Friday, September 12, 2008

In Defense of Deborah

Until recently I have never realized that Deborah, judge of Israel, needed defending. In my mind she has been, like Daniel, one of very few people that the Bible reports only positively about. Silly me.

In the wake of the Republican Vice Presidential Nomination of Sarah Palin, I have discovered a small but vocal subset of Christianity that stands very firmly on what Vision Forum refers to as “Biblical Patriarchy.” This doctrine teaches that there are basically three spheres of influence in the world: The Family (or the home), the (local) church, and civil government. It’s supporters say that in each of these arenas the Bible clearly teaches that female leadership or authority is contrary to God’s order. Given that, they believe that God is better pleased with bad, ineffectual male leadership than even the most capable woman in a position of authority. As a result, some Christians have claimed that they are no longer able to vote for Sen. McCain now that he has selected the female Governor of Alaska to be his VP.

What does this have to do with Deborah? I have serious concerns about the claims of proponents of Biblical Patriarchy both biblically and philosophically. They teach that female leadership is completely unacceptable to God; however, in the fourth chapter of Judges we find an explicit example of female leadership over the Nation of Israel (Judges 2:16) and in a role that God Himself assigned no less. In order to explain this apparent contradiction between Biblical Patriarchy and the leadership of Deborah, the patriarchists teach that her period as judge over Israel was a shame to the men of Israel; they claim that female leadership is a sign of the judgment of God, based on Isaiah 3:12.

Vision Forum published the article Should Christians Support a Woman for the Office of Civil Magistrate? in which William Einwechter presents the doctrine of Biblical Patriarchy. Einwechter attempts to show that Deborah is not a good example of female leadership in the Bible; in fact, he claims she should not be considered a leader at all. I disagree. For the rest of this post, I will be responding directly to the arguments and assertions made in this article.

Einwechter writes:“First, in regard to Deborah, recognize that it would be unwise to cancel out the explicit biblical teaching on the headship of man, the clear statements of the law, the picture of the virtuous woman, and the lament over women ruling on the basis of what took place in Israel in one of the most confused periods in Israel’s history.”

I agree. It can be dangerous and problematic to look at examples of individuals for doctrine, particularly in the Old Testament, as the Bible frequently records peoples’ actions without supplying a judgment as to the righteousness of their actions. The good and the bad are reported together and often judgment is withheld. We should never cancel out Biblical teaching because of a conflicting example. However, if we are careful, we can allow Biblical examples to inform our understanding of Biblical teaching. We can learn things if we examine the text carefully.

What is God doing in this story? God uses Deborah as both an influential judge in Israel and as a prophetess. He speaks to her directly as His agent for freeing Israel from Jabin, king of the Canaanites. Is it appropriate for her to serve in such a leadership position? Biblical patriarchists would say no, her apparent position as a leader only signifies the extent of God’s judgment on Israel. However, Israel was already experiencing God’s judgment – they were captives of their enemies the Canaanites because they had forgotten the one true God and worshipped other gods. Rather than Deborah as evidence of God’s judgment, Deborah is presented as the agent God used to release Israel from judgment.

Is her example a special case? Does it stand out in any way from the other accounts of the judges in this book? No. In every account related in Judges, Israel does “evil in the eyes of the Lord,” thus they are handed over to their enemies for a period of years, after which God raises up a judge to lead Israel back to Him and free them from their captors. This is precisely the pattern followed by Deborah as well.

Einwechter writes: “The judges during this period were more military leaders or ‘avenging deliverers’ than they were civil magistrates (Judges 2:16-19)”

Mr. Einwechter makes this point because Deborah did not personally lead the troops into battle against King Jabin. He uses this detail to question whether we should rightly refer to Deborah as the judge or if it’s more appropriate to conclude that the actual judge of Israel in this story is Barak. This could be a compelling argument if the role of judge is truly said to be a militaristic position. Let’s read the passage:

Then the LORD raised up judges who delivered [Israel] from the hands of those who plundered them. Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they played the harlot after other gods and bowed themselves down to them. They turned aside quickly from the way in which their fathers had walked in obeying the commandments of the LORD; they did not do as their fathers. When the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge and delivered them from 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 and afflicted them. But it came about when the judge died, that they would turn back and act more corruptly than their fathers, in following other gods to serve them and bow down to them; they did not abandon their practices or their stubborn ways. – Judges 2:16-19 (NASB)

Does it appear from this passage that the judges were always military leaders, as Mr. Einwechter claimed in his statement above? I certainly don’t find any mention of military leadership or avenging deliverers in this passage. I see nothing in this passage to cause me to ignore the statement in Judges 4:4 – “Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time,” and conclude that Barak was actual the judge if Israel in view here. What I see is a person, the judge, whom God raises up and through whom God affects repentance in the hearts of the people, which leads directly to physical freedom from and victory over their oppressors.

Einwechter writes: “The Song of Deborah and Barak gives some important insight into Deborah’s actual position in Israel.”

