Justice League Part 4: That One Really Good Judge

So last time we were discussing Ehud and his regicidal tendencies, which (like pretty much everything in Judges) is both problematic and a little bit funny (or a lot in this case; I think only Samson’s story is more humorous).  On the one hand, we have the story of a clever and resourceful underdog who uses trickery to achieve his goals and help liberate his people.  On the other hand, we have an untrustworthy cutthroat who runs a man through when he’s defenseless and unsuspecting.

I feel like I can’t stress that last part enough.  Ehud is a hero in Judges, but it’s only because he’s fighting for the side that the author, and by extension we, sympathize with.  An objective third party might read these events and conclude that it’s pretty scummy to assassinate someone, even if they are an oppressive foreign ruler.

But I’m beating a dead horse.

English: Deborah was a prophetess and the four...

English: Deborah was a prophetess and the fourth, and the only female, Judge of pre-monarchic Israel in the Old Testament (Tanakh). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The next major judge in the cycle is Deborah, who’s pretty much an unqualified awesome person.  Unlike all the others judges, we’re told that Deborah actually spends her time settling disputes and that she’s well respected for her wisdom.  Also, her introductory description is fantastic because the author uses a phrase that translates as either “the wife of Lappidoth” or “the woman from the town of Lappidoth.”  We’re not sure which is the correct translation, but I think either interpretation has awesome feminist implications.

If Deborah is married, what’s interesting here is that she is an important figure in her community independent of her husband (many of the other women featured in Judges go unnamed except as “the wife of so-and-so”), which implies that their relationship model, which is accepted and endorsed by the larger community, is one of equal partnership and independence.  At the same time, if Deborah’s marital status is left ambiguous with her introduction only describing where she’s from, then that carries the implication that she’s a full participant in the community, and considering her position as a judge, someone who holds significant authority regardless of whether she has a husband from whom that authority might be derived (I doubt Deborah would hold that kind of position based on her husband’s status).

Connected with Deborah is the military leader Barak, whom she advises as he prepares to go to war against King Jabin, the oppressor of the decade.  Barak asks Deborah to accompany him into battle because she’s acting as God’s prophet, and Deborah tells him how things will go down.  In the NIV, the phrase is translated “because of the course you are taking” a woman will have the final victory over Sisera, the leader of Jabin’s army.  Of course, like the earlier phrase in Deborah’s introduction, this one’s ambiguous, and may be translated instead as simply “on the expedition you are undertaking” a woman will have the final victory over Sisera.  The interpretation of this phrase is a big deal, because the translation preferred by the NIV suggests that because of Barak’s cowardice (he was afraid to go to battle without Deborah) he won’t have the final glory.  That’s problematic because it suggests that letting a woman defeat Sisera is somehow intended to shame Barak, which I think implies that women are seen as inferior to men.

It should be noted that that’s not necessarily the only way to interpret that translation, as it may simply be a case of Barak being scolded personally, and the fact that a woman will kill Sisera is only incidental to the larger point about his lack of faith resulting in his own diminished glory.  I think that’s a perfectly acceptable interpretation, but I’m always a little wary of scenarios like this one, because they can so easily be boiled down to “you got beat by a girl!”

If, instead of implying Barak’s cowardice causes him to lose his rightful glory to a woman, we interpret this passage as Deborah just telling him how it’s going to be, then that problematic reading goes away entirely, because instead of this being a punishment for Barak not “fulfilling his role” it’s about God dictating the terms for his own glorification through the victory of a disempowered individual over a mighty military leader (which actually fits very well thematically with the positive reading of Ehud).

Either way, Deborah’s a fantastic figure in Judges, because unlike all the other judges, she’s just a highly competent leader who does what needs to be done (and isn’t sneaky about it).

Next time we’ll talk more about Deborah and the woman who does get the victory over Sisera, Jael.



5 thoughts on “Justice League Part 4: That One Really Good Judge

  1. I’ve always read it as less “because you’re a coward, this will be handed to a WOMAN who is inferior” and more as a simple “There were two paths here, and the path you choose leads to this victory being had by a woman.” I know that people lean really heavily on it being a judgement of Barak being a coward, but I don’t read that in who Deborah is otherwise. From everything there is of her, you get the idea that she was an incredibly matter-of-fact woman, who could see both ways Barak’s battle would end, and was letting him know which one his choice led to.

    I have always loved Deborah – as I mentioned over on Rachel Held Evans’ blog, she is one of my personal heroes. It is interesting to see that the one good and fair and true judge in Judges is a woman whose personal background is left somewhat ambiguous. Because, of course, it doesn’t really matter where she came from, only what she does now.

    • I agree with you, Katie, about the fact that Deborah’s background is irrelevant to her character as portrayed in Judges. When we did our study over the summer, someone in the group suggested that all the judges had a flaw so that it could be shown that God uses whoever’s available to do his work; I found that reading problematic when it came to Deborah because she really doesn’t have a flaw, and it seemed disrespectful to try to fit one into her story. Fortunately, we dropped that line of inquiry pretty quickly after it was brought up.

      I do like your interpretation of Deborah’s causal explanation, and I think it jives with other instances of prophecy where a person’s decision changes how God chooses to act (like with Jonah). Thanks a ton for stopping by!

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