Is it Biblical to Call Deborah Plan B?

“How do you know that?” I asked, reaching for my glass of sweet tea as I leaned back in the antique dining chair.

“Because the passage says so.”

I could feel my eyebrows going up as I lowered my cup. We were in the middle of a debate about what Christians can learn from the biblical story of Deborah, and I’d just been startled into full attention. “It doesn’t say anything like that.”

“Yes it does.” The young woman across from me radiated confidence, and her eyes sparkled with the love of debate. “I’ve just read it recently.”

Well, so had I. Grabbing my smartphone, I opened the Blue Letter Bible App and pulled up Judges 4, which was the text in question. After a quick skim, I slid the phone across the table to her and said, “Here’s the passage. Show me.”

How the Debate Began

The conversation had started out normally enough. We began by discussing Christian evangelism, which naturally transitioned into a discussion of spiritual gifts. At that point, I casually mentioned that my spiritual gift is Teaching.

And that’s when things got really interesting.

It’s a very common view in conservative Christian circles that women are not allowed to formally teach men, (i.e. be head pastors, etc). I’m not here to argue about that view one way or another. But THIS girl, with her vivacious laugh, wildly curly hair, and passionate love of debate, had come flying out of left field with an idea I’d never encountered in my life.

Based on the grammatical construction of 1 Tim 2:12 in the Greek, she was basically convinced that women can’t have the gift of teaching, because women are not allowed to teach theology to anyone, men OR women. (With the Titus 2 exception that older women can teach younger women a very specific list of things.) Furthermore, she believed this was consistent with the “wider context of scripture” which showed that women are basically never supposed to be in a position of leadership in any sphere. Family, government, or church. (At least, this is the impression I got from her, if I am misrepresenting her views I sincerely apologize.)

Because her position (especially as it applied to teaching) was so new and strange to me, it threw me a bit off balance. So instead of debating her on 1 Timothy, (which has been interpreted in MANY different ways), I decided to question her beliefs about women leaders in general.

And naturally, one of the first examples I brought up was Deborah.

The Missing Verse

Her immediate response was to argue that God only used Deborah because there were no strong, godly men available. (Implication being, if there ARE any strong, godly men available, women should NOT do what Deborah did). Although I’m familiar with this idea, I’m also aware it’d nowhere clearly stated in the passage. So when she claimed it was, I simply asked her to show it to me.

Lo and behold…she couldn’t find it.

Now let me be clear here. I don’t intend to demean or make fun of this woman. I like her. I enjoyed our conversation. I know she sincerely thought the passage contained that verse. But the fact is, it doesn’t. So what made her think it did?

Well, if my own bible is any indication…she probably read it in the footnotes.

As I was preparing to write this blog post, I re-read the passage in my study Bible, and then scanned down to the footnotes for Judges 4:4, where I found this statement:

Lit. “a woman, a prophetess, the wife of Labbidoth.” This emphasizes that this woman is the leader in Israel, and this is because the men lack faith, courage, and leadership…Although there is a feminine ending on the word ‘prophet,’ the author adds the word “woman” in his description. He is underscoring the unique, special character of her judgeship.

(Footnote) The Reformation Study Bible, ESV

And there it was. The missing verse.

Except of course, it’s NOT a verse. It’s an interpretation of a verse, located in the footnotes. And any good bible scholar (presumably even the one who wrote that footnote) will be quick to tell you that the footnotes are NOT inspired, and that they are written by fallible human beings who may or may not get their interpretation correct.

So then the question becomes, IS this interpretation correct?

I’d like to begin answering that question by posing a different question:

Since When is God Limited by Man’s Shortcomings?

In the rest of Scripture, God doesn’t seem particularly limited by the caliber of men available. When he decides to call someone for a certain task, he does so regardless of whether they have a lot of faith, courage, and leadership skills. Don’t believe me? Let’s examine a couple of the other judges who came after Deborah…

Gideon:

If you asked me for a man who was an example of faith and courage, Gideon would NOT be at the top of my list.

