(Part 2) Is it Biblical to Call Deborah Plan B?

Welcome to Part 2!

I’m glad to have you along as I continue examining what the scripture really says about Deborah.

In Part 1, we discussed the common view that Deborah was simply a back-up plan God used because there were no godly male leaders available.

We examined the account of Deborah, as well as it’s context within the rest of Judges, and found that it gave us no real data to support this claim. We then moved on to look at other scriptural arguments that are used to “prove” Deborah’s example of female leadership is outside the scriptural norm. We looked at two key verses used to support this claim (Is. 3:12 & 1 Tim. 2:12), and found they did not hold up well to scrutiny.

In this post, we will examine a different kind of argument. An argument that is not based on specific scriptures, but rather on a a lack of scripture. The idea here is that the overarching pattern of scripture is male leadership, and Deborah stands out as a kind of “special exception.” In other words, because Deborah is so unusual, she can’t be followed as an example. Let’s see how this argument fares when we take the time to really dig in.

Argument #3: You Can’t Use an Exception to Disprove the Rule

One common responses to the story of Deborah (as it pertains to biblical womanhood) is that Deborah was the “exception to the rule” and therefore, “you can’t use an exception to disprove the rule.”

The first thing I’d like to respond with is….’Why not?’

And the second is… WHAT RULE???

Let’s take the second question first.

What Kind of “Rule” is Deborah an Exception To?

If I understand the “exception to the rule” argument correctly, it could be written out in this logical form:

  1. Proving that God allowed one exception to the rule does NOT prove His rules should be ignored under normal circumstances.
  2. The leadership of Deborah is clearly an exception to the rule.
  3. Therefore, we can’t use Deborah to prove female leadership is ok under normal circumstances.

The trouble with the argument above is that commits the logical fallacy of Equivocation.

The fallacy of equivocation occurs when a key term or phrase in an argument is used in an ambiguous way, with one meaning in one portion of the argument and then another meaning in another portion of the argument.

Texas State Department of Philosophy

In the first part of the argument, the word “rule” is being used in the formal, strict sense of the word, referring to an explicit regulation (in this case from God).

A good example of this kind of “exception to the rule” would be 1 Samuel 21:1-9, where David and his men eat the holy Bread of the Presence. This broke an explicit biblical command, (Lev 24:5-9) but God allowed it in this emergency circumstance. It would be very wrong for the rest of Israel to NOT conclude from this that they could now stop by the Tabernacle for sandwich bread every time they plan an afternoon picnic. They shouldn’t use that one exception to disprove the established rule.

However, when we say that Deborah was an “exception to the rule” we are not talking about the same kind of rule.

This is because, in the entire collection of Old Testament Laws, (and there are a lot of them) NOT ONE directly forbids women from holding civil leadership (nor does the New Testament, by the way). It is certainly possible to extrapolate such an idea from some passages (and many people do). But there is no direct command – i.e. no formal “rule” – being broken here.

The kind of “rule” that Deborah is an exception to is the same kind referenced in a statement like this: “Most celebrities have messy personal lives, but that actress is an exception to the rule.” The “rule” here simply refers to what is commonly observed. The actress is not breaking an actual regulation. In fact, if every celebrity got their life together tomorrow, nobody (outside of a few gossip magazines) would object.

So because the word “rule” means something different in line #1 than it does in line #2 of the argument, the conclusion is logically faulty.

However, it becomes easier to make this logical leap when you loose sight of an important principle:

Biblical Narrative is Descriptive, NOT Prescriptive

That’s a fancy way of saying that just because the bible describes an event/behavior, doesn’t prove that event or behavior should be emulated. (Especially if it is condemned elsewhere). It ALSO means that just because a behavior is rare or unheard of in the scripture, doesn’t prove it is wrong.

We can’t just take a survey of the scriptures and say “Oh look, this seems to be normative for people in the bible to do X, so it must be God’s best for us.” Or conversely: “Look, X is rare or unheard of in the bible. Therefore it goes against the ‘biblical pattern’ and must be a bad idea.”

Doing so would ignore the fact that the bible records the stories of fallible people, living in imperfect cultures, with imperfect cultural norms. Yes, God gives them (and us) instructions and laws showing what a holy people should look like, but that doesn’t mean they got everything right, nor does it mean that everything they do is a code to show us “God’s design.”

