By: Pastor David
On Sunday (July 1st) I preached a message from Judges 4-5 on God’s rescue of the Israelites from oppression under Jabin, king of Canaan, and his attack dog Sisera. You can listen to it here.
One of the stand-out features of this passage is the presence of a singular biblical figure: the judge-prophetess Deborah.
Deborah is a fairly controversial figure in evangelicalism. Because of her gender – here’s a politically powerful woman in the middle of a book mostly characterized by the activity of men! – her role and station in this moment in history gets a lot of scrutiny.
There are two (broad) hermeneutic teams playing on the exegetical field here. One group – generally complementarian, or some variation there of - says that Deborah’s role here is so clearly in defiance of God’s defined roles for men and women that it must be a consequence of the fact that there were no qualified men, for surely there could be no other reason that God would allow this arrangement. The other group – generally egalitarian/feminist, or some variation thereof - says that Deborah’s appearance here proves beyond doubt that any idea that God has different roles for men and women is absurd and must be discarded.
I think both of those interpretations lack a major component of good interpretation: the text says none of these things.
As I stated in my sermon, Deborah’s gender isn’t actually the point of this text. What’s in view is actually Jael’s work in killing Sisera: God uses this unlikely figure and her unlikely methods to save His people, as is His wont. Deborah’s gender isn’t primarily supposed to be grist for complementarianism or egalitarianism.
That said, this passage is not without implications for our understanding of God’s plan for gender. To that end, I’d like to break down a few false claims about Deborah’s role in this narrative, and offer a more biblically centered look at why Deborah is in this position, and what we should know as a result.
1. God can use whoever He pleases, regardless of gender.
As I noted above, a popular stance on Deborah’s judgeship is that it happened because there were no qualified men in Israel. First, this understanding of the text ignores the fact that God does not seem terribly concerned with the initial qualifications of the people he selects for judgeship. Samson solicited prostitutes. Gideon was faithless. Jephthah used his daughter for a burnt offering. God used these men in spite of their moral failings.
But more importantly, I think this view diminishes God’s sovereignty. Deborah was not God’s Plan B for the salvation of Israel, a pinch hitter for when He couldn’t find a qualified man. No, her womanhood was even the point: by selecting this woman not only as His judge but as His mouthpiece, God was showing again that He loves to use the things the world perceives as weak as His means of shaming the strong. Viewed through that lens, Deborah is actually the most qualified of the judges, especially from a moral point of view: the text shows her acting in obedience to Yahweh throughout. Unlike Gideon, Jephthah, and even Samuel, Deborah never fails in her commitment to Yahweh and to His command.
2. Scripture has plenty of room for female leaders in the public sphere. We should too.
I think it behooves Christians to look at the example of Deborah and recognize that while the Bible gives clear, cogent answers on leadership roles in the home and the church, it does not speak as clearly to the issue of women in leadership politically or economically. Throughout scripture and history, God has placed women into positions of leadership and used their intellect, force of will, and uniquely feminine traits to achieve His perfect will. One thinks of Esther and Huldah, but also of Margaret Thatcher and Joan of Arc. God was pleased to raise up these women, and in light of this, we daren’t take the position of being more “complementarian” than God.
We as complementarians need to be wary of holding to such a broad complementarianism that we discourage, dissuade, or shame the Deborahs in our midst. There are some women God has equipped for leadership in the public sphere, and these women ought to be actively encouraged to pursue their God-given gifts. To do otherwise assumes that we know better than God.
3. Scripture never conceives of a woman as a pastor or priest. Neither should we.
On the other end of the theological spectrum, egalitarians often point to Deborah as proof-positive that all leadership roles are open to women, and that any other stance is anti-woman. To the contrary: while Deborah is indisputably a kind of spiritual leader in Israel, given that she is a prophet, Deborah is not a priest. The priesthood was clearly reserved for men in the OT, and the pastorate is clearly reserved for men in the NT. (Much ink has been spilled on this subject. I would recommend this article as a good examination of why men are designated as pastors.) To do otherwise defies the clear command of God’s Word.
4. Scripture is clear that there are God-ordained differences between men and women. We should be clear on this, too.
A final point: Deborah’s presence as a strong leader in this passage shouldn’t confuse us as to the fact that God has designed men and women differently. Notice that in the text, Deborah does not herself take up a sword and do battle on the plain of Tabor. Even though she clearly commands the high-level strategy on the battlefield (note v. 14), she leaves the actual hand-to-hand combat to Barak. This reflects, I think, one of the divine realities of God’s design for men and women: men are to give their lives in the defense of women, not the other way ‘round.
Also note that Deborah’s leadership of Barak is of a motherly variety. She does not try to imitate a man in her leadership. Judges 5:7 distinctly describes her leadership as of a maternal variety: she nourishes Israel; she does not try to adopt a man’s hardness or masculinity. She realizes that her womanhood is actually a strength to be leveraged in her leadership, not a weakness to be discarded.
There’s always a temptation, when the theological struggle rages hot, to try to use scripture as a prooftext for our positions. But God’s Word cannot be bound. Deborah’s presence and God-ordained activity in this text challenges both complementarian and egalitarian to a deeper commitment to the centrality of God’s Word.