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Deborah and the “no available men” argument

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

Deborah in the BibleThe 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.[1]

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.


Endnotes

Deborah Bible[1] Deborah Menken Gill, “The Female Prophets: Gender and Leadership in the Biblical Tradition” (Ph.D. Dissertation, Fuller Theological Seminary, 1991), 31.

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).


Related Articles

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Bible Women with Spiritual Authority
Beauty, Marriage, Motherhood and Ministry
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A Collection of Articles on NT Women Church Leaders

Posted June 28th, 2012 . Categories/Tags: Bible Women, Equality and Gender Issues, Equality in Ministry, Women in Ministry, , , , ,

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

37 comments on “Deborah and the “no available men” argument

  1. Sarah says:

    The “no men available” argument takes a pretty low view of God’s power. I mean, if God commands that no women are allowed to have authority over or teach any men, isn’t He powerful enough to make sure a situation in which there are no men available for His plans doesn’t happen? And if He allows this situation to happen, why would He contradict himself and allow a woman in a leadership position if He universally and eternally doesn’t want them in such a place?

    I find it kind of ironic when Calvinists use the “no men available” argument and then fail to consider these questions or get mad when these questions are presented to them.

  2. Marg says:

    I was thinking along similar lines. If God really preferred male leadership, or only approved of male leadership, was he incapable of raising a man to lead? This question is especially problematic for Calvinist’s who emphasise God’s sovereign power and will.

  3. Geraldine says:

    This is a topic that came up by a brother in our fellowship. Inwardly I cringed when he said he believed women are only used in leadership because there are no available/willing men. It made me feel as a woman like God’s last resort or second best. I seriously don’t think they think these things through let alone study the Word to see if what they say has any truth in it. Like Sarah said above in her comment, “The “no men available” argument takes a pretty low view of God’s power.”

    When this does come up Elijah always seems to come to mind. He thought he was the only one left when in fact there were many other prophets he didn’t know about…

    Lord, they have killed Your prophets; they have demolished Your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.
    But what is God’s reply to him? I have kept for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal! Romans 11:3-4

    If what they say is true, then who are we to say there are NO men available. How do we know that? Is not that man who actually says that not himself willing? And if we were to add up how many men use this reason why God uses women then thats quite a lot of men already! It doesn’t work.

  4. Marg says:

    Exactly. How do they know there were no men available?

    This reminds me Affirmation 9 of the Danvers Statement which seems to belittle God’s power by assuming that “… half the world’s population [is] outside the reach of indigenous evangelism …” I have no doubt that God is raising up indigenous leaders just as he is raising up women leaders.

  5. […] Complementarians have unfairly speculated that Deborah became a leader because there were no men capable of the task.  However the scriptures are clear that Israel was not without male leaders at that time.  Judges chapter 5 mentions leaders (5:2-3), nobles (5:13), princes (5:2, 9, 15) and warriors.  Moreover it is evident that Deborah encouraged other leaders in Israel, and that these leaders had great confidence in her leadership. […]

  6. […] If Deborah was in a church meeting would she be allowed to expound on the words of her and Barak’s song in Judges chapter 5? […]

  7. […] If Deborah was in a church meeting would she be allowed to expound on the words of her and Barak’s song in Judges chapter 5? […]

  8. […] The inspired songs, prayers, praises and teachings of Miriam (Ex 15:20-21), Deborah (Judges 5:1ff), Hannah (1 Sam 2:1ff), Abigail (1 Sam 25:28-31), King Lemuel’s Mother (Prov 31:1-9), Mary (Luke 1:46ff) and Elizabeth (Luke 1:41ff) are considered prophetic and are included in Scripture. […]

  9. […] Deborah and the “No Available Men” Argument […]

  10. Lydia says:

    Great article, thanks!

    I think what totally smashes this argument (on top of everything you have said) is that there were available men at the time – at least one, actively judging in other parts of Israel – and God still chose Deborah!
    The obvious one is Shamgar, who is recorded as overlap.
    The others stem from the fact that Judges doesn’t seem to be written chronologically, and to fit into the timeframe between Joshua and David, a lot of them must overlap; so the most likely ordering puts Deborah at the same time as Gideon (since they share the 40 years of peace).

  11. Marg says:

    Thanks Lydia. I’ve wondered about the chronology of Judges. I’ll have to find out more about this.

