Deborah & Barak: Example for Women or Embarrassment for Men?1
1.1 Deborah an Example?
Does Deborah provide us with an example about the place and function of women in marriage, in church and in society? There are those who think so. Donna Strom, professor at the Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Dehra Dun, Northern India, laments that women have, in the main, been involved only in increasing the human population, and done so little ("except for a rare Margaret Thatcher or Indira Gandhi") to join men in ruling the earth.2 So she writes of Deborah: "What Deborah's example obviously teaches is that women should not be excluded from any levels of decision-making, religious or political."3 Because Professor Strom sees men hindering women in taking positions of leadership, she writes: "Many have asked, 'Where are the Deborahs?' But a more relevant question today is: where are the Baraks, Lapidoths, and 10,000 men who will allow God to use His Deborahs?"4
Is it really true that God provides us in Deborah with a model for how He would have women to act? Ought the brothers of God's church to recondition their thinking to "allow God to us His Deborahs"?
The answer of our contemporary world is distinctly Yes, we should. Does the Lord agree? Should you as wives and mothers make it your business to encourage your husbands and sons to be willing to let God use the women in positions of leadership? In our feminist age, what picture should we strive to place in the minds of our children about the place of the woman? By implication: in our age of weak men, should we seek to encourage all our sons to be leaders?
1.2 What do we want to Prove?
It is for us to listen carefully to what the Lord says in His Word. In the climate of our day, our lives –both as men and as women– are to be conformable to God's Word, so that in turn we live as lights in this world. As I set out this morning in my attempt to lay before you what the Lord says about the place He has assigned to the woman, I choose to take as starting point what the Lord says to us in Judges 4 and 5 about Deborah and Barak. However, if we are to hear what the Lord says in these chapters, we shall need to read this passage without preconceived ideas about the place of the woman. I say this since it's not difficult to prove from these two chapters just about anything you want to prove about the place of the woman.5 For example:
1.3 Descriptive or Prescriptive?
One more introductory item that needs to be mentioned is the distinction between what is descriptive and what is prescriptive. Judges 4 is descriptive; it describes what Deborah did. Does this description of what Deborah did in her day boil down to a prescription for us? That is: does Judges 4, which describes Deborah's conduct years ago, prescribe how we should act today?6 In various places in the Bible a given action is described and yet we're convinced that we ought not to follow that example. One may think of Judah's conduct with the harlot he met along the road.7 We agree that the Bible describes for us what Judah did, but that it does not prescribe that we should do the same thing. After all, in the seventh commandment the Lord told us not to commit adultery. Judah's action is clearly descriptive of his sin, but not prescriptive for our conduct. Well now: are Judges 4 and 5 descriptive? Certainly, they are. Are they also prescriptive? That is: do these chapters set the norm for how our women (and men) ought to behalf? Does the appearance of Deborah as leader in the land (prophetess and judge) indicate that our daughters may/must aspire to positions of leadership? The only way to answer this question is to go back into God's revelation in order to find out what God has commanded us.
Before we go back into God's revelation to learn His norm for us, we first spend some time reading what the Lord tells us about Deborah in Judges 4 and 5. This forms Section 2 of this paper. In Section 3 we look at the material God had to revealed to Israel on the subject by the time of Deborah's day. Section 4 sets before us what God revealed to His people after the time of Deborah. We're interested specifically in discerning whether there has been a change in God's revelation after the time of Judges 4. A final section draws out conclusions for us today.
2. WHO WAS DEBORAH?
2.1 Deborah's identity as a person:
Concerning Deborah's person Judges 4:4,5 tells us that "Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, was judging Israel at that time. And she would sit under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the mountains of Ephraim. And the children of Israel came up to her for judgment."
- A WOMAN
Although it is not evident in our translation, the Hebrew text makes a point of stating that Deborah was a woman. In the original text, verse 4 reads, "Now Deborah, a woman, a prophetess." The Lord makes specific mention of her gender. The reference to her being a woman is also meant to convey, according to the Hebrew rules of grammar, that she was "a certain woman".8 The author of Judges 4, then, did not see Deborah as standing head and shoulders above the other women of her day, as if she were an obvious leader. She is portrayed as a normal, average woman in Israel.
