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Deborah's Leadership

The story of Deborah is a sparkling account of a dramatic moment of decision and endeavor in Israel, during the period of the Judges. The attention it draws to the leadership of women is highly unusual for the OT, and its recasting of conventional roles is both deliberate and illuminating for the question, what sort of leadership serves best the God of Israel?

It is tempting to read its two chapters (Judges 4, 5) as a unit in isolation from the rest of the book, though there are good reasons to avoid this. Within the larger flow of Judges, the exploits of Deborah, Barak, and Jael show us the lingering strength of a declining Israel, as well as the beginnings of the breakdown in integrity and vigor so evident in the later chapters of Judges. Barak’s hesitation to lead the army, for instance, foreshadows a timidity and “desire for reassurance” that mark later leaders (6:36-40; 11:20-33), and the lack of response from some tribes (5:16-17) signals the later drastic collapse of the confederation (e.g., 20:12-40).1 This is one brief reversal of the spiral of decay that will finally require a monarchy to reverse.

Further, it is not a unit. The straightforward narrative of chapter 4 contrasts both in style and in detail with the poetic and prophetic chapter 5. It is now widely accepted that its archaic language indicates that chapter 5 is older than chapter 4, perhaps even the oldest portion of the Scriptures as we have them.2 Since contrasting details remain, the two probably circulated as separate accounts of the same battle before being brought together in our canon. We are advised to read these chapters, then, as parallel and complementary reports.

Chapter 4 begins with a pattern familiar to readers of Judges: the Israelites do evil; the Lord sells them into the hand of the enemy; they cry unto the Lord for deliverance; and the Lord raises up a judge to lead them. But there the familiar pattern breaks. First, the judge turns out to be a woman, and a remarkable one—the only person in Judges designated as a prophet. Her response, which is directed by her hearing of the Lord’s voice,3 is to summon Barak, a leader from the unstable margin of Israel, where presumably he experienced warfare. The irony of a woman calling a man into armed service is sharpened when Barak hesitates to go into battle without her; in her answer she declares that he will lose the glory of victory to a woman. Sisera comes out to meet Barak’s army as she prophesied, and the enemy is decisively defeated. The coup de grâce comes in the carefully told story of Jael’s entrapment and murder of Sisera: a woman indeed has reaped the glory of his death.

The “Song of Deborah” (ch. 5) sets a very different tone, focusing wholeheartedly on the power and action of God. The battle itself is described as an appearance of God the Warrior, with all of creation responding to the theophany (5:4-5). The prophecy addresses various specific audiences: the leaders and the volunteers who stepped forward (5:2, 9); the Israelites who now benefit from peace (5:6-11); the tribes who did and who did not muster for battle (5:12-123); Jael, “the most blessed of women” (5:24-27); and finally, indirectly and quite poignantly, the mother of Sisera who watches for her son’s return in vain (5:28-31).

Two issues probably emerge most prominently as we ask what this story tells us about Christian leadership: what is the role of gender in relation to leadership, and what is the kind of leadership that is commended?

First, regarding gender. Gender plays a prominent part in how the story is told, though in different ways in each of the chapters. The narrative (ch. 4) develops the irony latent in the circumstances with dialogue and plot twists, especially in Barak’s hesitation and Deborah’s and Jael’s successes. The poem (ch. 5) is equally aware of gender but takes it in a different direction, presenting the voice of the prophetess herself,4 praising Jael far above anyone else mentioned, and closing with moving glimpse of another woman affected quite differently by the fortunes of this war.

