Monday, December 17, 2012

Deborah: A Mother to Israel

This post is in a series of posts exploring biblical masculinity and femininity. The goal is not so much to explore the specific roles to which God has called us, but instead to look at the God-given differences between men and women so that we will better understand what informs the different roles to which we are called.

The Significance of Deborah
When discussing the debate about biblical masculinity and femininity, Deborah is often a pivotal figure. Those who are complementarian often point out the fact that in Israel's history, all the patriarchs were men, all twelve heads of the tribes were men, all the priests were men, and the vast majority of the prophets were men. Egalitarians, however, will often point out that Deborah judged Israel, right alongside Ehud, Samson, Gideon, and Jephthah.
It is a fair point. Does the presence of Deborah shoot a hole in the claim that men and women are substantively different, and that these differences lead to men taking the responsibility for leadership roles, while women come alongside to support servant-hearted male leaders?
Deborah's story is found in Judges 4-5. My goal in this post is not to give an exhaustive exegesis of these chapters, but rather to explore how they interface with biblical masculinity and femininity. In the end, what strikes me most about her story is not her similarities with the others judges, but her uniqueness among them.

The Uniqueness of Deborah
When the tale of Deborah begins, there is no doubt that she is to be counted among the judges. Judges 4:4-5 says, Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lapidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided.
Deborah is not a sub-judge; she is the real deal. She is as much a judge as any man who judges Israel during this period of time. In fact, unlike Samson, Gideon, and Jephthah, nothing negative is said about Deborah. In some ways, she is a superior judge to the others.
That said, Deborah is not like any other judge. Every other judge led Israel into battle and delivered them from oppressors through military action. Deborah, however, was different. Judges 4:6-7 says, She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, "The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you: 'Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor. I will lead Sisera, the commander of Jabin's army, with his chariots and his troops in the Kishon River and give him into your hands."
Instead of leading the troops into battle, Deborah calls upon Barak to do so. No other judge does this.

Is Fighting Manly?
Now, this unique situation begs the question, "Why?" Why didn't God simply have Deborah lead the troops into battle? Some of us might hesitate at the seemingly-obvious answer because we are afraid it might be sexist. Still, the obvious answer seems to be that Deborah was a woman. Men were the ones who went to battle in order to fight for and defend the nation.
But is this an archaic practice that needs to be cast off? Seemingly not, since God shows no sign of making it a priority to change this practice. God has no hesitation in raising up Deborah as a full-fledged judge, but he redirects the normal pattern when it comes time for battle.
All throughout Israel's history, the men went to battle. This was just an assumed reality. And this practice is certainly not unique to Israel in military history. Throughout the Bible the idea of courageously preparing for battle is tied to the idea of being a man. The Philistines reflect this in 1 Samuel 4:9 when they exhort each other, "Be strong, Philistines! Be men, or you will be subject to the Hebrews, as they have been to you. Be men, and fight!" The Apostle Paul reflects this reality in relation to spiritual warfare when he says in 1 Corinthians 16:13, "Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong." The word that is here translated "be courageous" literally means, "be manly." The ESV and NASB both translate it, "act like men." It is a euphemism here, but it still clearly ties manliness to courage for battle.
So, in light of this, what does God call Deborah to do? He calls her to relate his calling to a worthy man, who would take responsibility to lead Israel into battle. Instead of usurping the role of the men, she reinforces it. She encourages it. By calling Barak to take the lead in this way, she is inviting him to be masculine; to be manly.

Worthy of Protection
The fact that men are called to this does not denigrate women; it reveres women. It says that women are precious enough that the men should take responsibility to protect them. For Barak to take responsibility for the battle is to do something manly. For Deborah to encourage him to take this responsibility, and to back him up, is to do something feminine. Instead of honoring Deborah by making her just like the men, God honors more by making her unique among the men.
Interestingly enough, Barak doesn't want to go to battle without Deborah. Deborah gladly obliges, but does so with a mild rebuke. Because he seems to lack the courage to take responsibility for this manly task, he won't be the one to take down Sisera. Instead a woman (Jael) ended up killing him. Barak lost out on an opportunity to be brave and manly because he was hesitant to take the responsibility that had been given to him.
This purpose of this post is not to explore the role of women in the military. At the same time, one can't help but make a connection. The reason to be hesitant to put women in dangerous military situations is less a result of the belief that women are not as competent (although men are biologically stronger than women), and more a result of the belief that women are worthy of male protection. This applies not only to military situations, but also to a number of other situations. If a husband and a wife are in bed and hear a noise, he should not ask her to go explore. He should never say, "I checked it out last time; it's your turn." It is appropriate for the husband to take responsibility to explore. Men should walk women to their cars or their houses late at night. Men should stand between women and suspicious-looking people while out of public. If a woman is being intimidated physically or verbally, it is right for a man to step in. It is not because women are unable to defend themselves; it is because they are worthy of protection. And it is because it is masculine to take responsibility to protect women.