- A PROPHETESS
She is further described as a prophetess. In the Bible we read of more women who were prophetesses:
We need to note that the Old Testament does not tell us of an official function of the prophet in the divinely appointed worship service. A prophet is simply someone whom God was pleased to use in order to make known His will to the people in a given situation. Deborah was a prophetess, but no where do we read that she was ordained to an office in any way. This differs from Elisha and Jeremiah, for example. The Lord called those two men to the office of prophet. (See I Kings 19:19ff; Jeremiah 1:4ff).
What we also need to bear in mind is that although Deborah is a prophetess, no where do we read that Deborah went to the people with a word from God; Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and all the other prophets did. Said they, "Thus says the LORD ..." and then spoke their prophecy. We do not read that concerning Deborah at all. She did not go to the people with a word from God, but the people came to her. "And the children of Israel came up to her for judgment" (Judges 4:5b). She sat under the palm tree. Exactly the same thing happens with Huldah; she did not go to anyone with a prophecy but instead, we read that "Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam, Achbor, Shaphan, and Asaiah went to Huldah the prophetess" (2 Kings 22:14).
- THE WIFE OF LAPIDOTH
We read further in Judges 4 that Deborah was the wife of Lapidoth. It's intriguing to note that she is known by her husband's name! She is not known independently of her husband, even though she had a special place in Israel. That raises the question: why?! Why is she mentioned here by her husband's name, the wife of Lapidoth? This is a question that needs to be answered later on.9
- A JUDGE
Deborah is called here a judge. It is this term that gives Deborah her profile in the book of Judges. Deborah is one of a series of twelve judges. Of the twelve judges, six are major judges (including Deborah), and six are minor judges, of whom we have very little detail. For the purposes of this paper, we shall focus on the six major judges and do some comparisons between them.
- Deborah was an unlikely choice for a judge
It turns out that the six major judges (i.e. Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah and Samson) are all unlikely and unexpected choices for a judge.10
- Deborah was not raised up by the Lord to be a judge
A second point concerning Deborah being a judge is that we do not read in Scripture that she was raised up by the Lord to be a judge.11 That was the case though for the other (major) judges.
- Deborah was not a judge with a military function
A third point in relation to Deborah's office as judge is that she, unlike all the other judges in the book of Judges, did not have a military function.12 Of the five other major judges for example, we read in Scripture of their military feats:
- WOULD SIT UNDER THE PALM TREE
In Judges 4:5 we are told that "she would sit under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the mountains of Ephraim." Why are we told that Deborah sat under the palm tree? In order to appreciate this one needs to turn to Deuteronomy 16:18. There it is written, "You shall appoint judges and officers in all your gates, which the LORD your God gives you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with just judgment." Here is an instruction of the Lord to the people of Israel, that once they come into the Promised Land they were to make it their business to appoint judges. These judges were to function "in all your gates", these gates being a reference to the town gates. Judges did not have a national or a trans-tribal authority but rather, according to Deuteronomy 16, the ordinance of God was that the judges in Israel were to have local authority. A judge had a place in a particular town (or tribe), and it was in that town that the people of the community had to come to the judge in the event that they had a dispute. No one in Israel was to be without recourse to judgment and hence they were to expect and receive from the judge in their own town a "just judgment."
Deborah, however, was not sitting in the gates of her city but in the field somewhere, "under the palm tree of Deborah betweeen Ramah and Bethel in the mountains of Ephraim." She didn't sit in her city, did not even sit in a city. Although it cannot be said with certainty, Deborah probably came from the tribe of Issachar (see Judges 5:15). In any case, Deborah knew the people of Issachar and they knew her. However, she removed herself far from those whom she knew, and found a place "under the palm tree … in the mountains of Ephraim" (Judges 4:5). Hence she wasn't even close to home. Deborah gave judgment, not in her own place, but out in the open. She gave judgment, not to the locals of her town, but to all and sundry! That is what we read in Judges 4:5b: "And the children of Israel came up to her for judgment." Deborah's position was not restricted to just her own local people but her position was national, trans-tribal. Again, one wonders why. Given the instruction of Deut 16, why did she function as she did?
