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Five Reasons Deborah in the Bible Supports Male Leadership (Judges 4)

Five Reasons Deborah in the Bible Supports Male Leadership (Judges 4)

Judges were Israel’s primary rulers for almost three-and-a-half centuries. They also commanded armies, making these some of the strongest leaders in Scripture. So why did Deborah in the Bible serve as a judge? Read this material from Your Marriage God’s Way to learn five reasons Deborah the judge supports male leadership.

Your Marriage God's Way by Scott LaPierre
Your Marriage God's Way Workbook by Scott LaPierre

This post’s text is from Your Marriage God’s Way, and the audio is from the accompanying audiobook. I pray God uses the book and workbook to strengthen your marriage marriage and exalt Christ in your relationship.

In discussions about male leadership, Deborah is often the first example brought up to support females being pastors. For this reason, Deborah’s example is worth looking at more closely. We will see she also supports the principle of male headship in the Bible.

First, There’s No Mention of Deborah in the Bible Being Appointed by God

Throughout the book of Judges, as men rise to leadership, we read verses that confirm they were chosen or empowered by God:

  • “The Lord raised up a deliverer…Othniel” (Judges 3:9).
  • “The Lord raised up a deliverer…Ehud” (Judges 3:15).
  • “The Lord [said to Gideon], ‘Go in this might of yours, and you shall save Israel…Have I not sent you?’” (Judges 6:14).
  • “The Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah” (Judges 11:29).
  • “Samson…grew and the Lord blessed him. And the Spirit of the Lord began to move upon him” (Judges 13:24-25).

But with Deborah in the Bible, there is no indication God specifically appointed her to that role. Judges 4:4 says, “Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, was judging Israel at that time.” When we are introduced to her, we read that she is female, and what is missed in the English translations of the Bible is a negative emphasis that appears in the original Hebrew text of this passage:

Judges 4:4 suggests some amazement at the unusual nature of the situation in which a woman actually has to judge Israel, because it piles up a string of redundant words to emphasize that Deborah is a woman. Translating the Hebrew text literally, the verse says, “And Deborah, a woman, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, she was judging Israel at the time.” Something is abnormal, something is wrong—there are no men to function as judge! This impression is confirmed when we read of Barak’s timidity and the rebuke he receives as well as the loss of glory he could have received.

Grudem, Evangelical Feminism & Biblical Truth, 134.

Second, Deborah’s Ministry was Private Versus Public

Judges 4:5 says Deborah “would sit under the palm tree…and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment.” The people approached her privately. She did not publicly teach the Word of God, as with Huldah and other prophetesses. Deborah is another example of a woman limited to private and individual instruction. Even when Deborah called for Barak, Judges 4:6-7 shows her speaking to him privately:

She sent and called for Barak the son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “Has not the Lord God of Israel commanded, ‘Go and deploy troops at Mount Tabor; take with you ten thousand men of the sons of Naphtali and of the sons of Zebulun; and against you I will deploy Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his multitude at the River Kishon; and I will deliver him into your hand’?”

Third, Deborah in the Bible Encouraged Barak to Lead

Let’s note some key phrases in these verses:

  • The statement “Has not the Lord God of Israel commanded?” should not be understood as Deborah giving orders to Barak. Deborah received a word from God and passed it along to Barak as a prophetess, confirming what he already should have known—that God had commanded him to lead the army.
  • The directive “Go and deploy troops” is particularly significant because Deborah was a judge then. She was in the position typically occupied by Israel’s commander, but rather than summon or command troops herself, she let Barak know that God had called him to lead.
  • The phrase “against you I will deploy Sisera” clarifies God’s plan for Sisera to attack Barak, not Deborah.
  • “I will deliver him into your hand” indicates God wanted Barak, and not Deborah, to receive the victory over Sisera.

These confirm that even while serving as judge, Deborah affirmed the rightness of male leadership in the Bible when it came to leading God’s people, not only looking to Barak to lead but letting him know this was what God wanted. Sadly, Barak did not step up and assume the role God wanted him to fulfill. Instead, Barak told Deborah, “If you will go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go!” (Judges 4:8). We recognize here that something is not right about a man telling a woman, “I will not go to battle unless you go with me.”

Fourth, Deborah Rebuked Barak for Failing to Lead

Not surprisingly, Deborah in the Bible rebuked Barak’s reluctance: “I will surely go with you; nevertheless there will be no glory for you in the journey you are taking, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (Judges 4:9). Deborah’s prophecy came true. God routed Sisera’s army before Barak, but a woman, Jael, defeated the enemy commander (Judges 4:17-22). Barak should not have insisted Deborah accompany him into battle. Instead, he should have taken leadership of the army himself.

This entire account does not advocate for female leadership but criticizes Barak. The Book of Judges records some of Israel’s worst days, and the absence of male leadership strongly reflects the time.

Later, during another dark period in Israel’s history, the prophet Isaiah asserted that when women ruled over the people, that was a sign of God’s judgment: “As for My people, children are their oppressors, and women rule over them. O My people! Those who lead you cause you to err, and destroy the way of your paths” (Isaiah 3:12).

Fifth, Deborah’s Account Is Descriptive Versus Prescriptive

One of the most common mistakes people make when approaching Scripture is to take a descriptive passage (or one that merely describes) and turn it into a prescriptive passage (or one that prescribes). In other words, they treat a descriptive historical account as though prescriptive instruction should be followed. This is the danger of citing Deborah’s judgeship as evidence of female leadership over God’s people. Her example serves as a rebuke to the nation of Israel regarding the absence of male leadership.

Neither the book of Judges nor the account of Deborah and Barak are presented as examples to follow. The book of Judges is largely an example not to follow, as it recounts the serious breakdown of leadership among God’s people. Judges 17:6 and 21:25 offer valuable perspectives about that time period: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” The nation had abandoned God—the context in which Deborah became a judge. And as we saw, she served that role privately and reluctantly.

Although Deborah’s judgeship is not prescriptive of female leadership, is there application here for marriages? Absolutely:

  • When men expect their wives to assume responsibility for taking the family to church or praying and reading the Word together as a family, they are acting like Barak. They are abandoning the role God has given them.
  • When a wife urges her husband to lead, and the husband resists or prefers that his wife take charge, he acts like Barak.

If Deborah in the Bible is prescriptive of anything, it’s encouraging Barak to lead and do what God desired of him. She rebuked him when he would not take charge. Note that Deborah did not take control of the situation when Barak refused to lead. Rather, she let God direct Barak’s steps and victory. Her story should motivate women to do what she did—encourage a man to lead. And Barak is prescriptive in that his example should motivate men to avoid the mistake he made—failing to lead.

Do you have a question or thought? If so, please let me know. I do my best to respond to each comment.

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