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The Authority of Women in the Old Testament: Part II

October 25, 2010

The most politically powerful woman in the Bible is Athaliah, who ruled a monarchy. I’ve already dealt with her reign and power in the first part of this series-within-a-series. At the end of that article I claimed that I would deal next with a woman whose power is not depicted merely as possible but also as desirable, backed by God Himself. This woman is the second most politically powerful woman in the Bible, Deborah, who ruled a loose coalition of tribes. As I’ve explained elsewhere being a judge in Israel is clearly closer to being king than it is to being a modern judge.

Needless to say Deborah is a flashpoint. She’s a prophetess so she’s ordained by God. If she’s actually the top of the command authority structure in the Israel of her time this would cause major theological issues for some people. However, Deborah is clearly the top of the heap. While my first article on judgeship skirted the issue somewhat to avoid additional controversy I will now tackle the story of Deborah (Judges 4-5) head on.

We have no idea how Deborah attained her position. She appears in the story all at once, already a prophetess and a judge. She’s also a married woman and so it is possible that she is older, something that would probably help her gain and retain respect. However, her leadership does not appear to be disputed when the story begins. Instead, we learn that she has a judgment seat where other people come to ask her to exert her authority over them.

This is exactly what happens when Barak is introduced into Deborah’s story. There have been some attempts to claim that Barak was the top of the command hierarchy and that Deborah was only able to correct him from her position as a religious leader. However, Barak is summoned by Deborah and given orders. It is unclear whether these are new orders stated in the rather odd manner of some prophetic utterances (as the statement begins with the past tense, “Has not Yahweh, the God of Israel, commanded you?”) or old orders that Barak has not followed, but Barak’s response is to negotiate with Deborah as if she is the giver of these orders.

This interaction is important. Barak clearly does not like Deborah’s orders. Were he her superior only religious devotion would cause him to obey her and we see from his response how ineffectively this motivates him. He should simply assert his authority if he had any. Instead, Barak negotiates with Deborah about the terms of his service. This is perhaps also a face-saving mechanism. By forcing a concession from Deborah Barak will not look quite so weak. However, this plan backfires. Again, the details of this are important.

Barak demands that Deborah accompany him in a sort of “put your money where your mouth is” statement. If Barak’s army loses while Deborah is with them Deborah can (depending on her age) look forward to being cut down by the Canaanites, sold into slavery, or raped to death. Barak’s concession causes an immediate reaction. Barak gets what he wants at the cost of something he wants more: the glory he is seeking will be given to a woman. This causes Barak to lose a huge amount of face. In Judges 9:52-54 a warrior named Abimelech is struck by a millstone dropped by a woman in a besieged tower. The disgrace of being killed by a woman is so great that Abimelech has one of his own vassals run him through to avoid dying from injuries inflicted by a woman. It is hard to imagine that Barak, coming from the same culture, is particularly happy to admit that a woman defeated the enemy commander that he himself was hunting. There is more happening here than Barak’s humiliation, though. Barak balks at taking God’s orders from a woman and so Barak’s reward is transferred to another woman. Were Barak’s reward removed in some other way (“Sisera [the enemy commander] will fall down a hole and break his neck”, for instance) or transferred to another soldier we could legitimately claim that the offense God avenges here is only that Barak is not listening to Him. The fact that Barak’s reward is given to a woman suggests that God’s concern includes Barak’s patriarchal reasons for refusing to listen.

Whether or not the slap in the face God delivers to Barak registers in our minds, it certainly registers in Barak’s. When, a few lines later, Deborah orders him into battle he complies without backtalk. At this point the story shifts from Deborah but not from women. Sisera flees the battle and takes shelter with a friendly clan. Heber, the man with whom Sisera has an alliance, is not home but his wife Jael assures Sisera that she will keep him safe. She shows him proper hospitality and assures him that she will watch for any of his enemies approaching. Then, when he later falls asleep, she kills him by gruesomely pinning his head to the floor with a tent peg. This is important – it is God actually executing judgment against both Sisera and Barak – but the next part is also important. Jael summons Barak (probably as he comes by) to see Sisera. This rubs salt in the wound but it also involves something of a role reversal. The woman leaves the tent (the domain of women) to summon a warrior (generally the summons goes the other way) to see evidence of her victory.

We don’t know exactly why Jael chooses to kill Sisera. Perhaps she is driven by religious motives that are never mentioned. Perhaps she is simply a canny woman who realizes that when the enemy commander comes fleeing from the battlefield that it is time to switch sides. Whatever the case her method of informing Barak is commanding. Deborah has ordered Barak around with frequent references to her divine appointment. Jael comes to meet Barak to inform him that she has, under her own power, redefined local politics and stolen the glory that should have belonged to him.

