Deborah’s Weak Leader
By David Wright
Franklin Delano Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover in the 1932 presidential election. The United States was in the grip of the Great Depression at that time, and the majority of Americans saw Roosevelt as a savior. He retained their confidence for the rest of his life, winning re-election in 1936, 1940, and 1944. No other president has served four terms, or even three. Nor is it likely that anyone ever will. The Twenty-Second Amendment to the Constitution, ratified on February 27, 1951, states that “no person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice.”
Key to FDR’s political success was the aid of his wife, Eleanor. She became the disabled president’s eyes and ears, traveling around the country and reporting her observations to him. She held some 300 press conferences, gave numerous lectures, and frankly expressed her opinions on the radio and in a syndicated newspaper column.
Hillary Clinton, a first lady of more recent times, was also assertive. When Bill Clinton took office on January 20, 1993, his wife openly involved herself in the business of Washington. She even headed a task force aimed at implementing a nationalized health-care system. Before long, many Americans were jokingly referring to the president as “Hillary’s husband.”
Lapidoth, a man who lived in Israel more than 3,000 years ago, probably never guessed that people would one day think of him in a similar way. The author of Judges introduced Deborah as “the wife of Lapidoth” (Judg. 4:4), But Bible students are more likely to remember Lapidoth (if they remember him at all) as “the husband of Deborah.” This strong, godly woman rose up to lead Israel when the man God appointed proved too weak to perform the critical task entrusted to him.
The period of the judges was a dark era in Israel’s history. It began after Joshua’s death and ended with the crowning of Saul, Israel’s first king (c. 1050 BC). Idolatry and moral depravity characterized the times. The second chapter of Judges describes a cycle of punishment and deliverance that repeated itself again and again.
First, Israel would rebel against God, abandoning him to embrace the pagan deities of surrounding nations. God’s answer to this faithlessness was punitive oppression. The Philistines, Moabites, Ammonites, Midianites and others would subjugate the Israelites, defeating them in battle, plundering their goods, and destroying their crops.
Whenever the people repented of their sins and cried to the Lord for help, he would raise up a deliverer, a “judge,” to lead Israel to victory. A time of peace (usually a few decades) followed the victory, but the people eventually forsook the Lord once more, and the entire cycle began again. The author of Judges explained it this way: “When the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge, and delivered them out of the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the LORD was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who oppressed them and harassed them. And it came to pass, when the judge was dead, that they reverted and behaved more corruptly than their fathers, by following other gods” (Judg. 2:18-19).
The final narrative in Judges illustrates just how troubled this period was. A certain Levite was traveling with his concubine through the territory of Benjamin. At dusk they stopped in the open square of Gibeah, trusting that someone would extend hospitality to them. An old man coming in from his fields saw the travelers and invited them home. Later that evening, when the host and his guests were enjoying a meal together, perverted men came to the door and demanded the Levite, whom they intended to molest.
After some argument, the men of Gibeah accepted the concubine instead of her husband. They abused her all night. In the morning the Levite found her dead at the threshold of the house. He then “lifted her onto the donkey; and the man got up and went to his place. When he entered his house he took a knife, laid hold of his concubine, and divided her into twelve pieces, limb by limb, and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel” (Judg. 19:28-29).
After learning of the atrocity in Gibeah, Israel assembled and demanded that Benjamin hand over the vicious rapists. When Benjamin refused, civil war ensued. The conflict cost thousands of lives on both sides and nearly destroyed the tribe of Benjamin.
In these dark days, no one seemed to be listening to God. The last verse in the book of Judges says it all: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25). Even the judges themselves often proved to be poor spiritual leaders. Samson, for instance, had almost limitless physical power but lacked moral strength. He hopped from one immoral bed to the next with no apparent interest in God’s will.