2.2 Deborah's relation to Barak:
All indications are that Deborah did not try to upstage Barak. On the contrary, she very deliberately attempted to place herself in the shadow of a man. Consider the following:
When it comes to the defeat of the enemy, it was not Deborah who defeated the enemy, but another woman, Jael (Judges 4:17-22). Of Jael it was sung, "Most blessed among women is Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite; blessed is she among women in tents" (Judges 5:24). In the face of attempts to present Deborah as a feminist model, it is important to note that she did not pursue the glory that comes with defeating the enemy. The Lord tells us that this honour went to another, not to Deborah.
To sum it up so far, we do wrong on the basis of Judges 4 and 5 to envisage Deborah as some sort of a feminist. That is a misreading of the Scripture. In His Word the Lord does not present Deborah as an "emancipated woman", a feminist who placed herself on centre stage, a woman striving to stand tall to exercise her rights to lead. What we do read here is of a woman who gave leadership without placing herself on centre stage. Deborah distinctly did not draw attention to herself.
This conclusion comes into sharper focus when we turn our attention now to Deborah's context.
2.4 The context in which Deborah lived:
Time and again in the book of Judges we read the phrase "the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord" (Judges 2:11). This is mentioned in relation to each of the major judges:
It was, then, a time of radical deformation, a time of decay. The degree of degeneration characterising the time is possibly best illustrated by the material written in Judges 17-21, where we read of Micah's idolatry and the brutal raping of the Levite's concubine. It was a time where standards of behaviour and godliness in Israel were far removed from the norms God had established in His Word. In a word: it was an ab-norm-al time.
Specific to Deborah's day: deformation and decay is pointed up by the fact that there were no leaders. Deborah had to call upon Barak to come and lead (Judges 4:6). Once he had been chased up, he was too scared to do anything (Judges 4:8).13 Where was Barak's backbone? Barak had none; he was not a leader. He didn't know, at least it didn't come out in his conduct, that he could lean on the Lord for strength and wisdom. Nor was Barak the only spineless man in Israel. We read in Judges 5:6 and 7, "In the days of Shamgar, son of Anath, in the days of Jael, the highways were deserted, and the travellers walked along the byways. Village life ceased, it ceased in Israel." Imagine for a moment that we couldn't freely walk or drive down our main roads. Imagine if we, in order to do our business, had to sneak out at night and move cautiously from tree to tree lest we'd be fallen upon. We'd very quickly complain to the authorities in town that our streets aren't safe. That is exactly what happened in the days of Judges 4. The streets were not safe. What does that says about leadership? This context of fear makes evident that there were no leaders able to lead the people against their oppressors. Recall in this context none of the major judges were likely persons to have been judges! That was the problem of the day: there were no leaders.
Why were there no leaders? Can we find an answer to that question? Yes, we can. For the Lord had promised to deal with Israel according to a pattern. In Deuteronomy 28 the Lord promised His blessings on obedience: "Now it shall come to pass, if you diligently obey the voice of the LORD your God, to observe carefully all His commandments which I command you today, that the LORD your God will set you high above all nations of the earth (vs 1) ... And the LORD will make you the head and not the tail; you shall be above only and not beneath, if you heed the commandments of the LORD your God, which I command you today, and are careful to observe them" (vs 13). Such security requires leadership, and this is what the Lord promised His people when there was obedience. Conversely, when there was no obedience: "But it shall come to pass, if you do not obey the voice of the LORD your God, to observe carefully all His commandments and His statutes which I command you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you: Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the country (vs 15) ... And you shall grope at noonday, as a blind man gropes in darkness; you shall not prosper in your ways; you shall be only oppressed and plundered continuously, and no one shall save you" (vs 29). Here is the fear of Judges 5:6,7, a condition the people could do nothing about because those who were to be leaders had no back-bone.14
Why weren't the streets safe in the days of Deborah? Why didn't anyone dare to assume leadership? It was because of a spiritual decay. The people of Israel did not live according to the Word of God. In Deuteronomy 16:18 the Lord had commanded to appoint judges in every town. But the people did not go the judges of their community because their men were not functioning as the leaders God wished them to be.15So they went to Deborah instead. A spiritual decay amongst the people of God produced a paralysis that drove the people to an unlikely person as judge.
