Connections 11.19.2017: Deborah, a Good Leader

Judges 4:1-10

Bible stories about female leaders are rare. And I’ve been in churches whose ministers have attempted to explain away female leadership with excuses like these: “When God can’t find a good man, God has to use a woman.” “Notice that the woman isn’t ruling over men. She’s instructing other women or taking care of children. That’s the God-given role of a woman.” “It’s okay for a woman to lead on rare occasions, but God prefers to use men because they are stronger and more logical.”

I’m not kidding. I’ve heard such things preached from pulpits and taught in Sunday school and spoken to children at a summer church camp. Even if the words weren’t said outright, they were implied.

If I’m to take seriously what I’ve learned in some churches over the years, women are second place, at best, in God’s kingdom. So when the Bible offers a story with a true female leader—one who is at the forefront of a major effort, leading not just women and children but also men—I take notice.

In this passage about Deborah, a female judge, the writer does not say she was a helper or assistant to a male judge. She was a prophetess who judged Israel herself. The writer does not say she helped women or children resolve their issues. The Israelites—meaning any of them who had a need—came to her for judgment. The writer does not say she stayed safely in her home and prayed for those on the battlefield. She made active commands regarding the men under her leadership, and she went with them into battle.

It boggles my mind that interpreters, preachers, and Sunday school teachers can read such Scriptures and still feel the need to excuse God’s choice of a female leader in a particular instance. Why? What need does it fulfill—in both women and men—to dismiss the impact of any person due to gender, identity, skill level, or any other visible characteristic?

Deborah is a powerful example of leadership. I need her example. My daughters need her example. We all need her example. I’m grateful to this writer for including her story, likely against the constraints of his or her culture at that time. Let’s be different in our time. Let’s honor those who lead because they are good leaders, not because they are from a particular gender, from a wealthy or struggling background, or a certain race. While those distinctions are part of their stories and certainly important, I think they are secondary to their positions of leadership. And I believe God views them that way too.


1. What explanations have you heard for the rare instances of female leadership in Scripture (including the positions of judges, warriors, prophets, preachers, disciples, and deacons)?
2. Why do you think some people feel the need to excuse God’s choice of women to take the lead in such areas?
3. What might be harmful about such explanations and excuses?
4. Besides Deborah, what other women in the Bible have roles of leadership? Why might their examples be important to those who want to know God better?
5. How can we be committed to honoring the leadership of all gifted leaders, no matter who they are or what they look like?

Reference Shelf

At first sight, Deborah (Heb. “bee”), one of the nine women the Bible identifies as “prophetesses” or reports as prophesying (Miriam, Exod 15:20; Huldah, 2 Kgs 22:14; Noadiah, Neh 6:14; Isaiah’s wife [?], Isa 8:3; Anna, Luke 2:36; and Philip’s four daughters, Acts 21:9), seems to be the major character in the story, the heroine. The story further identifies her as the wife of a certain Lappidoth (Heb. “torches”). Given the Hebrew convention of identifying married women in relation to their husbands (cf. 4:17), the proposal to translate the phrase “Deborah, a fiery woman” (Fewell and Gunn, 391; Guest, 152–53; Niditch 2008, 60), while plausible, is unlikely, as is the identification of Lappidoth with Baraq (Heb. “lightning”) since Deborah (“the hill country of Ephraim”) and Baraq (Kedesh) did not have the same home (so also Lindars, 182)—the coincidence of lapid and baraq in Ezekiel 1:13, which attests the poetic association of “torch(-light)” and “lightning” notwithstanding. The description of Deborah’s work further heightens expectations that she will dominate the story. Not just a prophetess, she actively exercised a judicial/administrative role in Israel, the only “judge” in the book of Judges attributed with such a function (see Soggin 1981, 71). As discussed above in the introduction, disregarding the enigmatic “minor” judges whom the book only lists without further characterization, all the other “judges” act as champions, warriors who “deliver” Israel by defeating its enemies. Will a woman “deliver” in this fashion?

Almost immediately, the story offers the apparent answer. Deborah summons Baraq and conveys God’s instructions to him that he is to muster a force of 10,000 from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun. From Mt. Tabor, they will march to engage Sisera, the enemy, in battle near the river Kishon. Baraq’s response, however, complicates the reader’s expectation that he will be the champion. He refuses to undertake the mission unless Deborah accompanies him.

Mark E. Biddle, Reading Judges: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the Old Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2012) 57.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. She attends church and leads an adult Sunday school class in Macon, Georgia. She is also the office administrator for Jay’s HOPE, a local charity serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (12) and Natalie (10) and her husband John. For fun, she tries to stay caught up on the latest amazing TV series (including Doctor Who, Sherlock, Gilmore Girls, and The Crown).


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