Deborah: God, Politics and Inner Chaos
In these post-election days—depending on your point of view, of course—things might seem widely out of control, depressing, exhaustive, nonsensical. It might have appeared that way, too, in ancient Israel, in about the year 1150 BC…until a woman named Deborah (See Judges 4-5) stepped forward.
She didn’t come out of the swamp, from anonymity. She was already in the top leadership role—she was “judging” Israel—that is, leading Israel in those difficult, pre-monarchy days. She had faith, trusted that God was on her side, and used her God-given gifts of intelligence, diplomacy, faith, foresight and physical well-being.
The situation? Villages near and far were being attacked by the Canaanites, a tough and cruel people. Girls were carried off as spoils of war, cities were destroyed, men were killed, widows left to fend for themselves.
Simply put, she was surrounded by chaos. Coming to the decision that doing nothing would be put her people in even worse danger, she summoned Barak, her top general.
“Ride out,” she said, “for the Lord says it is time. Go to the top of Mount Tabor and take 10,000 of our best men with you. God will call out Sisera, the Canaanite general, and he will meet you there.”
“For the Lord says it is time.” In those short seven words, Deborah confirmed her role both as God’s prophet and servant.
Yet Barak’s answer was surprising. “I will go, but only if you go with me.” Clearly Deborah expected Barack to head out on his own, for it was what generals, then and now, are expected to do: lead the troops. Yet she did not flinch; she adjusted. Between the two of them, a new model of collaborative leadership emerged.
On the top of the mountain, they waited again: she, for God’s word; he, for hers. She listened until God told her it was the right time to attack, then instructed Barak with these words: “Up! The Lord has delivered Sisera into your hands.”
Two events follow: God floods the mountainside so that the Canaanites are drowned and lose the battle; Sisera escapes, and is fatally pegged in the head by Jael—the second woman warrior in this key story.
Deborah holds more political and military power than any other woman in the Bible. Warrior, prophet and judge, she is essential to a comprehensive understanding of Judeo-Christian history. Using God as her strength and shield, Deborah was indeed “mother in Israel”: (Judges 5:7). She loved her people, forecast the looming danger, took steps to fight it, and served on the front line, ready to lay down her life if need be.
A word about Barak: I see him as a hero in this story as well. Between both Deborah and Barak, we have a stunning early example of collaborative leadership in the Bible. Bravo!
Three findings from this story: 1) Both before and within the heat of battle can be found God’s voice; 2) leadership often means leading from the front lines as much as it means listening; and 3) good leaders are flexible, riding alongside those whom they serve.
Bottom line: Political and spiritual chaos may be ever present, yet we are called as God’s people not to shrink back but to lead—collaboratively, spiritually, and physically. Avoiding the heat of battle is not an option.
Artwork by Karen N. Canton, from The Scarlet Cord: Conversations with God’s Chosen Women, published by John Hunt Publishing, 2010. Copy adapted from Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter, published by Forward Movement, 2014.