Deborah and a woman from Bethlehem

I usually agree with my blogger friend Lingamish, and I regret that I will not have time to meet him in person when he passes through London next week on his way back to Mozambique.

But I do have to disagree with one part of his recent posting on misogyny in the book of Judges, specifically his assessment of the role of Deborah. He quotes from my comment about her place in the book:

Indeed this “misogynist” book in fact gives one of the strongest biblical examples about a woman in leadership.

I was rather taken aback by his response to this:

Even the story of Deborah in Judges 4 & 5 is given not to show a woman in a positive leadership role but rather to shame the man who abdicated his responsibility. I’m not against women in leadership, but I don’t think you should look to the story of Deborah to show a positive role model.

Now it would come as no surprise to hear such teaching in some church circles. It is an embarrassment to those who have strong views about leadership being inherently male that the woman Deborah was clearly leading the people of Israel. But I can see no justification for treating her as a secondary character or a negative model in this picture. As I commented on Lingamish’s blog:

I don’t think you are fair to Deborah to treat her simply as a minor character in the story of Barak. From a literary viewpoint she is the main character in the story, in both chapters 4 and 5. She, not Barak, was the judge with the authority to command even Barak in God’s name, 4:4-6. Those who downplay her part in the story to a mere foil for Barak are more guilty of misogyny than the author of this part of Judges.

I hope it is not fair to suggest that Lingamish himself is guilty of misogyny, but I would claim that, if not, he is uncritically accepting an interpretation of this passage by misogynists.

This is how I would interpret this passage:

All of the judges in the book of Judges should be understood as positive role models for us to the extent that they took up God’s call to lead his people, and by following his leading defeated their enemies. But many of them are also presented as flawed individuals, with faults which are clearly pointed out. While it is an encouragement to us that God can use even imperfect people, the judges’ faults are clearly not for us to copy.

Deborah is the judge in her time, the divinely called leader of Israel. She is also a prophet (4:4) and “a mother in Israel” (5:7). I note that there is no justification in the Hebrew for the distinction between “became Israel’s judge” (3:10 TNIV, of Othniel) and “was leading Israel” (4:4 TNIV, of Deborah); in each case a verb “judge, lead” is used with “Israel” as the object. But the distinction is not gender-based, for oddly enough Othniel is the only individual called a “judge” in the book of Judges, in both NIV and TNIV. So there is no justification in the text for considering Deborah to be anything less than a full member of the succession of “judges” after whom the book is named.

The relationship between Deborah and Barak seems to have been that of political leader and appointed army commander, like that between King David and Joab. The ancient tradition was that the political leader personally led the troops into battle; indeed this was still common practice in Europe into the early modern period. In 2 Samuel 11:1, however, we read that David sent Joab off to fight his battles while he himself remained in Jerusalem, presumably busy with affairs of state as well as with his affair with Bathsheba. The often rebellious Joab doesn’t seem to have complained on this occasion at being given his freedom.

In the rather similar position in Judges 4:6-9, Deborah clearly has the right to give orders to Barak in God’s name, but she is reluctant to go into battle herself. We don’t know why: maybe she thought this was not a woman’s place, or maybe she had other work to do. But Barak refused to go into battle without the divinely appointed leader of the nation. Again we don’t know why, but it certainly wasn’t out of misogyny!

It is frequently alleged that Barak should have been the judge but that he refused the job and so Deborah had to do it. But that is not what the text says. It says that she was already the judge before there is any mention of Barak. And, while Deborah as a prophet speaks in the name of God, Barak does not; he is simply a soldier who follows God’s guidance as relayed to him by Deborah and wins a battle (4:14-15). Maybe this is the key to Barak’s reluctance: he knew that he needed God’s help in this battle and he wanted the prophet Deborah to be on hand to pass on God’s tactical guidance. But he need not have worried, for it was not him but God who routed Sisera and his army (4:15).

But there is certainly some truth in the suggestion that God uses women in leadership when they are willing to serve in this way but men are not – and when they are allowed to. The following story is taken from Light Force by Brother Andrew, about which I recently posted. It concerns a middle-aged Arab woman from the modern town of Bethlehem, who is already a Bible college graduate. This event took place in 1996 (p.200):

Nawal Qumsieh was ready and eager to go into ministry. But where? And how? At a seminar in Bethlehem, Nawal responded to the challenge. ‘If anyone wants to dedicate his life to ministry for Jesus,’ the guest speaker intoned, ‘now is the time to come forward!’ The man stepped back from the podium and bowed his head in prayer. Nawal slipped out of her seat and hurried to the front of the room. Out of some fifty in attendance, she was the only one to answer the call.

The speaker opened his eyes and looked around the room, then down at Nawal. He shook his head and said quietly so only Nawal could hear, ‘Go back to your seat, please. Women cannot help in this society. We need men.’

Again the speaker challenged the audience. ‘We need men to stand up for Christ in this culture. Will you come forward? Will you be part of the solution?’

Fighting back tears, Nawal walked slowly back to her seat. She felt like she’d been hit in her heart by a rubber bullet. Not one man took her place in the front. Now weeping, she prayed, ‘Lord, who will minister to my people?’

And within her heart, she immediately sensed the answer: ‘I am calling you to be in ministry.’

A little later in the book (pp.225-228) we find Nawal ministering in healing prayer and evangelism.

