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Deborah: The Woman God Uses

Judges 4–5

Judges 5:31 "So may all your enemies perish, O LORD! But may they who love you be like the sun when it rises in its strength."

After attending a lecture at the seminary where I teach, I saw a female student whom I’d not seen in months. After greeting me, she enthusiastically told me about the exciting ministries God was allowing in and through her life. Then she concluded with a puzzling statement: “It’s just sad to think that God is having to use me because a man somewhere has failed.”

“Excuse me?” I was pretty sure I must have misunderstood.

“God wanted a godly man to lead, but since he apparently didn’t, I get to be part of ‘Plan B.’ I’m glad for God to use me, but it makes me feel badly that someone failed.” I heard a marked sadness in her voice.

I asked where she got that idea, and she said it was right out of the book of Judges—Deborah’s story, in fact. Someone had taught her that a godly woman leading meant a man had failed somewhere. “God uses a good woman only when a good man can’t be found,” she said.

We talked further and she explained more, pointing out that Barak was supposed to be the judge, but when he turned out to be a wimp, God raised up Deborah.

“What makes you think Barak was supposed to be the judge—that he was ‘Plan A’?” I asked, noting that Barak doesn’t come into the picture until Deborah is already well established as a leader and a prophetess. In fact Deborah summons Barak and speaks God’s word to him before we know what Barak is going to do.

“But God knew ahead of time what Barak’s response would be. And we know God would prefer to use a man to lead instead of a woman.”

“How do we know that?”

“The story of Deborah.”

Circular reasoning.

I shook my head. Obviously continuing to discuss Deborah’s story wasn’t going to help. So we considered another prophetess in the Bible. We find her story in 2 Kings 22:14–20:

Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam, Acbor, Shaphan and Asaiah went to speak to the prophetess Huldah, who was the wife of Shallum son of Tikvah, the son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe. She lived in Jerusalem, in the Second District.

She said to them, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: Tell the man who sent you to me, ‘This is what the LORD says: I am going to bring disaster on this place and its people, according to everything written in the book the king of Judah has read. Because they have forsaken me and burned incense to other gods and provoked me to anger by all the idols their hands have made, my anger will burn against this place and will not be quenched.’ Tell the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the LORD, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says concerning the words you heard: Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before the LORD when you heard what I have spoken against this place and its people, that they would become accursed and laid waste, and because you tore your robes and wept in my presence, I have heard you, declares the LORD. Therefore I will gather you to your fathers, and you will be buried in peace. Your eyes will not see all the disaster I am going to bring on this place.’”

So they took her answer back to the king.

Huldah. Most studies of Bible women exclude her, but Jesus would have passed often by Huldah’s tomb and crossed through Huldah’s gate to enter the Temple in Jerusalem. At one time in Israel’s history, all the faithful would have known about her.

The first person mentioned in the list of those who consulted with Huldah was Hilkiah the priest (2 Kings 22:14). Interestingly, we find him mentioned in the Book of Jeremiah, which begins with these words: The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, one of the priests at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin (Jeremiah 1:1, italics mine). In other words, one of the very men who sought God’s word from Huldah was the father of Jeremiah, the prophet (2 Chron 35:25). But there’s more—the prophets Zephaniah (Zeph. 1:1), and probably Nahum, and Habakkuk were also living at the time, and were even presumably in the same city—Jerusalem. Why didn’t the delegation seeking a word from God go to one of the other prophets in town?

Are we to conclude all of these men were spiritual wimps? Isn’t it more logical to conclude that God sometimes uses a good woman even when a good man can be found?

Consider the many female leaders and prophetesses in scripture starting with Miriam (Micah 6:4)—she led during the time of Moses. In the New Testament we find Anna (Luke 2:36) and Philip’s daughters (Acts 21:9) the young prophetesses on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:17) and all the women who prayed and prophesied in Corinth (see 1 Corinthians 11). This is far from being an exhaustive list.

Apparently God sometimes decides to use a woman as the Plan A, first-best, nobody-failed option.

Are you willing and ready to be that woman?

Going back to Deborah, note in Judges 5:4 that the same word is used for Deborah ‘judging” as was used for the male judges. Some translations say she was “leading,” which she was, but the text actually labels her as one of Israel’s judges. Three verses later, the text refers to Deborah as a “mother in Israel” (v. 7) This does not necessarily mean she was a biological mother. Sometimes the titles of “mother” or “father” were given to leaders. Consider that the “Son” in Isa. 9:6 is called an “Everlasting Father.” Judges 4:4 says, “Now Deborah, a prophetess, [a woman] of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. She would sit (i.e., give legal counsel) under the Date Palm Tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the Ephraimite hill country. The Israelites would come up to her to have their disputes settled.”

What a woman, that Deborah! First she was a prophetess and probably a wife. In Hebrew the same word is used for “woman” and “wife,” so we don’t know for certain if Deborah was a “woman of Lappidoth” (a place) or “wife of Lappidoth” (a person) (4:4). But most likely Deborah was married. The whole reason “woman” and “wife” weren’t separate words in Deborah’s day was because a female could be one of three things: a virgin, a married woman, or widowed. Deciding to live single was not on a young woman’s list of options unless her husband had died and she had a big enough dowry to keep eating.

We know that Deborah was a “mother in Israel” (5:7). Yet we don’t know for certain if that means she was a biological mother. More likely “mother in Israel” is a title indicating that the nation looked to Deborah for leadership as the nation’s mother similarly to how the childless George Washington could be called “the father or our nation” in the USA.

