Deborah: Her Crucial Role in the Discussion

Deborah: Her Crucial Role in the Discussion January 17, 2012

From CBE:

This piece is by Dr. Nijay Gupta (MDiv , Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, PhD, University of Durham) is an author and assistant professor of biblical studies at Seattle Pacific Seminary. In his free time, Dr. Gupta spends time with his family, traveling, and eating good food.

This article previously appeared on the blog of the Center for Biblical and Theological Education at Seattle Pacific University (

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When it comes to the issue of whether woman can and should be in leadership (and/or teaching positions) in the church, there are two obvious views—either the Bible says they can and should, or it demands that they can’t andshouldn’t. For many people, the matter simply comes down to quoting verses from the Bible. “The Bible clearly says…” (Can I make a suggestion? Let’s stop beginning debates this way!)

Why is Deborah so ignored in our churches?

For some, you simply need to turn to the apostle Paul. Doesn’t he write, “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man” (1 Tim. 2:12)? What does this tell us? It seems to say that women have been given a general command to refrain from seeking positions of authority and instruction in the church. What is the rationale? Paul continues, “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (1 Tim. 2:13-14). Now, if Paul were simply trying to communicate that he universally does not permit women to teach and have authority, and that he still values and supports women in general, it would be odd to use this kind of rationale. It seems like Paul is saying that because Eve was deceived (having something to do with being created second), she is unqualified to teach because her intelligence, wisdom, or shrewdness (call it whatever you will) does not reach the same height as Adam’s. (I am going to argue that this is rubbish, but I am trying to go along with a certain reading of this text for a reason.)

Does Paul intend to say that women should not teach because they lack a certain kind of intellectual capacity suitable for that task?

I think that, based on what seems to be going on in the context of the letter, there is a particular reason why Paul makes this command. The mentioning of Eve is not a way of making the teaching universalized based on gender, but to point out that Eve was hasty in responding to the snake, when Adam was clearly better informed of the situation (which has nothing to do with his gender, but everything to do with the fact that he probably received the commands and prohibitions about the trees before Eve was created and, thus, should have responded to the serpent, not Eve, because he had first-hand knowledge). So, given the false teaching Paul is concerned about in the Ephesian churches, he is discouraging women who want to usurp power from men, because they need to get their facts straight before acting on second-hand information. (My goal is not to get into the nettle of what 1 Timothy 2:12-15 is about, but to use it as an entry point into a discussion of women and their capacity to lead in the church. However, for a good approach to this matter from a conservative scholar who does not think it prohibits women from teaching in the church, see Ben Witherington’s Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians, pp. 228ff.)

What can we say, then, about the intelligence and leadership capabilities of women according to Scripture? Some would have us put women in their rightful place so that creation-established balance can be maintained. Here is where I think Deborah makes all the difference.

In a time and place where women were not considered to be suitable for leadership (the Ancient Near East in the time of Israel’s settling into the land of Canaan), with Deborah we have a woman who was already serving as leader and judge over Israel (Judg. 4:4). Could this have been a badthing? Could it be that Deborah shouldn’t have been the national judge? Perhaps, but the “Song of Deborah” (Judg. 5) seems to affirm the leadership of Deborah (see 5:7; also 5:12). She is hailed as “motherly protector in Israel” (5:7). Did Israel worry about a woman leading the nation in this way? If women were considered more gullible, why would God take this kind of risk?

What is more, she served as a competent adjudicator of civil matters as “the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided” (4:5). Who else before this time in Israel had such a role? We do not know for sure, but the language used of Deborah strongly resembles the imagery of Moses in Exodus 18:13.

Now, someone might say that Deborah was not a real “judge” because she didn’t lead in battle, but Barak did. However, Deborah was the one that “summoned” Barak in the first place and she went with Barak. She formed a partnership and they worked together. Some scholars reason that this shouldn’t have happened either. My friend Daniel Kirk (who does affirm women in church leadership, but finds the character Deborah insignificant on this subject) makes this argument:

“The fight into which she (Deborah) 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'” (Judg. 4:9).

While I admire Kirk’s attention to detail, I think that there is one key point he is missing: the “Song of Deborah” (again Judg. 5) gives us a healthy interpretive lens through which to view the events of Judges 4—and I don’t think we get any sense that Deborah was butting into Barak’s business. In fact, the fact that both Deborah and Barak sing this song implies (to me) that their partnership did the trick. Even if Barak had a lack of faith (by asking Deborah along), that doesn’t say anything about the appropriateness or quality of Deborah’s leadership.

Kirk makes another argument—the shrewdness and wisdom of women in Joshua and Judges is meant to shame the downfall of the Israelite men, not to make an argument in favor of gender equality. I think Kirk is right. In fact, I agree with Old Testament scholar Daniel Block who writes,

“The biblical author was obviously interested in women’s affairs and achievements, but in the final analysis Deborah and Jael are not heroic figures because of their revisionist challenges to prevailing social structures; they are heroines because of what they accomplish as agents of the divine agenda, which in this instance has less to do with overthrowing oppressive patriarchs than the role they play in Yahweh’s overthrowing oppressive Canaanites.”

I don’t think Judges promotes gender equality as a primary point. However, Deborah makes all the difference by implication. She is a reliable prophet (who speaks from the wisdom of God), and a trustworthy teacher—as the Song of Deborah proves. In a sense, she becomes one of the “authors” of Scripture (with her teaching inscribed into Judg. 5), and by implication an authoritative evangelist through her testimony.

I have met women who have said that when they got up to preach, men (and sometimes other women) got up and walked out, offended by a “woman leader” in the church. I wonder how the Israelites felt about Deborah. Did anyone walk out on her? Did anyone condemn her for speaking on behalf of God? Did anyone encourage her to take more interest in her domestic duties? We don’t know. What we do know is that it was the Lord’s will to use her as a leader of God’s people to deliver them (with Barak’s help as general). Judges does not offer a command to promote women, but it only takes one example like Deborah to show that women are just as capable in leadership as men. Leadership did not suppress Deborah’s femininity, but gave her an important setting to be “motherly protector” (5:7).


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