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But what about Deborah?!

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6 minutes to read Deborah is widely regarded as a feminist icon; the only woman to rule God’s people well. But close attention to the text reveals that her rulership was a shame to Israel, rather than a glory.

Whenever I speak against female rulers, someone immediately brings up Deborah. In one sense, that’s a classic example of going straight to the edge to avoid the center. When people hate something God loves, they cast around for extraordinary cases to make it look bad (e.g., we know a person secretly hates children when their response to criminalizing abortion is, “But what about victims of rape or incest?!”)

But in another sense, this is a fair question, because although Deborah is the only case of a woman ruling among God’s people that feminists can use (cf. 2 Kings 11), it only takes one case to disprove the universal negative that women should not rule. So having noted that she is an extraordinary case, what should we make of her?

Two ways to read the text

The first thing to note is that exceptional cases in the Bible are not generally normative; quite the opposite. Isaiah walking around naked for three years doesn’t undermine the scriptural injunctions against nakedness, but actually reinforces them. It does this by calling attention to something feminists don’t well understand: shame. Isaiah was enacting was a graphic living parable of Israel’s humiliation. In the same way, Hosea marrying a prostitute doesn’t undermine the injunctions of Proverbs against marrying harlots, but rather trades on their truth to explicitly enact Israel’s dishonoring of God. Thus, when we find an exception in Scripture to male rulership, we should ask whether it draws attention in some way to a principle of order by intentionally violating it to provoke shame.

In other words, there are two ways to read God’s raising up of Deborah. The first is as a commendation of women rulers; the second is as an indictment of them. Feminists tend to assume that because Deborah sets a good example, the first must be true. But this demonstrates the point I keep repeating about acculturation: the frog doesn’t know it’s being boiled. Deborah being a good ruler fits just as well with the second point if we set it in the context of patriarchy as the proper order.

The reason for this is that, like Isaiah’s nakedness, Deborah’s rule would emphasize the very thing God would be drawing attention to in the first place: the shame of Israel. In this case, Israel’s men have abjectly failed to represent God’s father-rule into the world, dishonoring themselves and their king. Every boy reading Judges 4:8–9 instinctively knows that Barak is being shamed. Every boy reading Isaiah 3:12 instinctively knows that Israel is being shamed. Every boy is keenly acquainted with the primal shame of being made subject to women—even if it is conditioned out of him as “misogyny” by the time he is able to exegete Scripture for himself.

On this interpretation, the shame of Deborah’s leadership would not be primarily because women shouldn’t lead, but because men should. Thus the good example she sets wouldn’t contradict what we read about women not ruling elsewhere in Scripture; it would rather draw attention to it more acutely by increasing the contrast between the moral state of the men who should have been ruling Israel, and the woman who was. Israel is faring poorly throughout Judges, but here in chapters 4–5 there is a particular low point, in that they’re so badly off they had a woman as judge.

In other words, since the Bible often shows us God turning things upside down to make a point, it is at least as plausible that God raised up Deborah to be Israel’s shame, rather than its glory.

This principle is important to establish before reading the text itself, because if we’re already presupposing a “Deborah as glory” interpretation where she is a model for rulership, we are likely to miss some important cues.

The way the text demands to be read

Reading Judges 4–5 closely, it turns out there’s a fair amount of theological signaling, irony, and dark humor going on to clue us in that the Deborah-as-shame interpretation is indeed correct, and the Deborah-as-glory view is unsustainable. Judges 4:1–3 establishes that Israel is in ruins at the time she comes to power, and as the story unfolds, the way it presents her in relation to Barak draws special emphasis to the shame model. Finally, Deborah herself, by her own testimony, does not see her position as akin to, nor a substitute for, a male ruler.

The introduction of Deborah

The very beginning of the story introduces Deborah as both a prophetess and a wife. By doing so, it implicitly places her under the dual authority of God and Lappidoth, her husband. Her judging is introduced in this context.

The prophecy angle is then further emphasized by the mention of the palm tree under which she judges. Trees are commonly associated with divine encounters in the Pentateuch, and so the intimation here is that her judging is by prophecy, rather than by normal human wisdom. Indeed, where we see Deborah judging or leading, the text presents it as something done not in her own power—as with a patriarch—but in the power of God. She is God’s mouthpiece, and at no point in the story does she lead from her own authority, as a normal ruler would; rather, she always speaks on behalf of Yahweh. (This puts quite a damper on using her as a general model for female rulership.)

In ancient thinking, trees were thought of as axes for the cosmic realms, connecting heaven, earth, and the underworld; just as mountains were thought of as points where heaven and earth met. This is why God frequently appears at trees and on mountains. The physical world images the spiritual.

The command to Barak

That Deborah is not standing in as a normal ruler is further reinforced in Judges 4:6–7. Here she enjoins Barak to lead Israel into battle to defeat their enemies.

Firstly notice that she does not order him on her own authority, but seems to speak directly from God, knowing his mind. Secondly, notice what might easily be elided in our day: this is an implicit command to take up rulership of Israel. To lead a nation into battle is something that a nation’s ruler would do. Although Deborah is acting in the place of a judge by merit of her prophetic office, it seems she is seeking to restore the patriarchy on behalf of God! (Again, a little awkward for a feminist role model.)

When Barak refuses to take up this mantle unless she accompanies him (Judges 4:8—9), her remark at this point is again telling against a feminist (re)interpretation of her role: “Surely I will go with you; however, there will be no glory for you in the path you are taking, for Yahweh will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” As I’ve noted, this is a shame for Barak; because he was cowardly in hiding behind a woman, his glory in battle will be sold to a woman. The dark humor of this reversal only makes sense if Judges is presupposing what Isaiah also presupposes about the seemliness of women being over men.

Deborah’s own testimony

Finally, during Deborah and Barak’s triumphal song, she herself denies that her place is one of rulership. In Judges 5:7 she describes her role as that of a mother in Israel. Now a mother had a great deal of influence in the household, and would have been delegated responsibility and authority over that house on behalf of the father (cf. Numbers 36; Proverbs 31). But she was not the ruler of the house (cf. Numbers 30), and Deborah plainly doesn’t see herself in the position of the patriarch. She sees Barak in that position—reluctant as he is—and desires for herself a feminine role in keeping with her sex.

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