Deborah was a woman, Prophetess, wife of Lapidoth, and judge who was leading Israel at the time (Judges 4). Deborah told Barak to march against their enemies, and Barak insisted that he would only do so if Deborah went with him. Deborah said she would go with Barak, but due to his lack of confidence the victory would be in the hands of a woman. And, this is exactly how it played out.
Women in the Old Testament:
When we take a look at the role of women in the Scriptures, particularly in connection with women leading… Deborah is the number one contender. I think this is because she is not just known as a Judge, but considered a “Major Judge” (NIV Study Bible). Because of her wisdom as a Judge, being known as a Prophet, and also her involvement with the military action; Deborah was primed to be the example.
However, Deborah was not the only “leading woman” in the Scriptures. There are those who led well, and those who did not. There were five Prophetesses that are very specifically mentioned: Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Noadiah, and Isaiah’s wife. In less formal “leadership” we can even look to women like Rahab, Ruth, Esther, and the Proverbs 31 woman. For some women in the Scriptures, leadership was more formal than for others. These were patriarchal societies and women in high position of authority was not common. However it was not entirely absent either.
We can also see this continued into the New Testament, women were sometimes entrusted with very important roles and tasks. They were not disqualified for being a woman. And, as we look through Scripture in totality, when a called female leader makes a bad decision it is not her role in leadership that is questioned but rather her actions. Those who are false leaders/prophets are called out for that they are, and that is an entirely different situation. Good leaders can make bad choices, male or female.
What is the role of a Prophetess?
I am a big fan of not reinventing the wheel, so I’m going to share this explanation from the article: Women Prophets of the Bible. I think it is a really well written and concise explanation of the position, Scripture support links are included as well.
A prophetess is simply a female prophet. Just like a prophet, a prophetess is a person called by God. A prophet (male or female) is the mouthpiece for the one who sends him or her; the prophet speaks on behalf of the sender (Exodus 7:1-2). A prophet is considered a seer (1 Samuel 9:9), because God gives him or her the gift of foreknowledge. God reveals his secrets to prophets (Amos 3:7), and true prophesy is initiated by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21). 1 Corinthians 12:28 and Ephesians 4:11 both rank prophets as second only to apostles.
Furthermore, predictions should be tested to see if they come to pass. Prophets who make all sorts of predictions, but they don’t come to pass should be ignored (see Deut 18:20-22, Jer 28:9). Still, discernment is required because certain prophecies have stipulations of coming to pass that are contingent upon the recipient’s response (see Jonah and the judgment upon Nineveh).
One thing that I firmly believe about women called into leadership roles is that they are not given a separate list of qualifications or expectations. Anywhere we see in the Bible qualities that are expected of leaders, examples of godly leaders, characteristics of leaders, etc. all of this applies to women as well. The difference is not the job or the calling, but how women execute that calling that is different.
Which is entirely why I believe that in His goodness God has called women into leadership positions, not because there were no men available, but rather because women lead from a different place. Sometimes we need a gentler hand, a different perspective. He will call a woman in to leadership because He has a need and purpose for her in that time/place. Like we read in the book of Esther (4:14)… “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”.
Wife of Lapidoth?
Historically what we understand about women in the Old Testament is that women were defined as unmarried virgins, married women, and widows. But this is not 100% across the board truth. We know there were temple prostitutes, highly probably that they were not married. We know that men took on multiple wives, but we also know in the Old Testaments there were slave girls who mothered children while unmarried. We also know that there were concubines, which were not wives. So even though the cultural norm was that women would fall into those three descriptions, there were exceptions.
It is possible that Deborah was not married. Initially, I positioned that I believed that she was married based on how she was described in the Hebrew text. I couldn’t see any logical reason they would introduce her twice as a woman, or twice as a wife (the word for woman and wife are the same). Based on the sentence, it made most sense that she was married to a person vs. a Lapidoth being a city. When I continued the study yesterday, I also learned that it is possible that Lapidoth was not a city or a person (capital L) but actual a description of her (lower case l). In this case “woman of lapidoth” would make sense and translate to a “woman of fiery spirit”.
Perhaps, Deborah wasn’t married at all. There is no mention of Lapidoth in the rest of the Scriptures. Not as a person, not as a city. When Barak asked Deborah to go with him, there is no mention of Deborah having a conversation about this with her husband, or her husband going with them. The more I sit on this topic, the less inclined I am to believe that Deborah was married. She is also referred to in Judges 5 as the mother of the sons of Israel. If she wasn’t married, then I believe this is a reference to her maternal leadership of Israel vs. actual children.