In both cases gender is understood in relation to social roles especially, and not, for instance, as a matter of the supposed strengths or weaknesses of women and men in general. Deborah’s role as judge is presented without apology, as a normal development.5 It is when she moves into military leadership that her role as arbiter is stretched and gender becomes an issue. Further, she exercises her leadership in ways that echo gender roles. Her relationship with Barak combines parental nurture with parental challenge; she accomplishes her task by being “a mother in Israel” (5:7).6 So also Jael does what she has to do through the effective use, that is, a creatively expanded use, of resources available to women: inviting Sisera perhaps seductively into her tent, responding as host but serving him milk instead of water, giving him a warm bed, and killing him with the peg and mallet, tools used in setting up the tent. The language of the poem in particular suggests a sexual triumph (“he lay still between her legs,” 5:27), the opposite of the sexual violence that Sisera’s mother is wishing for her son (literally, “a womb or two for every man,” 5:30).7 

What is decisive in the tellings of the tale is not gender as such, or even its ironic reversal, but rather the creative response by individuals within their given circumstances to the challenge of the moment. In this respect, the story of Deborah, Barak, and Jael is of a piece with other stories in Judges where the climactic deliverance depends on particular or even idiosyncratic personal characteristics (e.g., 3:21; 3:33).8 In our story gender allows the author(s) to tease out the quality of the people’s response to God. But finally praise goes to those who stepped up to the plate promptly and wholeheartedly: “When people offer themselves willingly, bless the Lord!” (5:2, 9). Gender operates as one of the contexts against which that ready self-offering needs to happen, but the message of the story of Deborah is that God’s people must respond, with or without excuse.

There may be a final comment about gender roles in the depiction of Sisera’s mother, agonizing about her son while envisioning the rape of the enemy’s women. Deborah experiences far more social and cultural freedom—and has far more impact and satisfaction—as an active servant and “friend” (5:31) of Yahweh, than the Queen trapped “behind the lattice” (5:28) of more rigid social possibilities in her helpless desperation. The God of Israel fosters a society that promotes real human freedom and fulfillment, whether for women or men.

Second, regarding leadership. The point is already made above. With Deborah we see a leader who is freely willing to rely on the talents and gifts of others in the confederation. In chapter 4, the emphasis is on her encouragement of Barak; in chapter 5, we are told that many more leaders came forward as well (5:2, 9, 31), and the tribes are acknowledged for their participation or scorned for their absence (5:14-23). This is delegation of authority, but more than delegation—since (for instance) Deborah does not “assign” Jael the death of Sisera, but is willing to let the fulfillment come about without intervention. Rather Deborah is able to promote a context in which many people come into their own, in surprising ways, as they respond to her (literal) vision.

The Hebrew of the opening line of the Song of Deborah is notoriously difficult. But the traditional translation gives expression to the genuine heart of the prophecy, as we find it here and elsewhere. It is a remarkable articulation of the miracle of an open-ended leadership that finds the way forward in allowing people to be all they can be.

That the leaders took the lead in Israel,
That the people offered themselves willingly,
Bless the Lord! (Judges 5:2, ESV)

—Theopulos




1 Dennis T. Olson, “The Book of Judges,” in L. Keck, et al., eds, New Interpreter’s Dictionary Vol. II (Nashville:  Abingdon, 1998), pp. 774-776; 789.

2 Alberto J. Soggin, Judges, a Commentary (OTL. Philadephia: Westminster, 1981), pp. 80-81.

3 V. 5 indicates the “the sons of Israel” went to her habitually for adjudication, not that they prodded her to act in this case.

4 Though the superscription (5:1) credits the song to both Deborah and Barak, the song itself describes Deborah as singing and Barak as warring (5:12).

5 “She is not introduced as an emergency substitute for the men who have failed to come forward (as some would interpret Judg, 4:4; cf. Judg. 5:6-7).  Her standing in society is a secure and accepted as the one through whom God speaks.” Ailish Ferguson Even, “Judges,” in Kroeger and Evans, eds., The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary (Downer’s Grove:  IVP, 2002), p. 133.

6 “Within such a patriarchal society,” Barak responds with “childlike overdependence on Deboroh.” Even, p. 133.

7 Tammi J. Schneider, Judges (Berit Olam Series. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2000) p. 89.

8 Olson, p. 782.