If we assume that what Deborah did would be “wrong” under normal circumstances, simply because it stands out as a rare example, why don’t we assume the same about everything else that isn’t “normative” in scripture? Other things that only happened once or twice? For instance…

  • Dedicating your child to the temple (Hannah/Samuel)
  • Having a deep masculine friendship (David + Jonathon)
  • Showing whole-hearted devotion to your mother-in-law (Ruth)
  • Hiding foreigners who are spying on your own people (Rahab)
  • Going to a prophet to be healed from leprosy (Naaman)
  • Reading God’s word aloud from daybreak to noon, several days in a row (Ezra)

As far as I can recall, none of these things happened more than once or twice in the Old Testament. They are all “exceptions to the rule” in the sense that they aren’t regular occurrences. But that doesn’t mean they would be “wrong” if they started happening on a regular basis. Despite being “exceptions” in the biblical narrative, we still assume they are good (or at least neutral) behaviors, based on these facts:

  1. They don’t break any of God’s direct commands
  2. The scriptural passages themselves don’t give any indication these were “one-time exceptions” to some unspoken rule
  3. They are generally consistent with moral/loving/godly/wise behavior we see elsewhere
  4. The people involved are either explicitly blessed by God for their choices, or at least presented as admirable characters

Guess what? All four of those criteria also apply to the story of Deborah.

Clearly, the mere fact that something is rare in scripture does not automatically mean it goes against God’s “biblical pattern” for human behavior. This is especially true in a case like Deborah, where we see God step in and actively empower someone to perform a certain task.

But there’s something else that is equally important to consider. Up to this point, I’ve been accepting the assumption that Deborah was, in fact, a lone exception to the cultural (or biblical) norm.

But as I’ll demonstrate below, that’s not necessarily the case…

Was Deborah Really a Lone Exception?

How exceptional WAS Deborah, anyway? Was she one lone example in thousands of years of unbroken male leadership? Or can we find some other examples of women leaders in the Old Testament? Let’s dive into the scriptures and see.

Miriam:

Did you know that Miriam had a position of leadership during the time of the Exodus? I didn’t. At least, not until I started studying for this blog post!

Moses is the most well known leader (and rightly so) during this time period. But he certainly wasn’t the only leader. Aside from the unnamed tribal leaders that certainly existed, we also see Moses setting up a serious of “appeals” courts (Ex. 18) so he didn’t have to spend all day mitigating disputes. This was suggested by his father-in-law, Jethro, and I want to zero in on a comment made by Jethro during that conversation…

You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone.

Exodus 18:18

Who are these people “with” Moses? Possibly Jethro means those bringing disputes. But surely those individual people aren’t actually there all that long? (Unless maybe they’re waiting in line all day).

A more natural explanation is that Jethro is referring to a small group of people who are helping Moses. Lesser authorities who aid in settling these disputes. But who were they?

It’s interesting that Jethro chooses the term “people” and not the term “men” here (even though he uses “men” a couple of verses later when recommending Moses get more help.) Might this imply it was a mixed gender group? Perhaps. The term for ‘people’ can also be translated as “kindred”, so it’s possible Moses was being assisted by some of his close relatives. In that case, it would most likely be his siblings, Miriam and Aaron, who were helping him. (Remember, the Tabernacle hasn’t been built yet, so Aaron isn’t busy being High Priest.)

Of course, that’s only speculation, but I think there are several other passages that prove Miriam was in leadership, even if she’s not in view in Exodus 18.

First, Miriam is called a prophetess (Ex. 16:20), and leads the women in singing and dancing in praise to God. So at the very least she seems to have some leadership among the women of Israel, as well as spiritual authority as a prophetess.

Second, when Miriam and Aaron criticize Moses over his Cushite marriage, notice what they say:

Does the LORD speak only through Moses? Does he not also speak through us? 

Numbers 12:2

Both Aaron and Miriam considered themselves to be part of the spiritual authority and/or leadership of the Israelites. So much so that they felt they had the right to criticize Moses! Of course, they were WRONG to criticize him. And God judged them for it. But God didn’t come back and say “No, you aren’t leaders in Israeal, and I don’t speak through you.” He simply judged them for their disrespect for Moses, who had been placed in a special (and higher) leadership position by God’s appointment.

Third, and most compelling, are the words of God Himself recorded by the prophet Micah:

For I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.

