Why is it that we only hear of Deborah during debates on complementarian doctrine? On the one side she’s held up as evidence that women are permitted to hold pastoral positions over men in the church, while the other side seemingly has no idea what to do with her. As one who has run in “hard” complementarian circles for most of my life, I’ve heard every attempt to explain away Deborah’s story in Judges ranging from “there were no men in Israel fit to lead” to “Deborah was a sign of God’s judgment on His people”.
Interestingly, Deborah is sandwiched in a roster of all male judges. There are 3 before her and 8 after her. Judges 2:16 plainly says that “The Lord raised up judges to save [Israel] from the marauders…”. There was a pattern in Israel. Israel would forget God and worship idols, God would hand them over to their enemies, Israel would then remember God and cry out to Him, God would have compassion on them and raise up a judge to deliver them. The author of Judges reiterates this pattern of behavior throughout the accounts of each successive judge, especially with the first two – Othniel and Ehud. It seems that this judge business was not a free-for-all. They were hand-picked and raised up by God. Surely if God intended for there to be a man in Deborah’s place, He would have raised one up instead of Deborah. Psalm 115:3 declares, “Our God is in heavens; He does all that He pleases”. And it seems to have pleased Him to raise this woman up as a judge in Israel at this particular time in its history.
In addition, the text is clear that the judges, including Deborah, were a sign of God’s compassion and an act of His deliverance. Contrary to a popular view, Deborah was not a sign of God’s wrath and judgment on His people. King Jabin of Canaan and his 20-year-long oppression of Israel served that purpose quite well. God raised Deborah up as judge and prophetess in order to bring about His plan to rescue His people from Jabin and his army commander, Sisera.
So what are we to do we do with Deborah? One thing that we have got to stop doing is delegitimizing her call and place in Israel’s history in order to bolster our complementarian doctrine. When we do this, we do a grave disservice, not only to women, but to the church at large. A couple of things:
Firstly, we miss an opportunity to commend Deborah as an example to our women and men of what a god-fearing woman and leader looks like in the midst of an unbelieving people and a pagan nation. You see, godly male leadership wasn’t the only thing absent in Israel during the time of the judges. The daughters of Zion in Isaiah 3, the “cows of Bashan” in Amos 4, and other passages like these are evidence that godly female leadership and influence was missing, as well. Deborah stands in stark contrast as a woman who exhibits godly wisdom, leadership, and humility. In Isaiah 3 we find that the daughters of Zion were haughty. In Judges 4-5, Deborah is found to be humble in how she relates to God, Barak, and other the leaders in Israel. While the daughters of Zion have forgotten the Lord as evidenced by their sinful, greedy, and perverse behavior, Deborah is not only mindful of God, but she also reminds her leaders, specifically Barak, of who God is and of the goodness of His character.
In Judges 4:6-7, she reminds Barak of something God had seemingly previously commanded of him – to deploy the troops and go after King Jabin’s troops and their commander, Sisera. In 4:8, we’re given a clue as to why he had not yet followed through. Barak pleads with Deborah to go with him, giving her an ultimatum. If she will go, he will go. If she doesn’t go, he won’t go. What is this about? I can’t be sure, but I bet a common interpretation of Barak’s response here is that he’s a wimpy girly-man who thinks he needs this woman to tag along to protect him. I think there’s a more likely explanation. In 2:18-19, we read that whenever God raised up a judge, there was deliverance followed by prosperity for the duration of the judge’s life. Then after the judge died, the people would forget God and fall under the oppression of their enemies once again. Barak saw the judges, in this case Deborah who just so happens to be female, as the proverbial lucky rabbit’s foot. He failed to make the connection between Israel’s forgetting God and their oppression, their remembering God and their deliverance. He placed his faith in the judges, not in the Lord. We see Deborah urge him to obey and trust in the faithfulness of God as he prepares his army to attack saying, “Go! This is the day the Lord has handed Sisera over to you. Hasn’t the Lord gone before you?” This is a woman whose trust was placed firmly in the goodness and faithfulness of God. Her story here reminds us that God is worthy of our complete trust. What a wonderful truth! What a shame for it to get lost amid the shouting over doctrine regarding gender roles.
Secondly, our reputation as people who seek to be faithful in our interpretations of Scripture is damaged. As I mentioned before, Judges 2 plainly states the purpose of the judges. They were not a sign of God’s wrath and judgment. They were an act of God’s compassion and deliverance. That is true of them all. When we fight for truth in one area of Scripture by promoting an untruth about another, we commit a damaging and an egregious wrong.
Thirdly, and most importantly, we miss an opportunity to preach Christ. If we get bogged down in trying to delegitimize or explain Deborah away, we miss what I believe to be the point. What if God is glorified by raising up the least likely individuals to deliver His people? Don’t we acknowledge that to be true elsewhere in Scripture – even in Judges? Even Gideon the golden boy was slinking around in fear when the angel called him “valiant warrior”. There’s Abraham. Moses. David. Then the ultimate Deliverer, the King of Heaven, condescended as a helpless infant born in poverty to insignificant parents. He was swaddled in rags and laid in a feeding trough. He grew up in podunk Nazareth. Can anything good come from there? He didn’t look like a king, talk like a king, or act like a king. Centuries before, the people of Israel desired a king and recognized “kingly” qualities in Saul. There was nothing about Jesus that they would desire Him. It seemed more likely to them that Jesus was a blasphemer rather than the promised Messiah. They deemed a criminal more worthy of life than they did the Son of God. And, thus, He was put to death. Crucified as a criminal, though He committed no crime. But what they intended for evil, God intended for good – the best good of all. In His life, death, and resurrection, Christ would bruise the head of the serpent, Satan – breaking the power of sin and death.
Deborah prophesied that Sisera would be handed over to a woman. Just as Jael crushed the head of Israel’s oppressor Sisera, Christ will return in glory having made the entire earth his footstool and He will crush the head of that slithering serpent, the great oppressor, blotting both he and his influence from the face of the earth once and for all.
Indeed, we lose much when Deborah becomes an unnecessary casualty in our disputes over complementarian doctrine. May we not sacrifice these beloved truths on the altar of lesser issues.