Under this statement Mr. Einwechter points out that in Judges 5:7 Deborah claims to be a “mother” in Israel, not a father. He says, “This is significant, given the headship of the father in Israel.” I have to wonder, what else could Deborah have claimed to be? Would it really have been appropriate for her to claim to be a “father” in Israel? Also, the author reads a great deal into a verse that appears to do nothing more than describe Deborah’s simple origins in order to give the glory to God – in essence she’s saying, “Who am I to be used by God to redeem the land and the people of Israel, I’m simply a mother.” She removes the credit anyone might try to give her for the work that was done in Israel and rightfully attributes it to God.

Looking at Judges 5:9, the observation is made that “there were yet governors in Israel,” i.e. the rulers of the tribes, and that this fact invalidates any claim to leadership that could be attributed to Deborah. This is a very strange assertion, as I don’t believe the author would make it about any of the other judges, yet whether these governors were referenced explicitly or not, they were there during the service of every other judge over Israel. The fact that each tribe had its own leadership does not disqualify the judge from being rightfully considered a leader as well.

Another claim that is made about “Deborah’s actual position in Israel” is that in Judges 5:12 “Deborah is exhorted to awake and sing, but Barak is exhorted to arise and ‘lead’.” I’m sorry, but this one is playing a little fast and loose with the text. Mr. Einwechter fails to mention what Barak arises to lead:

Awake, awake, Deborah;
Awake, awake, sing a song!
Arise, Barak, and take away your captives, O son of Abinoam.- Judges 5:12 (NASB)

It can hardly be said that Barak is seen here as the civil leader of the people, but simply as a successful military leader who has taken his enemies captive.

Finally, Mr. Einwechter points out that verse 13 of this chapter “is either a reference to Israel’s victory over Sisera and the Canaanites, or to the gathering of the people to go up to battle; whichever, it does not mean that God has appointed Deborah to the position of civil magistrate.” I might have to give him this one as I can’t say that I disagree. The verse is somewhat ambiguous in each of the Bible translations I looked at, so he could very well be right about this specific verse. However, that really does nothing for or against his case that Deborah was not a civil leader of Israel.


The biggest problem I see with this argument is this: Let’s assume for the moment that everything he says about Deborah is completely true. He still acknowledges that “She judged Israel only in the sense that she was sought out by the people for advice and judgment in the settlement of disputes because of her wisdom from God.” Even if that’s all she was, does it sound like she conformed herself to Mr. Einwechter’s image a Godly woman:

“According to Scripture, the woman was created to be man’s assistant in his dominion task, to function under his headship, to be a mother and nurturer of children, and to manage her home. These “monumental” tasks require married women to be “keepers at home,” i.e., they are to stay at home to give their full time and attention to the enormously important roles that God has given to them”(quote from a post by William Einwechter titled Sarah Palin and the Complementarian Compromise: A Response to Our Brothers Al Mohler and David Kotter on Doug Philips’ blog at Vision Forum, September 8, 2008).

Even if everything Bill Einwechter says about Deborah is true, was she acting as “man’s assistant in his dominion task?” Possibly she fulfilled this role to Barak, but he was not her husband or her child, which Einwechter would find very problematic. Does she “function under [man’s] headship?” Not at all! She goes to Barak and tells him what to do (beyond the pale according to Mr. Einwecter’s beliefs)! Does she act as “a mother and nurturer of children and manage her home.” She does not! Her children and her home are never even mentioned in the account. Did she act as a “keeper at home,” as he would put it? No. She was out in public, serving people who were not in her family, handing out judgments in disputes that undoubtedly involved men as well as women (completely inappropriate by Einwechter’s standards). Did she “stay at home to give her full time and attention to the enormously important role that God gave her?” As I have already answered: NO! She is out judging among the people, she is telling the military leaders what to do, and traveling with them into battle; certainly nothing those who hold to “Biblical Patriarchy” would condone.

Is it normal for woman to hold a civil leadership position? It is not normal even today, but it was exceedingly rare in the days of the judges. Yet despite its rarity and the passages that Mr. Einwechter uses against such a possibility (which I will address on this blog soon), female leadership certainly has been (on occasion) set up by God in order to accomplish good things, and not simply as a sign of God’s anger and judgment against a people. Deborah is still a prime example of that.


malterton said...

Great comments Nate! Having looked at this passage before, I would say it is presumptuous to read into the passage what is not there, i.e. her position as a judgement on Israel. The verse does not particularlize her appointment or even act as if it is extraordinary. It states simply that "Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, judged Israel at that time." It does not minimize her appt. in any way. It says all Israel came to her for judgement. Obviously they did not have a problem with her being a judge either, which makes me wonder if there could have possibly been other female judges in Israel's history that are simply not mentioned because nothing extraordinary happened during their tenure? What do you think? The only place I see any possiblity of judgement is on Barak who when she told him that God had commanded him to go into battle, he said that he would only go if she went also. I think the fact that he was denied the honor of killing the enemy leader could be construed as judgement for earlier being a weinie. But that is only conjecture and not stated at all in the text. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

Greg Alterton said...

