The case of Deborah in Judges 4Judges 5 has been used to justify the debate of women in office. This article shows that though Deborah was a prophetess, she was not a judge, and that this was a special provision of God.

Source: Clarion, 2013. 2 pages.

Prophetesses, Then and Now

Deborah, an Example for Today?🔗

When the issue of whether women should be ordained into ecclesiastical office is discussed, one of the arguments in favour of their ordination is the fact that Scripture men­tions prophetesses. If women could function as prophet­esses in biblical times, why can they not be ordained in the church today? The name of Deborah often comes up in this connection. Do we not have an example here of a woman who was used by God in the official capacity of a judge, exercising authority over men, and a prophetess, authoritatively speaking the Word of God? Could this not be an indicator that we are impoverishing the church to­day by denying talented females admission to the office of elder or minister? Indeed, Deborah is often used as a star precedent for female ecclesiastical ordination. Is such an understanding warranted? Let us take a closer look.

Historical Context🔗

A primary rule for the correct interpretation and ap­plication of Scripture is to place the passage in question within its biblical context. Deborah lived in the days of the judges. This was a time characterized by Israel's re­peated apostasy, followed by divine judgment, and the desperate cry of the nation for deliverance. God would re­peatedly graciously respond by raising up a judge who, equipped with the Spirit, would rescue the people from their enemies. Prior to Deborah's time the Lord had raised up Othniel and Ehud to save his people. However, after Ehud died, Israel again relapsed into sin and so the Lord sold them into the hands of Jabin, a king of Canaan, whose commander with 900 chariots was Sisera. He cruelly op­pressed Israel for twenty years (Judg 4:2-3). The situa­tion was critical. Danger was everywhere. Normal travel and therefore commerce was impossible and villagers took refuge in walled cities (Judg 5:6-7). In these critical times Israel cried to the Lord for help (Judg 4:3). He heard their cry and used Deborah to give deliverance.

Deborah in God's Service🔗

It is interesting to note how God introduces Deborah in the book of Judges and how he involved her for the salvation of his people.

Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment.Judges 4:4-5 ESV

With the preceding two crises, the Hebrew expression "the Lord raised up a deliverer" (Judg 3:9, 15) is used. We also frequently read of the judges being empowered by the Spirit for their military task (Judg 3:10; 6:345; 11:29; 14:19; 15:14). Remarkably, these expressions are not used with Deborah. Rather she is introduced as a prophetess and not a military leader.

As a prophetess she was judging Israel and the Israel­ites came to her for judgment. What does this mean? One would imagine that she functioned as a judge and was resolving legal issues brought to her. However, this in­terpretation is unlikely. A judge in the book of Judges is a military leader who delivers Israel and when judge "so and so" judged Israel for so many years, then it means he ruled Israel for so many years (e.g. Judg 3:10; 10:2, 3 etc.). The NIV therefore translates that she "was leading Israel" (Judg 4:4). How was she leading Israel? She was a prophetess. People came to her "for judgment." Literally it says: "for the judgment" (Judg 4:5). In other words, in this time of national crisis when Israelites "cried to the Lord for help" (Judg 4:3), they came to Deborah as prophetess for the judgment which she as prophetess could give, namely the judgment of God with respect to his answer and re­sponse to their cry for help. It is not surprising that the people went to her. After all, as prophetess she was God's representative for the people. She spoke God's Word.

The times were extraordinary. After all, the normal way to get God's judgment in a national emergency was for the leader of God's people to go to the high priest who had the Urim and Thummim "in the breast-piece of judgment" (Ex 28:30 ESV). God through Moses had given specific instructions in this regard (Num 27:21). The fact that the high priest was not consulted indicates that in the decadent time of the judges the priesthood did not func­tion as God had intended. The degenerate state Israel's re­ligious life which would typify the days of Eli (cf. 1 Sam 2:12) was already a reality in the days of the judges (Judg 8:22-35; Judg 17-18). In response to this sad state of af­fairs, God mercifully raised a prophetess, Deborah, and later he would send an unnamed prophet as well (Judg 6:8). People could thus still inquire of God by going to Deborah to seek a decision or judgment from God. And they did. They were grievously suffering under the cruel oppression of Sisera.

When the people came to Deborah for God's decision or judgment with respect to the current crisis, God responded through her. The result was that she summoned Barak and gave him God's command to mobilize ten thousand men to defeat the foe (Judg 4:5-7). When he protested because he was afraid, Deborah assured him that she would ac­company him. Her coming along as spokesperson for the Lord gave tangible expression to the fact that God himself would go with Barak and give him the victory.

Deborah is never pictured as a military leader of Is­rael, a judge in the sense of Othniel or Gideon. She is a prophetess. It is therefore not surprising that there is no reference to her with respect to the battle. Although she gave leadership through her prophetic task, she is not de­scribed in Scripture as the judge who delivered Israel from Sisera. Rather it is God who is specified as the deliverer of Israel (Judg 4:23) and he used another woman, Jael, to kill Sisera (Judg 4:21). Deborah's subordinate role as prophetess and not as military leader is also evident from the fact that God did not send Deborah to head the troops into battle, but Barak. Furthermore when Samuel would later mention deliverers of Israel (1 Sam 12:11), he did not mention Deborah, but he did name Barak, the commander. Similarly, Deborah is not mentioned with the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11. Several leaders are listed from the time of the judges, including Barak (v. 32), but not Deb­orah. All of this underlines her relatively modest role with respect to the deliverance of Israel.

Answering the Question🔗

God raised up Deborah to be prophetess in Israel when that nation found itself in dire straits. Deborah's function as prophetess was an exception within an exceptional situation. The fact that she was also known as the wife of Lappidoth could indicate the ad hoc character of her office. People came to her in the current circumstances for God spoke through her, but there is no record of her going out and prophesying among the people. Without taking any­thing away from her being a prophetess, it should not be forgotten that she is also identified as a married woman, indeed as "a mother in Israel" (5:7). Her prophetic office was not everything. She also fulfilled a woman's normal place in Israelite life.

Can Deborah function as an example for us to fol­low for today by ordaining women into the office of elder or minister? Taking all the factors mentioned above into consideration, the answer is clearly no. The situation in Israel was desperate and by way of exception God raised her up as a prophet in Israel by endowing her with the gift of prophecy. In this way God enabled her to pass on God's command that Barak (and not Deborah) summon and command a military force against the enemy (Judg 4:6-7). That God used a woman to make this clear was an implicit condemnation of the lack of male leadership in Israel. Furthermore, the need for Deborah to accompany Barak and to go with him to the battlefield (Judg 4:9-10) underlines how male leadership was totally lacking in Is­rael. For a woman to have to goad a male to take charge and so in effect give leadership was akin to a disaster (cf. Isa 3:12). It showed that things had gone terribly wrong. Deborah is therefore not an example to be followed and her situation certainly provides no justification to open the leadership offices of the church to women. But God is sovereign and he can do in extraordinary circumstances what we are not allowed to do. He therefore did use Deb­orah in a special way for his service.

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