Deborah: a mother in Israel


This is the fifth post in Jean’s series on women in the Bible. (Read the first, second, third and fourth.)

Deborah, judge of Israel, is a poster-girl for egalitarianism in Judges 4-5. She’s undoubtedly female, and she’s a leader of God’s people: a judge who delivers God’s rulings, and a prophetess who speaks God’s words. Like the other judges, she’s used by God to deliver his people when they turn from their idolatry and cry to him for rescue from their enemies. Her husband is virtually absent from her story and, if she had any children, they aren’t mentioned. If the New Testament seems to say that women shouldn’t teach or have authority in the church, surely Deborah shows that these restrictions are cultural and can be laid aside in our more enlightened society!

It’s not that simple. In many ways, Deborah is a reluctant leader. The fact that she’s leading Israel seems to be a sign of judgement, an indictment on the men of Israel for failing to take the lead (Isa 3:12). At every point, she honours and supports male leadership; her word from God to Barak is that God has called him to lead the army, and she only reluctantly accompanies him into battle (Judg 4:6-9). The glory for the victory goes to another woman—the treacherous Jael—but this, too, is a judgement on Barak for his unwillingness to lead (Judge 4:9, 17-23). Deborah’s example is not so much an encouragement to women to take the lead, but rather a rebuke to men who fail to lead spiritually.

Deborah works in an unusual role in a womanly way. She leads Israel to victory as a woman: she alone, of all the judges, doesn’t command the army, but asks Barak to do so (Judg 4:6-7, 10, 14 cf 3:10, 27-29). She prophesies as a woman: while male prophets proclaim God’s word publicly, she gives God’s word to Barak in private; and while her song of victory is public, it’s sung with Barak, not alone (Judg 5:1, Exod 15:1, 20-21 cf 2 Sam 22:1). She judges as a woman: people come to her privately to have their cases decided and to hear the word of God (Judg 4:4-6 cf 2 Kgs 22:14-15). Hers is the charismatic role of a judge, not the settled role of a priest or a king: these ruling and teaching roles are reserved for men (Lev 10:10-11, 1 Sam 8:6, 11-18, 1 Tim 2:12, Tit 1:5-7, 2:3-5).

It’s Deborah who gives us the key to understanding her role: she is a mother in Israel (Judg 5:7). You can hear a mother’s grief in her sorrow over the suffering of her people (Judg 5:6-8). You can hear a mother’s exasperation in her rebuke of the southern tribes who sat by their fires and watched their sheep while their brothers went to war (Judg 5:15-17). You can hear a mother’s pride in her praise of the warriors and princes who fought (Judg 5:13-14, 18). You can hear a mother’s vehement defence of her children in her blood-thirsty celebration of victory (Judg 5:24-31).

Deborah is no retiring female wimp: she’s bravely and strongly committed to God’s glory when others have abandoned him; but she never seeks glory for herself (Judg 4:6-15, 23, 5:2-3, 31). I think of female missionaries who teach God’s word because there is no-one else to do the job, but who train up men to take their place as leaders and teachers in the church. I think of women married to non-Christian men or lazy Christian men, who take the lead in teaching their children about God, but who pray and long for their husbands to take responsibility for spiritual leadership in the home.

Deborah should make us ask ourselves: do we have a mother’s heart for God’s people? Do we encourage our Christian brothers and teach our younger Christian sisters? Do we grieve when Christians wander into error and disobedience? Do we rejoice when we see God’s people sticking up for the truth, or are we embarrassed and ashamed? Do we get angry when we see Jesus’ name dragged through the mud by the adultery and apostasy of Christian leaders? Are we willing to defend God’s character and the lives of the innocent, even when everyone around us stays silent?

Let’s be women like Deborah: brave, passionate, loving, humble, and fiercely committed to God’s people and God’s glory.

One thought on “Deborah: a mother in Israel

  1. Excellent observations. There are prophetesses and “judgesses” in the Bible, but no priestesses. A priest is the Adam who images God to the warrior bride.

    The typology is interesting too. Barak is the “seed” of the woman and Sisera is the “seed” of Jabin, the serpent. And of course, Jael, a woman, crushes the head of the seed of the serpent.

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