Deborah the Prophetess and Judge

Here consideration is given by some biblical principles taught by the example of Deborah the prophetess of God who served as one of Israel’s judges.

Deborah had two roles in the nation of Israel: prophetess and judge of Israel (Judges 4:4-5).

Judges 2:6-15 speak of how after Joshua and those elders that were with Moses and Joshua had died, the people did great evil in the sight of the Lord. Therefore, the Lord caused the nations around Israel to overtake them to punish them for their great evil.

Yet, Judges 2:16 says nevertheless (because of God’s grace and mercy) God raised up judges to deliver them from their enemies. God did this time and time again after Israel repeatedly went back into great wickedness after deliverance. The Hebrew word for judges in verse 16 is H8199. According to Strong’s Concordance, the word means to pronounce sentence for or against, to punish or vindicate, to govern, to litigate, to avenge, to defend, to plead, to rule.

The scripture speaks of the spirit of the Lord coming upon Othniel to be that deliver whom the Lord raised up and he judged Israel (Judges 3:9-10) and he went out to war against Israel’s enemy and defeated them. The Hebrew word for judged in verse 10 is H8199 which is the same as in Judges 2:16.

Judges 3:15 mentions Ehud who the Lord raised up to deliver Israel out of the hands of their enemies. Judges 3:21 mentions Shamgar who the Lord raised up after Ehud to deliver them out of other enemies. These are not specifically labeled judges, but they clearly performed the function of the judges like Othniel all of whom are said to be Israel’s deliver.

Note that Othniel, Ehud, and Shamgar themselves went to war for Israel leading the people alone but not so regarding Deborah.

Let us consider the word judge as used by Moses. In Exodus 18:13-27 there is the account of where Moses sat to judge the people (Exodus 18:13) who came up to him to inquire of the Lord (Exodus 18:15).

When Moses father-in-law Jethro say Moses was doing too much, he said to Moses that he should appoint able men to help him such that Moses would judge great matters but these other men would judge smaller matters. So Moses appointed men at different levels to judge the people. Deuteronomy 16:18-20 says the function of the judge is to judge the people with just judgement. Indeed, this is the function of the judges in modern times in local, regional, and national courthouses to include the USA Supreme Court.

As a prophetess the Spirit of the Lord was with Deborah in a set aside way to include her fulfilling the function of judging Israel for Judges 4:5 says she judged Israel. The Hebrew word for judged is the same Hebrew word used for Othniel in Judges 3:10 which again means to govern or rule. It is the same Hebrew word used in Exodus 18:13 regarding Moses and in Exodus 18:26 regarding the men Moses appointed to help him in judging the people.

In Judges 4:5 it says Deborah sat under the palm tree in Mount Ephraim and judged Israel as the people came up to her for judgement. (The phrase Mout Ephraim refers to territory of Ephraim who was one of the sons of Joseph.

Clearly Deborah judged internal matters sitting under the tree. Therefore, one would expect she also used her office of prophetess in judging internal matters between the Israelites.

In Judges 4:6-9 Deborah clearly employs her office of prophetess in her dealings with Barak about the Lord’s instruction to him to go against the enemy of Israel. This was not only an internal matter but also an external matter in that it was dealing with delivering Israel from its external enemies.

But did the other judges also judge internal matters although it is not noted in the scriptures or did only Deborah judge internal matters. As previously noted, the Spirit of the Lord came upon Othniel in rendering him a judge but was this strictly for external matters.

Note that unlike the other judges, Deborah was not suppose to be the one to lead the men into battle. God instructed Barak to do that but he in his disobedient spirit required her to go with him (Judges 4:8-10). As a result God punished him and gave a woman the honor he should have received (Judges 4:14, 21). Yet, due to God’s grace and mercy, Barak is listed by name in the Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11:32; of course, Deborah was faithful although she like many other faithful people are not listed by name in the Hebrew 11 Hall of Faith.

Note that the giving of prophecy is not about spiritual rulership/headship as made clear in 1 Cor 11 regarding the women prophesying in the midst of the assembly. Those that prophesy may have other offices from which they rule. So it is not Deborah role as prophetess from which she rules but rather her role as judge from which she governed or ruled. In this sense Deborah was a civil authority much like the President of the USA who called upon the Generals to go to war against the enemy.

Deborah herself in the Song of Deborah which she and Barak sang Deborah provides some key insight into her role for Judges 5:7-9 says:

(7)  The inhabitants of the villages ceased, they ceased in Israel, until that I Deborah arose, that I arose a mother in Israel.
(8)  They chose new gods; then was war in the gates: was there a shield or spear seen among forty thousand in Israel?
(9)  My heart is toward the governors of Israel, that offered themselves willingly among the people. Bless ye the LORD.

There we see that Deborah arose to lead the people in military war not spiritual warfare. But then she was called upon by God to tell Barak what the Lord wanted him to do. It was not about what the Lord wanted her to do. She reminded and encouraged Barak to do what the Lord had instructed him to do.

