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I've sometimes heard that Deborah was allowed to be a leader of Israel only because no man stepped up to the responsibility. However, when she is introduced there is no indication of that:

Deborah, wife of Lappidoth, was a prophetess; she led Israel at that time. She used to sit under the Palm of Deborah, between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites would come to her for decisions.—Judges 4:4-5 (NJPS)

On the other hand, we do see what might be considered a man absconding from responsibility:

She summoned Barak son of Abinoam, of Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, has commanded: Go, march up to Mount Tabor, and take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun. And I will draw Sisera, Jabin’s army commander, with his chariots and his troops, toward you up to the Wadi Kishon; and I will deliver him into your hands.” But Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go; if not, I will not go.” “Very well, I will go with you,” she answered. “However, there will be no glory for you in the course you are taking, for then the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” So Deborah went with Barak to Kedesh.—Judges 4:6-9 (NJPS)

And in fact, Sisera was killed by the woman Jael.

Should this story be read as a low point in Hebrew masculinity or as a moment of triumph for Hebrew women?

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3 Answers 3

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Isaiah 3:12a states (ESV):

My people — infants are their oppressors, and women rule over them.

This is showing one of the signs of affliction upon Israel for their disobedience. We see in Judges where at this time the men were quite passive. In Judges 4:8 we see after Deborah asked Barak the military leader to go to fight, his response showing a real low point in Hebrew masculinity:

Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go.”

And as you pointed out in Judges 4:9, it was a shame on Barak that God would use a woman to kill Sisera:

And she said, “I will surely go with you. Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.”

The Bible is very consistent in that God has given the responsibility of leadership to men, in both the old and new testament. This is a very applicable point today, since we see this level of passiveness in the modern industrialized world, partly spurred by the advance of perspectives that oppose the biblical concept of male headship.

Note: This had nothing to do with Deborah's abilities, only her role.

So to answer your question in the title,

I would not say that she was sub-optimal, I see no indication of poor performance.

To answer your question in the question,

it was a low point of Hebrew masculinity.

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The entire book of Judges documents the failure of leadership in Israel from the time of Joshua to Saul. In fact, the phrase "In those days there was no king in Israel" is repeated four times. Although the text seems to be structured chronologically, the stories are actually arraigned geographically from south to north, which allows the accounts to follow a ridged pattern:

  1. Oppressors threaten a tribe of Israel
  2. The people cry out to the Lord for deliverance
  3. The Lord sends a judge who rescues the people
  4. A period of peace follows
  5. The judge dies and the people lapse into idolatry
  6. The cycle begins again.

(See the "Judges" entry in the Encyclopedia Judaica.)

Deborah fits this pattern:

  1. "The Israelites again did what was offensive to the Lord—Ehud now being dead. And the Lord surrendered them to King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. His army commander was Sisera, whose base was Harosheth-goiim."—Judges 4:1-2 (NJPS)
  2. "The Israelites cried out to the Lord; for he had nine hundred iron chariots, and he had oppressed Israel ruthlessly for twenty years."—Judges 4:3 (NJPS)
  3. "[Deborah] summoned Barak son of Abinoam, of Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, has commanded: Go, march up to Mount Tabor, and take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun."—Judges 4:6 (NJPS)
  4. "And the land was tranquil forty years."—Judges 5:31b (NJPS)
  5. "Then the Israelites did what was offensive to the Lord,"—Judges 6:1a (NJPS)
  6. "And the Lord delivered them into the hands of the Midianites for seven years."—Judges 6:1b (NJPS)

None of the judges of Israel were completely effective: they didn't unify the tribes, they didn't provide for leadership after their deaths, and they didn't drive out the Canaanite tribes as commanded by God. Nor did they eliminate idolatry. In some cases, they succumbed to idolatry in their own lifetimes:

Gideon made an ephod of this gold and set it up in his own town of Ophrah. There all Israel went astray after it, and it became a snare to Gideon and his household.—Judges 8:27 (NJPS)

Deborah stands out as better than average, if not the best judge, after Joshua and before Samuel. However, from the ancient perspective, she had a fatal flaw: she was a woman. Women leaders were not unknown in the Ancient Near East, but they were rare—partially because so much leadership depended on military prowess. Judges amply illustrates this: nearly every judge was established by defeating opposing forces. (Samuel is the only exception I can thing of.)

Deborah seemed to have had in mind a diarchy with herself continuing in the role of Judge and Barak covering the military leadership role.1 Barak instead puts himself in the role of lieutenant general. It seems like his request to have Deborah come with him signals his submission to her. However, Judges 5 (especially verse 1) indicates that both Barak and Deborah shared the victory.

