Scriptural Roles of Women: Deborah
In Judges 4-5, we find the story of Deborah, the only female Judge of pre-Davidic Israel. Though the role of “Judge” has often been mostly (correctly) associated with military leadership, it also functioned, explicitly in Deborah’s case, as a dispute settler among Israelites, though the role would have been minor. “[W]hen a judge successfully rallied the armies of several tribes, it was seen as the work of the Lord through that judge.”
So what are the complementarian and egalitarian interpretations of Deborah, as a female judge, in light of the bigger idea of leadership?
For this case study, I will be drawing from John Piper and Wayne Grudem’s “Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism” for the complementarian perspective and Kristina LaCelle-Peterson’s “Liberating Tradition: Women’s Identity and Vocation in Christian Perspective” for the egalitarian perspective.
Complementarian Perspective on Deborah
According to Piper and Grudem, Deborah “was a living indictment of the weakness of Barak and other men in Israel who should have been more courageous leaders” and notes that the “period of the judges is an especially precarious foundation for building a vision of God’s ideal for leadership.” They further explain this idea against narrative anomalies:
“We must also keep in mind that God’s granting power or revelation to a person is no sure sign that this person is an ideal model for us to follow in every respect. This is evident, for example, from the fact that some of those God blessed in the Old Testament were polygamists (e.g. Abraham and David)… Moreover, in the case of each woman referred to above [Miriam, Deborah, Jael, and Huldah] we have an instance of a charismatic emergence on the scene, not an installation to the ordinary Old Testament office of priest, which was the responsibility of men.” 
James A. Borland, within the same book, interestingly remarks that “Jewish culture did accept women into positions of leadership. Just three decades before Herod the Great took over as king, Israel was ruled for years by Queen Alexandra. The fact that an occasional judge (Deborah, Judges 4-5), or ruler (Athaliah, 2 Kings 11:3) was a woman also demonstrates that female leadership was possible.” However, “though many women have excellent leadership qualities, God still has clear role distinctions in mind when apostleship and eldership are considered.”
Though some complementarians will admit that Deborah was a legitimate leader in Israel, it is either seen as an exceptional case due to failing male leadership or interpreted within the larger framework of “usual leadership of men” (male monarchy and male priesthood). Complementarian interpretation will see the text as peculiar, but not subversive to, male leadership. Deborah is seen as a leader in an odd time in Israel’s life that is not to be modeled, due to the chaotic governmental state of Israel.
Egalitarian Perspective on Deborah
Peterson lists Deborah, along with Miriam and Esther, as a “redeemer” figure who “participated in the salvation of God’s people as a whole”. Peterson responds to the idea of Deborah’s position in light of lacking male leadership:
“…there are no reasons given or excuses made for why a woman has the role of prophet and of judge. The text does not say, nor even hint, that Deborah has this job because no man could be found to do it. It is simply a fact, unremarked on by the writer.”
Peterson also remarks that Deborah had a regular “office” in order to conduct her judgments and that the Lord used her to command the man, Barak, on how to position the Israelite army. Deborah is not a temporary judge, but a leader for the rest of her life - just like the males.
Peterson reveals that the idea of a “failing male leadership” is read into the text of Deborah and is not even implied within the narrative. Deborah’s leadership is not qualified because of male failure, but “is simply a fact”. Thus, the idea of Deborah’s position as a response to lacking male leadership stems from eisegesis. Though she admits “stories of women leaders do not predominate in the Old Testament story, still these women’s lives demonstrate that God called women to and empowered them for all sorts of prominent roles even in a heavily male-centered culture.”
What is your take on Deborah?
 Judges 4:5
 John Walton/Victor Matthews/Mark Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary Old Testament, pg. 246 (see note on 2:16-19. judges.)
 John Piper and Wayne Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, pg. 66
 Borland, Ibid., pg. 111, emphasis mine
 Piper and Grudem. Ibid. Pg. 66 “the women followed their unusual paths in a way that endorsed and honored the usual leadership of men, or indicted their failures to lead.”
 Kristina LaCelle-Peterson, Liberating Tradition, pg. 51
 Ibid., pg. 53, emphasis mine
 Ibid., See Judges 4:5 and note the specificity of the location
 Ibid., pg. 52
 Ibid., pg. 72
11 Notes/ Hide
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- away-abaddon said: It’s frustrating to read theories that seem to be attempts to fit square pegs into round holes. I guess such an interpretation of Deborah could be defended as being an attempt to make sense of her in the context of the whole Bible. But I’m very skeptical.
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- scottxstephens said: When it comes to texts like this (and others about women), I think it’s interesting to take into account Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s concept of trying to tease out implied, though historically suppressed, narratives of female leadership.
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