The elements of Deborah’s and Jael’s behavior reinforce the conclusion that this is a story about how God saved Israel through women. The position of this story in Judges where God saves Israel through all sorts of unlikely characters reinforces this yet again. In the story of Deborah God does not care that Deborah is a woman. He cares that she does what He wants, which involves ruling Israel as His agent. He deliberately humbles Barak for questioning this decision. Again and again the book of Judges says that God is no respecter of persons and again and again some Christians will argue that this is fine and good for most categories but that sex is not one of them. But in Judges 4 God argues differently.

Even worse for those attempting to salvage immutable male authority from the book of Judges, Chapter 4 is not the end of the story. It is the end of one unit of text (it is capped by a concluding statement about the eventual demise of Jabin, Sisera’s master) but there is a song of Deborah as well as the narrative and that song is also informative. The point about the end of one unit of text is more important than one might think. Given that we have essentially two tellings of the story, prose and song, we could have two different lessons stressed. As I will show, one lesson is in both places.

The song begins by listing Deborah and Barak as the singers. Deborah is listed first, something that should not surprise anyone who has already deduced that Deborah is the ruler and Barak is the commander under her. We can skip parts of the song, including the introductory verse establishing that this is a song, but we should note in what orders the characters appear. God is first. God gets several lines about how incredible He is. After we introduce God we introduce the problem, and after the problem Deborah. Deborah’s claim is straightforward: village life, or possibly rule, had stopped or been severely weakened until she appeared. Deborah literally claims to have restored the life of the communities that made up Israel. She describes her role as that of a mother with the nation as her child. She then identifies the problem (idolatry which led to war) and blesses the commanders of Israel who would include Barak although he is not mentioned. The victory is then reassigned to the Lord and to the villagers. Presumably this is because most Israelites were villagers at this time but it certainly reinforces the audacity of Deborah’s claim to have restored village life. The mentions of God are important. God’s status is not up for debate. He gets the most mentions and the first mentions. This suggests that both of these are marks of status. When we turn to Deborah we find that she gets mentioned before, and more often than, Barak.

Verses 12-23 deal primarily with the clans of Israel and how they did or did not participate in the battle. Honor and shame are bestowed and much of this does not concern us. However, Deborah and Barak are mentioned twice, both times together, and Deborah always comes first.

Verses 24-30 are a different matter. Jael is praised and described in warrior terms. The narrative in Judges 4 makes it clear that Jael killed Sisera while he was asleep. The Song of Deborah describes Jael grasping her weapons in her hands and slamming them against a standing opponent, obliterating Sisera’s head and causing his corpse to fall lifeless at her feet. It would probably be hard to go further over the top in describing Jael as a warrior. However, this description is not the end of a discussion of women. We move from the women of Israel, Deborah and Jael, to the women of Canaan. Sisera’s mother worries at her window. Her female companions soothe her worries by explaining that Sisera is late because he has looted so much from Israel that he is still dividing it up. First among the spoils Sisera is dividing up are Israelite women. The literal text does not render well into English but it refers to one or two wombs for every man, an ugly reminder of the place of women and the fate of captured women in the Ancient Near East. The other item described as being divided up are dyed textiles which, according to the archaeological record, could be quite valuable and were produced by women. The end of the piece again praises the Lord for His victory, reminding us that the Canaanite women’s description of victory over Israelite women is wishful thinking. Instead, Israelite women have destroyed Canaan. Sisera will not send Israel’s women and their work back to Jabin’s court as spoil. Instead Jael, the warrior amongst the tents, has robbed Sisera’s mother of her son. The entire conflict has been re-imagined as a conflict between the women of Israel and the women of Canaan. The men of Canaan get mention only because they threaten the women of Israel and the men of Israel simply get no mention at all in this section.

Perhaps, given that I claimed to only be investigating the limits of command authority held by women in the Old Testament, it would have been sufficient to simply point out a few key points about Deborah: she’s a prophetess, she orders Barak around, and God backs her up with a suitably ironic punishment. However, the story of Deborah is a richer mine than that for questions about women in the Old Testament. It seems important to stress that this is a story of reversal, of God saving men through the mighty arms and terrible weapons of women, of warfare being re-imagined as a women’s conflict, and of women rulers ordering men around. The story of Deborah is unique, a single data point within the Old Testament, but it is also incredible, especially when Deborah is backed by God Himself.


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