I grew up in a tradition where the idea of women in ministry is still an issue. My husband grew up in a tradition where women have been in ministry for as long as the denomination has existed. When we got together, I let him know I was called to ministry. Not to be the wife of a minister but for me to be in ministry. I took great pains to spell this out for him. I told him of my calling, my experience, my training, and I had scripture to back it all up. After my soliloquy, he smiled and said “OK”. My adrenaline was going, I was ready for a fight. I was ready to verbally assault him with my passion and wit and all I got was “OK”! For him, this conversation is passé. His life story it includes not only his mother as a pastor, but a grandmother and great grandmother, not to mention countless aunties. The conversation is so passé, it bores him. Not because he isn’t supportive of women, but precisely because he knows women should be in leadership in the church, have been in leadership in the church, and, at the end of the day, it was God’s idea from the start.
And so we start at the beginning. This will be difficult for some to hear but Genesis 1 is not the beginning I mean. It is not the earliest text we have. Genesis is the first in the story as put together in the cannon but Judges 5 is arguably the oldest text in scripture. It is in this, the oldest of text that we find our earliest models of leadership. (Judges 4 was actually written after 5 and it appears to offer a retelling of the poem filled out with prose.) And so we begin in one of the oldest stories we have with a story where a woman and a man are in leadership, partnership. It is this egalitarian model that leads the people to victory. It is a model where it is Deborah and Barak are serving together. Each in a distinct role. Each leading from position of strength that impact men and women.
This passage has much to teach beyond the obvious. With it being the earliest text, Deborah was among the earliest leaders. There is no quibbling in the text as to her role. There is no debate if she can emotionally handle this or if she should have authority over the men around her. It is a fact, not a point of argument. She is a judge. She is in authority. For those who would claim that this situation was somehow a less than ideal situation or that a woman should not have been in leadership at this moment of crisis, please note that the text offers no criticism of Deborah or of the reality of a woman in a leadership role.
Here is what I love about this passage. She speaks truly and clearly without emasculating or devaluing Barak. She is so secure in who she is that she doesn’t need to belittle him as he asks for help. I have heard sermons depicting Barak as weak, as an embarrassment to men everywhere for asking the help of a woman. That is not in the text. In fact, Barak clearly respects and values Deborah. He is not threatened by her nor does he infantalize her. The mutual respect is stunning. They are aware of the task at hand, they are aware of how it may be viewed by others and still, they do what is right.
Deborah goes on in Judges 5 with a poetic telling of the defeat of Sisera. She names and credits Jael for the tactical move, the hands on interaction which led to victory. In all too many instances, a woman can rise to positions of leadership only to make it even more difficult for other women around her. Deborah does not do this. Her model of leadership shows not only respect for men but for other capable women around her. She is secure in herself and does not feel threatened when another capable woman is present.
So why do we care if this is one of the earliest accounts in scripture? It is significant that Deborah appears in a leadership role in the Bible’s oldest passage because it demonstrates that those advocating for an egalitarian position are not merely bending to their surrounding culture. They have not caved to the pressure of society. The idea of women in leadership was established in the Bible’s oldest text. It was there from the beginning.
To focus on Deborah as an exemplar of women in leadership is to acknowledge that there was a time when women and men worked together in leadership long before the monarchy was established. It is a Biblical model of who and what we are to be that comes from who and what we have always been. Christians today are not jumping on the latest cultural bandwagon trying to keep up with an increasingly egalitarian culture. Christians are in fact actually reading their Bibles. And it matters.