, Ruth (Vol. 6). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
- Piper, John and Wayne Grudem, eds. Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism. Kindle edition, location 1591.