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Unavailable, Unwilling, Unsuitable Men?
One of the perennial arguments from people who have a problem with Deborah being the judge or leader of Israel is that God probably only allowed her to be the leader because there were no men who were available, willing, or suitable to take the job. Is this a valid argument?
God didn’t choose Jonah because he was available and willing. In fact, Jonah was reluctant to obey God and go to the heathen city of Nineveh. He even tried to run away from God (Jonah 1:3). So it seems that a lack of availability or willingness in a person is not an obstacle to God when choosing someone as a minister or leader.
We don’t know why God chose Jonah to be his mouthpiece and instrument in bringing about the repentance of Nineveh. We can only assume that God chose him because he was the best person for the task. Similarly, it seems that Deborah was the best person for the task of leading Israel in her time, and so God raised her up to save Israel from her enemies (cf. Judg. 2:18f).
Deborah’s Leadership Roles and Qualities
The fact that Deborah was a woman is clearly mentioned—the Hebrew word ish (“woman”) occurs twice in Judges 4:4—but there is no hint in the text that her gender was in any way a problem. Rather, the Israelites recognised her authority as judge. They went to her whenever they wanted justice and guidance, to her seat just north of the crossroads of busy trading routes in the centre of Israel (Judg. 4:5).
Unlike many of the other judges, Deborah did a good job as leader and prophet. Deborah was an effective spokesperson for God, and her prophetic leadership extended to commanding Barak, the general of the army (Judg. 4:4-6). Barak respected Deborah, relied on her, and followed her orders (Judg. 4:6, 8). Deborah, herself, did not shy away from entering the war zone (Judg. 4:9-10). And, as a result of her leadership, which may have continued for a generation, Israel had peace for 40 years (Judg. 5:31; cf. Judg. 2:18-19).
Furthermore, Deborah’s words have been recorded in the Bible, in Judges chapter 5, and so they have the authority of Scripture.
God’s Choice and Calling of Leaders
The argument that God chose Deborah to be the leader of Israel because there were no available or suitable men is not supported by Scripture. God chose to use the female prophet Huldah to advise King Josiah’s all-male delegation, even though there were male prophets available at the time that included Jeremiah and Zephaniah, (2 Kings 22:11-20//2 Chron. 34:14-33).
Being unwilling, unavailable, or even feeling inadequate, are not impediments to God’s calling. Moses, Gideon, Saul, and other Bible characters were, like Jonah, initially reluctant to follow God’s calling.
However, there were male leaders in Israel at the time of Deborah’s rule. There were nobles (Judg. 5:13), princes (Judg. 5:2, 9, 15), warriors (Judg. 4:6, 14-16), and others who willingly offered themselves under Deborah’s leadership.
“When the princes in Israel take the lead, when the people willingly offer themselves—praise the Lord!” From Deborah and Barak’s Song, Judges 5:2 (NIV).
Even though there were male leaders, God chose Deborah. He chose her to be a “mother in Israel” (Judg 5:7), a matriarch in the community of his people, a female counterpart to the patriarchs.
God is still choosing to use certain women to lead his people. We need to be careful that we don’t second-guess God’s choice, or the reasons for his choice, because of our own prejudices. Furthermore, we need to be careful that we don’t stand in the way of godly and gifted women who God is calling today into ministry as leaders.
 Hebrew scholar Robert Alter mentions the two roles of Deborah as judge.
The [Hebrew] word shofet, traditionally translated as “judge,” has two different meanings —”judge” in the judicial sense and “leader” or “chieftain.” The latter sense is obviously the relevant one for [the book of Judges], though the sole female judge, Deborah, in fact also acts as a judicial authority, sitting under the palm tree named after her.
Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, Vol. 3 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2019) (Google Books)
 Deborah Menken Gill, The Female Prophets: Gender and Leadership in the Biblical Tradition (PhD Dissertation, Fuller Theological Seminary, 1991), 31.
Deborah Gill has also co-authored an excellent book with Barbara Cavaness entitled God’s Women—Then and Now where they make the following pertinent statements: “Whereas Samson’s rule was confined to one tribe, [Deborah’s] authority “transcended tribal divisions” (Kindle Locations 685-686). And this: “The highest Old Testament religious office was not the priest, but the prophet” (Kindle Location 703).
In the one minute video, Hebrew professor David Wright outlines the gender issues present in the book of Judges. He states that the downward spiral of Israelite society is mapped out by how they treat women.
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