  12. […] Deborah was an excellent and versatile leader. She was a prophetess, a judge and a military leader (Judges 4-5). Deborah’s prophetic insight was accurate and she showed decisive leadership in military matters. Her words have been preserved in Scripture and thus have the authority of Scripture. […]

  13. […] (7) Lead and judge Israel, and lead the general of the army: Deborah (Judg. chapters 4-5). More here […]

  14. […] Deborah was an excellent and versatile leader.  She was a prophetess, a judge and a military leader (Judges 4-5).  Deborah’s prophetic insight was accurate and she showed decisive leadership in military matters.  Her words have been preserved in Scripture and thus have the authority of Scripture.  More about Deborah here and here. […]

  15. […] God did not necessarily use fathers or husbands as mediators of his word to women. God spoke directly to women, or used an angelic messenger (e.g. Rebekah in Gen. 25:22-23, and Hagar in Gen. 16:7-13). And, despite patriarchy, God sometimes used women to speak to men on his behalf (e.g. Deborah in Judg. 4:6ff, Huldah in 2 Chron. 34:23ff, and the skilled, wailing women in Jer. 9:17-22). […]

  16. […] Deborah (Judges 4:1-5:31) was a prophetess and judge who led Israel. Barak, the general of the army, respected Deborah and followed the orders she gave him. Israel prospered under her leadership. […]

  17. […] The standout example is Deborah – everyone knows Deborah – she was a prophetess and judge who led Israel, and very clearly led Barak, the general of the army. In fact Barak seems quite dependent on her (Judges 4:1-5:31). […]

  18. […] DEBORAH AND THE NO AVAILABLE MEN ARGUMENT […]

  19. […] These women were formidable rulers and some were effective military leaders. We see a strong women leader also in the Bible. Israel was led by Deborah in the years 2654-2694 (according to the Hebrew calendar) and she went into battle (Judges 4:6-9). Queen Salome Alexandra was reigning queen of Judea in the years 76 to 67 BC, in the intertestamental period. Both Deborah and Salome Alexandra were excellent leaders, and the Israelites prospered under their leadership. […]

    • fgdrury says:

      Deborah was Judging Israel for 20 years while they were in sin and bondage to the caananites. Not exactly a stellar performance. Another point. the people came to her for judgement. No account in the Bible of God calling her to Judge or confirming after that she was called to judge. Deborah said in her song that Barak led the battle, fought, and won. She did not participate in the fight or lead anyone in it. Miriam led women in a dance with a tamborine. She was not a leader over men in any way though many use her as an example.

      • Marg says:

        Hi fgdury,

        Just a quick reply to your concerns.

        Stellar performance? The Bible nowhere criticises Deborah and her leadership. Unlike Samson and Gideon, etc, nothing bad is said about her. The twenty years of Canaanite oppression was God’s idea (Judges 4:1-3).

        Called to judge/lead? See Judges 2:18.

        A participant? It was Deborah who discerned when the time was right to attack. She was the one who sent and summoned Barak to give him the command to go (Judges 4:6). And she went along to the battle at Barak’s request. While she personally did not fight (as far as we know) she was definitely a participant in the events surrounding the battle and victory. She was there (Judges 4:8-10).

        Miriam? I don’t mention Miriam in my article, but I do mention her in a comment on this page where I say “The inspired songs, prayers, praises, and teachings of Miriam (Ex 15:20-21), Deborah (Judges 5:1ff), Hannah (1 Sam 2:1ff), Abigail (1 Sam 25:28-31), King Lemuel’s Mother (Prov 31:1-9), Mary (Luke 1:46ff) and Elizabeth (Luke 1:41ff) are considered prophetic and are included in Scripture.”

        Many Christians, myself included, believe that Scripture has the highest level of spiritual authority. Because the words of these women (whether they are songs, prayers, praises, or teachings) are included in Scripture, they continue to inform both men and women, and perhaps even teach those who listen (2 Timothy 3:16).

        We know about Miriam’s song and dance, but she was an influential leader in other ways in the community of Israel. Like many leaders, her leadership was not always correct. Yet Micah refers to Miriam along with her brothers as leaders: God sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam before Israel (Micah 6:4).

        There was a recognised and respected place for prophetic women leaders in Israel. (More on this here.) It is a great pity that many churches do not recognise and respect prophetic women leaders today, let alone allow them to minister. All this because of one or two verses that address a specific situation, rather than a universal one.

        It is also a pity that some people choose to denigrate Deborah and her leadership, rather than see her for what she was: God’s appointed leader of Israel.

      • Tara says:

