Skip to content

Deborah—a Rare Judge

Judges Chapters 4 and 5 

Many in our “enlightened” society, including liberals among the Christian churches, have mischaracterized the Bible’s patriarchal system as being sexist and discriminatory against women. These detractors decry the fact that men were chosen in the Old Testament to be prophets, priests, and kings; and that, in the New Testament, Christ called men as apostles; and that men were prescribed to serve as leaders in the church (see 1 Timothy 2:12-3:2).

Refusing to acknowledge that God gave men and women differing gifts and roles, which are important in their own right, the worldly-minded reject what God reveals in such matters. They claim that the Bible’s male-oriented leadership is a product of human opinion, which is subject to error and change.

While God in His wisdom chose men to lead in the church and home, yet we find Him making an exception in the case of an Old Testament prophetess named Deborah. God chose Deborah to be one of the judges of Israel, an office normally filled by men. Deborah distinguished herself as a rare judge, not simply because of being the only female judge, but also because of the extraordinary kind of spirit-filled leadership and support she provided.

Such a spirit comes from knowing our Savior in faith. Christ humbly gave of Himself, to the point of death, in order to make us eternally redeemed children of God, children who humbly serve others in Christian love (see Philippians 2:1-8).

The Lord did not give a direct word explaining why He chose a woman as a judge of Israel. However, there are indications that the men of that day were unwilling to step up and lead in various capacities. With that void needing to be filled, Deborah was willing to serve. Have there not been similar cases in Christian homes? It has sometimes been necessary for the mother to provide spiritual leadership by default, because the man of the house was unwilling to serve as the spiritual head of the family.

Deborah was a humble and selfless judge. Her office quarters for delivering godly judgments to the Israelites were under a palm tree in the mountains of Ephraim.

Ordinarily in this sad period in Israel’s history, the appointed judge led soldiers into battle against their oppressive enemies. However, Deborah deferred to the male leadership in the military. Serving instead as a mouthpiece of God, Deborah gave these words of encouragement to Barak of Naphtali, “Has not the Lord God of Israel commanded, ‘Go and deploy troops at Mount Tabor; take with you ten thousand men of the sons of Naphtali and of the sons of Zebulun’?” (Judges 4:6).

But when Barak saw he was up against nine hundred iron chariots, he displayed spiritual “weak knees.” With a fearful, needy spirit, he said to Deborah, “If you will go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go” (Judges 4:8). It wasn’t just Barak who wanted her out there when the battle was engaged, but also Israel’s army of men (see Judges 5:15).

Here again, Deborah displayed a rare courage and supportiveness. She accompanied the soldiers. She was not dressed in armor with a sword in her hand, but nevertheless was there to give the men moral support and encouragement. What a marvelous example for all those who serve in supportive roles in the home, in the church, and wherever it is needed!

When we read this account, we might wonder how it is that Barak is listed in Hebrews as a hero of faith (Hebrews 11:32). Is it not due in part to Deborah being there for Barak and pointing him to the Lord as his source of strength and courage (compare Judges 4:14)?

In the victory song recorded in Judges 5, we don’t find Deborah singing her own praises as a woman in all this. No, we find her singing the praise of the Lord for everything He accomplished.

The enemy commander, Sisera, was defeated and killed. But because Barak had been fearful and hesitant, the honor of that victory would not be his, but would belong to another woman—a Kenite named Jael. Jael slew Sisera by driving a peg into his temple while he was fast asleep in her family tent (Judges 4:9, 17-22; 5:24-27).

Thank God for all those who, according to His will, are willing to serve in positions of leadership, as well as in supportive roles! To God alone be all the praise, honor, and glory!

Mark Gullerud is pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Bowdle, South Dakota, and Zion Lutheran Church in Ipswich, South Dakota.