Micah 6:4

THAT ought to get our attention! God himself lists Miriam, along with Moses and Aaron, as those he “sent before” the Israelites (i.e. appointed to lead them). We don’t know exactly what her leadership role entailed, but it is very clear that she held a high position, second only to Moses and Aaron (possibly even equal with Aaron; it’s unclear). And I think the fact that God chose a female leader at the very inception of the Isrealite nation should tell us something. (Especially since, I hardly need to point out…there were definitely male options available!)

Huldah

Huldah is actually an example of female spiritual authority, not civil authority per se. Like Deborah, she was a prophetess. Also like Deborah, she was held in very in high esteem in her culture. When the book of the law was found during the repairing of the Temple and shown to King Josiah, he sent a delegation to inquire of the Lord through Huldah. (2 Kings 22:8-20)

Notice in the passage, he doesn’t just send an errand boy to to summon Huldah to his palace. No, he sends a high-ranking delegation to ask her for a word from the Lord. This delegation included the high priest, the king’s personal secretary, and three other men, presumably all high-ranking officials. Clearly they knew Huldah as someone with a highly honored position within Israel, who regularly spoke for the Lord and gave council on religious matters.*

As a prophetess, her authority was specifically condoned by God. (And again, it is NOT because there were no godly men around whom He could have chosen as prophets instead.)

The “Wise Women” of Tekoah and Abel Beth-maacah

Little is know about the “Wise Women” mentioned in 2 Samuel chapters 14 and 20. Translations generally render “wise woman” in non-capitals, giving the impression that the text is simply mentioning a woman who is wise. But when we look closely, that doesn’t seem to be the case. There are several textual clues indicating these women held a recognized leadership role within Israel.

First, it is interesting to note that the Hebrew words used for “Wise Woman” here are a unique construct only used in these two passages. In the other place where a more generic “wise woman” is mentioned (Proverbs) a slightly different word is used for “wise.” I am no Hebrew scholar, and I don’t pretend to know what significance this may have. It was simply something I noted in my study.

But let’s dig into the texts themselves and see what clues they can give us about who these “Wise Women” might have been.

2 Samuel 14

In this passage, Joab (David’s general) sees how unhappy David is about his son Absalom being banished, and comes up with a plan to reconcile them. He sends for “a wise woman from Tekoa” and she dresses up like a grieving widow and brings David around by telling him a parable (much like Nathan did earlier when confronting David about Bathsheba). She successfully convinces him to reconcile with his son.

There isn’t a lot of information about the wise woman here. But is is instructive to notice that Joab sends all the way to Tekoah to get her. Tekoah was a small town about 10-12 miles from Jerusalem. If all Joab needed was an intelligent woman with some acting ability, couldn’t he have found someone suitable in Jerusalem? The fact that he sends away to a rural town several miles away is intriguing, and hints at a couple of possibilities.

Perhaps the “Wise Woman” position was a tribal role that pre-dated the monarchy, and had fallen out of use in the urban center of the kingdom, where people could go to the king or one of his officers instead. Conversely, perhaps there WERE Wise Women in Jerusalem, but their well-recognized positions in society meant that David would have recognized them. In that case, Joab might have sent to Tekoah because he needed a Wise Woman who could perform her job in disguise.

Of course, all of this is speculative, and if this was the only passage mentioning a “Wise Woman” it wouldn’t be much to go on. But that’s where the next passage comes in…

2 Samuel 20

This is the chapter where we really get some interesting details about what being a “Wise Woman” might mean.

Once again the story starts with Joab. This time he is hunting down a traitor (Sheba), who has taken refuge in the town of Abel, in Beth-Maacah.

A man who often proves quick to violence, Joab immediately besieges the entire city, intent on destroying it. And he does so without even giving the people inside a chance to cooperate peacefully. In the middle of the violent siege, while Joab’s men are intent on battering down the walls, something very interesting happens…

Then a wise woman called from the city, “Listen! Listen! Tell Joab, ‘Come here, that I may speak to you.” And he came near her….Then she said to him, “Listen to the words of your servant.” And he answered, “I am listening.”

2 Samuel 20:16-17

If you think about it, this encounter hardly makes sense if the woman in question had no position of authority, and was simply a wise person. Joab is intent on destroying the city, in the middle of a violent siege, and presumably there are soldiers on the walls hurling spears and arrows down at at the besiegers. Does it seem likely that anybody involved, let alone the commander of the attack, would take notice of a random woman hollering out for attention from inside the city? Not really.

