Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Judges 4:9 The Rise of a Female Leader: Deborah

Deborah and Barak by Francesco Solimena
Image source: MutualArt Services, Inc.
In my daily devotion I have come to the book of Judges, and this time around when I read it, Judges 4:9 caught my attention:

‘Very well,” Deborah said, ‘I will go with you. But because of the way you are going about this, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will hand Sisera over to a woman.” So Deborah went with Barak to Kedesh” (NIV84).

The rise of Deborah in the ancient Israel’s patriarchal culture has never ceased to be a focal topic of discussion among the Christians. Much of the discussion centered on the question as to why God would raise up a female judge. In Judges 4:4-5 though the introduction of Deborah tells us briefly who she was and what she did, it does not tell us why she was chosen.

Some points to verses 7-9 to say that God was going to honor Barak by giving Sisera, a Canaanite army commander, into Barak’s hands. But because of Barak’s hesitation, the honor was given to Deborah instead. In other words, the honor being given to a woman is thought of as a punishment for Barak’s reluctance to go to the battlefield. Some takes it even further, contending that Barak’s hesitation reflects the cowardice of the Israelite men in his time. Therefore, it was because that the men had failed to “man up,” so that God had to raise up a female judge. In their conclusion, God only raises up female leaders when men are not “man enough.”

When I read through the story of Deborah, a few questions came to mind. For example, in the beginning of verse 9 it says, “But because of the way you are going about this…” What way? And why is it because of this “way” that the honor which was due Barak had to be given away? Is Barak’s honor being given away a result of his “hesitation” or “cowardice?” Further, who is the woman that into her hands Sisera would be delivered? Is it Deborah, because she agreed to go with Barak?

To make sense of this verse, I explored the translation of the key words by consulting some other English versions of the Bible, such as the NASB and KJV:

She said, ‘I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the honor shall not be yours on the journey that you are about to take, for the LORD will sell Sisera into the hands of a woman.’ Then Deborah arose and went with Barak to Kedesh.” (NASB)

And she said, I will surely go with thee: notwithstanding the journey that thou takest shall not be for thine honour; for the LORD shall sell Sisera into the hand of a woman. And Deborah arose, and went with Barak to Kedesh.” (KJV)

Admittedly, it is never easy to translate a language as old as Hebrew into contemporary English. The gap between the languages, the cultures and the source texts is what makes translation difficult. However, what I found interesting is that for this verse, most of the prevalent versions of the Bible, along with the NASB and KJV, use words such “journey” or “road” in preference to the NIV’s more ambiguous use of words such as “way” (NIV84) or “course” (NIV2011). Even with the versions that do use the word “way,” they phrase it in a fashion to indicate a course of travel or a route, rather than a manner or mode of behavior. In this respect, I find the NET’s use of “expedition” to be particularly fitting in view of the context as Barak was called to war.

Aside from NIV’s interpretation, it seems safe to assume that Deborah’s prophecy to Barak may have more to do with the nature of this expedition than with his manner or mode of behavior. Although it is suggested by some commentaries that in verse 8 Barak was showing reluctance to obey Deborah’s instruction, by the natural reading of it, I can see no such sign of reluctance on Barak’s part. I suppose if Barak was to reject Deborah’s call to war, he would have refused to go. And yet, instead of rejecting Deborah’s instruction altogether, Barak requested her company. It seems that Deborah’s presence was so crucial to Barak’s expedition that he cannot go without it.

It is important to keep in mind that Deborah is both a prophetess and a judge. A prophet is to convey messages from God. For most of the other judges, their calls to war came directly from God. However, with Barak, his call to war came through Deborah. It seems that for whatever reason, God chose to communicate with Barak through Deborah. And this may very likely be the reason why that Barak requested Deborah’s company for the expedition, and why that Deborah readily agreed to go with him. The partnership between Deborah and Barak was much like that of Moses and Aaron. And indeed, in verse 14 we can see that Deborah was the one through whom God gave Barak the command to charge and bestowed encouragement. Therefore, far from being a sign of hesitation or cowardice, Barak’s request for Deborah’s company was of godly wisdom.

Source: Photo Exploration: Jael and Sisera
Having said that, this seems to suggest that in Deborah’s time, Barak may have shared or succeeded Deborah’s role as the judge, this may explain why that in 1 Samuel 12:11 and Hebrews 11:32 Barak’s name is mentioned along with the other judges. This then raises another question – if Barak’s honor was to be given away as Deborah prophesied that it would, how then is his name still honored such as in the Song of Deborah, 1 Samuel 12:11 and Hebrews 11:32? This, of course, begs the question that if all these are about Barak’s personal honor at all. If it is not, whose honor then was Deborah talking about in Judges 4:9?

