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 lead because there were no men who were available, willing, or suitable to take the job. Is this a valid argument?
In the book of Jonah, we are told that Jonah the prophet was reluctant to obey God and go to the heathen city of Nineveh. He even tried to run away from God (Jonah 1:3). Clearly, Jonah wasn’t chosen because he was ready and willing.
Being unavailable, unwilling, or even feeling inadequate and ill-equipped, are not impediments to God’s calling. Moses, Gideon, Saul, and other Bible characters were, like Jonah, initially reluctant to do what God was asking of them. But God developed them to be leaders.
Rather than there being a lack of suitably gifted, willing men, it seems the reason God used Deborah was that she was the best person for the task of leading Israel at that time, and so she was raised up to save Israel from its enemies (cf. Judg. 2:18f).
Deborah’s Leadership Roles and Qualities
The fact that Deborah was a woman is clearly mentioned—the Hebrew word ishshah (“woman”) occurs twice in Judges 4:4—but there is no hint in the text that her gender was in any way a problem. The Israelites recognised her authority as judge. They went to her when they wanted justice and guidance. They went to her seat, the Palm of Deborah, 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. She 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 her, 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 “rest” for 40 years (Judg. 5:31; cf. Judg. 2:18-19).
Having a woman as a judge was not a punishment as some suggest, as Israel prospered under Deborah’s leadership (Judg. 5:6-7). She was a blessing! Furthermore, her 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 who included Jeremiah and Zephaniah (2 Kings 22:11-20//2 Chron. 34:14-33).
Likewise, there were male leaders in Israel at the time of Deborah’s rule. There were noblemen (Judg. 5:13), princes and leaders (Judg. 5:2-3, 9, 15), 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).
And, of course, there was Barak who is listed as a faith hero in Hebrews 11:32-33.
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 and serve 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, today, God is calling 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)
 Barak’s reliance on Deborah is not a sign of weakness. Rather, it demonstrates his reliance on God. Julie Walsh notes that Barak’s statement in Judges 4:8 is similar to Moses’s statement to God in Exodus 33:12-15, including, “If you do not go with us, don’t make us leave this place” (Exod. 33:15 GNT). Julie states, “Barak wanted God’s prophet with him as Moses wanted God’s angel.” Walsh, The Cross and the Tent Peg (2018), 56.
 John H. Walton explains that “rest” in the ancient world “is what results when a crisis has been resolved or when stability has been achieved, when things have ‘settled down.’ Consequently normal routines can be established and enjoyed.” Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 72.
 Deborah was not a judgement or punishment on Israel. Rather, she was God’s answer to the prayers of his people who were suffering because of his judgement. God’s judgement is stated at the beginning of Judges 4: “The Israelites again did evil in the sight of the LORD, now that Ehud was dead. So the LORD sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan … The sons of Israel cried out to the LORD for … [Jabin] oppressed the sons of Israel severely for twenty years” (Judg. 4:1-3). This is when Deborah enters the narrative to set things right (Judg. 4:4ff).
 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).
© Margaret Mowczko 2012
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More: 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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