Deborah, the wife of Lappidoth, arose as prophetess in Israel in abnormal circumstances. In a time of spiritual decay, it pleased the Lord God to send a judge in the person of His choosing. The Lord showed mercy according to His Word in Deuteronomy 18:15, "The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren." The person of His choosing was first of all that younger brother, then the left-handed man, then a woman, then the son of a harlot, then the least of all the tribes in Israel, etc. Specific to Judges 4, God calls upon a woman. Truly, God chose what is weak, what is base, what is despised in the eye of the world to shame the mighty and the boastful (see I Cor 1:26ff).
How does all this relate to what God had ordained in the beginning? What could Deborah and Israel have known from God's revelation about how God wanted things to be in the relation between man and woman? Does Deborah's express action of placing a man in center stage instead of herself reveal an insecure character or humble obedience to God's instructions?
3. THE NORM GOD HAD REVEALED BY THE TIME OF DEBORAH
3.1 Man and woman are equal before God
The Scriptures Deborah and Israel had taught that the Lord had been pleased to give to man and woman an equal position before Him (see Figure 1). Genesis 1:26,27 tells us, "Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." Man and woman are both created to image God, and man and woman both receive the mandate to have dominion over the earth, the sea, the cattle, etc. Man and woman both, receive also the task to "be fruitful and multiply" (Verse 28). In this regard there is no difference between the man and the woman. Male and female have an equal position before God, and both receive the same broad mandates.
The fall into sin touched both equally, so that both suffered the consequences of the fall (Gen 3:16ff). When the Lord God established His covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai, He made clear that both the man and the woman needed to come with their sacrifices. Said the Lord to Moses, "Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: "When any one of you brings an offering to the LORD ... if a person sins ..." (cf Leviticus 1-4). What God said here applied to man and woman alike. Leviticus 15 likewise makes clear that men and women alike were unclean, and hence both needed cleansing. Both the man and the woman are in need of redemption; both receive forgiveness in Jesus' blood. This is the clear instruction of the tabernacle service to all Israel: male and female have an equal position before God.
We may conclude: Deborah and all Israel with her could know from God's Word that male and female alike were equally dependent on God's grace for forgiveness of sins and therefore for life and breath itself.
3.2 The relation God has placed between man and woman in their inter-personal relation
As it turns out, God has given to the man and to the woman different positions with respect to each other. Though equal in talent no doubt, and though certainly equal before God, God has nevertheless arranged a hierarchy in the relation between the man and the woman (see Figure 2). In Genesis 2:7,8 we read that "the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. The LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there He put the man whom He had formed." The man –that is Adam– received a place in the garden with the mandate to "to tend and keep it" (vs 15). Then in verse 18 we read that "the LORD God said, "It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him." From the rib of the man God made a woman (vss 21,22).
Note that the woman is characterised here as a helper. The term 'helper' does not denote that the woman is less than the man. With our sinful (western?) ears, we tend to hear in the word 'helper' the notion of 'assistant', i.e. one who is told what to do. The Scriptures do not allow that loading of the term 'helper'. That same word is used repeatedly in Scripture in relation to God being a helper for His people. Consider the following Psalms:
Still, the term 'helper' remains in the relation of woman to man. It is important to note that the woman is given to the man that she may be his help and we do not read of it being the other way around. It is not so that the man is given to the woman to be her helper. The man receives the position of leader; he must go to his garden to fulfil his task of tending and keeping it, and the woman is his helper in carrying out that task. Before God both are to fulfil the cultural mandate, but in their working side-by-side the one is the helper and the other is not, (and so) the one is the leader and the other is not.
Again, it is important to note that in Genesis 2:22 the Lord God brought the woman to the man and not the man to the woman. There is a God-given order, a hierarchy in their relation together; the one is the leader and the other is the helper. In Genesis 2:23 we read that Adam greeted her; she did not greet Adam. Adam took the initiative; the one is the leader and the other is the helper. To give names is (as we learn from Genesis 2:19) a function of leadership. Adam gave Eve a name; Eve did not give Adam a name. Whilst man and woman are equal before God, the Lord God, in Genesis 2, put in place an authority / submission structure in the relation between the man and the woman.