Beyond Physical Protection
And the male protective instinct should go beyond just the physical. First Peter 3:7 is a curious and controversial verse. Peter writes, "Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers."
The reason this verse is controversial is because it refers to women as "the weaker partner" or, in some translations, "the weaker vessel." Weaker in what sense? Some commentaries limit this only to the physical sense. On the whole women are not as physically strong as men. But the context seems to point to a broader sense of the term. After all, Peter's commands concern the wife's need to be understood and treated with respect and consideration. This seems to point to an overall fragility in women that is not present in men.
As we go through life, I think most of us can observe that women tend to be more emotionally impacted by events than men are. Women tend to cry more. They tend to empathize more. Men tend to have an easier time compartmentalizing things. The idea that women are "weaker" in the sense that they are more vulnerable and fragile is not meant to be a derisive statement. It is a strength, just as much as it can be a weakness. It is not always an advantage that men can be cold and detached, and it is wonderful that women tend to be more emotionally tied to people.
Peter here calls not simply for physical protection for women, but an overall protection for them. We men should be very considerate with our words in order to protect the women in our lives. It is not because they "can't take it." It is because they are worthy to be treated with care.

The Femininity of Deborah
If the masculine call is to take responsibility to lead and protect, what is the feminine calling? Powerfully enough, I believe that we see this reflected in Deborah. Barak is called to lead the battle. So what does Deborah do? She is charged with calling him to the task. Now, Deborah is a powerful woman. She is influential. She is wise. The idea of a wise, powerful, and influential woman walks up to a man and says, "You are the man to lead these people into battle," this is quite a compliment. It is quite a reinforcement of his masculinity and capability.
In the very beginning, Eve is called a helper for Adam. This is a powerful term, often used for God as he helps Israel. Eve is to come alongside Adam and help and support him as he takes on the daunting task of subduing the earth. Women are created for this wonderful and life-giving calling.
Just imagine the power of a woman to say to a man, "I believe in you. I believe that you are able to provide for our family. I believe that you are strong enough to protect us. I believe that God has empowered you to lead us. I will support you and help you as you take responsibility for these things." That is life-giving! It is a powerful and noble calling. In essence, this is what Deborah did with Barak. What a powerful calling for women, and what a beautiful dance it is when men are powerfully protecting and cherishing women, and women are supporting and helping them as they do so.

Wrapping Up
Once again, Judges 4-5 is by no means a manual on masculinity and femininity. But it is interesting how this story, far from blurring the distinctions between men and women, actually highlights those distinctions. It reflects the consistent biblical reality of men being called to sacrificial, servant-hearted leadership, and women being called to respectful, servant-hearted support and help. Deborah shows us a wonderful picture of biblical femininity in all its glory.


  1. Hey Dan,
    Drawing from your previous post, this reflection on Deborah seems to be a mistep. It seems awkward (to me) to make a case by highlighting an exception to the rule, without first making a case for the rule. Without some foundational work, these reflections sound like cultural values read into a narrative that is saying something else entirely.
    Looking forward to engaging with you more on this.

    1. Curtis, I see your point. This post is building off some groundwork that I looked to do at an event that we had at the church. In a previous post, I linked to a 2-hour teaching event at which we delved into masculinity and femininity. This post is meant to begin to explore how different passages, while not outright teaching propositional truth about masculinity and femininity, reflect other passages that reflect the truth more overtly.
      All in all, I think part of the power of exploring this passage is based in the fact that it is an exceptional case. I think a person would be hard pressed to argue that the way in which Deborah judges is different than the way in which it goes with the rest of the male judges.
      That said, we could certainly engage about this on fb or email; probably those are better long-term formats that just commenting on this post :).