This happened in Bethlehem, but could it happen in your church, here in the west? Maybe it would be done a bit more subtly, but is the message going out that some classes of people, such as women or maybe less educated or ethnic minority people, are not really wanted for God’s service?

Jesus said to his disciples,

“The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

(Matthew 9:37-38, TNIV)

And he said the following just as a woman was bringing many people to meet him:

“… 35 Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. 36 Even now those who reap draw their wages, even now they harvest the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. 37 Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. 38 I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.”

(John 4:35-38, TNIV)

Yes, the workers are few. Sometimes the only workers available are women, but even when men do come forward there are rarely enough of them. And there is still a plentiful harvest: people who are going to a lost eternity unless they are reached with the gospel message. So let’s not discourage any believers who God is calling to take a part in bringing in his harvest. Let’s not reject them just because of their gender, or anything else, but let’s encourage them all to find their place in God’s work.

In the lands of the Bible God has been able to use women in his service, from the time of Deborah up to today when he is using women like Nawal. If he can use women even in the strongly patriarchal cultures of ancient Israel and modern Palestine, surely he can use them also in our own western cultures.

0 thoughts on “Deborah and a woman from Bethlehem

  1. Peter,

    I’ve always trembled at the possibility of having to clash verbal swords with you but after reviewing your position I have to conclude that this isn’t that time! I think you are largely correct that Deborah is portrayed as a positive role model in her own right. Even Barak is not portrayed that negatively, even joining in on the “Song of Deborah” (Judges 5).

    So having backed off on that position (which was certainly made without studying Judges 4 & 5 as much as I could have), I’m still left with some questions:

    1. If Deborah is the hero, why does Barak get the mention in Hebrews 11?

    2. At a very practical level, I want to know how I’m supposed to use Deborah and Jael and the woman who killed Abimelech (9:53) as role models for my daughter.

    My first inclination would be to say that Deborah is a positive example of a woman in a leadership position in the Old Testament but I probably wouldn’t be trotting out Jael and the mill stone thrower as examples for my daughter to emulate. And that I think is the trouble with using Judges today. What does it illustrate that can’t be better illustrated by a New Testament passage? Why should we teach these stories full of carnage to our children? If Judges was a movie it would be rated R.

  2. Lingamish,

    You must trot out Tamar. A woman must be taught to stand up for her own rights.

    I have a dear niece in seminary today who struggles with this issue. She is single and well-trained. I often think of her when I write. You may remember last spring my many posts on the single woman. They must not be made to feel they have some back seat, auxiliary function to men.

  3. Thanks for the comments.

    Lingamish, I’m not suggesting that Jael and the millstone thrower are positive examples – although they could be of not being afraid to confront the enemies of God with decisive action, even if it is a woman against a man. But Judges is indeed a difficult book to use in a modern western setting, and can probably be used only by those who are first clear that our enemies today are not flesh and blood but spiritual forces (Ephesians 6:12).

    As for Hebrews 11, dare I accuse the New Testament writer of sharing the same general patriarchal attitude as the people I have described as misogynists? After all, even these authors were people of their time. But I could also suggest that in this part of Hebrews 11 the author is concentrating on military heroes, and Barak was of course that. But the list is of names is not intended to be exhaustive, and women are not excluded or forgotten, cf. v.35.

    Tamar is certainly another positive example of a woman taking the initiative. Suzanne, maybe you would like to write more about her, which I could post, or perhaps you could reactivate your bookshelf. Thanks also for the link about Ilse Fredrichsdorff.

  4. Peter,

    Good exegesis.

    You said:

    As for Hebrews 11, dare I accuse the New Testament writer of sharing the same general patriarchal attitude as the people I have described as misogynists?

    While I don’t have a problem with this, I’m exploring the concept of “speaking within the prevailing culture” as an answer to some of the troubling parts of the Bible, and I’d like to suggest that Barak may be more sympathetic to the audience.

    Having frequently spoken on controversial topics, I usually follow the rule of introducing only one topic that annoys my audience at once. The author of Hebrews is annoying his audience, telling them to quit whining and keep moving forward (I oversimplify, of course!), and if they’d relate better to Barak than Deborah, he might well just use Barak.

    Of course, I don’t know who that author was, so I can’t know that this is right. I’m just suggesting it as an alternative.

  5. Interesting thought, Lingamish! (Sorry to be slow replying, by the way, I have been away for a couple of days.) But no, I don’t think this is evidence that the author was not a woman. Even in much more recent times women writers like George Eliot and Dr A. Nyland, translator of The Source New Testament (she is identified as Ann Nyland on this web page, but not in the printed book), have sought to disguise the fact that they are women to enhance the accpetability of their work. The same might well have applied to a woman author of Hebrews.

  6. I know this thread is getting a bit old but I wonder how exactly my daughter for example would appropriate the behavior of Tamar for herself.

    On a surface level you would say, “If your husband dies and his family doesn’t take care of you, dress up like a harlot, seduce and deceive your father-in-law and you will be blessed.” Hmmm… maybe we need to look at more generally applicable life lessons. But that’s just the trouble. If you can’t apply these lessons directly I’m not sure they are worth using at all since they are on the surface so odious.

    Couldn’t we just as well use Lot’s daughters as examples like Tamar of women who used their wits to carry on their family legacy? Now, Ruth I can almost get excited about. It’s a lovely story and on all levels it seems to teach applicable values and actions.

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