This question brings us to yet another discrepancy in the English translations, that is, the explicit mention of “the Lord” in verse 9. While most modern English translations of the Bible agree that “the Lord” is to be explicitly mentioned in this verse, a few other translations, such as the WYC, do not have “the Lord” in this verse – “And she said to him, Soothly I shall go with thee; but in this time the victory shall not be areckoned to thee; for Sisera shall be betaken into the hand of a woman…” Such discrepancy can be traced to even the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate. While the Greek Septuagint does have “for the Lord” in this verse, the Latin Vulgate does not.

At any rate, even without the explicit mention of “the Lord,” judging from the greater context of Judges, we can be certain that it is no one but the Lord who delivered Sisera to his destruction. The theme of Judges is Israel’s fallacy that led to their unfaithfulness: When they were doing alright, they forgot about God’s sovereignty, and so they were given into the hands of their enemies; and when they were oppressed by their enemies, they cried out to God, and so God raised up judges to deliver them; and after the deliverance, they soon forgot about God’s sovereignty again…and so this cycle of unfaithfulness went on and on. As both the judge and a prophetess, Deborah was thus to remind the Israelites of their God through deliverance.

Surely there will be no honor for Barak from this expedition. Though he was the army leader, it was God who fought for Israel. In other words, Barak did not lose honor. It was never his honor to have in the first place. Without having God going ahead of them, the courage and the fighting force of Barak and the company of Deborah would amount to nothing. And this is the core message of the book of Judges. It is for this reason, in Judges 7:2 God said to Gideon, “The people who are with you are too many for Me to give Midian into their hands, for Israel would become boastful, saying, ‘My own power has delivered me.” What could exhibit God’s sovereignty more clearly than to give the fierce Sisera into the hands of Jael, a housewife whose clan was at peace with Sisera’s? What an irony it is that a man, who founded his confidence in nine hundred iron chariots, was to be killed by a peg in the head? I think God made Himself clear enough.

Yes, I believe the woman that Deborah referred to in verse 9 was Jael. As it becomes evident later in the chapter that it was indeed by the hands of Jael that Sisera was slaughtered. Jael’s name was thus blessed in the Song of Deborah along with Deborah and Barak. However, what matters the most in the story of Deborah, as it is in the whole book of Judges, is not the honor of these faithful women and man, but the honor and glory of God. The purpose of the Song of Deborah, therefore, is not to hail Deborah, Barak, or Jael, but to praise the Lord. Just as it is in 1 Samuel 12:11 and Hebrews 11:32, when Barak along with all the others are mentioned, it is not about their personal honor, but about God’s faithfulness.

All in all, the story of Deborah is not about how Deborah got to take all the credit that was not hers just because God picked a weak indecisive man. In the story of Deborah, we got a strong and courageous female leader who was chosen and exalted by God; a male leader who had the wisdom to recognize and respect God’s presence and authority exercised through Deborah beyond gender; and a brave woman who was least expected, whether for her gender, clan, or social status etc., to have the notorious Sisera killed.

Nevertheless, Judges is not a book about gender. Judges is a book about the faithfulness of God despite Israel’s unfaithfulness. We may never know the reason why God raised up a female judge in a patriarchal culture. Anyhow, God may raise anyone up for His good pleasure, male or female. When we allow ourselves to be sidetracked by questions such as Deborah’s gender or, really, any Christian leader’s gender, we are making the same mistake as the Israelites – we are failing to see that it is God who is all in all.

The Defeat of Sisera by Luca Giordano
Image source: Wikimedia Commons


  1. Hi Abi,

    This is a very well thought through post and one that I would love to repost. I agree with your summation of the story of Deborah et al.

    Some believe Hebrews to be written by Priscilla but I believe the very fact that Barak is mentioned as the instrument of faith, rather than Deborah, makes is pretty clear that the author of Hebrews is not a woman. I'm saddened at times like this, when the female heroes are overlooked and not mentioned. I appreciate your perspective and find it very balanced. The glory goes to God when men and women rise to serve the Lord as He calls.

  2. Hello Bev, thank you for your comment! Your observation about the author of Hebrews sounds like a great insight!

    Your comment reminds me of something I wrote a while back, and it's what I still hold to be true: As I reflect on the flow of the biblical history, I see a trend of attempts to uplift women's social status. I'm taught that because of the Law, Israelite women in the Old Testament enjoyed better treatment than their contemporaries in other Mesopotamian cultures. In the New Testament, Christ encouraged women to participate in his teaching, while other Jewish women were not allowed to learn. At His resurrection, Christ made women His first witnesses, while other women were not trusted to give testimonies. In Paul's apostolic ministry, he listed women among his coworkers, some were even listed before men (let's not even get into the Junia debate), and were commented highly. All these seem to indicate that gender equality (as in value, as well as in the opportunities to practice their talents, gifts and callings to their fullness) is a battle unfinished, which is initiated by God, fought by Christ and Paul, and should be carried on through the church.