Both Valued and Valuable
Part One: Old Testament Examples
It is unfortunate how women of the Bible are viewed in many contemporary circles as lesser than men or less useful in God’s kingdom than men. God created both men and women in His image. Inasmuch as this is true, He has equal missions and equal importance for both. This is demonstrated throughout both the Old and the New Testaments, and despite the attempts of many who might claim otherwise, the Bible very clearly supports the mighty use of women in God’s work.
There are so many women that could be referenced in regards to God’s usage in the Old Testament. I think first of Abigail in 1 Samuel 25. Abigail was not a prophetess or leader of any kind. However, her humble and gentle advice to David persuaded him not to kill Nabal. She was instrumental in this one instance of leading the King of
by her words and example. Israel
As Thomas Schreiner wrote:
“For women, Abigail is a model of gentle and humble persuasion. There was no stridency or imperiousness about her manner. She was winsome, yet bold.”
Whereas Abigail and others like her are great examples, and there are many of them, I want to look primarily at Deborah. However, please don't misunderstand me. I am not looking at her because she was so influential. I do think she is a wonderful example of how God has, does, and will use women in all ways and of the fact that the Bible is full of these kinds of stories. However, the principle reason I want to focus on Deborah as an Old Testament example is because she was so influential. She is the primary example some have used to prove that God does not have specific roles for women, that women can instead function in roles that were otherwise reserved only for men.
In response to that argument I’d like to show that Deborah was not only a messenger of God, but that the evidence from prophecy actually indicates her fulfilling a supportive and complementary role, even as she served as a prophetess and judge of Israel.
Deborah, Judges 4-5
The history of Deborah is contained within Judges 4-5, and we can read what the atmosphere was in
by looking at Judges 4:1, Israel
And the people of
again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord after Ehud died. Israel
During the time of judges, this was a seemingly endless cycle. The Lord would send an enemy to come in on judgment of His peoples’ evil, they’d cry out to Him, and He would send a deliverer to rescue them, generally in the form of a judge.
What is unique about this particular account of one of Israel’s judges is the great detail given us as to how God raised Deborah up as judge over Israel as a direct response to the cry of the people. (Judges 4:4-10) Deborah was a prophetess who was widely known in Israel for her prophetic ability. Clearly, God raised up Deborah and gave her this prophetic gift because of the failure of the Levitical priests to instruct the people in the ways of the Lord.
At the time Deborah was “judging
Israel,” the priesthood (the Levites) had become
so corrupt that the people of
were seeking Deborah out because she was known as a prophetess. Given the unfaithfulness of the Levites, it
fell to Deborah to announce God’s plan to deliver His people. It is clear that God was shaming the
unbelieving Levitic priesthood by proclaiming His word of deliverance through
someone else. Israel
According to Judges 4, the prophecy was given to Deborah who then summoned Barak to go and lead the Israelites into battle against Sisera. Barak balks and says he won’t go unless Deborah goes with him. She says she will but that he must know now that since he has chosen this path of unfaithfulness in God to lead him into victory, Sisera would be delivered to them through a woman instead of through the efforts of Barak and his men.
In the verses that follow, that is exactly what happened. The Israelites were defeating Sisera and his men in battle, so Sisera got off of his horse and ran away. He ran to the tent of a woman named Jael, the wife of Heber who was a descendant of Moses’ father-in-law. Jael tricked him into thinking she’d protect him, then as soon as he lay down to go to sleep, she drove a tent peg through his head. Jael then ran to Barak to show him his dead enemy.
There are a couple of things we need to point out about Deborah’s role here to show that it was indeed complementary to men, keeping in line with God’s ordained role for women in leading His people.
Deborah, the “wife of Lippidoth”
Unlike any other judge in Israel’s history, when Deborah is introduced in Biblical terms as a judge and prophetess she is identified also as a wife. We don’t really know anything about her husband, Lippidoth. It doesn’t follow that the author of Judges was pointing this out because of the importance of her husband’s family. It seems more likely that he is instead pointing out her identity as a wife as well as a prophetess. Other prophets are not introduced as “husbands,” so this does seem to be significant.
Deborah as prophetess, not priest
The role of prophet, or prophetess in this case, was different than that of a priest. A prophet in the Old Testament did not hold the same office as a priest. A priest was a leader, an authoritative teacher of sorts, whereas the prophet spoke forth God’s revelation to His people. It is instructive to note that in the Old Testament, some women were prophets but never priests.
Deborah was not assuming this authoritative leadership role. She was, however, a prophet and inasmuch in an important position to God’s people. God made no distinction to those who might hear His voice. Men and women alike were given this role, though it wasn’t a role of leadership, per se.
Deborah, a different kind of judge
Deborah was a special case because she seems to be the only judge in Judges who has no military function. The other judges also led Israel into victory in battle, but Deborah received a word from the Lord that Barak was to do this. Judges 4:6 says,
She (Deborah) sent and summoned Barak the son of Abinoam from Kedesh-naphtali and said to him, “Has not the Lord, the God of Israel, commanded you, ‘Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking 10,000 from the people of Naphtali and the people of Zebulun?’”
Deborah does not assert leadership for herself but gives priority to a man. Even in the rebuke she gives to Barak in verse 8 she doesn’t try to take the victory from him. Her demeanor was such that she continued to give the leadership to a man, even when he might not be leading like he should. She continued to give God’s word, still displaying that disposition to submission referred to in the previous LEM post, “Gender Specific.”
Deborah, a private judge
Deborah exercised her gift of prophecy differently than the men who possessed this same gift. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and other male prophets exercised a public ministry where they proclaimed the word of the Lord. But note that Deborah did not prophesy in public. Instead, her prophetic role seems to be limited to private and individual instruction.
Judges 4:5 says,
She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment.
Note that Deborah did not go out and publicly proclaim the word of the Lord. Instead, individuals came to her in private for a word from the Lord. The difference between Deborah’s prophetic ministry and that of male Old Testament prophets is clear: She did not exercise her ministry in a public forum as they did. Even when she spoke to Barak she called him and spoke to him in private. (Judges 4:6, 14)
I feel it is extremely important, given all of this, that we draw the following conclusions about the history of Deborah as a judge in Israel in the Old Testament:
- God makes no distinctions on who hears him, whether man or woman.
- Both men and women are recipients of the spiritual gifts.
- Women did and should hold important positions within God’s community.
- However, even these are to be held with a complementarian viewpoint, a disposition and practice of male leadership.