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.


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