But what if that woman wasn’t just a “wise woman.” What if she was a Wise Woman? What if she held a recognized position of authority, allowing her to instigate a temporary cease-fire and demand to speak directly with Joab? (As well as negotiate with him on behalf of the city and promise him Sheba’s head, confident her people would comply). If she was THAT kind of “Wise Woman,” the story suddenly makes a lot more sense.

In her conversation with Joab, she makes an interesting statement:

They used to talk in former times, saying, ‘They shall surely seek guidance at Abel,’ and so they would end disputes. I am among the peaceable and faithful in Israel. You seek to destroy a city and a mother in Israel. Why would you swallow up the inheritance of the LORD?

2 Samuel 20:18-19 NKJV

This passage has been interpreted in several different ways. Some believe she means that Abel was a town known for it’s wisdom, where people went to settle disputes. (In this case, the fact that this woman stands out as especially wise in the wise city of Abel is impressive). It is often assumed, in this view, that she is referring to the city itself as a “mother in Israel.” (And many modern translations assume that interpretation and use phrases like “a city that is a mother in Israel”).

However, the NKJV does a better job of translating the actual Hebrew words, which are a bit more ambiguous. Based on this phrasing, it seems entirely possible that the woman is actually making reference to her own well-known position of wisdom and authority. She could be pointing out that people used to come to Abel to seek her judgement in settling disputes (much like the people who went to Deborah at the palm between Ramah and Bethel). In this case, she is probably referring the the city and then referring to HERSELF as a ‘mother in Israel.’

In other words, what she might be saying is this: “People used to come to Abel to seek my wisdom, and now you seek to destroy this whole city, and me along with it. I, who am known as a mother in Israel.” (This is also consistent with it’s interpretation in the Jewish Midrash)

This theory is supported y the fact that nowhere else scripture is a city referred to as a “mother in Israel.” The only other time the phrase is used it refers to a woman. Guess who?

The villagers ceased in Israel. They ceased to be until I arose: I Deborah, arose as a mother in Israel.

Judges 5:7

In her victory song, Deborah refers to herself by the same title that the woman at Abel uses.

This makes me wonder if the term “Mother in Israel” might actually be another name (perhaps a less formal one) for the official position of Wise Woman. And if that is the case, than perhaps Deborah wasn’t the exception we so often assume…

Was Deborah an Official “Wise Woman”?

Perhaps Deborah was actually filling a commonly recognized role as a “Wise Woman” or “Mother in Israel” whom people sought out to settle civil disputes. This would fit perfectly with her introduction in Judges, where she is portrayed as acting in a legal capacity.

It would also explain why she is the only female judge mentioned. If you pay close attention, you will notice that the male judges in the rest of the book are not really what we normally picture as “judges.” They were more like tribal military leaders, doing battle with Israel’s oppressors. This isn’t a book about the everyday workings of Israel’s civil government. It’s a serious of stories about special “deliverers” whom God sent to rescue his people from oppressive military might.

In the story of Deborah, Barak is the one actually called up by God to lead the military revolt. Deborah becomes part of the story because she is the prophetess God uses to call Barak into battle, and she goes with him to Mount Tabor. Thus she becomes one of Israel’s “Deliverers” (as does Jael, if you think about it).

Deborah is included in Judges because of her status as a Deliverer, not because of her position of spiritual/civil authority. This makes it entirely possible (and I would argue, quite probable) that there were many other female magistrates in the civil leadership realm.

After all, Judges only tells us the stories of 6 major judges (12 if you count the ones only briefly mentioned), over a long span of Israel’s history. It would be ridiculous to conclude they were the ONLY leaders, of any kind, that Israel had during that time. There would have been hundreds or thousands of others in civil leadership who didn’t reach the status of “Deliverer,” and this probably included many other “Wise Women” or “Mothers in Israel” who were revered for their knowledge of Torah and sought out to settle legal disputes. Women very similar to those who show up later in Tekoah and Abel Beth-Macaah.

It seems Deborah is not such an anomaly after all.

Were female leaders in the minority in ancient Israel? Certainly! But then again, female CEO’s are in the minority today. Is that because our culture views female CEO’s as morally wrong or “against God’s biblical pattern”? Definitely not.

How Many Times Must God DO Something Before we Take it Seriously?