        I’m assuming you’re a fellow believer, so it pains me to see you saying something so hateful about a prominent Biblical figure, just because she’s female. To criticize Deborah’s “performance” because they were in “bondage to the caananites” makes as much sense as criticizing Jesus’ “performance” during His earthly ministry because it happened to be during the Roman occupation. If you applied this (I can’t call it logic) consistently, you would have to dismiss almost every noted prophet in the Bible as “less than stellar” because they served God in less than ideal circumstances. During times of sin, and often during or just before times of bondage is when prophets tended to be raised up because that’s when they were needed. What about Daniel (Babylonian occupation)?
        Or the apostles? The New Testament period was a time of terrible persecution for the church. Surely you wouldn’t blame them for that. I encourage you, for the sake of the gospel, to stop and think about the effects your hateful words have on unbelieving women who understandably get the idea that Christianity is misogynist because of the constant insistence that women are only God’s plan B. I invite you to show me a verse, just one, that says Deborah was God’s last resort. That false teaching is merely inferential. It’s not in scripture. We are not to add, or take away, and this false teaching does both. Bottom line: God chose Deborah because He wanted Deborah. Even if you’re against women in church leadership positions, Deborah’s work in no way violated any of the verses that you would use to support that view. Women are allowed to prophesy. You can’t even let us have the examples where the Bible clearly does show a woman in leadership without trying to denigrate them, (“well, you know , God only used her because….whatever.. and all she knows how to do is play a tambourine..etc). I think that’s evil. This is a clear example of a time when God chose to place a woman in a position of authority. I don’t know why you feel so threatened by that, but I hope you’ll take some time to reflect on it. Also, as far as your demeaning remark about Miriam, she did more than lead women in a dance with a tambourine. She was also considered a prophet (or prophetess, if you prefer, though the function is exactly the same). And as for your assertion that it was only the people’s idea to go to Deborah for judgement, God could have promptly removed her from her position if she were going against God’s wishes as He did with King Saul. As it happens, the scriptures make no mention of God being displeased with Deborah for making judgements, or the people for going to her. I hate to be so harsh, I have no ill will toward you, and I hope God blesses you. But it’s not acceptable to devalue God’s female servants that way, because it damages Christian women’s faith that God values them, and worse still, it makes it extremely hard for unbelieving women to consider coming to Christ when they think part of the price is conceding their inferiority to the opposite sex.

  20. Great article Marg. It’s also disheartening to actually hear women use the ‘God couldn’t find a man’ statement concerning themselves. I’ve heard women speakers denigrate themselves in this manner. Kathryn Kuhlman was also one who said she was only in ministry because God couldn’t find a man who was willing. It makes me wonder if such women had heard that idea somewhere and taken it on board.

    • Marg says:

      I’ve heard women say the same thing. It is sad when women see themselves as God’s second best or last hope, when, in fact, they were probably God’s first choice for a particular ministry.

  21. TL says:

    Judges 4:4
    4 Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, was judging Israel at that time.

    Deborah was both Prophet and Judge over Israel. And I believe Judges 5 indicates she Judged Israel for 40 years. The highest or most responsible position of service to Israel was that of Prophet. It was the Prophet that was moved of God to point out God’s choice of Judge. Deborah was both Judge and Prophet. Israel had 40 years of rest due to her leadership, the leadership of God’s chosen woman. One does not get to be a Judge unless God appoints it.

    • Marg says:

      Exactly! Judges 2:18.

      As I said on facebook, “It’s disturbing that some people disparage Deborah and her leadership just so that their understanding of 1 Tim 2:12 stays in tact.”

      When the whole counsel of Scripture on the issue of women in leadership is taken into consideration, it is their stance on 1 Tim 2:12 that is on shaky ground, and not Deborah’s leadership.

      • TL says:

        So true, Marg. The OT is the foundation setting upon which the NT is built. One must not go backwards to reinterpret the foundations in order to justify our personal interpretations of what was built on them. That is what the modern patriarchy/complementarian doctrines do.

  22. […] This masculinist view of God has also influenced how Pawson views leadership in the Church. Pawson states that he is “thus far convinced” that the leadership of God’s people “must be male”. (1997:10) Pawson’s view does not take into account the leadership of Deborah and several other female prophetic leaders mentioned in the Bible (cf Num. 11:12; 1 Thess. 2:7). […]

  23. […] According to the Megillah (one of the tractates of the Talmud), the rabbis regard Abigail as one of seven prophetesses who prophesied to Israel. The other six female prophets are: Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Huldah, and Esther. (See Megillah 14a and 14b.) […]

  24. […] Deborah and the “no available men argument” […]

  25. […] Many men in the Old Testament took advice and directions from women, and they did not see it as either a humiliating affront or as a punishment.
    ~ Barak, an army general, took directions from, and depended on, Deborah (Judg. 4:6, 8).
    ~ David heeded and praised the advice and prophetic words diplomatically and courageously given by Abigail (1 Sam. 25:23-31). […]

  26. Donald Johnson says:

    Deborah was a judge prophet and she shares this distinction with Moses and Samuel as far as I can tell. This indicates a wide-ranging scope of authority authorized by God.

    All the judges in Judges were selected by God, as Judges says at the start.

    Some claim there is some hint of tarnish on Deborah as she is not explicitly mentioned in the Hebrews 11 Hall of Faith while Barak is, but prophets are mentioned as a group and she would certainly be included as a prophet.

    I have heard that some comps may acknowledge a woman as a modern day Deborah, but the implication is that such is exceptional and rare. If I was a woman and this kind of assessment came from a comp on myself, I would reject it unless they agreed to repent from their ideas on women in church leadership in general.

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