Judges and the Role of Women

by John Beeson

What does the Bible say about men and women? There is no quick or easy response to that question. God’s Word blows up our narrowly defined cultural constructs and categories.

So long as we go hunting in scripture for proof of our expectations about masculinity and femininity, we are likely to create two-dimensional cut-outs in place of God’s three-dimensional realities. Contemporary western culture would like to erase or psychologize gender, and some religious hold-outs want to revert to a mid-twentieth-century conception of gender. The Bible leads us in a different direction if we have ears to hear.

The book of Judges ambushes a diminished view of women throughout the Deborah narrative. While other biblical anchor points provide a fuller understanding of God’s purposes for male and female leadership,[i] there is no doubt that the Deborah narrative mocks any culture that diminishes women’s gifting and strength.

The narrative opens with the people of Israel coming to Deborah, the prophetess, asking her to render judgments between them (Jdgs 4:4-5). She speaks on behalf of God calling Barak to go to war against Sisera, the commander of the Canaanite armies. She promises that God will give Sisera into Barak’s hands. Barak wisely insists that Deborah come with him into battle and God does give Barak victory over Sisera’s troops. Sisera manages to save himself, though. He flees from the battleground and, when he comes upon Jael’s remote tent, believes he’s found refuge in the hands of a woman.

Unwilling to believe that a woman could be a threat, Sisera tells Jael to stand guard at the tent’s entry and divert any men who might be on his tail. Sisera falls sound asleep and is ruthlessly murdered by the hands of the woman he thought was protecting him. Jael finds a hammer, sneaks up on Sisera, then drives a tent peg through his temple. The narrator tells us that “on that day God subdued Jabin the king of Canaan before the people of Israel” (Jdgs 4:23).

The reader has now been doubly surprised by our expectations of the roles of men and women in the text. Deborah’s appearance as a prophetess and female judge come with no note of critique from the author. God has anointed Deborah for such roles and blesses her ministry. Unlike so many other judges, the text doesn’t note any character defect in Deborah. The second surprise in the text is how God mocks Sisera’s patronizing words to Jael, “’Stand at the opening of the tent, and if any man comes and asks you, ‘Is anyone here?’ say, ‘No’” (Jdgs 4:20). “Would you watch out for a real threat?” Sisera asks. “After all, you, a woman couldn’t possibly be a threat to me.” Jael then drives a tent spike through his forehead, heroically taking the life of this oppressor of Israel. The greatest threat to Sisera was the woman right in front of him.

A final surprise awaits. The book of Judges’ rhythm would shift to the next cycle of disobedience and God’s deliverance. But in this case, we have something unusual. After the conclusion of the narrative of Deborah, Barak, and Jael’s victory over Sisera, Deborah and Barak sing a song of praise. Near the end of the song (which lasts an entire chapter), Deborah and Barak envision Sisera’s mom awaiting the return of her son. She looks out her window, awaiting his return:

“Out of the window she peered,
the mother of Sisera wailed through the lattice:
‘Why is his chariot so long in coming?
Why tarry the hoofbeats of his chariots?’
Her wisest princesses answer,
indeed, she answers herself,
‘Have they not found and divided the spoil?—
A womb or two for every man;
spoil of dyed materials for Sisera,
spoil of dyed materials embroidered,
two pieces of dyed work embroidered for the neck as spoil?’” (Jdgs 5:28-30)

“Why is Sisera taking so long to return?” his mom asks. She turns to her advisors and they say, “Don’t worry! He’s taking a long time because he defeated the Israelites and is now pillaging them and raping their women.” The soldiers are taking “a womb or two” apiece.

Pause and consider the tacit acquiescence of this sexual crime of violence by Sisera’s mother and the court princesses. They imagine Sisera is lingering in the foreign land because he is raping the women of the defeated armies. And that, unbelievably, is a happy thought to them. God shows us this raw and horrific objectification of Jewish women with the expectation that our stomachs will turn.

God values women and has rich purposes for them. Women are not to be objectified. They are not to be diminished. Scripture enumerates differences in how God has intended men and women to reflect his glory in the marriage relationship (see Genesis 2, 3, and Ephesians 5, for instance). God has likewise intended for that reflection to be played out in the context of the church. But far too often those in the complementarian camp have overstated what women cannot do. In a desire to push back against the cultural tide of erasing God’s design of male and female, complementarians have sometimes had their understanding of gender more informed by Ward and June Cleaver than by the Word of God.

God delights in undoing our tiny cultural assumptions and the false dichotomies our ideologies offer. Texts like Judges 4 and 5 reflect God’s high value of women several millennia before such a thought would have received any such cultural credence. May we have the eyes to see as God sees and may our sisters in Christ be Deborahs and Jaels among us: living wholeheartedly in God’s calling in their lives.

[i] The purpose of this post isn’t to flatten all biblical teaching on the roles of men and women by this one text. Unfortunately, many who are egalitarian tend to elevate this text along with a handful of other texts and ignore texts which speak to the some of the way that God differentiates leadership roles for men and women. On the other hand, many complementarians tend to misread this text because they are so protective of their go-to texts. The Bible’s perspective on these matters is more complicated than either caricatured interpretation.

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