We first meet him trying to thresh grain in a wine-press (not an effective plan) in order to hide it from the Midianite oppressors. When the Angel of the Lord appears and speaks to him directly, he further demonstrates his lack of faith by insisting on a miraculous sign before he’ll even believe God is speaking to him. Afterward, when God instructs him to destroy the local alter of Baal, he waits and does it at night because he is afraid of his own neighbors.

Then, when the time comes for him to fulfill God’s command to drive out the Midianites/Amalekites, he demands two additional miraculous signs (the wet/dry fleece episode) before he is confident enough to mobilize his troops. And THEN, on the eve of battle, despite all these miracles and frequent, direct communication with God, he is STILL so afraid that God sends him sneaking into the Midianite camp to overhear a soldier’s nightmare that predicts Gideon’s victory. Only then does he confidently return to his men and assure them they will win the battle.

He does finally succeed in routing the enemy, but it goes downhill from there. Later in life he makes an ephod that cause him, his family, and the rest of Israel to fall into idolatry. This is hardly what I would describe as a man of outstanding “faith, courage, and leadership.”

And yet, God still used him as a judge.

Samson:

Despite being anointed by God as a Nazarite before he was even born, Samson had a lot of problems. He was a womanizer, disrespectful to his parents, and very flippant about the role God had given him. He repeatedly broke his sacred Nazarite vows, apparently without much thought or remorse. He does exhibit some courage, certainly, but it’s easy to be brave when you are strong enough to carry city gates around on your shoulder, right? He honestly spends most of the story acting like a spoiled brat with super-powers, until God finally removes his strength in response to his bad behavior. He ends his life in a suicidal act of vengeance.

Is this what you could call a great picture of faith and leadership? I don’t think so.

And yet, God still used him as a judge.

Jephthah:

Jephthah seems to have been a rather brutal and reckless warrior with horribly flawed theology. His first group of followers are called “worthless fellows” (tells a lot about what kind of “leadership” he exhibited). He gets roped into his judgeship by the elders of Gilead, and there isn’t even any mention of the Lord empowering him at all until later on, when he’s already embroiled with the Ammonites.

He then attempts to bribe God into giving him victory by rashly vowing to make a burnt offering out of whatever first greets him when he gets home. It turns out to be his only child, a daughter. Commentators are divided over whether he actually sacrificed her as a burnt offering, or if he dedicated her to the Lord in some other way (something that included perpetual virginity). But the clearest reading of the text is that he literally offered her as a burnt offering. Such an action is abhorrent to God and repeatedly forbidden in the scriptures. It seems Jephthah is either so scripturally illiterate and influenced by pagan practices that he doesn’t know this, or else he somehow thinks his vow trumps God’s commands. Either way, he’s not a shining example of biblical leadership.

After defeating the Ammonites he then goes on to get embroiled in a civil war (apparently without any input from God) and slaughters tens of thousands of fellow Israelites. All of this within a short 6 years of judgeship. A pretty mixed bag, if you ask me.

And yet, God still used him a judge.

Jonah:

Yes I know, Jonah wasn’t a judge. But it’s worth noting that Deborah was also called a Prophetess. And lest anybody try to argue that God only settled for a female prophetess because no male prophets at the time had enough “faith, courage, and leadership”, I think we should all remember Jonah, one of the most notorious prophets in scripture. He literally disobeyed God’s direct command and then tried to run away from the God of the universe on a ship sailing for Tarshish. Only after being almost shipwrecked and spending three days in the belly of a fish/whale did he finally (grudgingly) obey God’s instructions to go to Nineveh.

However, when he got there he did the bare minimum of message delivery, and then had a hissy-fit when God honored the Ninevite’s repentance. He insisted he had a right to be angry with God for being so “gracious and merciful” (horrors), and then ends the story with a temper tantrum and a death wish over a withered plant. Is this what you would describe as a man of “faith, courage, and leadership”?

