What Do We Do with Deborah as a Judge?

by Perry Hall

Deborah is a conundrum. And we shouldn't be surprised because she is a woman! Joking aside, there is still the fact that Deborah is an aberration when it comes to judges because she is a woman.
So much so is this true, that proponents on both sides of the debate concerning women's roles, in my opinion, go too far in "explaining" her. What do we do with Deborah? The answer is, the same thing scripture does.

Complementarians have played word games by showing Deborah is not called a "judge", only that she was "judging" Israel (Judges 4:4-5). The same Hebrew term, sapat, is used for both Deborah and the male "judges". The New Testament warns against semantics (I Timothy 6:4).

Egalitarians have played a different game. They ignore the whole of Judges which shows Deborah is definitely the exception to the rule, and not the rule itself. That the rule is male judges is undeniable and rules allow for exceptions - the exception proves the rule.

However, when the exception becomes the rule, the rule ceases to exist. Marriage, divorce, and remarriage is a good example. The rule is marriage for life. The exception is divorce for unfaithfulness.

Despite both of these overreactions, what do we do with Deborah?

Scripture does make a distinction between Deborah's judging and the rest of the judges. This can be seen in two lists that the Scriptures give of judges:

  • I Samuel 12:11 (CSB) “So the LORD sent Jerubbaal, Barak, Jephthah, and Samuel. He rescued you from the power of the enemies around you, and you lived securely."
  • Hebrews 11:32 (CSB) "And what more can I say? Time is too short for me to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets."

In these two inspired lists of God's chosen judges, notice that Barak replaces Deborah. What does this mean?

  • It's not that these are lists of the military leaders, with Barak the military leader and Deborah not. Samuel wasn't a military leader.
  • It's not that Deborah wasn't a judge because she was in the Book of Judges.

The inspired accounts are leading us to understand that Deborah being a judge was not the rule, but the exception. There are probably two ways she was the exception within the book of Judges:

  1. She was godly and wise, and she made herself available to be used by God.
  2. She was a woman.

How do these two realities further help answer the conundrum concerning Deborah? Why is she the exception?

  • When Deborah summoned Barak (Judges 4:6), she was definitely acting in an inspired role with authority, since she is a prophetess.
  • When Barak refuses to go unless Deborah accompanies him, she goes, but she declares he will not be given the glory and instead, it will be given to a woman (Judges 4:9). This is meant to be demeaning when a military victory is not credited to the "general" but to someone who is not even a soldier and furthermore is a woman.
  • When considering the overall arc of Judges, doesn't it often appear that the men who were judges were very flawed? Samson is the most obvious morally flawed individual. Gideon is a doubter. Jephthah is rash. Others we don't know much about. Deborah, however, is godly and wise. Deborah being a judge is not really about women having the right to headship and leadership. The point seems to be the lack of good men to lead. Notice how in Judges not only is there a lack of good men but there is also frequent mistreatment of women. Deborah is the exception as a woman who is treated with respect.

The absence of male leadership still happens today in many families wherein the husband or father is either spiritually weak or even completely unavailable -- being out of the picture totally. While we admire the hard work and dedication of single moms, we all can agree that such is the exception to God's rule for families. No one, biblically speaking, should suggest that this exception becomes the rule, and yet, it is increasingly done so.

What do we do with Deborah? We see she is God's exception because the men in her time were increasingly weak. Everyone was doing what was right in his own eyes.

Ironically, God's choice of Deborah is about gender roles but only in this way: God is shaming the men for not leading by having to resort to a female judge.

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