Deborah is an exception. In the biblical record, not even a hint of reproach taints her reputation. While her people wallow in the muck of rebellious sin, she stands on the firm ground of character and courage. Israel recognizes her as a woman of ability, wisdom, and justice. She sits “under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the mountains of Ephraim,” and the people come “to her for judgment” (Judg. 4:5).
But Deborah was more than a judge. She was also “a prophetess” (Judg. 4:4), a spokeswoman for God. The Lord spoke to her, and she relayed his messages to her people. They desperately needed a word from God, for Israel was in bondage.
When the people “did evil in the sight of the Lord,” he delivered them “into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor” (Judg. 4:1-2). The Canaanites were a Semitic people inhabiting Palestine in Joshua’s day. His conquest of Canaan was now 175 years ago, but Israel had yet to vanquish this enemy completely. Because of Israel’s unfaithfulness, God had permitted the Canaanite king Jabin to grow in power and cruelly oppress Deborah’s people (v. 3).
Hazor, Jabin’s capital, was in northern Palestine, as was Harosheth Hagoyim, where the king’s general Sisera quartered the Canaanite troops. Particularly fearsome to Israel were Jabin’s “nine hundred chariots of iron” (Judg. 4:3). In the period of the judges, Israel lacked iron for making farm implements and weapons. (Apparently, smelting iron became commonplace in Israel only after Saul and David defeated the Philistines.)
The prospect of facing Jabin’s 900 iron chariots must have felt like marching with swords and spears into battle against an army equipped with rifles. Israel’s situation looked bleak, but God gave his prophetess an encouraging message. Deborah summoned Barak, a man of Naphtali, and told him what the Lord had said: “Go and deploy troops at Mount Tabor [southwest of the Sea of Galilee]; take with you ten thousand men of the sons of Naphtali and of the sons of Zebulun; and against you I will deploy Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his multitude at the River Kishon [which flows from Mts. Tabor and Gilboa westward through the Plain of Esdraelon]; and I will deliver him into your hand” (Judg. 4:6-7). Deborah’s prophecy was great news. Jabin had been oppressing Israel for 20 years, but now the Lord was promising to give Barak victory over the dreaded enemy. Barak, however, was unwilling to take command as God directed.
Barak said to Deborah, “If you will go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go!” (Judg. 4:8). This speech exposed Barak’s weakness. The battlefield was his natural domain as a man. But he refused to assume the leadership role that naturally fell to him. “I can’t do it,” his words to Deborah implied. “Without the comfort and encouragement of your inspiring presence, I won’t go.”
Deborah replied, “I will surely go with you; nevertheless there will be no glory for you in the journey you are taking, for the LORD will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (Judg. 4:9). After making this pronouncement, Deborah accompanied Barak to his hometown of Kedesh in Naphtali. There he marshalled his troops and prepared for war. Sisera, hearing of Barak’s plans, deployed his own forces at the river Kishon, just as God had said. Emboldened by the Lord, Barak and his men swept down on the Canaanites from Mt. Tabor. Sisera’s warriors and his 900 chariots were driven before Israel like leaves before a fierce storm.
The battle raged to the very gates of Harosheth Hagoyim, Sisera’s stronghold. Barak’s men cut down every enemy soldier with the edge of the sword. But one man got away on foot—Sisera himself. Slipping out of his chariot, he ran for his life. The refuge he chose was the tent of Jael. She and her husband, Heber, had been friends with King Jabin for some time. However, Jael had apparently become sympathetic to the plight of Israel.
Unaware of this, Sisera came to Jael’s door expecting a safe haven. She welcomed the unsuspecting Canaanite general into her tent and offered him a blanket to cover himself. Utterly exhausted and parched with thirst, Sisera begged for a refreshing drink of water. Jael did better than that. She brought him a bowl of milk.
It was the last thing Sisera ever tasted. While he slept, Jael quietly knelt by his side. Gripping a mallet in her strong hand, she drove a tent peg through his temples, pinning him to the ground. When Barak arrived at Jael’s door in hot pursuit of the escaped Canaanite general, he found that the day’s victory had already been won – by a woman. Barak marched against the Canaanites at the head of his troops, but the real heroes of the battle were Deborah and Jael.