Sometimes people try to get around uncomfortable scriptural commands by pointing out that a certain subject is only mentioned “a couple of times” in scripture. The usual response to that is:

“How many times does God have to say something before we take it seriously?”

Of course, the correct answer is obvious…ONCE! If the Creator of the universe gives us a command just once, that ought to be plenty. He’s not required to repeat himself 10 or 20 times to be taken seriously.

I submit to you that the same applies when God actively does something, and records it for us to read about. He doesn’t have to give us 75 examples of how He actively raised up women to exercise godly leadership before we should conclude it is something He permits and blesses. If He never forbids it, and then gives us even ONE example of actively causing it to happen…shouldn’t that be enough to prove it fits within His “biblical pattern” of godly behavior?

That brings me around to my first question…

Why CAN’T I Use an Exception to Disprove the Rule?

Remember, we’ve already established that there is no explicit command (rule) handed down by God that says women cannot be leaders in civil government.

So what we looking at now is a theoretical rule extrapolated from the supposed “lack of precedent” for women leaders in OT society. However, I am arguing that no such rule (and no such precedent) actually exists.

I think we’ve established that God only has to say or do something ONCE to make us take is seriously. But, as we’ve seen above, women leaders are something He causes/blesses/permits far more than once!

Deborah was NOT just a bizarre anomaly. From the inception of Israel as a nation (Miriam), to the turbulent time of the Judges (Deborah), through the transition to monarchy (the Wise Women of Tekoah/Abel), and many generations beyond (Huldah), God was raising up women leaders in both civil and religious positions.

Therefore, since the “rule” itself only exists in theory, I can ABSOLUTELY disprove it by showing multiple clear examples to the contrary.

Another fictional example might help. Suppose you tried to argue, from some vague extrapolations somewhere, that Christians should never speak to an Ethiopian eunuch. All I have to do to disprove that is to show one clear example of God actively sending a Christian to talk to an Ethiopian eunuch. (Acts 18:26-40) You don’t get to explain it away by saying that’s just a special “exception to the rule.” (Let alone if I could show 4-5 examples). There WAS NO RULE to begin with! There was only a theoretical rule, and I have disproved your theory.

So. Is it Biblical to Call Deborah Plan B?

The simple answer is NO.

If God never once forbids women leaders, and then He actively calls them into important jobs, (without clearly stating it is a one-off, special exception), then it is simply not biblical to argue God doesn’t want women leaders. At that point, we are reading our views into the text, not building our views out of it.

In my first “Is it Biblical” post, I explained the three categories of Biblical, Unbiblical, and Extra-Biblical. Let me summarize again:

Biblical: Something that aligns with what is clearly taught or implied in Scripture.

Unbiblical: Something that contradicts what is clearly taught or implied in Scripture.

Extra-Biblical: Something that is neither clearly supported, nor clearly contradicted by Scripture.

By these definitions, I must conclude that the idea that Deborah was God’s “Plan B” seems to fall into the realm of Unbiblical teachings.

After examining the passage itself, as well as the context of wider scripture, everything points to Deborah being God’s “first choice.” To assert she was simply a back-up plan, or a special exception made for unusual circumstances, goes against a clear reading of the passage in context. Nor is such an idea implied anywhere else that I can find.

Conclusion

Deborah wasn’t just “Plan B”, a second choice whom God fell back on because there weren’t any other options. Deborah was Plan A.

God chose her, (just as He did Miriam and Huldah), because Deborah was the leader He wanted for the task at hand. And perhaps there’s a reason He made sure her story was so clearly recorded in our Scriptures. Perhaps He wanted us to take notice that even in a time and culture where women leaders were less common than males, God still wanted and valued them when they were the best people for the job.

And if that is the case…maybe we should too.

Whatever view we hold about biblical womanhood, it MUST be one that can incorporate Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, and the Wise Women of Israel. NOT as exceptions, but as worthwhile examples of the varied ways women of God can glorify Him and serve His people.

Otherwise, what we are touting as “biblical womanhood” will turn out to be not-so-biblical after all.

Have you enjoyed this in-depth study of Deborah? Do you agree with my conclusions, or do you think there is something I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments!


Footnotes

* Some have tried to argue that Huldah didn’t have an “ongoing” prophetic ministry, because only one of her prophecies is recorded. However, that makes no sense with the text of the passage. Why would the King send a high-ranking delegation to seek advice from a woman who had never prophesied before?

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