Does Deborah Help?

I am 100% supportive of women’s full participation in the ministry of the church. If your church ordains, it should be ordaining women. If your church has teachers, women should teach. If your church has elders, your women should so participate in the church’s “rule.”

But there’s one argument in favor of women’s full participation in the leadership of the people of God that I don’t find compelling. It’s the example of Deborah in the book of Judges.

Judges is a book replete with irony. The book as a whole (OT scholar types, please shelve your composition history theories for a few minutes, thanks) works by showing (a) how faithless Israel was; and (b) what losers the judges are, whom (c) God nevertheless uses to save Israel.

To take but one example: you know that great and awesome mighty warrior Gideon? He’s hailed as mighty warrior when he’s hiding in a wine vat. Hiding. And when he pulls down an altar he does it at night–when no one will see him. And that great golden fleece of his–that’s awesome! Until he takes the gold the people give him and make a golden fleece to worship. And then there’s his tremendous humility in not accepting the people’s acclamations of him as king–right… and then he names his kid Abimelech: “my father is king.”

There are no heroes in the book of judges. The judges are not examples to be followed, but pointers toward the necessity of a different kind of rule for the people of Israel.

So when Deborah comes along and serves as judge, we should be cautious about seeing this as normative.

The fight into which she ends up leading the people is a fight that should have been waged by Barak. When he is too afraid to go out and fight, she says she will go with him. But in consequence of, literally, hiding behind the skirts of Deborah, Barak will not gain honor from his victory: “for YHWH will hand Sisera over to a woman” (Judges 4:9).

The prominent place of women in the story is part of how the narrator is communicating how far Israel has fallen. When the men have not the faith to lead like they should, then God can even hand over Israel’s enemies by the hand of a woman. The prominence of women is a source of shame to the man who should be the prominent victor in the story.

In all, the book of Judges shows Israel what its life should be like by depicting things as bad as they could be. The era of judges is the time when there was no king in Israel and everyone did what was right in their own eyes. Israel needs a king.

The indications of gender equality are few and far between in scripture, and the New Testament itself sets us on a trajectory toward embracing one another as equals before God without ever fully attaining to a vision of such equality itself. There are some really good ways to get to gender equality in scripture, but I’m not sure that Deborah, falling as she does in the book of Judges, is much help.


13 thoughts on “Does Deborah Help?”

  1. I like your thoughts here. Personally, I don’t use Deborah as a normative leader, since that would place women in the leadership role in every situation. No, God calls and empowers whomever he wills for different contexts. Rather, this story does at least indicate that God calls human beings of both genders to leadership roles within specific contexts, and that there is no possibility of some kind of restrictive and permanent “God-given cultural mandate” that requires only men to fulfill leadership roles and functions among God’s people.

  2. Crap. I just appealed to Deborah in this type of discussion this weekend. But let me defend myself a bit. The conversation wasn’t narrowly over whether women should have leadership roles in the church, but over the question of whether Scripture norms certain behavioral characteristics to each gender (i.e., my conversation partner was pushing in a large men’s conference type situation that God made men to bear his image as warriors and makers and women to bear his image as beauties and nurturers). My appeal to Deborah (and Jael along with her) intended to demonstrate that though Scripture might chastise men for failing to lead, it doesn’t, at least in this case, chastise women for being warriors and leaders themselves. In other words, though you’re right that the story of Deborah bears an indictment on the men of Israel for failing to behave in a ‘manly’ way, it bears no parallel indictment on the women it depicts for failing to behave in a ‘womanly’ way and this ought to be considered by those whose reading of Scripture otherwise leads them to condemn women leaders…I might be out on a limb here.

  3. So what would be sufficient Biblical grounds to say women should be ordained and thus be in a clerical teaching position?

    The main texts 1 Cor 11:3-16; 1 Timothy 2:11-15; Eph 5:21-28; Acts 6:1-7, etc, speak pretty definitively in the negative on this subject. There is both a natural order and supernatural order to this. The first is that man is naturally hierarchically above woman, just as the Father is naturally hierarchically above Christ. This cannot be overturned or inverted without disastrous consequences in theology and practice. Then there is also the supernatural order: Christ is the Groom, the Church is the Bride. The male in sacred wedlock and/or in ordained clergy stand in the place of Christ, and if this order were disregarded there would likewise be serious problems. For example, the model would then be a female being wedded to the Bride, which turns things into a homosexual model.

    1. Wow that’s funny because I was talking about this today and I used Deborah as an example of female leadership being OK! I think you have the literary thrust of Judges right. These leaders aren’t meant to be examples. But I do think that the fact that God “raised up” a woman at one point to lead the people, even if it was to shame someone, should prevent anyone from being able to say that it is always wrong to have a woman lead men in every time in every place. If God did it, then it shouldn’t be wrong.