The prophetess Deborah most likely judged the people privately under the tree; however, since she sat under a tree seemingly in the open it is possible this occurred within a public context but not before an assembly of the people, especially not a captive audience.

Deborah primary role as judge was not to preach and teach in the sense of giving a sermon or teaching Sunday School or teaching Bible Study. Rather it was to apply spiritual truths to the circumstances of those who came to her for judgement. Did this mean sometimes reading from or otherwise referencing the law or Moses or other Word of God? Probably so as even today judges and/or lawyers do that.

This was similar to Moses and those men he appointed in Exodus 18:13-16, 25-26). Note that it was men who Moses placed over the people, not women. Consistent with the rest of scriptures Deborah would not have operated at the same level of Moses just as the other men in Exodus 18 did not operate on the same level as Moses. Furthermore, she would not have operated on the same level as the other men. She would have operated within the confines of the male-headship principle which is about spiritual rulership especially with respect to doctrine; it is not about all rulership for it is not about war or solving conflicts between people. This does not mean she did not resolve issues between men as a judge for certainly she did. It means she did that concerning the application of biblical truth not preaching and teaching of biblical truth.

Deborah was a prophetess in addition to being a judge. In her role as prophetess she did deliver a word privately but not in a public assembly. Deborah’s role/position was not one of dominance over men. The Bible does not present her as having more public spiritual authority nor more public spiritual honor than men including her husband.

Indeed, there is no evidence Deborah had the power to compel a man to do anything. In fact, she had no such power over Barak as he made the decision to go to war or not go to war. Indeed, God took away some of his honor for giving Deborah more honor than he should when he said he would not go unless she went with him.

Deborah is a biblical example of a female who applied the principles of God in resolving questions of men/women who came to her “place of business/operation/judgment”. Note that this was not a captive audience nor a congregational environment. Perhaps it was more like a judge applying spiritual principles in a modern day public courtroom with participants and onlookers. Perhaps it was more of a private judging affair possibly with some onlookers but not necessarily hearers of what was being said. Perhaps it was more like a person being called up to the judge’s bench in a courtroom. Others may be present in the courtroom but not necessarily able to hear what is being said due to low speech.

Deborah’s role of non-dominance as a judge illustrates a very important biblical principle concerning governmental office. That principle is that females should not dominate numerically or positionally where major public spiritual/moral decisions are to be made in contrast to private matters. It is not a question of capability although the bible clearly establishes the woman as the weaker vessel (1 Peter 3:7). It is simply a question of the God ordained order with respect to certain roles.

Consequently, one should conclude that females may be legal judges/lawyers in the capacity of enforcing existing laws. Females may participate in making laws and changes to laws so long as they do not numerically and positionally dominate. This includes service on the US Supreme Court.

Note that the account of Deborah in Judges is an account of a disobedient nation and a disobedient man named Barak who burdened a woman to help him do what God wanted him to do and so God punished him yet his disobedience did not stop God’s plan.  Even after God sent Deborah to remind Barak of his call to defend the nation against the enemy, Barah still refused to act unless Deborah went with him. Yet, Barak should have led the children of Israel without Deborah having to go with him; he lacked sufficient faith and courage to act alone but enough to act with her so he is listed in the Hall of the faithful in Hebrews 11. So the question is will the men disciples of Christ be disobedient like Barak and continue to burden women or rise up and do what God wants the men disciples of Christ to do? Will the men be even more faithful and courageous than Deborah and Jael as God expects us to be?

In conclusion, certainly Deborah was an important person in the history of Israel who judged (governed, led, ruled) Israel during a period when the Israelites as a nation tended to rebel against God. Deborah proved to be faithful, courageous, gifted, called, sent, and used by God in his plan to lead and deliver Israel from their enemies as God extended his grace to his people. Yet, note there was no female judge before her or after her exemplified in the Bible; therefore, based on the biblical record she was an anomaly during a time when men would not stand for God as they should.

Note that Deborah did not govern/rule Israel in a way that violates the male headship principle that runs from Genesis to Revelation. Deborah’s type of rulership was not dealing with setting forth or clarifying doctrinal matters or preaching/teaching with spiritual authority as head of a regional/local church/congregation. Deborah role as a judge was more of a civil authority similar to but not the same as the President of the USA (who is not a spiritual authority) as Commander in Chief (miliary related authority) and judges at the courthouses at various levels. With respect to military action, unlike the other judges Deborah was not the one God chose to lead the battle. Deborah role as a prophetess was to communicate what thus saith the Lord but not as one having spiritual authority especially not as one having spiritual authority over men. Therefore, Deborah was not the equivalent of a bishop, elder, or pastor as head of a regional/local church/congregation.

A preacher is a person authorized as an official
representative of the church to herald the word of God in the public square/area. Only males are so authorized. Therefore, women should not be referred to as preachers. Note that in the Bible there is no female identified as a preacher. Not even the prophetess Deborah for
she did not herald the word of God in the public arena. She answered people questions who came up to her but that is judging not preaching.

See Of Male Headship and Women in Ministry for more info.

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