For International Women’s Day, I’ve been mulling over the life of Deborah, a prophetess who led the nation of Israel during its “Wild West” period known as the time of the judges. Like another notable prophetess, Miriam (see Exodus 15:20), Deborah was gifted in Spirit-inspired song. In fact, all of Judges 5 is a truth-telling, prophetic anthem attributed to her. However, she was also that lightening-in-a-bottle combination of spokesperson for God and capable, charismatic leader, dispensing wisdom as she decided her people’s civil cases, giving God’s marching orders to the military leader, and rallying the people to fight back against their enemies (Judges 4-5). Here’s what she says about that holy calling:
“In the days of Shamgar son of Anath, in the days of Jael, the highways were abandoned; travelers took to winding paths [because of attacks and oppression from the Canaanites]. Villagers in Israel would not fight; they held back until I, Deborah, arose, until I arose, a mother in Israel.” From the Song of Deborah, Judges 5:6-7
I don’t know if Deborah had children of her own—we do know she had a husband named Lappidoth but no mention is made of children—but whether she had raised a family or not, she stepped into the role of “motherly protector in Israel,” as the New English Translation renders that last phrase.
Let that sink in.
When everyone around her was shrinking back, hiding in fear during a time of turmoil and oppression, Deborah arose as a picture of God’s strength, wisdom, and advocacy on behalf of others. Her womanhood shone forth in its fiercest form, not just as nurturer but as courageous protector.
It wasn’t enough for her just to make sure her voice was heard, either. Deborah was far more than a mouthpiece for a cause. As God’s appointed ruler-judge and a prophetess to an unruly and often flat-out evil-minded bunch of people, she would have been justified merely to pass on His messages and let the chips fall where they may. But being a good leader meant jumping into the hard work with her people, especially when they needed to borrow some of her courage.
And no one needed a boost of courage more than Barak, the man God chose to lead an army against the oppressors. Deborah gave him a divine message, in essence, “Get moving! Gather up and march out with 10,000 troops from the Naphtali and Zebulun tribes, and God, Himself, will deliver the enemy into your hands!”
But Barak balked. He was afraid and doubtful. And perhaps that’s understandable. After all, the nation had been caught up for at least 200 years in a cycle of idolatry and confusion about who this God really was: Did He really deliver their ancestors from Egypt? What about the other gods out there—are they the ones giving victory to their enemies? Plus, Israel’s last three ruler-judges had been cunning men of war, empowered directly by God’s spirit to vanquish their enemies. Deborah represented a different way of rescuing and leading God’s people, and apparently, Barak couldn’t get his mind, or his courage, wrapped around that.
So he made a bargain with Deborah: “If you go with me, I’ll go. But if you don’t go with me, I won’t.”
And Deborah didn’t bat an eye. She headed right into the thick of things with him, helping him rally the troops and even issuing the final order to attack with the reassurance that the LORD was handing over the enemy commander–signed, sealed, and delivered– because the Lord, Himself, had gone ahead of him in the battle.
However, Deborah didn’t let Barak off the hook for his initial unwillingness to embrace God’s command as issued through her, for giving into fear, and for doubting God’s method. Wise and capable leader that she was, she didn’t let him slide when it came to such things as obedience and trust. Final victory, she prophesied, would come at the hands of a woman rather than Barak—and she wasn’t even talking about herself. The battle ended with as cunning and fierce an assassination scene as any Hollywood could dream up: a woman named Jael lulled the enemy commander to sleep with warm milk and a cozy blanket, then hammered a tent peg through his temple into the ground. When Barak rode by searching for his enemy, Jael literally handed his body over to him just as Deborah had reassured him would happen.
Deborah made sure Jael’s triumph was lauded in the victory song, and the scripture tells us Barak gladly sang along, celebrating what God did that day. They championed the truth together, and they pointed to God who made it all possible: “So may all your enemies perish, LORD! But may all who love you be like the sun when it rises in its strength” (Judges 5:31).
For the people of her own time and for us today, Deborah shows us just such a woman who rose like the sun in its strength because of her love for the Lord. She’s the kind of woman I want to be and that I want my daughter to be: wise, strong, capable, and fully devoted to the Lord. So, as we head into International Women’s Day, let’s look for the Deborahs around us who deserve our thanks and support as they fulfill God’s kingdom purposes and encourage us to do the same.
Photo credit Audrey Spell at Spell Photography in Houston: firstname.lastname@example.org