Monday, November 14, 2011

Deborah: Right Man for The Job (Judges 4)

Who was the only woman to judge Israel? Deborah.

After the conquest of Israel, charismatic leaders or “judges” periodically surfaced to lead Israel. Deborah is the book’s third major judge, emerging at a time when Israel was experiencing a spiritual and moral decline (Judges 4:1-5:31). She is also described as a prophetess (Judges 4:4) who held court beneath a palm tree (Judges 4:5).

Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the sons of Israel came up to her for judgment. (Judges 4:4-5 NASB)
Deborah’s tenure was a success that resulted in forty years of peace (Judges 5:31). The apex of her rule was convincing Barak to lead a successful counterattack against the forces of Jabin king of Canaan and his military commander Sisera (Judges 4:6-24). This contingent had wreaked havoc on Israel for twenty years (Judges 4:2-3).

Susan Niditch (b. 1950) explains, “Deborah is a prophet, that is, one capable of mediating between God and human beings, and is perceived of having gifts of divination and charisma. She is a conduit to God, a vessel for divine communications of various kinds. It is this inspired oracular gift that allows her to “judge” leading on and off the battlefield (Niditch, Judges: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 65).”

The only other background detail that the text provides is that Deborah was the “wife of Lappidoth” (Judges 4:4 NASB). In Hebrew, this can also be read “woman of fire” or “woman of torches”.

Douglas A. Knight (b. 1943) and Amy-Jill Levine (b. 1956) expound:

The Hebrew for “wife of Lappidoth,” eshet lapidot, can also be translated “woman of flames.” The words for “wife of” and “woman of” are the same, and there is no Mr. Lappidoth featured in the text. Nor is there any fellow named Lappidoth found elsewhere in the Bible. (Knight and Levine, The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us, 60)
This interpretation also provides a word play as Deborah is the torch that sets general Barak (whose name means “lightning”) on fire. J. Clinton McCann (b. 1951) states succinctly, “Deborah as ‘Torch Lady’ would be quite appropriate (McCann, Judges (Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 52).”

Have you ever seen anyone who arose at the right time to lead a previously divided people? Do you think that Deborah’s gender played a role in Barak’s hesitation to follow her advice? How significant is her gender to her story?

Deborah was the only woman to serve in the capacity as “judge”, which at the time equated to the highest public office in the land. Her gender is stressed throughout.

Tikva Frymer-Kensky (1943-2006) explains:

Both the story and the song emphasize the fact that Deborah is a woman. The story tells us that she was a prophetess-woman, adding the word “woman,” ’iššah, when the female noun “prophetess,” nebî’ah, already conveys that information. She is called “Lapidot”-woman or Lapidot’s woman, again repeating the word “woman,” ’ēšet...And the song stresses that Deborah was a “mother in Israel.” The femaleness is neither hidden nor incidental: it is an integral part of the story. The motherhood of this “mother in Israel” goes beyond biology. It describes her role as counselor during the days before the war, and it indicates her role in preserving the heritage of Israel, in her case by advising in battle. (Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories, 49-50)
As Frymer-Kensky alludes, Deborah describes herself as “mother to Israel” (Judges 5:7 NASB). Deborah not only does not conceal her femininity, but stresses it. For her, it is an asset, not a detriment to her ability to lead.

Are there times when a woman is not only adequate to lead but better suited? During what circumstances? Could you vote for a woman president? If a woman was equipped and appointed to lead Israel, God’s people, can a woman lead a church, also God’s people?

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