The Fall into sin in Genesis 3 ruined God's creation. However, this authority / submission structure as implied in Genesis 2, is maintained. It was Eve who was tempted and consequently fell. Yet God called Adam to task first. See Genesis 3:9: The Lord God knew that Adam and Eve had fallen into sin but "the Lord God called to Adam and said to him, "Where are you?" Adam was responsible first of all. See Genesis 3:10,11: "I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself." And (God) said, "Who told you that you were naked?" The man was addressed.
As it turns out,16 the formulation in Genesis 3:16 is parallel17 to what we read in Genesis 4:7. There the Lord says to Cain, after he has offered his sacrifice, "If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you shall rule over it." God is telling Cain that sin wants to master him; that is a reality in this fallen world. However, God adds to this that Cain is responsible; he is not allowed to let sin master him. Cain must fight sin. That is also exactly what is meant in chapter 3:16. The woman, God says, as a result of the fall into sin, desires to rule over the man ("your desire shall be for your husband"), but the man must not permit her to succeed ("he shall rule over you").18
In Genesis 3:16, then, we have the same thought as that presented in Genesis 2: an authority / submission structure. Whereas in chapter 2 however it was a structure which lived itself out in harmony, now the Lord says that this authority / submission structure is going to be a battle. To accept the place that God has given is going to be difficult. Genesis 3:16 "describes the beginning of the battle of the sexes."19 So we see that the authority / submission structure implied in Genesis 2 is maintained after the fall, but now the woman protests her place and the man does not have the wherewithal to keep the woman kindly in her place. There is therefore pain for the woman and for the man as a punishment on the fall into sin.20
- AFTER THE FALL
That the authority / submission structure of Genesis 2 is maintained after the fall becomes evident from what we read further in the book of Genesis and the other books of the Pentateuch:
4. CONCLUSION FOR DEBORAH'S DAY
In relation to Deborah we need to conclude the following:
5.1 Man and woman continue to be equal before God
Is there any change in God's revelation after Judges 4 and 5? There is not. The principle of Genesis 1 and 2 is maintained throughout the rest of Scripture: man and woman are equal before God. Both man and woman are equally in need of salvation through Jesus Christ and so Jesus proclaimed His gospel to man and woman alike.23 In Galatians 3:28 one reads, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Before Christ we are all the same. In 1 Peter 3:7 one reads that the husband is to care well for his wife because husband and wife are "heirs together of the grace of life." Before God man and woman are equal.
5.2 God made no changes to the relation He placed between man and woman in their inter-personal relation
In the inter-personal relation between man and woman the principle of Genesis 2 is also maintained.
6. CONCLUSION FOR OUR DAY
Should we encourage our daughters to aspire to the sort of position that comes up in our mind when we hear that Deborah was a judge? Should we encourage our sons to be "the Baraks, Lapidoths, and 10,000 men who will allow God to use His Deborahs"? The answer is distinctly No! Instead, women need to encourage in themselves and in their daughters a spirit of being the helper, recognising that God has given authority and responsibility to the man. Equally, it is for the women to encourage their men and their sons to be leaders in marriage and family, in church, and in society.
This is not to say that women or their daughters may never end up with a position of leadership; sovereign God may give it as He did in Judges 4. But to find yourself having such a position is rather different than aspiring to, or setting your sights on, that position.
At bottom, it is a question of faith. God's revelation is clear on the place He has given to the woman in relation to the man. Important is not whether this revelation sits well with us, sinful as we are. Important is what the Lord says. Faith prompts humble acceptance of God's revelation. That there is an unhappiness with the positions received for man and for woman has been prophesied (cf Gen 3:16b). It's for us, though, humbly to accept the position that God gives.
Is Deborah then an example for women? Yes, she is, but not as advocated by the feminists. Deborah is an example for women, for she was a woman of faith. In her circumstances Deborah sought to help the men to be the leaders they were meant to be. Is Deborah (and Barak) an embarrassment for men? Yes, for the men of those days weren't the leaders they were supposed to be, and so God shamed the men by giving a Deborah.
May men and women of the Lord encourage each other humbly to accept the respective places that God has given to men and women in His world, "that the word of God may not be blasphemed."