And yet, God still used him as a prophet.

Here’s the Point…

If you are going to argue that Deborah was only chosen because there was no male material God could work with, you must conclude the Israelites were in such a deplorable state that out of the tens of thousands of men around in Deborah’s day, EVERY SINGLE ONE had less courage and faith than Gideon, worse morals than Samson, worse leadership and theology than Jephthah, and a worse attitude than Jonah!

Really? That seems statistically impossible. Particularly if we consider this next point:

Deborah Lived During the “Morally Better” Part of Judges

Most commentaries on Judges will point out that the book shows Israel’s tragic downward spiral into moral chaos and apostasy. The Israelites begin the book being led by the brave and godly Joshua, and end it in a civil war over a dismembered concubine followed by a mass kidnapping and forced marriage of the daughters of Shiloh. The final sentence of the book reads: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25)

This moral decent is also reflected in the character of the judges. The earlier judges (Othniel, Ehud, Deborah) all show good moral character and are not recorded as doing anything blameworthy. But after Deborah, things begin to go downhill with Gideon.

In other words, the moral character of the Israelites gets worse and worse as the book goes on. And this implies that the men alive during Deborah’s day would, generally speaking, have been of better moral character than the men in the time of Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson. And yet, God still managed to find MALE judges during that later part of the book. Does it really make sense to argue that there were literally NO men of character around during the morally better era of Deborah’s day?

I don’t think so. Especially when you consider this:

The Text Itself Shows Men of Decent Character Were Around

Barak gets a bad rap for his “lack of faith, courage, and leadership” in the story. Why? Because in 4:8-9, when Deborah tells him God’s instructions to go to Mt. Tabor and fight Sisera, he responds by saying he’ll only go if Deborah accompanies him.

Now. This certainly might show that his faith in God isn’t strong as it could be. However, it might also just be his faith in Deborah that is lacking. After all, God didn’t speak to him directly. Maybe Barak wants Deborah to prove her message is truly from God by putting her own life on the line. It’s also possible that he simply valued her spiritual guidance and wisdom and wanted her along.

At any rate, he does put a condition on following God’s command. And that’s definitely not a great move. But I think it’s instructive to look at what he DOESN’T do:

  • He doesn’t flatly refuse to obey and then jump in a ship bound for Tarshish.
  • He doesn’t try to bargain for God’s favor by making (and keeping) rash and abhorrent vows.
  • He doesn’t insist on multiple miraculous signs to prove God will actually do what He says He will do.
  • He doesn’t treat his appointed mission flippantly or try to get Deborah into his bed. (I’m looking at you, Samson.)

In other words, from what we can see in the text, Barak has better character than all three of these later male judges, as well as Jonah the prophet. He would seem to be fully qualified if we are using these other characters as a measuring stick for what kind of men God can use. (This is confirmed by the fact that he is listed in the New Testament “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11:32, along with other judges) If God wanted to speak to Barak directly, and leave Deborah out of it, He could certainly have done so.

Furthermore, 10,000 fighting men followed Barak into battle, and it’s specifically recorded that all of them, especially the commanders, offered themselves “willingly.” (5:2, 5:9) In some versions they are even called “the remnant of the noble.” (5:13) This hardly seems like a group of men so cowardly, faithless, and lacking in leadership that out of 10,000 God couldn’t find a single one qualified for judgeship!

Of course it’s quite possible that Deborah had more faith, courage, and leadership than any of those 10,000 men. But the only thing that proves is that God chose the most faithful and courageous leader around, regardless of her gender. It certainly would NOT prove that God only uses women when there are zero men available.

From the evidence we actually have in Judges, I could just as easily argue that Deborah is the only female Judge because most women in Israel lacked faith, courage, and leadership, and Deborah was the only one who made the cut.