Even so, neither Deborah nor Barak consolidated their leadership nor established succession, so their era was a futile as any other. Implicit in this is the other problem with women leaders in patriarchal societies: it was difficult for them to establish dynastic succession. Since Lappidoth does not figure in the narrative, we must assume he was either dead or uninvolved in his wife's leadership activities. Therefore, her children would have had to inherent their mother's authority, which was not a cultural possibility.


If this were the entirety of the story, I would say Judges does not make a definitive statement about women in civilian leadership roles. (Deborah herself avoided taking a military role until Barak refused it.) However, the story of Jael muddies the waters. For one thing, the story draws a direct line from Barak asking Deborah to accompany him and a woman taking glory for Sisera's defeat. It's not clear whether Deborah was making a prophesy that anticipated Jael's actions or if she were merely pointing out that the people would see Deborah, not Barak, as the victor. But the editor of the story does know that Sisera will die at the hand of a woman, so as constructed, the text reads as Barak losing his prize because he did not take hold of his rightful authority.

Judges 4:11,17-20 make clear that Jael's husband was linked by friendship to the Canaanite King Jabin. This is why Sisera trusted her with his life. However, her ultimate loyalty was to Israel (and presumably, the Lord), so she took bold and decisive action. In the Song of Deborah, she is contrasted with Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh (the Gilead tribes), Dan, Asher, and Meroz (referent unclear) who "came not to the aid of the Lord, to the aid of the Lord among the warriors." Sisera's mother is portrayed as believing that Sisera is delayed from returning home because he is dividing the spoil—including Israelite women. Ironically, it was Israelite women who caused his downfall.

Summary

Deborah was perhaps the best leader whose story is told in Judges. However, from the ancient point of view, she represented a failure of boldness among the people of Israel and fit in well with the long line of impotent leadership.


Footnote:

  1. This is reading between the lines of Judges 4:6-10. I had assumed that Deborah was planning to use a small bodyguard to "draw Sisera, Jabin’s army commander, with his chariots and his troops, toward [Barak] up to the Wadi Kishon". But in fact, this is still part of God's command spoken by Deborah to Barak. The I is God throughout verse 7.
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Great detailed answer. Out of intest, do you mean to paint 'dynastic succession' as a positive thing in the context of Judges? 1 Samuel 8 seems to pinpoint the problem as the rejection of God as King rather that the lack of a human king? –  Jack Douglas Feb 14 '12 at 22:27
    
@Jack: That's a complicated question! We see in the books of Kings and Chronicles that the failure of leadership (or at least inconsistent leadership) was not solved by having a king or by dynastic succession. But if Judges was compiled in the early kingdom period (under Saul, David, or Solomon) the writer might suppose that it was. Deuteronomy 17 anticipates a king and the troubles of one, however. I'd say that the human hope was that dynastic succession and unification under a king would make life better than under judges. –  Jon Ericson Feb 14 '12 at 23:06

The first two paragraphs are in response to @Lance Roberts' post, but also answer the question.

Deborah was already in a position of authority within Israel as a prophetess and also as a judge. Those who support the complementarian position often state that Deborah was most likely only a leader because men had failed to step up to the plate, as is further evidenced by Barak’s hesitancy to go to battle. I think a study of the culture during this time period explains this well, female leaders weren’t the norm in most nations.1 Barak’s hesitancy eventually resulted in a blow to Barak’s honor as Jael, a female, was ultimately credited with the death of the Canaanite leader (Sisera).

Let me reiterate that it was Jael, not Deborah, who received this honor – which is an important distinction for our discussion. It becomes clear that this story really says nothing about it being wrong for a female to be a public leader; nor does it say that it is wrong for a woman to give military direction to male warriors. It also does not say that it is shameful for women to receive honor for military victories, only that it was shameful in this case because Barak hesitated to obey God’s command to defeat the Canaanites and their leader. Barak was supposed to take the reigns, and he hesitated. We can certainly sympathize with him, life can be tough. But the text makes it clear that as a result of his actions, another received the honor that should have been his alone.2

Now to answer the original question: I believe that this story should be read neither as a low point in Hebrew masculinity nor as a moment of triumph for Hebrew women. I think that the passage specifically shames a specific male (Barak) for his failure to obey God, and should not be construed to shame all Hebrew men. This is no unique victory for Hebrew women, either, because Deborah was already serving in leadership before Barak's display of disobedience, and thus Jael's gender appears to be inconsequential.


1 But God has a tendency of going against the cultural grain when it comes to how women are treated throughout Scripture.

2 The example of Deborah teaches us that women are capable of being strong leaders and good managers, and it’s OK if they receive some credit for it.

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