Telling Her Story: Old Testament Prophet Deborah

Tell Her Story Nijay Gupta

This is a series of posts on Nijay Gupta’s new book, Tell Her Story: How Women Led, Taught, and Ministered in the Early Church.

Dr. Nijay Gupta starts this discussion of women leaders in the Old Testament, beginning with the first female leader in the scriptures: Deborah. But before he gets to her story, he takes a moment to examine the role of a “judge” in the book of Judges. He states, “[T]he Hebrew word shophet can mean a judge, as in someone who decides legal cases. But in the context of the book of Judges, the purpose of their divine calling was to rescue Israel from hostile enemies. Thus, it makes better sense to understand the term as ‘governor,’ as in national leader. Indeed, throughout the book, the ‘judge’ is also referred to as ‘deliverer.’ These individuals were called on by God, for a period of time, to lead and deliver God’s people from hostile enemies. So there was Othniel (Judg 3:9), then Ehud (Judg 3:15), and then Deborah. In some ways, she fits the pattern of the judge-deliverer. For example, after Ehud was gone, the Lord allowed the Canaanites to menace Israel and treat them cruelly for twenty years. They cried out to the Lord, and God blessed them with the wisdom and leadership of Deborah.”

So in the context of Judges, the word judge may best be described as a governor-deliver.

According to Gupta, however,  there are a couple of peculiarities in her story that break from the pattern. To begin with, Deborah was not “raised up” as a deliverer. When we find her in Judges 4, she was already “judging” Israel (Judg 4:4). Second, she was not a trained warrior. “Deborah is described as a prophet and a magistrate who arbitrated disputes among the Israelites (Judg 4:4-5). This didn’t make her less of a judge-deliverer; it made her a different kind of judge, and certainly not less effective since her ministry brought the cyclical forty years of peace (Judg 5:31).”

Nijay goes on to show that “her role of settling disputes seems to parallel Moses’ activity when he ‘took his seat to serve as judge for the people’ (Ex 18:13). Also, “Deborah’s legal adjudication may have intentionally foreshadowed that of Samuel, who ‘judged Israel all the days of his life’ (1 Sam 7:15 NRSV).” So her ministry had elements of Moses and possibly Samuel. We also find her acting in a very prophetic leadership role sandwiched between two of Israel’s greatest leaders. 

Deborah has a husband, Lappidoth. What role does he play in the life of Israel? He doesn’t seem to play any role, especially in leadership.  “Deborah judged cases on her own authority, she alone counseled Barak, and she was called ‘mother in Israel’ (Judg 5:7).” Deborah was not deriving her authority from male headship or the elders of Israel. She was acting under her own authority.

Many, including myself, have essentially said that Deborah was only given permission to act because the man deferred to her. I even wrote a paper in seminary, describing that God only used Deborah because there were no men available. But is that correct? Gupta doesn’t think so. He says, “if we look at the judges as a whole, especially Gideon and Samson, it is clear that they were not chosen for their virtue or strong faith. In fact, Deborah appears to be the most faithful, the most prophetically tuned into God, and the wisest of them all. This is even more clearly pronounced in the victory song that appears in Judges 5. There is only one such song in Judges, and had Barak been the real hero, it would have been fitting for him to sing that all by himself. The fact that Deborah and Barak sing together a victory hymn is extraordinary and testifies to her status as a model judge, securing peace for Israel.”

Additionally, the fact that she was a governor, and acting on her own authority, indicates that she was not acting in that role only because there was no man around. She did not usurp authority, nor do we have any evidence that men refused the role. 

So her leadership was valid and not simply a result of someone acting because a man was not willing to do so.

What I appreciate throughout this book is Gupta’s attention to how each woman he explores was viewed historically. Deborah is no exception. 

How is Deborah remembered in the Jewish and Christian traditions? While her name does not appear in the rest of the Old or New Testament, “jewish writers from around the time of Jesus and Paul who did occasionally reflect on Deborah’s role in the history of Israel. For example, one writer we refer to as Pseudo-Philo (writing sometime in the first century AD) produced a text called Book of Biblical Antiquities. He makes reference to a woman who ruled over Israel and gave them rest for forty years…According to Pseudo-Philo, when Deborah breathed her last, the people wept and mourned her as they would for any beloved ruler, man or woman. They remembered her, saying, ‘Behold, a mother is gone from Israel, and a holy one that ruled in the house of Jacob, which secured a fence around her generation, and her generation shall follow after her.’”

The Jewish historian Josephus, alive during the writing of the Gospels, as well as Paul’s missionary trips, writes about Israelite history in his book Jewish Antiquities. Gupta states, “He discusses Deborah and Barak length and presents her as a wise prophet and a governing leader.  God spoke through Deborah to lead Barak. Josephus explains not only that Deborah went into war with Barak but that when the Israelite warrior wanted to retreat, she ‘retained them, and commanded them to fight the enemy that very day that they should conquer them, and God would be their assistance.’” 

Deborah was also discussed by the rabbis. “In one text, a certain rabbi proclaims that the quintessential judges were Barak and Deborah…In the early Christian tradition, Theodoret of Cyrus (393-457) briefly mentions Deborah in reference to his study of the book of Judges. He seems to be at pains to explain how she would be the top prophet, as a woman, representing God in this time. He explains this with reference to Galatians 3:28: ‘Men and women have the same nature. As you know; the woman was formed from Adam and, like him, possessed the faculty of reason. Hence, the apostle says, ‘In Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female? Thus, Moses was called a prophet, and Miriam a prophetess.’”

Finally, John Calvin was rendered almost speechless regarding the leadership of Deborah. According to Gupta, Calvin said, “It was an extraordinary thing, when God gave authority to a woman.”

So Deborah, in Judges, has authority and leadership, leadership that does not exist simply because a man won’t lead or is scared to lead. Jewish historians and religious leaders present her as a prophet, sent from God. Finally, one of the most appreciated theologians, John Calvin, notes that her authority came from God. With all this, one has to accept that a female had a level of authority on par with a male, along with a prophetic voice that came from God.

David has been a systems thinker most of his life. He has started three businesses as well as designed and developed systems and processes in existing organizations. He has a Doctorate in Leadership and has also done additional post-graduate work in communications.

He has also pastored 3 churches and loves to think about, write about and podcast about scripture, theology, and leadership.

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