Deborah: What Can We Learn?
Deborah is a very controversial character in the Bible. If you’re like me, you have probably heard various interpretations of her story. I want to look at a few false claims that have been made concerning this passage and, also, give an alternative view.
1) Deborah was in a leadership position, so other women should seek those positions as well.
This is something I heard taught at a women’s conference a few years ago. While I do think that women can be leaders in certain contexts, and always in the sense of leading by example and giving wisdom, this passage is often used to support the view of women holding pastoral positions in churches or a wife not having to submit to her husband. This is wrong for two reasons. One, the passage is descriptive, not prescriptive. A descriptive passage tells us what happened, but does not contain explicit commands for us to live by like a prescriptive passage does. Much of the Old Testament is descriptive, telling us the beautiful story of God remaining faithful to His people and keeping His promise of the coming Messiah. Now, of course there is plenty to learn from the accounts in the Old Testament. We learn a lot about God’s character, how He interacts with mankind, and how we are to respond to Him in obedience and faithfulness. But, we must remember that just because something took place, does not mean God approved of it and that it is something we need to take and put to practice in our own lives. Also, the assumption that it supports women pastors and women being heads of the household plainly contradicts what we see in the New Testament. Therefore, that cannot be something we extract as a lesson from this passage.
2) Deborah usurped power / God chose her because there was no one else available.
This is something I have heard before and there was a time that I believed it. But, after revisiting this passage, I realized that the Bible does not say how Deborah came into leadership. All we know is that “Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time” (Judges 4:4). There is also no indication that God placed her in leadership because there was not a suitable man around. These interpretations come from a narrow-minded view of the role of women in attempts to make an excuse for the fact that God used a woman in a leadership position to lead His people to victory. Maybe those who think this way about Deborah believe that her story somehow contradicts the New Testament commands for wives to submit to their husbands and for leadership positions in the church to be reserved for God-fearing men. But, this story has nothing to do with those commands. Firstly, because of the point I mentioned earlier about it being descriptive. Secondly, because once again, there is no indication that Deborah was being rebellious against her husband and was trying to usurp power. Lastly, Israel is not the church, so it does not follow that passages about church order must fit here.
3) Deborah being in power was a sign of God’s judgment.
This is another argument that is used to excuse Deborah’s leadership. The verse usually used to support this claim is Isaiah 3:12 where God is speaking about judgment on the Israelites and says that “children are their oppressors and women rule over them.” At best, this verse can only be applied here indirectly because there is no indication that this verse in Isaiah is referring to what was happening in Israel at the time Deborah was a judge. Instead, we need to look at what was happening then. In Judges 2: 16-19, we see that it was God who “raised up judges who delivered them” (vs. 16) and when the judges died, the people turned away and did evil in the sight of the Lord. As judgment, the Lord then delivered them into the hands of their enemies and it was not until they repented, that the Lord appointed another judge to rescue them from their captivity. So, it is true that Israel was under judgment at this time, but in verse 3, it says that the people cried out to the Lord for help. And Deborah was instrumental in the Lord’s response to that prayer. After their victory over the Canaanites, there was peace in Israel for forty years (Judges 5:31). There is no evidence that Deborah was a sign of God’s judgment on Israel. On the contrary, it seems that she was one who the Lord used as a blessing to His people.
The importance of this passage is not how Deborah found herself in this leadership position or how much authority she had, but what she did in the place God had her. The Bible does not say why she was a judge or how she got there, or that other women should try to find roles like she had. What we do know is that she obeyed and honored God, and that is something that we clearly can learn from and implement in our lives.
Deborah reminds Barak, the commander of Israel’s army, of what God had said (Judges 4:6-7). She gives him wisdom and is a source of strength to him as she goes to call the troops alongside him. When Sisera, the leader of the Canaanite army, comes to meet the Israelites, Deborah exhorts Barak and says “Up! For this is the day in which the Lord has given Sisera into your hand. Does not the Lord go out before you?” (Judges 4:14). Deborah is a woman who knows what God has said and has faith that He will keep His promises. And after the victory is given to Israel, it is God who Deborah praises: “Hear, O kings; give ear, O princes; to the Lord I will sing; I will make melody to the Lord, the God of Israel” (Judges 5:3).
Instead of bringing our own opinions, biases, and preconceived notions to Scripture and reading with those blinders on, we need to read it objectively and let the text teach us. When we see Deborah for who she truly is as described in this passage, we see a woman of strong faith who sought the Lord and obeyed Him. She does give Godly wisdom to a man, but she does it with humility, not trying to assert her dominance over him. She recognizes his position as leader of the army and encourages him to do the right thing. She does not mock him or decide he isn’t fit for a leadership role when he is experiencing fear and doubt, but instead, she exhorts him, comes alongside him, and they both prepare for battle. They are partners in doing what God has called them to and they work together to bring about peace in their land.
Now when I read the story of Deborah, instead of boiling it down to an issue on women and leadership, I see it as a beautiful picture of someone trusting and obeying God and doing her best to follow Him. And that is something that any and every Christian can learn from, regardless of sex, age, culture or time period.