I want to share with you some stories. Stories of powerful women in the Bible whose voices have been ignored for too long, yet their stories are so incredible and inspiring for our time.
I want to bring them and their world to life for Christians and the curious alike, because in rediscovering these extraordinary women we can better encourage all believers whether women or men to live their full potential and calling in God.
And in this series you can find no better example of this than the person of Deborah, from the Bible’s book of Judges.
Deborah and the Book of Judges
Judges is a book of incredible stories and people, many of whom are women doing extraordinary things. It’s also a book that can be challenging for modern readers unfamiliar with its world or its purpose as a text. Some sections are not for the faint hearted but it does reflect the troubles and triumphs of a bronze age people as they struggle with religious and national identity, war and peace, prosperity and insecurity.
In summary, Judges records the rise and fall of the Israelites under their different leaders or as the name of the book implies, Judges. They had their good rulers and bad. There are shifting alliances and allegiance to God or sometimes to the gods of their neighbours (which always lead to disaster). Yet when the Israelites realise their errors and turn back to God, he responds by raising up another leader as judge, who rescues them from their enemies.
The whole book is a repetition of this cycle of leaders being raised up and stepping forward, doing fantastic deeds for God and then an inevitable decline in society after their victory;
‘in those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.’ (Judges 21:25).
Its many different stories are sometimes tragic and brutal, sometimes victorious. If Game of Thrones went biblical, it would look a lot like the Book of Judges!
Enter now from this book, the remarkable character of Deborah.
Deborah breaks the mold
You can read about Deborah in Judges, 4-5. She is the first female leader in Israel’s history and yet there is something astonishing in the Biblical account. The fact that Israel was lead by a woman is not even noted as extraordinary, it’s just stated as fact. Yet Ehud, another judge preceding her, was remarked as being unusual for being left handed!
Deborah has a husband called, Lappidoth, and that’s all we know about him. A quiet man, clearly (but from the Hebrew meaning of his name, also ‘very bright’).
It’s clear from the text, that in this one instance, Deborah was also a judge in the way we understand it today. She adjudicated disputes among the people. It’s said that people would travel great distances to bring matters to her as she sat and ‘held court’ under a palm tree (Judges 4:5). That was her day job and it was clearly seen as important.
A call to lead for all women
What we find already from the story is that God can call a woman forward to lead a nation. For women readers and men who support them, have you had a strong calling on your life to lead? For Deborah, she felt such a connection to her people and their future that God honoured what was in her heart. She asserted herself as someone who wanted to serve and lead Israel out of its current time of trouble. What’s more, she was completely confident in who she was and her special calling in God. We can hear it clearly in her own words:
Villagers in Israel would not fight; they held back until I, Deborah, arose, until I arose, a mother in Israel.’ (Judges 5:7).
She understood the problems around her and understood that the solution needed leadership. Deborah answered that call and stepped up to do something.
Men and women, God does not discriminate. Do you see something in your community, church or even nation that requires leadership? Do you feel a strong calling to assertive action like Deborah? Know that you may well be sharing the very same prophetic inspiration that Deborah had. Listen hard to that call inside and be prepared like Deborah at some point to shout, ‘I arise!’
The heart of the story
Now it’s when we get to the heart of the story that we can really find out more about Deborah and the characteristics that made her so special. I’m going to summarise the original text.
There are a number of different characters from different sides and tribes, to help here’s who they are:
Deborah: Prophetess, leader, and judge of the Israelites.
Barak: Commander of the Israelite army.
Interestingly, the name Deborah in Hebrew means Bee and Barak means Thunderbolt. You can guess where this story might be heading!
The other characters:
Sisera: Commander of the Canaanite army.
King Jabin: From the Canaanite tribe and cruel oppressor of Israel.
Jael: Wife of Heber the Kennite, a former ally of Israel and now a friend to King Jabin.
Besides been an adjudicator over Israel, Deborah’s other calling was that of a prophet, which means she would speak God’s truth to his people through her words. This is a very special calling indeed for the time in Israel’s covenant history with God.
In fulfilling this role she had to say some brave things and challenge some big personalities. Here the story really begins when she summons an army commander called Barak and then informs him he must go into battle to have victory over Israel’s enemy at the time, the Canaanites. Furthermore, she informs him of the precise military strategy he must undertake, which is nothing short of bold and audacious!
So Deborah is judge, prophet and now a military advisor.
