Deborah is the only female leader mentioned in the book of Judges. Bearing in mind that even in 2014, when we like to consider ourselves a liberal society, Britain has still only ever had one female Prime Minister and America as never had a female President, Deborah’s position is quite an accolade. We’re not told how or why she ended up in that position, but it is abundantly clear that at that time women were very much seen as the inferior sex, and it was almost unheard of that one should rise above her station as housewife.
Despite the controversy it might cause in this age of equality campaigns, it’s vital to note that the very fact that Deborah was a judge speaks volumes. It would be lovely for this just to be a usual occurrence, but we have to acknowledge that it wasn’t. These were exceptional circumstances! In Isaiah God warned that a sign of His judgement on Israel would be when ‘women rule over them’ (Isaiah 3:12; NIV), and so her appointment has been interpreted by some as a reflection on the weak-willed men of the time.
Even Deborah herself recognises this fact. When Barak is willing to go into battle only if Deborah accompanies him, her response is ‘because of the course you are taking, the honour will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman’ (Judges 4:9). Her prophecy later comes to fruition in the form of Jael – a woman – defeating Sisera. Perhaps her election was to make an example of the men, but to me the fact that God spoke through her indicates an intense freeing of womankind, and a recognition that we don’t need the restriction of a ‘proper place’ because wherever we are, and in whatever we do, obedience to God is the only requirement. ‘A woman who fears the Lord is to be praised’ (Proverbs 31:30; ESV). Not sent packing. Not silenced. Praised. Deborah was open to be an instrument for God, and was rewarded with the respect of those who followed her.
‘God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning comes.’ Psalm46:5
Deborah was a remarkable woman. But, rather than let power go to her head, she remained humble in the knowledge that her strength came from her God alone. She knew that her bravery in battle, her prophetic wisdom and her respect among the nation did not stem from her human nature, and she acknowledged the real ruler at work: ‘the Lord, the God of Israel, commands you’ (Judges 4:6; NIV). She is the living representation of the true meaning of Philippians 4:13 (which is better explained in this video): ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.’ This doesn’t mean that because Christ is on our side we can do anything and everything we choose, it means that what we can do is only ever done by His strength, not our own. We still need to choose our battles wisely.
‘She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.’ Proverbs 31:26
One of the most inspirational things about Deborah is that she ruled as a woman. That is, she retained her femininity even in battle, and rose up in defence of her people in a way that only a mother can. She didn’t alter her leadership style to compete with the lad culture or male domination around her. She was a natural problem solver and counsellor, and gained respect as such – ‘the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes settled’ (Judges 4:5; NIV).