This was originally written for and published on the Commission on Biblical Gender Equality, a blog of the Evangelical Covenant Church. You can read it here.
The Israelites had a pattern of “sin, judgement, repentance and rescue.” Over and over again. They wandered away from, they ended up oppressed under a foreign ruler, and then they would repent and God would rescue them, and then they’d fall right back into the same pattern as before.
One of the times that the Israelites did evil in the eyes of God, they lived cruelly oppressed for 20 years under the Canaanites. (Read Judges 4 & 5.) Their villages had no walls, which left them vulnerable to oppressors, who would even come and eat the crops out of their fields. It became too dangerous to travel the main roads, which is were trade happened, which made it difficult to buy and sell goods.
The Israelites had no weapons. No shield or spears. The Canaanites had 900 chariots and iron. Their weapons were intimidating. There was no way for the Israelites to challenge the chariots on foot without being completely desecrated. The villagers had no fight in them.
They had no hope.
They knew if they fought, they would die.
The Canaanites arrived at the city gates, and the Israelites were ready to be taken. They were ready for destruction. War came to the city gates up north, and Deborah was down in the hill country of Ephraim.
Deborah was a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth and she was leading Israel at this time. Lappidoth is Hebrew for “fire” so it could be translated that Deborah was a woman from Lappidoth, wife of Lappidoth or a fiery woman. Whichever it is translated, there’s no denying that Deborah was a woman- when writing about a strong woman, there was a risk that she would be turned into a man in the retelling of history, so the writer went to great lengths to make it clear that Deborah was in fact a woman.
Deborah held court under a palm tree there, where she brought justice to her people. Don’t overlook the importance of the tree! Trees are a symbol of fairness, so we know right away that Deborah is a fair judge.
Now remember, this is a time that the Israelites were doing evil.
Deborah was the one in charge of bringing justice. Justice to her fallen nation. In Judges 2:12 it explains, “they followed and worshiped various gods of the people around them. They aroused the Lord’s anger.”
We can only imagine how difficult Deborah’s job as judge must have been. But she remained fair and just. She did not waiver. She was a strong and courageous leader to an evil nation.
It wouldn’t have been easy to be a prophet to a disobedient nation. The job of a prophet was to speak out against evil and injustice, to warn the people to turn back to God. Deborah would have been responsible to call out the sin of her people, and foretell the coming destruction.
We also cannot overlook Deborah’s name. Names were significant, a person’s name told about who they were, and Deborah means “honey bee”. In the ancient world a honey bee bridged the natural world to the underworld. The mortal world with the immortal world. It’s no coincidence that this just judge and prophet was named Deborah. She spoke with God, and challenged people with God’s words. She bridged the natural world and the divine.
This bi-vocational woman was doing difficult work. Not one of her jobs was easy. All the while, she was trying to lead a nation that had no fight left in them. They were done. They were ready to give up. To be conquered.
And yet, she arose as a leader, as a mother in Israel. Leaders are often seen as strategic and commanding, so I love that Deborah tells us in her song, that she is a mother in Israel. She cared for her people in the way that a mother cares for her children. She’s rising up like a mother bear to protect her helpless young. She’s filled with empathy for the princes and the volunteers. She says that her heart is with them.
Somehow, Deborah found a way to motivate and inspire her people, she gave them hope that something new was possible. And she began to appoint the next generation of leaders.
So often we stuck in the same patterns, the same rhythms day in and day out, looking to the same people to lead, that it’s hard to imagine something new, something different. Someone different. But God is always working new ways, God is always moving us forward.
God was ready to do something new for Israel, God was ready to restore the nation, but the people weren’t receptive. Somehow, Deborah found a way to inspire and rally the people around a new vision.
She took charge of the military. God worked through her to develop a strategy to defeat the Canaanites, and she told Barack to take 10,000 men from Naphtali and Zebulun, to lead them to Mount Tabor, and there in that place God would give the Canaanites into the Israelite’s hands.
Deborah handed Barack the plan.
And Barack knew Deborah was strong; he knew that there was no way he could go without her. He wanted her by his side. Deborah told him because of this, the victory would be that of a woman’s.
Deborah gave the commanding order, the military went into battle as soon as she said, “Go!”
Barack pushed the chariots.
All of the troops fell by the sword.
There were no survivors.
Sisera fled to Jael’s tent and Jael killed him. Israel went on to destroy Jabin — the king of the Canaanites.
Under Deborah’s leadership, there was peace in Israel for 40 years.
Just as God raised Deborah to lead his people, God is raising up women in our congregations to lead.
Johnson, Alan F. How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership: Compelling Stories from Prominent Evangelicals. Grand Rapids Michigan: Zondervan, 2010.
Kroeger, Catherine Clark., and Mary J. Evans. The IVP Women's Bible Commentary. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002.
Tidball, Derek, and Dianne Tidball. The Message of Women: Creation, Grace and Gender. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2012.
Tucker, Ruth. Dynamic Women of the Bible: What We Can Learn from Their Surprising Stories. Baker Books, 2014.
Younger, K. Lawson. The NIV Application Commentary: Judges. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2002.