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:
- Oppressors threaten a tribe of Israel
- The people cry out to the Lord for deliverance
- The Lord sends a judge who rescues the people
- A period of peace follows
- The judge dies and the people lapse into idolatry
- The cycle begins again.
(See the "Judges" entry in the Encyclopedia Judaica.)
Deborah fits this pattern:
- "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)
- "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)
- "[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)
- "And the land was tranquil forty years."—Judges 5:31b (NJPS)
- "Then the Israelites did what was offensive to the Lord,"—Judges 6:1a (NJPS)
- "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.
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.
- 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.