Unavailable, Unwilling, Unsuitable Men?
One of the perennial arguments from people who have a problem with Deborah being the leader of Israel is that God probably only allowed her to be the leader because there were no men who were available, willing, or suitable to take the job.
God didn’t choose Jonah because he was available and willing. In fact, Jonah was reluctant to obey God and go to the heathen city of Nineveh. He even tried to run away from God (Jonah 1:3). So it seems that a lack of availability or willingness in a person is not an obstacle to God when choosing someone as a minister or leader.
We don’t know why God chose Jonah to be his mouthpiece and instrument in bringing about the repentance of Nineveh. We can only assume that God chose him because he was the best person for the task. Similarly, it seems that Deborah was the best person for the task of leading Israel in her time, and so God raised her up to save Israel from her enemies (cf. Judges 2:18).
Deborah’s Leadership Roles and Qualities
The fact that Deborah was a woman is not especially highlighted in text, and there is not the slightest hint anywhere in the Bible that her gender was a problem. Rather the Israelites recognised her authority. Her seat was just north of the crossroads of busy trading routes in the centre of Israel, and the Israelites came to her there when they wanted justice (Judges 4:5).
Ink and watercolour illustration of Deborah by artist Sarah Beth Baca. Used with the artist’s permission.
Deborah’s role as judge was to settle disputes among the Israelites, making judgements and rulings based on the Law of Moses, or Torah. This required her to interpret the Law. All the leaders of Israel mentioned in the book of Judges are called judges because they exercised judicial power (Judges 4:4-5).
Unlike many of the other judges, Deborah did a great job as leader and prophet. Deborah was an effective spokesperson for God, and her prophetic leadership extended to giving leadership to Barak, the general of the army (Judges 4:4-6). Barak respected Deborah, relied on her, and followed her orders (Judges 4:6, 8). Deborah, herself, did not shy away from entering the war zone (Judges 4:9-10), and during her leadership Israel had peace for 40 years (Judges 5:31).
Furthermore, Deborah’s words have been recorded in the Bible, in Judges chapter 5, and so they have the authority of Scripture.
God’s Choice and Calling of Leaders
The argument that God chose Deborah to be the leader of Israel because there were no available or suitable men is not supported by Scriptures. Moreover, being unwilling, unavailable, or even incapable, are not impediments to God’s calling. Moses, Gideon, Saul, and other Bible characters were, like Jonah, initially reluctant to follow God’s calling.
However, there were male leaders in Israel at the time of Deborah’s rule: nobles (Judges 5:13), princes (Judges 5:2, 9, 15), and warriors (Judges 4:6, 14-16), plus others who willingly offered themselves under Deborah’s leadership.
“When the princes in Israel take the lead, when the people willingly offer themselves—praise the Lord!” From Deborah and Barak’s Song, Judges 5:2 (NIV).
Even though there were male leaders, God chose Deborah. He chose her to be a “mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7), a matriarch in the community of his people, a female counterpart to the patriarchs.
God is still choosing to use certain women to lead his people. We need to be careful that we don’t second guess God’s choice, or the reasons for his choice, because of our own prejudices. Furthermore, we need to be careful that we don’t stand in the way of godly and gifted women whom God is calling today into ministry as leaders.
Dr Deborah Gill has also coauthored an excellent book with Dr Barbara Cavaness entitled God’s Women—Then and Now where they make the following pertinent statements: “Whereas Samson’s rule was confined to one tribe, [Deborah’s] authority “transcended tribal divisions”(Kindle Locations 685-686). And this: “The highest Old Testament religious office was not the priest, but the prophet”(Kindle Location 703).
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