Barak agrees (perhaps reluctantly) and asks Deborah to come with him,
‘If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.’ (Judges 4:8)
It’s as if he’s saying, ‘my victory is dependent on you being there’.
Her reply is telling:
‘Certainly, I will go with you,’ said Deborah. ‘But because of the course you are taking, the honour will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.’
So there, Barak. You may be manly enough to lead 10,000 men into hand to hand combat with a well armed, sophisticated enemy, but you need a woman behind you to push you into action and embolden your faith! Furthermore, it will be a woman who takes the final victory too.
Boldness & obedience gets results
And so Barak in gathering his army of 10,000 men on Mount Tabor, moved his army down the mountain, losing his strategic advantage and attacking Sisera the Canaanite commander, and his way superior army of 900 iron chariots on the Kishon Plain. The audacity of the attack caused mass panic and we read in the next chapter a description of a flash flood (Judges 5:21) rendering his state of the art chariots, useless.
(If you think this too fantastical to believe, then think again, because this exact same battle scenario was repeated in the same location in 1799 when Napoleon overwhelmed the Ottoman Army, on the Battle of Mount Tabor)
In all of this Deborah knew who she was and what her role in Israel’s history was to be. This was due to her close relationship with God and her calling as a prophet. Her spiritual life serves as a great model for us all. Her closeness to hearing God meant she carried a trusted authority amongst the strongest leaders in her society. Think the calm spiritual authority of a Mother Teresa combined with the fiery certainty of a Margaret Thatcher (ok controversial combination, but I think you get the point)!
Her reputation, strength, and wisdom won her trust and respect from the people and so when Deborah spoke God’s words to Israel through her, people listened, in awe. And so, of course, did her General, Barak.
‘Go! This is the day the Lord has given Sisera into your hands. Has not the Lord gone ahead of you?’
Can we have faith like Deborah? Can we share the same audacity and carry the same respect from others to lead? It’s a tremendous challenge to respond to!
A different heroine.
Step now into the story another audacious woman, Jael, wife of Heber the Kennite. Sisera having just lost his army staggers into an allied camp belonging to a friendly tribe (who had switched alliances away from the Israelites). Jael welcomes Sisera into her tent as a gesture of hospitality and protection. Given the norms of the time, no other man would dare enter into a woman’s tent, especially in an act of war. So Sisera had found a convenient hiding place and protection from a friendly tribe. Or so he thought.
All along, Jael deceives Sisera by providing him nourishment with a place to sleep and hide but then takes matters into her own hands. She kills him while he’s sleeping, with a tent peg.
We don’t know Jael’s exact motives but it’s likely she was moved by the plight of the Israelites who had been treated harshly under King Jabin, their new ally. Hers was an act of vengeance motivated by a thirst for justice and it fulfills Deborah’s prophecy that Barak’s opponent would be handed over into the hands of a woman.
Were Jael’s actions morally right? It’s not clear but in all this God’s people won an incredible victory, thanks to the actions of two women.
A final twist.
But there’s another twist to the story. We hear in Deborah’s victory song (chapter 5) a poignant moment from the voice of Sisera’s own Mother. She’s not aware of her son’s death on the battlefield but like any mother of a soldier with no word of his fate, remains to wait and hope.
‘Through the window peered Sisera’s mother; behind the lattice, she cried out, ‘Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why is the clatter of his chariots delayed?’ (Judges 5:28).
Three different women brought together who are central to the story of a great battle and victory. Ironically it is the men in this who are either weaker or foolish to their wiser, braver (and warlike) female counterparts.
What are we to make of it?
God’s word is full of surprises. When we read of these remarkable women and the faith calling of Deborah, it provokes us to think and respond.
In the light of the new covenant in Christ, we no longer live in an age of territorial warfare of flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12) but it’s clear from many passages in the New Testament that we are in a spiritual battle.
Women, are you prepared to lead in this battle? The battle to bring God’s righteousness and peace and his saving power to the world? Will your faith and leadership reflect the special calling God has for you?
And men, will you like Barak recognise God’s voice and respond bravely to the battles you to have been called to?
Can we begin to live like the powerful women of the Bible?
*Curious to read more? Samson is another character also from the book of Judges.
Not Only Sundays – Bible Wisdom for Every day.
© Not Only Sundays, May 2017.
Scripture quoted from the NIV translation.
Images sourced on www.pixabay.com image under a creative commons licence CC.