Unfortunately, the weak spirit of Barak lives on in the 21st century Christian home. The Holy Spirit lays the burden of family leadership squarely on the broad shoulders of the man. The apostle Paul tells the Ephesians that “the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church” (Eph. 5:23). Furthermore, he instructs fathers to assume primary responsibility for the proper upbringing of their children. “Fathers,” Paul writes, “do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord” (6:4). But Barak often shirks his God-given duty. “Don’t look at me,” he says. “I’m no spiritual leader. My wife is better at that sort of thing than I am.
The Barak in Beth’s house is a church-goer. To her delight, he confessed Jesus as Lord and submitted to baptism a few months after their wedding. In many respects, he is a good husband and father. He shows romantic interest in Beth, treats her parents kindly, spends time with the children, works hard to provide for the family, and manages his business affairs honestly and diligently.
To her consternation, though, Beth’s husband fails to take his commitment to Christ seriously. She has read in the Bible that women must “keep silent” in the church assembly, “for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home” (1 Cor. 14:34-35). How, Beth often wonders, could she ever “learn something” from her husband? The man does not know a Philippian from a Philistine.
Beth constantly finds herself reminding her husband to do the things a mature Christian man does on autopilot. “Honey, please watch your mouth. The children are listening.” “Let’s all bow our heads. Daddy is going to lead us in a prayer thanking God for our food.” “Don’t forget that it’s Wednesday. We have midweek Bible study tonight.” If Beth did not drag her husband out of bed on Sunday morning, he would sleep until noon.
The Barak in Sandra’s house is even less interested in spiritual things. Before they were married, he attended worship with her and promised to do so always. He kept his word for exactly three weeks. Sandra soon concluded that her husband never meant to accompany her to church. Evidently, he lied to win her hand. When she confronted him on this point, he shrugged off her accusation but never denied it.
Sandra passionately loves her children and wants them to live for Jesus, but raising spiritually-minded kids in her home is an ongoing battle. Teaching her eight-year-old Samantha is not yet a problem. Sam is very close to her mother, and she worries about her father’s spiritual condition. Dealing with 12-year-old Jimmy is an entirely different matter. Naturally, the boy wants to be with his father – and be just like him.
Taking advantage of this, Sandra’s husband tries to lure Jimmy away from God. She faithfully takes her children to worship, and her husband knows this, but he is constantly inviting their son to do worldly things with him on the Lord’s day. Would Jimmy like to go fishing? Would Jimmy like to go to the range and practice his shooting? Would Jimmy like to go to an NFL game? Sandra always tells her son no, but that he even ask to miss worship deeply troubles her. What will Sandra do when Jimmy is 16? What will she do if her son rebels against her spiritual training and has his father’s full support in doing it?
Worst of all, Sandra’s husband keeps beer in the refrigerator and pornographic pictures on his phone. She suspects that he tempts Jimmy with these corrupting things when she is out of the house. Sandra begs her husband to change his conduct or at least stop interfering with her spiritual training. But to no avail. Jesus says that “everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” (John 3:20). If he can help it, Sandra’s husband has no intention of being “exposed” by the faith and purity of his own son.
Christian women often hear messages about the great importance of strong male leadership in the home. A growing boy, the preacher says, desperately needs his father. A mother nurtures her son, encourages him, makes him feel safe and loved. But a boy learns to be a man in the company of men. He needs his father to validate him, to let him know that he has what it takes to be a man.
A growing girl needs her father just as badly. Her relationship with him shapes her self-image and her view of men. On the one hand, if her father is aloof or abusive, she concludes that she is unattractive and unworthy of male respect. She will probably marry someone like her father and continue to receive the mistreatment she first learned from him. On the other hand, if a girl’s father is kind and affectionate, she tends to feel self-confident and worthy. She is far less likely to be promiscuous, and she will probably marry only a man who is kind and caring.