Unmarried women would historically live with their family, and since Scripture supports that leaders are to be faithful in overseeing their homes… Deborah was a contributing member of the family. We see throughout Scripture examples of leaders and missionaries who had regular jobs/duties in addition to their calling. Only the Levites who were set apart as Priests would have a more focused, dedicated calling/service.
What is the role of a Judge?
According to Smith’s Bible Dictionary: “The judges were temporary and special deliverers, sent by God to deliver the Israelites from their oppressors; not supreme magistrates, succeeding to the authority of Moses and Joshua. Their power only extended over portions of the country, and some of them were contemporaneous. Their first work was that of deliverers and leaders in war; they then administered justice to the people, and their authority supplied the want of a regular government.”
The Scriptures give us four Major Judges (Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon) and we know there were about eight minor judges. The Judges were in place between death of Joshua and the monarchy. The time of the Judges spanned about 300-480 years. Judges 4 pretty much explains the need for the Judges. Joshua had died and so there was no one leading Israel. During this time there was a repeating cycle of disobedience to God, God allowing foreign oppression, Israel cries out in distress, and God raises up a judge to deliver His people out of the oppression.
It appears that as soon as a judge would die, Israel would fall back into disobedience and this would land them back under foreign oppression, until they cried out and a new judge arose. This makes it evident that there were years where Israel was without a judge leading over them, but we are not given to many specifics on how long these seasons lasted.
Based on the original Hebrew, the word judge means to lead. We know that Deborah was prophesying for the Lord to the people, that her wisdom was sought after, and that she was settling disputes. When we look back at Moses, we can see the same role. Moses was the mouthpiece of God, people sought his wisdom, he settled disputes among the people. Moses was considered to be the leader of Israel, and also commanded military action when God directed him to do so. In Hebrew, Moses was refered to as “shofet” and that is the exact same title used for Deborah. Shofet = military leader, over people, and judge of disputes
Was Deborah a military leader too?
Some would argue that Deborah was not a military leader, and place that designation on Barak. I do not see any Biblical evidence that Deborah was a judge but not in the full capacity of that position.
In Hebrew, Moses was refered to as “shofet” and that is the exact same title used for Deborah. Shofet = military leader, over people, and judge of disputes. Additionally, Moses himself would send out other military leaders in his ranks, and we don’t question him as the leader of Israel. Just because Deborah didn’t ride a horse out into battle, or draw a weapon, doesn’t discount her as a military leader. In fact, we see in Judges 4:14, after the troops had been gathered it was Deborah who gives Barak the orders to advance.
Therefore, I can not find any reason logical or Biblical to denounce Deborah as a military leader.
What does “leading Israel” mean, particularly in reference to Deborah, in Judges 4?
Deborah was every bit as much of a judge as any other, her “job description” and expectations would have been the same for that role. This meant that Deborah was leading Israel spiritually (delivering the Word of God), legally (judging over disputes), and militarily/politically (she’s a shofet).
BUT… in addition to being a judge (remember Smith’s Bible Dictionary called this a temporary role), Deborah was also a Prophetess. The role of a Prophet was not a temporary position. However we do have some holes in the history. We do not know how old Deborah was when God called her as a Judge. Nor do we know how old she was when God gifted her with prophesy. She could have been a Prophet the whole time that Israel was “doing evil” and they didn’t listen to her. Or, the gift of prophecy may have come at the same time she was called as a judge (which is why people began to listen to her).
My guess, and it is just that, lands on the presumption that at least for a time Deborah was a Prophetess ahead of her calling. It would have given the people ample time to see the evidence/proof that Deborah was in fact an anointed Prophet. This is how they would have grown to value her position in their community, trust her, and lean into her wisdom. Then when the time was ripe, the role of judge fell upon her as well. Her history and credibility would have given the people the confidence to trust her as a judge.
Deborah is a leader in the community as a Prophetess, the Lord raises her as a judge. Sisera is defeated. Judges 5:31 states that “the land had peace for forty years”. Judges 2 affirms that Israel behaved themselves as long as the judge was alive. Therefore, we know that after Sisera was defeated that Deborah sat as judge for another forty years. Perhaps the role of “judge” wasn’t always a temporary calling after all.
The Scriptures do not necessarily state that the person still acted as a judge, merely that peace lasted the length of their life. However, as Deborah was not only a judge but a Prophetess… it’s pretty safe to assume that she had a vital part in the future of Israel until her death.