"As a result, some Christians have claimed that they are no longer able to vote for Sen. McCain now that he has selected the female Governor of Alaska to be his VP."

Absurd, of course, as Palin will not be in a "magistrate" position, but in an office that one of FDR's Vice Presidents, John "Catcus Jack" Nance Garner, once characterized as "Not worth a bucket of warm spit" (as was quoted at the time in the media...Cactus Jack had used a a more colorful euphemism for another bodily fluid).

Except for the one instance of the uproar you refer to regarding the Palin nomination for VP, I've not run into "Biblical Patriarchy" before. But my one brush left the distinct impression that those who hold to it are ill-informed about the Bible, legalistic in their application of Biblical teaching, and cultic in devotion to their pet interpretation of scripture.

There's a sad tendency within contemporary Christianity to gravitate to faddish takes on the demands of Scripture, all of which warps or denies the grace and truth found in Christ. In fact, Christ doesn't seem to have a place in their thinking. Fortunately this particular doctrinal viewpoint is a minor one, but it's indicative of a general shallowness within much of contemporary Christianity -- the applying of flawed and prejudiced thinking to what is found in the Bible, a dependence upon fleshly human understanding, rather than a life guided by Scripture illuminated by the light of the Holy Spirit, which we have by means of the indwelling Christ.

In short, good post.

malterton said...

Did you post your comments on the K Baptists site? It wouldn't change his opinion, but other people do read it.

Nathan Alterton said...

I have not posted my comments on K Baptists site; maybe I will. It’s a little for a post
I have come across “Biblical Patriarchy” frequently in last five years or so, not necessarily because it’s growing in popularity, but because the core group of people who hold this doctrine look very much like our family: large, homeshooling, and Christian.

It may be possible that there were other female leaders of some stature in Israel, although I don’t know about judges. It seems to me that the book of Judges is a fairly comprehensive and chronological summary of all of the judges over Israel from the time of Joshua until the time of King Saul. However, as with all ancient near-eastern histories, it would probably be a mistake to claim that the account is comprehensive just because it appears to be so on the surface. Certainly, there were many female prophets in Israel, but the Biblical Patriarchist tries to shoehorn them into their way of thinking by claiming that the title prophet when applied to a woman has a different meaning than when applied to a man. I don’t see any evidence to ground that claim, particularly in light of passages like Joel 2:28.

You know, the real damning evidence against this position, as presented by Mr. Einwechter, is the blog post I quoted. He has put himself in the position of having to belittle Deborah, while at the same time praise her faithfulness and obedience to God. Yet when we apply his own standard of a Godly woman (as I did from his post) we find that Deborah doesn’t fit! There’s a dissonance somewhere in his thinking, but I doubt that he sees it. Either his position on Biblical Patriarchy is wrong in some respect, or Deborah is not a Godly and obedient women. He can’t have it both ways. But it’s clear from the story that Deborah is doing what is pleasing to God, so I have to conclude that there’s a flaw in his position.

I will be writing more about this subject soon (before going back to my previous topic), as it comes up with regularity in the circles we move in, and I want to have a good and thorough response to it near at hand.

Faith Alterton said...

Thank you for putting this together, dear. My Quaker upbringing is applauding! I've always loved Deborah, and it's irritating to see her character slurred by other Christians. And yes, these topics come up frequently in the large-family homeschooler groups. Biblical Patriarchy sounds so ... well, Biblical, but there are some serious problems with it's foundation. Your research is helping me to feel more confident in my answers. Love you!

Greg Alterton said...

Well, something goofed, and my comments didn't post.

Suffice it to say, people who inappropriately develop a principle for living our lives now, from part of the historical record of the Old Testament, are legalists, and probably no nothing of what it means to live by the grace of God found in Christ. The faddish devotion to oddball principles is a denial of Christ as our life.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post! Just the kind of "rebuttal" to some of this Biblical Patriarchy stuff that I find so...irritating at times. Thank you for the thoughtful Christian analysis.

Emily said...

Nice post! So very refreshing! I can't wait to read more!

HarryC said...

I just discovered your blog from your post on facebook. Great reading. I like to read the comments people make on your posts too. Keep up the excellent writing, expressing your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

So then, are we to ignore all the commands in the NT because of an incident in the OT (a time when God spoke directly to mankind).

God also told Joshua to slay everyone in the land which I give you (because of their extreme evil of coarse). But, we all know that that does not apply today as seen in the "turn the other cheek" etc. of the NT.

The fact is that in times past God spoke directly to us and there were exceptions under certain circumstances. Today He speaks to us through His Son.


Nathan Alterton said...

Hi Frank,
Thanks for your comment and for checking out what I have to say.

I would love to respond to you post, but I honestly have no idea what you're refering to. Please write back and clarify your point and disagreement so I can properly consider what you have to say.

Thanks again.

- Nathan