Judge Deborah and Priscilla: Say Who?
By Dr Jehan Loza
Because we interpret the world through a male lens, female characters like Judge Deborah and Priscilla are often missed in our Bible reading and rarely are they actually taught on. I continue to be both amused and frustrated when, at the mention of Biblical leaders such as Judge Deborah or Priscilla, I am met with a certain vacant stare. Recently a male Pastor friend of mine chuckled at a comment I made in reference to Judge Deborah:
“Oh yeah! She was the one that killed that guy. How awesome is she?”
“Yeah she is awesome”, I responded, “but not for killing anyone. You are thinking of Jael. Judge Deborah was the one who led Barak to war against Sisera’s army”.
And with that, the conversation ended with the infamous ‘stare’.
In this section, I want to demonstrate how women have, throughout time, occupied positions of leadership and public ministry. Perhaps, their leadership aspects have been missed because of a myopic view that only sees the femininity of these characters; those aspects on the other side of the dualism. However, I will argue that a closer look reveals that, even in these sites of their ‘oppression’ (as some feminists might proclaim) – on the other side of the dualism (for example as mothers and home-makers) – women are active and empowered agents who have used those sites powerfully to create history, nations and entire movements.
Judge Deborah: Public Minister and Mother to a Nation
Deborah’s story is found in Judges 4 and 5. She is one of the Bible’s most heroic women and one of its most talented. She is a wife, prophetess and judge. Interestingly, she is the only judge that is also a prophet. Not only is she the first female judge across Israel’s vast history, “occupying the highest role of potential leadership” (Swidler 1979:87) but she is also Israel’s second prophetess after Miriam, appearing in the list of prophetic women that include Miriam herself, Hulda, Judith, Sarah and Rebecca as well as the New Testament Anna, Elizabeth and the daughters of Philip.
The Song of Deborah and Barak also shows that she was a mother to Israel, a worship leader, and a poetess. In fact, Deborah is the only character in the Bible with a song attributed to her. As judge, she was also leader of the army of Israel. She is portrayed as a strong, independent woman.
Deborah is unique. Her role was to judge the people in spiritual and material affairs while also directing them to the things of God. This would have been an extremely unusual role for a Jewish woman during that time. According to Grenz (1995), while life in ancient times was based on patriarchal structures, the structures themselves were not so rigid as to exclude women from leadership positions. While women’s participation in public life was restricted, it was not eliminated. For example, while the priesthood was reserved only for men, women were able to participate in worship. They were able to be present for the public reading of the Torah, were permitted to serve at the tent of meeting and could offer sacrifices.
Drawing on the archaeological and biblical research of Carol Myers, Ackerman (2003) mounts a persuasive argument that women in pre-monarchic Israel actually played more important roles than previously assumed in their culture’s economy in the areas of judicial and legal affairs, in religious observance, and in the process of socializing and educating children.
How Deborah came to be chosen as Israel’s leader is not recorded in scripture. However, it is obvious in her story that she assumed what we know to be the traditional responsibilities of a man. It is unlikely that, as some commentators such as Piper and Grudem (2006) argue, God raised Deborah as judge of Israel because no man at the time qualified for leadership. It is also unlikely that Deborah got her position by overpowering a man or appropriating her power illegally. Indeed, all of Israel acknowledged her as their leader.
Judges carried out their responsibilities in the public arena and with public view. Therefore, despite what some writers argue about female leadership in public ministry, Deborah’s ministry was indeed public. It was also respected since there is no doubt that Deborah was the recognised and appointed leader of the Israelites at that time. According to Grenz (2005:70):
The example of Deborah confirms that neither God nor the ancient Hebrews found female leadership intrinsically abhorrent. On the contrary a woman could – and did – exercise authority over the entire community, including men. The prominence of male judges does not mitigate the significance of God’s choice of Deborah and her praiseworthy service in obedience to that call. We do Deborah and God a disservice when we suggest that she worked as Israel’s judge only because no men were available.
Deborah’s story and her role in leading the people of Israel out of oppression, has led some commentators to assert that in both character and position she represents “the feminine counterpart to the greatest prophet in Israel’s history, Moses himself” (Brown 1992). And as with Moses, it is perhaps no coincidence that God sends Deborah to enlighten the people for forty years.
Indeed Grenz (1995) notes that the language used in Judges 4:5, “and the Israelites came to her for judgement”, evokes Moses’ own ministry (see for example Ex 18:13-16). In fact, nothing in the narrative indicates that Deborah’s ministry was in the private realm or that she herself acted in private manner. As a judge and the mediator of public disputes, much like Moses, Deborah served a public role in the public arena.
But why does Yahweh appoint a woman to the highest public office in the land at a time when men dominated the public sphere?
In this context, the first thing noticeable about Deborah is that her story is one about the unexpected – a female and a judge not affiliated with military power. Some commentators argue that the story of Deborah is comparable to the story of Christ (www.essortment.com).
The Old Testament is full of accounts where the Israelites, as a result of their own doing, find themselves under the forceful hand of an oppressor. Yet time again, God rescues the people through a deliverer. Could it be that God finds it fit to send the most unexpected deliverer? The people of Israel would not have expected a woman to lead them into victory over their enemies, yet a woman did. The Jews expected the Messiah to come as a king, yet He came as a servant. The people expected the Messiah to deliver them from the oppression of Rome, yet He delivered them from their sin. Both deliverers fulfilled their tasks.
