Authentic :: Deborah & Jael

As a woman of the 21st century, I have a special place in my heart for strong, intelligent women who can take charge while at the same time maintaining respect for everyone around her. It’s a tightrope not many women walk gracefully. Personally, I am hanging on to the tightrope with my feet dangling beneath more more often than I balance there. 

Currently, in my Bible study, we are going through the book of Corinthians and 1 Corinthians 6 highlights the church’s responsibility to settle civil disputes among the body rather than taking one another to court and displaying dirty laundry for the world to see. The question we contemplated was whether or not we view ourselves as being equipped to solve disputes among others. After all, we have the spirit of truth dwelling in us (John 14:17), teaching us all things (John 14:26), with a promise from God to grant us ability and wisdom (James 1:5), and we have the scriptures that we study (Hebrews 4:12). So, yes we are given the equipment. But that is very different than feeling equipped to be a mediator or judge. As a teacher, I’ve had to employ these skills and sometimes I get it right, often I have to back peddle, follow up, and even ask for forgiveness because let’s face it: teaching is a learning process too.  Deborah, on the other hand, not only had these gifts, she used the gifts and had confidence that the gifts God had given her would be put to amazingly good use. 

A Woman in Charge in a Man’s World

Deborah is the woman in charge. She is the judge over the Israelite nation before the days of the Kings. Not only is she a judge (and a woman) she is also named as a prophet. Interestingly, most judges during this time weren’t arbiters as we see in today’s society, but rather commanders and military leaders. Deborah, on the other hand, is seen in the opening of Judges 4 as a more passive arbiter—sitting beneath a tree and passing judgment over the disputes of the people. If she wasn’t already unique enough, this sets her apart even more.


Photo by Miguel Bruna on Unsplash

Furthermore, Deborah is judge during a bad time for the Israelites. They had once again done evil in the site of the Lord and so had been sold into the hands of Jabin, a king of Canaan and the commander Sisera. The Canaanites were a highly advanced and technological society—with iron chariots and better weapons than the Israelites (Judges 4:1-3). Actually in a lot of ways this situation is very similar to the time the Israelites spent in Egypt. Fortunately, they didn’t have to wait quite as long for deliverance.

When we first meet Deborah in Judges 4:4-7, she is doing her job: sitting under her tree, giving out judgments. Then a prophecy comes to her. It’s time for the 20 years of oppression to come to an end! So she sends for Barak and gives him very specific instructions for how to defeat Sisera’s army and what the result would be. Actually, she confirms what the Lord has already told Barak: take 10,000 men and attack Jabin’s army and I will deliver them into your hand. 

Now, Barak had heard this direction from the Lord and then it is confirmed by Deborah. That’s some pretty amazing confirmation, so at that point, I would expect Barak to be like “Let’s do this.” Yet, his response in 
Judges 4: 8-10 is kind of odd for a man of war: “I’ll go if you go.” 

Now nothing in the prophecy stated that Deborah needed to be a part of the military campaign. And, in fact, she would probably have been somewhat of a distraction as the men would feel it was their duty to protect her rather than fight all out. So this is an odd request.

But I get it. 

I’ve had a similar conversation with God and godly people before: this is what I want you to do (says God). Um, okay (says me) but only if…


 Our hesitancy can often cause us to lose out on blessings 

This kind of negotiation sets the tone for the kind of deliverance. Deborah tells him that she’ll go, but it’ll change the outcome–all of Sisera will be delivered nto the hands of a woman. This response transitions her from a passive to an active role and we expect that the army will now follow her lead rather than Barak’s–after all he’s using her as a kind of good luck charm.

At any rate, they go to battle and the actual scene is pretty short: Judges 4: 12-16highlights that the Lord is given all the glory and Deborah is giving all the orders. Her faith spurs the men into action. 

The Song of Deborah and Barak in Judges 5: 4-5 details exactly how the Lord lead them into victory: a sudden storm causes these highly advanced ‘iron chariots’ to fail! Routed in the mud, the army flees and their military strategy is kaput.  That’s what you get when you rely too heavily on any one thing rather than in an all powerful God. The task before Barak seemed impossible…and yet Deborah knew the Lord would make a way. So, in the end, it is Deborah…and another young woman…who get the starring role next to God. Not the leader of the army. Because that is the thing about faith. Our hesitancy can often cause us to lose out on blessings God has in store for us. 

When Women Take the Lead

In Judges 4:17-22 we meet Jael, a second female character who, like Deborah, takes on a non-traditional female role. First, she appears to be quite welcoming to Sisera, inviting him in with sweet words and promises of protection. He enters because, after all, they are supposed to be allies. Instead of giving him water, she gives him milk. What a motherly thing she is doing here, nurturing this man and even lulling him to sleep. So cute! All the while, the audience here is building tension expecting what—Deborah to come in? But no, suddenly Jael picks up whatever is handy—a tent peg, and drives it through Sisera’s skull. YIKES! That is no easy task (in case you were wondering, that would have had to been a tremendous force to go all the way through the skull to the ground). Talk about subverting expectations for a climax. The prophecy came true, but certainly not in the way we—or even they (certainly not Sisera)—were expecting.


Sometimes we are called to a purpose we don’t quite understand. 


Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

We’re never told why Jael decides to murder Sisera. Her husband is his ally. All we know is that she fulfills God’s prophecy and is honored for this action. Sometimes we are called to a purpose we don’t quite understand. But, when we know we are following God’s will, we can rest in the knowledge that he will work it all out for our good (Romans 8:28). 

Judges 5 is perhaps one of the oldest poems in the Bible and relates the story in more detail. This song has a war driven tone and regales the history of Deborah’s people. 5: 24-27 relates Jael’s story and then we get to Judges 5: 28-30  where we see our final female character in this passage- Sisera’s mother who is waiting, in vain, for the return of her son.

Interestingly, all three female figures in Deborah’s story have motherly qualities, but both Deborah and Jael who are the protagonists are hero-ized for their non-traditional roles as they transition from passive to active participants in God’s story. To me this offers reminds me of the promise that God has equipped us ALL to do his work–not just the males. Females were not made to be minor characters, in a supporting role. They were made to help drive the plot forward, and God honors women who step into their purpose as much as he honors men. 

Leadership and Submission

The Bible tells us that females and wives are supposed to be submissive to male leadership and husbands. How do we reconcile the idea of ‘submissive’ with our own call to leadership roles like that of Deborah? Well I don’t have the answer to that, but I have some thoughts. 

The Trinity is made up of God, the father, Jesus, the son, and the Holy Spirit, helper. They are all three equally (one person, one God), and yet, they are 3 persons and each role is well-defined in a hierarchy. Jesus submits to his father (Luke 22:42), and the father sends the Holy Spirit (John 14:26). But Jesus still takes on a leadership role throughout his ministry and life. 

Submission doesn’t mean you are a doormat. It doesn’t even mean you can’t make your own decisions. Submission is merely a voluntary recognition that you are not the ulitmate authority on everything in your life. And since absolute power corrupts absolutely, being able and willing to submit is an important life skill for everyone. Therefore, women are not called to be men’s underlings, but rather to work alongside for a greater purpose: the highest authority, which is God’s. 


Feminine doesn’t have to mean fragile. 


Photo by Anita Austvika on Unsplash

Feminine doesn’t have to mean fragile. Deborah and Jael both had very feminine qualities and they used these to their advantage to gain both strength and honor in their communities. And we can too. 

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