Deborah was a prophetess. And note what she told Barak, whose name means “lightning bolt” (4:6–7): “She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead the way to Mount Tabor. I will lure Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.’”

Here’s Barak’s response to the Lord’s command: Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go” (v. 8).

Barak had faith, but with hesitancy. In response to God’s command, he said, “I’ll obey if. . .” Yet Deborah didn’t abandon Barak for his lack of faith. Rather, she accompanied him and gave him strength in accomplishing God’s purpose. We have here a great example of a man and woman partnering as they obey the commands of God. Is there someone in your life whose faith you can bolster by your presence? If so, who is it and what can you do?

Now the plot thickens. Judges 4:14–16 tell us this:

 “Then Deborah said to Barak, "Go! This is the day the LORD has given Sisera into your hands. Has not the LORD gone ahead of you?" So Barak went down Mount Tabor, followed by ten thousand men. At Barak's advance, the LORD routed Sisera and all his chariots and army by the sword, and Sisera abandoned his chariot and fled on foot. But Barak pursued the chariots and army as far as Harosheth Haggoyim. All the troops of Sisera fell by the sword; not a man was left.”

Do you see any indication that Deborah actually engaged in battle?

Sometimes people say Deborah was not a judge because Hebrews 11:32–33 does not include her:

And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions.

Gideon fought, Barak fought, Samson fought, and Jephthah fought. David killed Goliath, and Samuel killed Agag, king of the Amalekites. But did Deborah conquer with the sword? No. Some have suggested that the exclusion of Deborah from this “Faith Hall of Fame” list in Hebrews 11 means she was not the “real” judge—that Barak was the judge. Or they say that a woman leading was wrong, so she was excluded from the list. Yet the writer of Judges refers only to Deborah as the judge to whom the word of the Lord came (Judges 4:4, 6). While Deborah went with the army, she did not engage in battle. Perhaps the New Testament writer meant to list only those who literally conquered kingdoms. While it’s not entirely clear why Deborah is not listed in Hebrews 11, we must avoid reading too much into her absence. Joseph, Daniel, and Mary—to name a few—are not mentioned, either. In fact it appears that in most cases the writer of Hebrews 11 seeks out the more flawed characters to highlight as people of faith. What an encouragement to us!

Deborah’s story has often been at the center of the battle over what God does and doesn’t want women to do in service to Him. We find no indication in the text that Deborah did anything but follow God with a whole heart.

Sadly the focus from Judges 4 can become so limited to gender issues that we miss the overall message of the story, which is not about gender at all. It’s about Him.

Unconditional Obedience

Deborah was a judge and a prophetess. The only other person who was a combination prophet/judge was Samuel. And Deborah was a singer and songwriter—she had an impressive resume.

So when Deborah warned Barak that his conditional obedience would mean that the glory for defeating Sisera would go to a woman (4:9), we might assume she’s referring to herself getting the glory for going with Barak. But Deborah was not speaking of herself at all. She was actually prophesying Sisera’s death at the hands of tent-peg-wielding Jael, another heroine in the story. At the time, pitching tents was “women’s work,” and Jael used what she had to serve God. She didn’t act in a traditionally feminine way by nailing the skull of God’s enemy to the floor, but God is more concerned with our conforming to His will and being zealous for His purposes than in our conformity to some socially constructed gender norm.

So if the honor going to a woman was “God’s punishment” for Barak’s lack of faith, what does that say in general about a woman being more honored than a man? Precisely nothing. Elizabeth had more faith than Zechariah. Mary is better remembered than Joseph. Several times Paul mentioned Priscilla before her husband, Aquilla.

Just because it was dishonoring to be outdone by women in Deborah’s day, that doesn’t mean God sees women as “less.”

Allow me a contemporary illustration.

About thirty years ago, a young athletic star named Billie Jean King was challenged to a tennis match in what was billed as the “Battle of the Sexes” exhibition. Another American tennis star, Bobby Riggs, 55, had been considered the best player in the world years earlier, when he won Wimbledon and three U.S. Open championships. But years later he thought he still “had it” and could beat a 29-year-old—because she was a woman. Riggs even practiced in a T-shirt that said “If I am to be a chauvinist pig, I want to be the number one pig.”

Before a live audience of thirty thousand and a viewer audience of about fifty million, King soundly trounced Riggs in consecutive sets 6-4, 6-3, and 6-3.

Riggs was humiliated, as the match actually advanced the argument that a young woman could beat an older man—something few people today would even question. Clearly the honor went to a woman.

Was Riggs humiliated because a woman winning goes against nature? Or was his humiliation due in part to his erroneous views of women?

God got His message through to Barak in a way that Barak would understand: You lack faith, you lose honor. Rather than seeing this as a battle-of-the-sexes message, we need to see the much more significant spiritual message: When you know what God wants you to do, but you tell Him, “I’ll obey, if. . .” you’ve put conditions on your obedience. And when you put conditions on your obedience, God doesn’t lose—you do.

Prayer: Heavenly Father, thank You for making me a woman. And thank You for Jesus, who revealed He was the Messiah to a Samaritan woman, even when the disciples couldn’t understand why He would speak to a female. Thank you for using Deborah and Jael to help deliver Your people from oppression. Use me in the battle against evil. Remove the obstacles in my life that keep me from absolute obedience to you. Help me never to put conditions on my obedience, but always to be ready to immediately respond to the promptings of the Spirit. In the name of Your Son I pray, Amen.

Excerpted and adapted from Java with the Judges (AMG) by Sandra Glahn.

Related Topics: Leadership, Women's Articles