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?
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.
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.