    2. I totally misunderstood. I didn't realize that your posts here were going to build off the presentation you did at church. I'll have to find 2 hours to listen...

      I think I would still be slow to make too many doctrinal claims from a book where nothing is as it should be. The theological thrust of Judges is God's faithfulness in spite of Israel's unfaithfulness. Also, we see God's ability to use a plethora of means to save his people.

      The intro to the judges (2:16-19) doesn't distinguish one judge from the other. Except, if we could make conclusions based on what isn't said in the text, it could be argued that that "nothing negative is said about Deborah" precisely because fighting is left to the men. She has not been corrupted by the de-humanizing effects of war-the slaying of brothers-initiated by a man (Cain), perpetuated by men, continuing to stain and distract men all throughout Israel's history. Even if this isn't plausible, there appear to be real practical and geographical reasons for why it made more sense for Barak to lead a northern army against a northern foe.

      Some questions that might be important to ask with regard to biblical masculinity: Did God design men to be warriors? Is that what they were made for before the curse? Or did they become warriors after the fall? Does fighting make one a good man?

      We can certainly engage elsewhere, but I often find that others benefit from "seeing" brothers reason together.

    3. Curtis,
      That's fine. We can talk here.
      Again, I think your point is valid that we should be slow to make doctrinal claims from any narrative. It can be more tricky.
      As far as Judges, though, I think there are other things to consider. While, as you said, the book is a bleak period in Israel's history, it is not a total wash. In fact, Hebrews 11:32, Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah are all mentions in the faith hall of fame. At some level, these judges are seem in a positive light. While they are horribly flawed, I don't think we are to disregard any positive aspects of the judges.
      On the issue of war and fighting, I think it is complicated. Certainly there would be no war without the Fall. And fighting, by itself, is not good. It is good, however, to stand in the gap and protect others. And this is something that is done by soldiers.
      I am not sure if you are exploring whether fighting and war are always wrong. If that is where you are going, I think you need to wrestle through whether or not Deborah was telling the truth in 4:6 when she told Barak that the LORD was calling him to lead the people into battle.
      I think of war like I think of prison. Prison is bad. It did not exist before the Fall, and it will not exist on the New Earth. But it exists now, and it is right for it to exist. It is not good in and of itself, but it has good uses in a fallen world.
      As far as the comment on there being practical and geographical reasons for Barak to lead the people into battle, that seems a bit farfetched to me. Every other judge led the people into battle. It just seems pretty clear that Deborah's was an exceptional case. She is the only female judge and also the only one not to lead the people into battle. I just don't think that that is a coincidence.
      What are your thoughts on these things? Especially the warrior thing. I am curious to hear how you view the whole issue.


    4. Hey Dan,
      I agree with you that Judges is not a wash and that there are leaders affirmed for their faith. I'm just not sure the claim can be made that Deborah's positive contribution was as a helping servant. She was a prophetess and a judge, called by God to rescue Israel. Her leadership did that. That seems to me the clear reading of that passage, as unique as it might be.
      Now, about fighting in general, I'm asking the question whether we can build a doctrine on masculinity based on the conditions of the fall. We should strive to be the faithful men that God created us to be. If war, fighting, and killing were not part of God's intention for us, then it seems anachronistic for us to claim that being a warrior is what makes a godly man. Like divorce, war and fighting are concessions that God makes because of the wickedness of human hearts. I think it is possible to say that God has used and even caused divorces, though he hates divorce. Jesus makes it clear divorce is only a concession. I think the same here. I'd be slow to say that core element of masculinity is a feature of the fall and a concession by God.
      I don't doubt that the LORD called Barak. But practically, Barak has an army. More practically, its an army of his people. Geographically, it is an army in the north that already surrounds the king to be overthrown. Practically, a leader doesn't lead another person's army. Practically, Deborah is a prophetess, not a general, so she wouldn't have an army, or war experience. Geographically, she's located further south. I don't think it is a coincidence either. She's also described as a prophetess. We have no idea how that plays into this whole thing.

