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Women in the Old Testament: Deborah

Thursday, July 26, 2012
We are told relatively little about Deborah in the Old Testament. However, the little we do learn comes to life when we see Deborah in context, as part of a broader picture of God guiding and teaching his people. The book of Judges begins with two prologues. The first is more historical in tone and gives an account of the conquest of the Promised  Land after the death of Joshua. In broad brush-strokes it summarises how the twelve tribes, strengthened by God, claimed one victory after another over the local Canaanite tribes. However, rather than dispossessing these conquered peoples as the Lord commanded, Israel instead enslaved her neighbours and subjected them to forced labour. For this disobedience, Judges tells us, God withdraw his support for Israel's armies. Instead, the nations became Israel's "oppressors" and their gods "snares" (Judges 2:1-5).

The second prologue offers a theological interpretation of this history. In an analysis that has echoes of Eden and the fall of Adam, we read that after the death of Joshua Israel succombed to the temptation of idolatry. The enslavement that followed is the inevitable result of worshipping a false god. Israel's military victory over the Canaanite tribes, like their escape from Egypt, had not been by their own strength but by the power of God. On her own, Israel was not able to resist her enemies: to be free, she must be obedient to God's commands. Yet God did not abandon his people to slavery. He raised up Judges, charasmatic leaders that would recreate Israel's freedom and call her back to odedience to the covenant. Yet just as the people went astray after the death of Joshua, so they continually went astray once more after the death of a judge.

It is against this axis of obedience and freedom vs sin and slavery that we best understand Deborah. We meet her in chapter 4 of the book of Judges, the fourth Judge to be identified by name and the second to have their story told in detail. We are told that she was a prophetess who sat under a palm tree in the highlands of Ephraim. There the people would come to her for justice. The fact that a woman was treated with such esteem and respect must surely tell us something about the quality of her judgements and decisions: Deborah must have had a profound insight into what was truly right and just, a profound insight into the true meaning of the law; her judgements must have been liberating.

In Judges 4:6 Deborah summons Barak from Kadesh in Naphtali and orders him to attack Sisera, the commander of the army of Jabin King of Canaan. Jabin was at this time cruelly oppressing Israel. Barak refuses to go unless Deborah comes with him. He perhaps understands that victory is impossible unless God fights for Israel and wants the prophetess Deborah to be at his side discerning the will of God. Deborah agrees and the battle is won. Sisera dies at the hand of Jael, another women, who drives a tent peg through his temple while he sleeps. As well as offering a liberating vision of the law, then, Deborah also offers her people military liberation from an oppressing enemy.   

Deborah's authority to lead in matters of law and war stemmed not  from her social status or institutional position, but directly from God. Like the other judges, she was blessed with charismatic gifts that enabled her to liberate her people, and crucially the people of God recognised that she had been given this authority and followed her.  The problem was that though they followed her, they did not learn. Her teaching was not internalized. Whilst Deborah's victory gave Israel forty years of peace, after her death the people sinned once more and became oppressed.

Nicholas Crowe OP


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