Do I think that’s the case? Of course not. My point is simply that neither Deborah’s story, nor the rest of Judges, supports the idea that God chose Deborah (or any other judge) simply out of a lack of other options.

So…What’s Really Behind the Assumption that Deborah was Plan B?

That being the case, why do so many people assume Deborah was just Plan B? If the passage never says so, and actually shows there were reasonable male options available, what makes so many readers and theologians conclude otherwise?

As I pressed my conversation partner on that point, she was open and honest enough to admit that she believed the “wider context” of scripture indicates women are not normally supposed to be in leadership roles. Therefore, she was reading the Deborah passage through that lens.

In other words, because she was already convinced that women aren’t normally supposed to hold leadership roles, she automatically concludes that Deborah MUST be an exception made for special circumstances. Regardless of whether the text itself says so.

But what passages and/or arguments have convinced her the bible shows women shouldn’t be in leadership of any kind? And more importantly…is she (along with many others) correct in that assessment?

The Case for Exceptionality

The biblical arguments against all female leadership can be divided into two basic kinds. Those that are based on specific scriptures that seem to condemn women’s leadership, and those that are based on a lack of scriptures that support women’s leadership. Let’s start with the first category.

Argument #1: Women Ruling Israel is Described as Judgement.

The text of Isaiah 3 describes, in poetic language, God’s judgement on Israel. It begins by saying He is going to take away their support and their good leaders (a list which includes both prophets and judges, which we know can at least sometimes include women). It describes how there will be no worthy people left to lead them, and that they will be desperate for someone to do so, even if they aren’t qualified. Then we come to this statement:

My people—infants are their oppressors,
and women rule over them.
O my people, your guides mislead you
and they have swallowed up the course of your paths.

Isaiah 3:12, ESV

Some people point to this verse as proof that women in leadership are always a result of God’s judgement, or a symptom of a lack of godly men, or just generally a bad idea. But does the text really support this? Here are some points to consider:

The Verse is Poetry – Not Literal

As I discussed in my post on spanking, biblical poetry – like most poetry – was never intended to be interpreted as strictly literal.

In fact, the words “women” and “infants” (or “children” in some translations) might not be referring to literal women and children at all. They could be poetic/metaphorical statements that actually describe the male leaders who remain in Israel. Calling them children (also stated in 3:4), might be a way to say they are weak and uneducated. To say a grown man is “acting like a child” is an insult, even in our day.

In the time of ancient Israel (and until very recently in America) saying a boy or man is acting like a girl/woman was also a a common insult, and generally meant he was lacking in courage. This same language is used elsewhere in scripture when clearly referring to men, or even to an entire nation of men AND women (See Is. 19:16 & Nahum 3:13). Obviously, this can be poetic/metaphorical language, and is not meant to give us factual data or imply that ALL children are uneducated and weak or ALL women are less brave than all men. It’s a figure of speech. (We may or may not like it, but there it is.)

If this is the case, than the verse may actually tell us nothing about qualified female leaders. (Or about qualified child leaders, for that matter! Remember, one of Judah’s best kings – Josiah – began ruling in childhood). It would simply be using common poetic language to say that the men leading Israel are weak, cowardly, uneducated, and generally unqualified for their positions.

The Verse Might Refer to Oppressive Leadership

It’s also possible the verse is saying that women and children are oppressing the people. This would actually have a similar connotation to the above, because if a man (usually the physically strongest in the group), can be oppressed by a woman or a child, (both usually physically weaker) then it shows what a state of weakness the men of Israel were in. But this would, again, tell us nothing about a woman (or child) who is leading/ruling in a non-oppressive, godly manner. (King Josiah was certainly not an act of judgement against Judah.)

The Word Might Not Have Been “Women” in the First Place

Interestingly, not all bible versions even use the word “women” in the passage. Several English translations, including the New English Translation, use the very different word “creditor.” Why?