Yes, strong male leadership in the home is crucial. Both boys and girls need a father whose life is characterized by integrity, loyalty, courage, humility, purity, and tenderness. Strong male leadership is vital on the battlefield too, but Barak refused to go. By the grace of God, Deborah brought about a great victory for Israel in spite of the missing male leadership.
If Barak’s weakness lives on in the modern Christian home, then Deborah’s strength must live on as well. Any woman yoked to a weak husband must pull more than her share of the load. She must take responsibility for things that God expects her husband to do.
As already noted, the Lord commands the father to assume primary responsibility for the spiritual training of his children (Eph. 6:4). If a man neglects this duty, Deborah rises to the challenge. She cannot afford to let such a vital task go undone. Her sons and daughters are too precious for that. To counter the harm done by her husband’s lack of maturity or spiritual interest, she goes the second mile.
Other Christian families may attend worship only when it is convenient, but Deborah takes her children every time the doors open, refusing to miss even one opportunity to expose her children to the transforming influence of God’s word. Other families may put ball practice and games before vacation Bible school, retreats, and other youth activities. Deborah is different. Her children participate in everything the youth minister plans. Other families may watch TV together before trundling the kids off to bed. Again, Deborah is different. It may not be her duty to lead the children in a devotional, but since Barak refuses to go, she takes his place.
Timothy, an outstanding preacher in the early church, serves as an excellent illustration of how successful a strong woman can be. Probably, Paul meets the boy on his first missionary journey. On his second great campaign, the apostle finds that the talented young man has earned the respect of all the churches in the Lystra area. When Paul encourages the youth to join the mission team, Timothy accepts. He and the older man soon become fast friends. Timothy travels with Paul, preaches the truth in spite of opposition and persecution, and spends time as a prisoner for Jesus (Heb. 13:23).
Where did Timothy learn this great devotion to Jesus — from his father? No. Paul reminded his young friend of the “genuine faith that is in you, which dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice” (2 Tim. 1:5). Paul’s omission of any reference to Timothy’s father was intentional. Luke explained that Timothy was “the son of a certain Jewish woman who believed, but his father was Greek” (Acts 16:1). Many Greeks came to Christ, of course, but Timothy’s father was not one of them. Timothy’s thorough and successful spiritual training came solely from Lois and Eunice, two women who, in the spirit of Deborah, rose up and went when Barak refused to go.
Deborah’s Weak Leader
- How serious is the problem of weak male leadership in the church? Do you personally know men who are qualified to be elders or deacons but refuse to assume these offices? Do you know men with musical talent who cannot be persuaded to lead singing in worship? If a Christian man is reluctant to serve the church publicly, what message does he communicate to his sons?
- Deborah was a prophetess, a spokeswoman for God. Does her leadership role in Old Testament Israel authorize women to lead publicly in mixed-gender assemblies of the New Testament church? What did the inspired apostle Paul command regarding this issue ((1 Cor. 14:34-35; 1 Tim. 2:11-12)?
- In what situations is a Christian woman biblically free to present the gospel? Is she encouraged by the Lord to teach children and other women? Can she do the work of an evangelist in a private setting (Acts 18:26)? Do the biblical restrictions affecting female leadership in the church mean that women are inferior to men? Does the Lord demean single and childless men by disqualifying them from serving as elders and deacons (1 Tim. 3:1-13)?
- Sandra, a fictional character in this chapter, is battling her husband’s worldly influence on their son, Jimmy. Would it be a good idea for Sandra to ask Christian men to take her son fishing or hunting? Would you consider encouraging your husband to spend time with the little Jimmy in your own congregation?
- What can a Christian mother do to inspire leadership in her young son? Should she repeatedly talk to him about the shortage of strong male leadership in the home and church? Should she ask the elders to implement some sort of leadership training program for boys – perhaps a class teaching song-leading and preaching skills?