Saturday, August 31, 2013

Bible Commentary - Judges 4

In this chapter, Deborah guides Barak to rescue Israel.

I think this is a great chapter because for whatever reason, there is a pretty strong anti-feminist tradition in the church, and indeed in Judaism as well, that more or less teaches that women cannot be leaders or teachers over men.  This chapter contradicts that tradition.  Miriam was the first prophetess (Ex 15:20) but we never really saw Miriam do anything significant (in my opinion).  Deborah, on the other hand, would judge the Israelites (v. 4-5), arbitrate their disputes, and as here, leads Barak in attacking the occupying Canaanites.

To make this chapter even better, "the honor" of slaying Sisera is given to a second woman, Jael.

As we know, the Kenites are friendly to Israel because Moses married a Kenite.  However, it appears that Heber the Kenite "separated himself" from the other Kenites, and also appears to be friendly with Israel's oppressors.  It's interesting, then, that his wife would betray Sisera.  Perhaps, perceiving the defeat that Sisera was fleeing from, Jael hoped to make amends with the Israelites that would not have otherwise treated her and Haber kindly for befriending Jabin.

It's interesting that Barak's army is drawn from Naphtali and Zebulun, two northern tribes.  Deborah was also living near Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, which is also in the north.  So this story is mostly about the north although one would presume that Judah is also under the oppression of Jabin.

Those are all of the small things I care to talk about for this chapter.  I want to go back to the topic of gender relations, because I really think that's the most important part of this chapter.  First of all, let's remember the culture in which this is happening.  In nearly every instance we have read, the father is head of the household.  Whenever that father is a righteous Noah, then his wife and children are spared.  When the father is a sinful Korah, then his wife and children die with him.  To us, it seems like an injustice, but to them, patriarchy was a way of life.

In light of this, I find the implicit egalitarianism of Deborah's authority to be really fascinating.  Not just that a woman would be a prophet (which is something that God determines) but that the Israelites would go to her to resolve their disputes, meaning that they respected her authority and wisdom.  There is also an interesting interplay between Deborah and Barak.  Barak refuses to fight Sisera without Deborah going with him.  Many people see this as a demonstration of weakness on the part of Barak, perhaps necessitating Deborah's greater involvement, and that's why Barak did not have "the honor".

There are some people who say that women should not be allowed to lead or teach in a church.  I have heard some of these people say that it was the "proper role" of Barak to lead Israel to victory, and because he refused that role the Lord gave it to Deborah instead.  Like, women are permitted to lead if men fail to do so.  Although my purpose here is not to criticize or deconstruct this argument, I will point out that Deborah was "judging" Israel in verses 4-6 long before she ever commanded Barak to do anything.  Deborah, indeed, is a judge of Israel in the same line as Ehud, Shamgar and Othniel, the three heroes of the previous chapter.  I think it is a misunderstanding of this chapter to suggest that the LORD somehow chose Barak to lead and that Deborah was a backup option.

What this means for the larger topic of gender relations I cannot fully say, because we do not yet have the fuller context of the NT.  But I do think this chapter shows one thing as clear as day, that the LORD does and will choose women as leaders of Israel (and by extension, the modern church) and if the ancient Israelites respected Deborah's authority, it is incumbent upon us to follow the leaders whom God chooses, regardless of gender.

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