Judges fulfilled a political/judicial role as well as a spiritual one. For example, Deborah fulfilled her political role when she instructed Barak to prepare Israel’s army for battle. But, as judge and prophetess, she also served a spiritual role for as “God intended judges to foster true worship and morality in Israel” (Judges 2:19). Judge Deborah was the mediator between God and His people. As a prophetess she must have communicated God’s message to her people in a loving way. Since they kept coming back, the people must have honored her leadership. We can also perhaps assume that because of her prophetic role, those who came to her to settle their disputes would most likely respect her directive despite the outcome of the dispute (Grady 2003).
Her role was not to teach doctrine but to inspire action. According to Lewis et al (1904:53), “Deborah stands to Barak as the inspirer to the inspired”. That is, the inspirer holds the greater weight to the doer since without the inspirer the deed is not accomplished. In fact, Lewis et al argue that the inspirer is actually the real doer, “for the active agent is little more than the instrument in the hands of the moving spirit”.
When Barak asks her to go with him, Deborah accompanies him to Kedesh, though once at the battle site, she issues the command to Barak to “Go” and fight. As a result, Barak is raised up as a hero for God. While some have argued that it was Barak’s lack of faith in God that had him make his request to Deborah, others have commented that Barak wanted Deborah’s presence to ensure that Israel acknowledged the miraculous success of his mission in her presence (Grady 2003).
And success it was! After overpowering Sisera’s army, Deborah leads the Israelites in a song of victory (see Judges Five). The Song of Deborah and Barak suggests that Barak joined Deborah in praise. Grenz (1995) is adamant that the narrator does not include Barak’s name to demonstrate Deborah’s acquiescence of the male headship. Rather, he suggests that this detail reinforces a perspective in which Deborah and Barak are presented, together, as prominent figures. Essentially, therefore, Deborah and Barak functioned together as God’s instruments and as one unit.
Deborah’s command (Judges 4:6-7) is infused with both boldness and faith, and yet it mobilised Barak into action. According to Karssen (1977), Deborah’s words bring a proper perspective on things and in turn have a liberating effect on Barak. Her words maintain his humility, and do not permit him to think his strength is greater than his ability. In following her command, Barak acknowledges Deborah’s faith and her spiritual authority and as a result becomes a stronger leader and wins the battle. It is precisely because Barak trusted God’s word (through Deborah) that he becomes a man of faith himself. Indeed, in years to come, Barak would be honoured and his name recorded as one among the great heroes of faith listed in Hebrews 11. It is Deborah that inspires Barak to become a hero for God. Yet – beautifully – neither of them allows competition to come between them in their God-given task.
One of the most interesting things about Deborah is that, though she occupied a position of authority, she had little interest in big titles. The one time she names herself, she chooses a title that many women today shy away from. In Judges Five, Deborah describes herself as “a mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7). We do not know if Deborah was a mother or not. However as Grady (2003) argues, that she refers to herself as a mother makes it clear that she was not trying to be a man nor was she interested in carrying out her duties in a masculine way. Rather, it suggests that her position of authority was held as a mother.
In the very act of naming herself “mother in Israel”, Deborah gives motherhood the greatest honour. That is, while leading the nation, Deborah saw herself primarily as a mother to the people of Israel. And few can argue otherwise that it was Deborah’s patient nurturing of Israel that led it back to spiritual health – much like a mother would nurture her child’s physical and emotional health.
It is the mother’s heart in her that is wrung with agony at the sight of the misery in the multitude. She would mother them all if she could, she would take them to her bosom and shelter them from the cruel oppression. Thus it is her motherhood that stirs her to action. Her patriotism is an enlargement of an anguished mother’s concern for her distressed children (Lewis et al 1904: 58-59).
Deborah, the “mother in Israel” was able to inspire action while instructing and reprimanding ‘her children’. Using her mother’s love, she was able to encourage and motivate ‘her children’ to a place of freedom and peace, and back to their God – Yahweh.
Sociologists and others have argued throughout the years that the mother has an important role in the early years of identity development in children, since it is usually the mother who is the primary care-giver and who largely shoulders the responsibility for raising children through everyday activities like general discipline, education through storytelling, teaching of crafts, dances, songs, instilling values, standards and religious sensibilities. Mothers are also responsible for the organization of family rituals, for the transmission of oral history and folklore and for the maintenance of family ties and cultural traditions (Huber and Spitze 1983, Berk 1985; Bittman and Pixzley 1997; Espiritu 2000).
Whether this role and function of women as mothers is a natural phenomena or a socially constructed one has been one of much heated debate and is one that has taken on increased significance with the rise of postmodern thought and feminist inquiry. The result is that motherhood has become an almost dirty word. One can argue, therefore, that even in the sites of their ‘oppression’ – as ‘mother’, women are empowered agents who have used those sites powerfully, and, in Judge Deborah’s case, her motherhood was the means to reinforcing, strengthening and constructing Israel’s national identity.
Dr Jehan Loza
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