The variation apparently comes about because the ancient Hebrew was written with only consonants, and the word for “creditor” and “woman” were only one vowel sound different. The Greek Septuagint, which would have been the version commonly used by the Greek-speaking parts of the early church, was translated from the ancient Hebrew several hundred years B.C. (long before the vowel notation system was added). Interestingly, it doesn’t mention women or children in that verse at all! Here is the modern English Translation of the Septuagint:

O my people, your exactors strip you, and extortioners rule over you: O my people, they that pronounce you blessed lead you astray, and pervert the path of your feet.

Isaiah 3:12 English Septuagint

The Targum Jonothan*, an ancient Aramaic translation, also uses a the word “usurer” or “creditor” instead of “women” in this verse. (Read it here.) If these translations are correct, women might not have been in view in the original Hebrew at all!

Regardless, if you take all of the above into consideration, it hardly seems appropriate to latch on to this one lone, poetic verse and try to extrapolate from it an overarching position on all female leadership for all time.

Argument #2: Women are Forbidden from “Exercising Authority” Over Men

Probably the most common verse cited for this position is actually the 1 Timothy passage that started our discussion in the first place. It is found in the New Testament, in a letter Paul wrote to help Timothy deal with problems in the church at Ephesus. Judging by Paul’s introduction in 1 Timothy 1, these problems seem to mainly involve “certain persons” (gender neutral pronoun in the Greek) who are teaching false doctrine, getting caught up in myths, genealogies and speculations, and attempting to expound the Law without knowing what they are talking about.

In chapter 2 we get to the commonly cited verse:

I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.

1 Timothy 2:12 ESV

The most common conservative interpretation of this verse is that it means women cannot hold teaching/spiritual authority over men in the church. But my conversation partner (and presumably others she agrees with) believes they are two separate phrases, and thus women are not allowed to teach (anyone) OR hold authority over men. But both groups would agree women cannot hold authority over men in the church. And many would extrapolate from there to say women are discouraged from having authority over men in any situation.

But as we shall see below, there are several problems with using this verse to interpret the story of Deborah.

Paul is Specifically Writing about a Church Situation

As I already alluded to, Paul was writing to Timothy about how to deal with certain problems he was having within the Ephesian church. This doesn’t mean it has no application for us today of course. But it does mean that it would be divorcing the verse it’s context to assume it automatically applies to women leadership in every area of life for all time. Paul was not writing about women in civil leadership (i.e. a judge). And most likely, he was also not discussing a woman in spiritual leadership outside the formal gathering of the church/tabernacle (as an OT prophetess would be).

Paul was writing instructions on how to deal with a CHURCH situation. He wasn’t writing about the concept of women leadership in general, particularly civil leadership. So we shouldn’t be treating the verse that way.

The Word “Authority” is Very Unique

The Greek word translated “authority” here is only used this one time in the New Testament. According to the Blue Letter Bible Lexicon, the primary meanings of the word are:

  1. One who with his own hands kills another or himself
  2. One who acts on his own authority, autocratic
  3. An absolute master
  4. To govern, exercise dominion over one

As you can see, this word has very strong connotations that go beyond a normal level of authority. It implies domination, dictatorship, etc. By choosing this word instead of the normal NT word for authority, Paul gives us reason to surmise he was addressing a problem in Ephesus where women (or maybe just one woman, since the Greek is singular), are/is attempting to dominate over a man/men in an autocratic, “absolute master” kind of way (either in the context of teaching, or just in general). If that is the case, then he is not talking about normal authority at all!

When we consider that Jesus specifically tells his disciples that they are to avoid imitating the world in exercising authority over each other in the church (Luke 22:25), and instead to behave as servants, it’s hardly surprising that Paul would have strong words for a woman who is going beyond even a “normal” kind of authority and acting like an “absolute master.” It’s not just women who shouldn’t be doing this. Men shouldn’t either!