  2. Curtis,
    First of all, as i stated before, my post does not claim that Judges 4-5 is meant to teach us about masculinity and femininity. My purpose in the post was to explore how this passage reflects the reality, though. I think most of us could see examples of this throughout the Bible. For example, the story of Rehoboam may not be about the need to listen to counselors, but it certainly reflects this Scriptural value. I believe that this story, in a similar way, reflects a truth that is more overtly taught in other places.
    As for fighting, it is not a masculine quality because it is not a quality. It is an action. Fighting is not what makes a man. But I believe that it is masculine for men to take responsibility for the care and protection of women. I believe that this masculine value pre-dates the Fall. Now, on this side of the Fall, it demands that at times men stand in the gap in order to protect those who are more vulnerable. I think it is fair to say, in a situation in which fighting (or physical protection of some kind) needs to take place, it is appropriate masculinity for men to step in and take responsibility to do the fighting.
    In what you wrote, it seems to me that you may have an issue with fighting and war in general, rather than the relationship that men have to fighting and war. There are a lot of occupations and actions that exist today that would not exist pre-Fall. Not just soldiers, but also security guards, policemen, and prison guards. I don't think it follows that if a calling or an action wouldn't exist before the Fall, that this means that the fulfillment of that calling or action couldn't be more fitting with masculinity or femininity.
    On the question of Deborah and Barak and the army, we may just have to agree to disagree. Honestly, I think your theory is really a stretch. It just seems like a lot of work to avoid the basic observation that Deborah is the only judge who did not lead an army into battle. Gideon didn't have an army when he was called to be a judge. He raised one up. Why didn't he just find a general in order to lead the people? Jephthah was recruited to lead an army. It just seems much more natural to make a connection between Deborah being the only female judge and also being the only judge not to lead the people into battle.

  3. Hey Dan,
    We seem to have developed 4 different (though interconnected) streams of discussion. First, there is the general use of a book like Judges to either confirm or deny doctrine. Second, there is the issue of defining what is creationally-masculine. Third, there is the broader issue of war and violence as acceptable practice among Christians. Fourth, there is the exegesis of the Judges account of Deborah. I'm just trying to keep these straight, so that I can speak to each.

    To the first issue, my question about your use of Judges isn't about establishing doctrine from Judges. I don't think you are doing that. But you used an interesting phrase in your last response that highlights my concern. When you say Judges "reflects reality" do you mean to speak of God's intended reality (peace), sin-corrupted reality (men fight), or the reality of new creation (peace) which has already begun? In a book that self-describes itself as a narrative account of what happens when people "do what seems right in their own eyes," our readings should always be asking, "How does the gospel undermine and reframe what these sin-oriented people imagine to be 'reality'?" But it sounds like you want to ask of the text, "How does the reality of the world of the judges (men fight), match the reality of history (men fight), and how do we bend our lives toward that reality (real men are fighters - or protectors, but really the same thing)?"

    Second, I'm sure I need to listen to your church presentation to see how you read "the responsibility of the care and protection of women" as a creation-mandate for men. I don't understand how "protection" is a creation mandate when protection would have been unnecessary before the fall. If you want to suggest that it is a post-fall mandate, that is different. And maybe you made that claim in your presentation. But, it follows that we shouldn't say, "God created men to...(fill in the blank: defend, protect, fight)" when this goes beyond creational intention.

    A good example of this (in a less debatable realm than violence) might be doctors and nurses. Can we say "God created us to care for the sick," when there were to be no sick? It seems we should say this is a work that is required of us because of the fall. However, there is actually still direct connection to the pre-fall state, as this is the work of cultivating life, stewarding creation, living fruitfully, and multiplying. But is one gender made to fit this work of healing/nursing better than the other? When both men and women possess a shared creation-mandate?

    Third, as passionate as I am these days about the general issue of whether violence is acceptable for Christians, I think misses the main stuff of this discussion. We'll save it for another day. :)

    Fourth, I agree with you that it is notable and probably important that Deborah is not called to fight. But, what if the reason has more to do with what is said than what is not said? She is a prophet(ess). Immediately following the Deborah account there is another prophet (unnamed) called who does not fight. The next prophet we hear of is Samuel, who also does not fight. Moses, the prophet, did not fight. Perhaps, she is not called to fight because prophet, as a vocation, is non-violent?

    Maybe, Deborah's gender is to be heard with echoes of Ehud's left-handedness. Deborah, like Ehud, was born a certain way, commonly thought to exclude one from certain kinds of service. Yet, God in his sovereignty, is able to call and equip his people for work that we "in reality" like to exclude on the basis of biology?