Deborah… the Original Wonder Woman

Judges 4:1-10   November 19, 2017

4The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died. 2So the Lord sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. 3Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly twenty years.

4At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. 5She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment. 6She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, ‘Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. 7I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.’”

And Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go!” So she said, “I will surely go with you; nevertheless there will be no glory for you in the journey you are taking, for the LORD will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” Then Deborah arose and went with Barak to Kedesh. And Barak called Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh; he went up with ten thousand men under his command, and Deborah went up with him.

For 13 years I served on the board of directors at CLBI. For most of those years we tried to have representatives from all the various strands of Lutherans that supported our school (ELCIC (Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada), Lutheran Brethren, AFLC (Association of Free Lutheran Churches), and LCC (Lutheran Church of Canada). For the most part we could agree on the significant doctrines and practices of our various Lutheran traditions, but one that was somewhat problematic was the role of women in leadership.  Depending on the board members’ convictions (and more often their personalities) the pendulum would move slightly one way or the other over the years as we attempted to find a position that was agreeable (or at least tolerable) to all. This wasn’t always an easy task.

Although it is not my intent in today’s sermon to do an exhaustive study on the role of women in the Bible, and come to a definitive conclusion as to their role in leadership today, since we have an OT text before us that features a woman prophetess named Deborah, I thought it noteworthy to reflect at least a bit on her today. Although there are several women prophetesses mentioned in the Bible, Deborah is undoubtedly the most well-known.  Besides being a prophetess, Deborah was a judge (the fourth judge to lead the nation of Israel). The Hebrew word for judge is “shaphat ” which means “to deliver” or “to rule”.

As a judge of Israel, Deborah would have a wide range of responsibilities including: deciding controversies, giving verdicts, and executing judgments. In addition, an Israelite judge was tasked with delivering the people out of self-imposed bondage, often through military engagement. Of all the leaders of the book of Judges, Deborah is shown in the best light, as she is sought for her decisions, is honorably called “a mother in Israel“, boldly speaks forth God’s commands, and honored God in a song of victory.  Unlike her male counterparts such as King David and Sampson, there are no scandals associated with this great leader.

Her story in Judges chapter four begins with the Israelites once again in bondage and beseeching God for deliverance (the entire book of Judges follows a similar pattern of: the people sin and do evil in the sight of the Lord, they are judged and fall into enemy hands, they call out for deliverance, God hears and sends a judge who delivers them, they soon forget their deliverance and their God, and sin and do evil in the sight of God once again (Sound familiar? What part of that cycle do you think we’re in today?) Here particularly, the people of Israel have suffered cruelly for twenty years under the oppression of Jabin king of Canaan and his military commander, Sisera. Deborah summons Barak, an Israelite General, to go to war with 10,000 men against Sisera. Deborah says that God has promised them victory, so there’s nothing to worry about.

Barak, however, is reluctant to go to war against Sisera unless Deborah goes with him. His reluctance could well have been because General Sisera had 900 chariots of iron, a formidable military advantage at that time. Because of his lack of confidence in God, Deborah prophesies that victory will be obtained, however the glory will not go to Barak but to a woman instead (this btw, is not Deborah, but another woman (Jael) who God used to bring a fatal end to this enemy commander {you can read the gory details for yourself in the latter part of judges 4, and this gruesome deed put to song in Judges 5}.

Deborah, Barak, and the Israelite army go up to Mount Tabor. Sisera hears of their plot and takes his massive army, along with the 900 chariots of iron, to the river valley of Kishon. Choosing the flat lands gives a clear advantage to Sisera and his iron chariots. However, Deborah is unfazed because her trust is in almighty God. Deborah tells Barak that God has gone out before them and to go down to the valley and utterly defeat Sisera. Just as Deborah prophesied, God miraculously gives complete victory to Barak and the Israelite army.  The godly leadership of Deborah brought the nation of Israel forty years of peace (and you can guess what happened after that).

We never really resolved the question of the role of women in leadership (specifically pastoral ministry) during my years on the CLBI board, and I expect that discussion is still going on to some degree now. As with many of these contentious issues, we need to engage in ways that are faithful to the Biblical witness, but still draped in humility and respect along with our fervor and convictions. For those traditions like the one to which we currently belong (CALC), who recognize women in leadership, and ordain them into pastoral ministry, this text was central in us coming to that conclusion.  Long before Wonder Woman ever came to the “silver screen”, God was raising up women to lead nations into battle, specifically here into battles where men were afraid to go. Whatever other Lutherans (and other Christian denominations) may decide regarding the ordination of women, they can’t deny the way in which God mightily used Deborah, this wonder woman of faith and valor to deliver His wayward people. Let’s not assume that He can’t do something similar in our day.  Amen.




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