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Deborah: A Counter-Cultural Leader PDF Print E-mail

Rev. Dr. Richard Howell

Deborah, an amazing counter-cultural role model, exhibited outstanding religious leadership (Judges 4,5).  Her remarkable character is highlighted by the fact that it was deemed scandalous and disrespectful to the sanctity of worship for women to take up leadership roles. During her time women were usually not the privileged ones to receive education and remained confined to domestic duties and subservient to the male head of the household. Yet the Bible positions Deborah in a unique company of leaders; she was a judge, a military leader and a prophetess - a powerful triple combination of authority and accountability, held by only two other male leaders, Moses and Samuel.  Bearing in mind that God chose Deborah to provide religious leadership, how should we address the issue of women in religious leadership? Are we treading a dangerous path of resisting God, by designing roadblocks for women wanting leadership roles?  Such resistance is generally coloured by ethnicity and cultural traditions.  Let me ask you a question, do you believe, God created both male and female in his image and likeness (Genesis1:27); and he redeems them both (1Corinthians 15:3-4); empowering and equipping them equally by the gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:7)? I am sure you’ll say, "I agree." So by virtue of creation, redemption and giftedness we are equal!

Most of the illustrious women in the Bible are either married to a great man or connected to one. Sarah is first and foremost known as Abraham's wife, and Miriam as Moses' sister. Even Esther, who rescued the Jewish people from Haman's attempted genocide, is guided by her adviser and cousin, Mordecai. A singular exception to this convention is the prophetess and judge, Deborah.

Deborah stands tall in a leadership role because God gifted it to her. The only thing we know about her personal life is the name of her husband, Lapidot. Dated at approximately 1200 B.C., "She led Israel at that time," is how the Bible records it. "She used to sit under the palm tree of Deborah" (Judges 4:4). She served as a judge in southern Ephraim between Ramah and Bethel, thereby possibly making her of the tribe of Ephraim, as Joshua was earlier.

Deborah’s encouragement, faithful obedience and complete trust in God shone as a beacon of hope for her people gripped in fear. After being oppressed by Jabin, the king of Canaan, in Hazor, for twenty years, Deborah prevailed upon Barak to face Sisera, the commander of Jabin's army, in battle. The victory to which the Bible refers is the victory of an Israelite force of ten thousand over Sisera's force of nine hundred iron chariots (Judges 4:10). Her courageous declarations and decisive actions motivated her timid General Barak, who agreed to that he would only go to battle if she would accompany him to which Deborah agreed.

Deborah prophesied, "And she said, 'I will surely go with you. Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman (v.9).'"

As Deborah prophesied, the Lord gave the victory to the Israelites. The Egyptian leader, Sisera, fled the battle site seeking refuge in the tent of the woman Jael. In the Biblical account, Jael killed the enemy leader, Sisera. The victory hymn in the Bible, the Song of Deborah (Judges 5) stands out as unique in that it is a hymn that celebrates a military victory helped by two women: Deborah and Jael. God used two righteous women to deliver his people and judge the mighty Canaanite general Sisera at the hands of a woman. The song highlights the exceptional leadership skills of Deborah, who out of this fear and despair, “arose as a mother in Israel.” With maternal care she watched over God’s people.

The Bible portrays Jesus as the one who fully accepted women.  Regardless of their social or marital status, he was unfailingly courteous, and compassionate towards them. Jesus thus affirmed a woman’s right to be a disciple and not to be concerned solely with domestic affairs. Jesus encouraged Mary to sit at his feet and listen to his teaching, and he declined Martha’s request that he bid her sister help her with the serving, saying, "It’s Mary who has chosen the better part; it is not to be taken from her." Jesus thus affirmed overcoming religious inequality and a woman’s right to be a disciple.

While, Jewish genealogies normally included only males, Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus mentions four women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba (Matt. 1), who were Gentiles. The presence of these four women, who were Gentiles or harlots, draws our attention and surprises us at Jesus’ lineage. However, this is also a very powerful reminder for us that the sovereign plans and purposes of God are often worked out in and through people who are receptive to his will, for God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34-35). Let’s not forget that neither earthly condition, gender distinction, hereditary descent, nor outward circumstance can secure God's grace or gifts. God has no regard for those things that distinguishes a human from another human. God’s grace is not attracted by anything good in humans. Neither is his grace repelled by anything evil in humans.

In the body of Christ there is no such thing as Jew or Gentile, black or white, male or female, Brahmin or Dalit, slave or free, rich or poor, learned or unlearned. God gathers his people from all races, all classes, all social orders, and all ages, and bestows his grace upon people from all walks of life (cf. Revelation 5:9). This educates us that God works in the most unusual ways and openness to his sovereign activity means being prepared for a surprise.  If God selects a woman to proclaim, prophecy, teach and provide leadership in the Church, then who is man to challenge God’s sovereign choice!

Deborah indeed is a glowing exemplar of women in leadership positions. Both men and women are called by God to work side by side, and this may well be counter-cultural in many societies!