      1. Adam and Rick, I know that stories are amenable to various readings. But what I’m pushing here is whether there isn’t a presumption of the wrongness of the situation that makes it amenable for the story of Judges. Why does it carry the power it does? Why is it a shame to Barak? It seems that this comes, at least in part, from the presumption that women shouldn’t be the ones getting such military glory.

        Can it be wrong if God does it? I don’t know–is it a good thing to have a judge at all? To have a king? Sometimes God does things that the text itself demarcates as less than good, not what the people should ultimately want.

        Again, I don’t think this is the last word, but patriarchy seems to be the assumption.

    2. Nick, I don’t doubt that some of those speak clearly. The problem is that this clear speech is not reflected in the practices of the early church.

      If 1 Cor 14 (not 11!) were normative, women wouldn’t be doing the teaching and speaking they’re doing in 1 Cor 11; if 1 Tim 2 were roundly normative, Rom 16 wouldn’t mention women as deacon and apostle.

      So yes, there are some indications of gendered hierarchy. But there are also counter-indications that point toward equality. When we have women serving as deacons and apostles; women teaching and speaking and prophesying in worship, that presses the question of which stream we should follow in our own day and age.

      The latter problems are the problems of your own theological system, not the problems of biblical interpretation and application themselves.

      1. Hello Daniel,

        I’m not sure how to understand your sentence: “The problem is that this clear speech is not reflected in the practices of the early church.”
        I read this as the Bible is clear on X, but the early Church didn’t follow X. That doesn’t seem right.

        I’m even more puzzled by your reference to 1 Cor 14. The one forbids women to speak in churches, the other forbids women to pray or prophecy with their head uncovered; both speak of the male being the superior. Saying a woman can pray or prophecy doesn’t seem equivalent to saying they should or even can preach in an official clerical role. Alternatively, Paul could have been saying women are to keep quiet except in the extraordinary events of receiving prophecy.

        As for Romans 16:1 (I see no mention of Apostleship), this very brief bit of information is hardly sufficient to build a whole system around, much less overturn the clear instructions throughout the NT. For example, 1 Timothy 3 speaks about the qualifications of (male) Deacons, including the need to manage their household properly. This makes no sense if there is an equivalent female deacon office. Thus, the brief mention of ‘deaconness’ in Romans 16:1 either refers to a general servanthood, or for a woman who was ordained for tasks which were specifically focused on women’s needs. There is no suggestion that there was a female office that subordinated men.

        If all we have to go by is a special reading of Romans 16:1 and 1 Corinthians 11:5, that cannot be said to be sufficient evidence to establish much.

  4. Is the Deborah example for God’s use of women based only on her role with Barak and the battle or can we look at the fact she was a judge before the battle?
    I don’t think the people I have heard refer to Deborah as an example of God using women have used her as a normative argument but the fact God did allow her to have authority in Israel.
    I have heard men use the story against women in ministry because Barak did not fill his position properly. But again, Deborah was a judge before the battle broke out.
    Yes, Judges is a book about how far God’s people had strayed and their need for a leader. But God still did communicate through a woman…..that is no small thing for a woman in a male dominated culture.
    Just some of my thoughts.

  5. Just because Deborah is surrounded by loser male-judges, doesn’t mean that that should reflect negatively on her. You listed a lot of nasty things that her “peers” did, but I see nothing in the text that she does negatively. The fact that she’s so impressive in that context makes her leadership even more impressive. Scripture is full of examples of people who were righteous when those around them are not (Noah, Rahab, Job, the woman who anoints Jesus for burial and Deborah), but bad company doesn’t always corrupt good morals.

    1. In general, I am less than enthused by the “the text doesn’t say that” argument here.

      How does a story say? It doesn’t say by telling you, “Then there was this thing that happened that we’re supposed to respond negatively to because it’s really a bad idea and against God’s best desire.” It tells by telling the story. What are we to think about a story of a woman in a patriarchal society leading the men as a judge who tells a man that his glory is going to be curtailed because God will deliver by the hand of a woman? The story itself tells us that victory by the hand of a woman is a source of shame–who are the ideal readers? How does Judges work as a book of irony?

      I think on the level of the story that searching for a verse that says “this is a bad idea” is too flat, and that the negative overtones fit the telling better than the idea that she simply “is” a judge, or that this is something we are supposed to approve or celebrate.

  6. Many examples from the Bible are not meant to be positive. If they were, then we should all support polygamy, child sacrifice and many other shameful things. We shouldn’t always emulate the “heros” of the Bible. We don’t even need to defend them. Our goal is to follow God’s call today.

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