Against the myth that God only wants men in leadership roles stands the story of Deborah, the prophetess-judge-leader of ancient Israel. Some interpreters will assert that the story of Deborah is a criticism of men who would not rise to the occasion. This is partially true. When Barak refuses to go to the battlefield without Deborah, she declares that the victory will belong to a woman (Judges 4:8-10)—but Deborah does not get this honor. Still, to see the whole story as a mere critique of weak-willed men misses the respect the biblical narrator—and even Barak—had for Deborah.
Before being a “judge,” Deborah was a prophetess, a role which meant she was a preacher and teacher. To get this recognition, Deborah would have had to show that God had truly called her (see Deuteronomy 13:1-5 and 18:17-22 for some of the tests). In addition to her full-time job, she was a wife (4.4) and mother (5.7).
The English translation of “judge” does not do justice to the role; she did far more than just hold court. The NIV is correct in saying she “was leading” Israel, as that is really what “judging” implies in the Book of Judges. Judging, therefore, involved both settling disputes among the people (4.5) but also commanding military leaders into action (4.6-7). There is no doubt that Deborah is Barak’s superior officer.
For example, Deborah will send Barak into the battle while remaining behind to observe the action (4.14)—the traditional posture of a supreme commander, like a king.
The narrator of Judges has preserved for us the victory song known as the “Song of Deborah” (chapter 5). This is a military poem from a woman’s point of view: Deborah is praised for her leadership, Jael, who killed the enemy commander Sisera, for her ingenuity and bravery, and even Sisera’s mother is remembered because her son will not be coming home.
If God so called a woman to serve him as Deborah did under the old covenant, how much more, then, will God use women under the new covenant where now there is neither “male nor female” (Gal 3:28)! Deborah’s story is a good place to acknowledge that God’s Mission is larger than our stereotypes.