Women gifted for leadership

By Rev Elizabeth Raine

Judges 4:1-7 (NRSV) Deborah the Judge

The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died. 2So the Lord sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. 3Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly twenty years.

4At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. 5She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment. 6She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, ‘Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. 7I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.’”

Reflecting on the Word

This story of Deborah the Judge is set around 1125BC in ancient Israel. The word ‘judge’ did not mean then what it means now. A judge in Israel was a tribal leader who had authority to settle disputes and problems in times of peace; and who acted as a rallying point for the tribes in times of war.

Deborah is an important figure in the Old Testament, as she is the only woman judge mentioned in the Book of Judges. Deborah had equivalent authority from God as the male judges, as in verse 5:4 the same word is used for Deborah ‘judging” as was used for the male judges. Some of your translations might say she was “leading” (which she was), but the text clearly states she is one of Israel’s judges, and the people of her time had no difficulty in accepting her as a judge. Deborah was also a prophet, which meant she ‘heard’ a message from God in some way and passed it on. These messages tended to interpret the events that were happening in the here and now rather than foretell a distant future.

The people came to consult Deborah on legal matters when she sat under a special palm tree in the hill country of Ephraim. The palm tree was the ancient equivalent of a judge’s courthouse, a place where people went when they needed a law interpreted or a dispute settled. It is a setting which the rabbinic tradition says shows her fairness, openness, and impartiality.

Deborah’s war was one which changed Israel’s history. The enemy’s general, Sisera, aimed to conquer Israel but his army literally got stuck in the mud when the Lord sent rain (5:4, 21), which is reminiscent of the Pharaoh’s chariots being mired in the Reed Sea. Like Moses, her direction and obedience to God saves the Israelites and effectively removes the Canaanites so the Israelites could move into the fertile valleys. There is no doubt this woman is truly gifted for leadership of Israel at this time.

I want now to raise a question: how much do you know about Deborah? Were you taught about her in Sunday school or have heard sermons about her? And why is it that so few women leaders are mentioned in the Bible?

Deborah shows that women were not less wise, or less faithful, or less courageous than the biblical male heroes. But the bible is largely stories written by men, to remember other men and to instruct men. It is quite probable that the women’s stories that were passed down mostly didn’t make it into the thinking of the male priests and scribes so they went unrecorded.

So we need to treasure the few stories we have, and remember that women were also inspiring leaders who were faithful servants of God. It is likely there were many other wonderful women of faith who were clever and did courageous deeds, but their stories have been lost.  The story of Deborah reminds us to remember all the women, named and unnamed, who served God well and faithfully.

Reflecting on the passage

You might want to read the whole story of Deborah and Barak’s war. Women certainly are the heroes in it. What issues does the story raise for you?

Is there anything unusual about Deborah and her decisions and actions?

In what ways do does Deborah give us insight into being a faithful disciple?

Some Christian groups use the story of Deborah to teach that a woman leading means a man had failed somewhere ie God uses a good woman only when a good man can’t be found. Do you think this is what the story is actually saying?

What is the most important thing for you to take away from this story?

Prayer for ourselves and others

(adapted from Spill the Beans, Iss.36)

God, you have reminded us that all humanity is connected.
We are dependent on one another and on the earth that you created.
So, help us to live in love, caring for one another,
building up one another in love and reverence.
May we never avert our eyes when any of your children suffers
but instead hear you calling us to make a difference.
May we never feel self-sufficient
but always be aware of how we need each other.
May we never be silent
when our voices should be raised in protest.
God it is not your will that any should suffer,
so help us to pray for and work towards justice, inclusion,
equity and love with all that we have,
bearing one another’s burdens, sharing one another’s sorrows.
God, help us to use our power wisely and always for good
until we see your kingdom come and your will done.

(adapted from Spill the Beans, Iss.36)

Our faith asks much of us,
sometimes it can feel too much.
As you leave this time of worship
know that you are enough.
Your presence and faithfulness
are a great witness to God’s love.
Beloved child of God
know God’s blessing is
with you this day and every day.

Photo of Rev Elizabeth Raine

Written by Rev Elizabeth Raine

Elizabeth is minister at Tuggeranong Uniting, beginning her ministry here in December 2018. 

Over the years, she has had a number of diverse and interesting placements, such as a school chaplaincy, a tenancy worker with UnitingCare, a congregational minister, a lecturer at UTC, a Presbytery minister, and as an Intentional Interim minister. 

More from Rev Elizabeth Raine