But that doesn’t mean that women in general can’t be called by God into positions of normal authority/leadership, especially if we are talking about civil authority, which was never the context of this passage in the first place.

The Deborah Account was Written First

It’s important to remember what order the bible was written in, because it reminds us what “lens” the original readers would have been working with.

At the time Paul wrote 1 Timothy, the early Christians would have been relying mainly on Old Testament scriptures. This means they would have (presumably) been familiar with the account of Deborah (as well as other OT female leaders I’ll cover in my next post). So when they read Paul’s letter for the first time, they would have interpreted his comments in light of Deborah’s story, not the other way around.

A fictional example might help here.

Suppose I had decided to raise my children based on a certain book of child-rearing advice. Then I decided to hire a nanny, but I insisted that she first read that book from cover-to-cover. Within the book, she found more than one positive example of outdoor playtime.

Awhile later, she is home alone with my twin daughters**, and I send her this brief message: “Don’t let the girls play outside.”

Would her first conclusion be that I was against all girls, at all times, playing outside? No. Since she is already familiar with my book of child-rearing philosophy, she would assume my instructions are specific to a current situation. Maybe there’s a hail storm coming, or a rabid racoon on the loose. Maybe the girls are grounded from the outdoors because last time they went out they mistreated the new dog. Or maybe my husband is building a tree house to surprise them for their birthday tomorrow, so we don’t want them to go out and spot it yet.

In any case, the nanny would naturally interpret my NEW instructions in light of my PAST ones, not the other way around.

We must also remember that Paul was presumably writing in response to a report from Ephesus which told him about the problems they were having.

In my fictional example, this means the nanny had already messaged me about a particular situation, and I responded by telling her to keep the girls inside. So she would know exactly why I gave this particular instruction, and it would never cross her mind that she should go back and re-interpret my entire philosophy on outdoor play, disregarding all examples in the book as irrelevant.

The trouble is, we (modern Christians) aren’t in the position of the nanny. We’re more like the twins’ great, great, great, great, great, great grandchildren, and we only have access to one side of the texting conversation, along with the venerated philosophy book. We don’t know what situation was being addressed when “Don’t let the girls play outside.” was typed out. We can do our best to deduce it, BUT, we shouldn’t do so in a way that disqualifies or ignores what was written in the original, foundational child-rearing book.

In the same way, Christians should not interpret 1 Timothy 2:12 in a way that completely ignores or re-interprets what was written about Deborah in the Old Testament. Rather, they should use what the OT teaches us about Deborah (and other women leaders) to help interpret what Paul meant in 1 Timothy.

To Be Continued…

As I think I have clearly demonstrated in this post, nothing in the account of Deborah or the rest of Judges proves Deborah was God’s “Plan B.” Rather, it seems to indicate the opposite.

Those who maintain that she was, must base their argument on what they believe is taught in the “wider context” of scripture. This is a vague assertion, but in an effort to address it, I have examined two of the most common verses they point to, and found they don’t hold up well to scrutiny.

However, I’ve yet to address one of the most common arguments of all. That is the “lack of scripture” argument, which claims Deborah cannot be used as an example because her story is an “exception to the rule.” In brief, they argue that:

  1. The over-arching biblical pattern is male leadership.
  2. Female leaders are almost unheard of.
  3. Therefore Deborah MUST be an exception to God’s normal plan, allowed for a special set of circumstances.

This is considered by many to be the strongest argument for the view. However, it’s also an extremely broad claim that requires a lot of space to discuss. So instead of cramming it in at the end of this (already very long) article, I’ll be devoting an entire post to it, coming out in the next couple of weeks.

Stay tuned!

Have you ever studied the book of Judges? What do you think of Deborah and her story? Let me know in the comments!


Footnotes:

*The Targum Jonothan is not nearly as reliable as the Septuagint. I simply bring it up as a supporting point of interest.

**To be clear, I don’t ACTUALLY have twin daughters. They are as fictional as the nanny. Lol

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