Judging Deborah: the Prophetess and Gender Debates through the Centuries

Through the centuries, interpreters usually distinguished between Deborah’s civil role as judge and her religious role as prophet—a distinction that likely did not apply to the world of Hebrew scripture. Proponents of women’s political power lifted up Deborah as an example of successful female civil leadership. Opponents argued that her judgeship was “honorary” and offered no precedent.

See Also: Deborah’s Daughters: Gender Politics and Biblical Interpretation (Oxford University Press, 2014).

By Joy A. Schroeder
Bergener Professor of Theology and Religion
Capital University and Trinity Lutheran Seminary
April 2014

The biblical Deborah is no ordinary woman. Scripture characterizes her as a prophet, judge, poet, and divinely-inspired military strategist. She summons the Israelite commander Barak, addresses him forcefully with a command from the Lord, and gives him specific tactical orders (Judges 4:5-15). Her exultant victory song (Judges 5) is one of the lengthiest speeches attributed to a female biblical character. For centuries, the scriptural portrayal of Deborah defied cultural notions about women’s proper demeanor, roles, sphere, and actions. Men and women have debated about whether Deborah’s story has contemporary implications. They wondered: Was her prophetic and judging role “public” or “private”? Official or unofficial? Does Deborah set a precedent for women to serve as rabbis, priests, ministers, authors, teachers, queens, judges, voters, legislators, and working mothers?

Deborah and Religious Leadership

Early Christians such as Origen of Alexandria (c. 185—c. 253) cited Judges 4 to assert women’s spiritual and moral equality with men, but they were careful to emphasize that her prophetic role was that of private advisor to Barak rather than a public speaker like Jeremiah.1 New Prophecy (Montanist) women prophets, part of an early Christian movement that highlighted the ongoing expression of prophetic gifts, probably used Deborah as warrant for their own ministerial leadership and the circulation of prophecies written in their name. Their opponents countered by saying that even though Deborah did compose verses found in scripture, she was appropriately retiring and humble, for she did not insist that her name appear in the title of the biblical book containing her words.2 One issue for Christians was reconciling Deborah’s leadership with the apostolic injunction that women refrain from teaching or holding authority over men (1 Timothy 2:11-15). It was unthinkable that Deborah could have acted contrary to the apostolic orders given by Paul, the presumed author of 1 Timothy, even if those orders were not given until more than a millennium later. Numerous Christian authors also used Deborah’s name (“bee”) as evidence of her domestic, gentle nature, commending her submissiveness to her husband—something not actually attested in scripture.

Rabbinic literature, unlike early Christian texts, tended to acknowledge Deborah’s assertive and commanding role, particularly as she summoned Barak, but several of the sages criticized her as unpleasant, haughty, and “waspish.”3 Her location under the palm tree (to avoid being alone with a man) prompted some to say that she instructed multitudes of people in the Torah.4 However, other Jewish sources “domesticated” Deborah, as several sages used her epithet eset lappidot (“wife of Lappidoth” or “woman of torches,” Judges 4:4) to explain that she made wicks for the lamps of the Sanctuary.5 Like their Christian counterparts, Jewish religious leaders offered Deborah as an example of women’s spiritual equality, even if the appropriateness of female public leadership was questioned.

In their discussions of the (im)possibility of women’s ordination, medieval commentators such as Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1275) affirmed that women, following Deborah’s example, could be queens and governors if local law permitted, but, in the church, the apostolic admonition to silence and submission (1 Timothy 2:11-15) prevailed.6 Most Christian theologians agreed that women could receive divine inspiration but should not speak forth publically and authoritatively. However, when they encountered remarkable visionary women such as Hildegard of Bingen (c. 1098-1179) and Mechthild of Magdeburg (c. 1206-c 1282), some clergymen lifted up Deborah as justification for circulating women’s writings.

In the Early Modern era, numerous women claimed Deborah as precedent for their own religious leadership and to promote religious education for females. Rivkah bat Meier of Prague (d. 1605) wrote an instructional manual for women, urging them—on the basis of the words of Deborah—to read religious literature and become educated in Jewish traditions.7 In Women’s Speaking Justified, a scathing critique of Church of England authority, Quaker co-founder Margaret Askew Fell Fox (1614-1702) argued that ministers were hypocritical when they preached sermons on Judges 5—making a “trade on [Deborah’s] words for a livelihood”—while silencing godly women of their own day.8

During America’s Second Great Awakening (c. 1790-1844) and its aftermath, hundreds of Protestant women—especially in Baptist, Methodist, and African Methodist Episcopal circles—felt called to preach at revivals, camp meetings, lecture halls, and church pulpits. Their audiences included fervent supporters and hostile opponents. African-American women like Zilpha Elaw (born c. 1790) reported verbal aggression and threats of physical violence. When challenged, Elaw, like many other female preachers of her day, invoked Deborah as an example of biblical women called by God to speak publically.9 Perhaps the most prominent nineteenth-century female preacher, Methodist evangelist Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874) wrote a substantial, 400-page defense of women’s preaching. There she compares the Merozites cursed by Deborah for refusing to support the Israelites in their battle (Judges 5:23) to the stubborn “whisperers” of her own day who despise women preachers on account of their sex.10

Deborah was commonly invoked in twentieth-century Jewish and Protestant debates over women’s ordination. Regina Jonas (1902-1944) was ordained as a rabbi in Berlin in 1935 and later murdered at Auschwitz. Prior to her ordination, Jonas wrote a halachic treatise entitled, Can Women Serve as Rabbis? Her answer, of course, was affirmative. Deborah—appointed by God and accepted by the Israelites—figured prominently in Jonas’s discussion.11 Opponents of women’s ordination, on the other hand, said that Deborah offered no precedent for women’s public religious leadership. In his 1941 book, Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers, fundamentalist evangelist John Rice (1895-1980) argued that Deborah’s prophecy to Barak was brief and delivered privately to one man. He asserted that, unlike disobedient and contumacious females like the popular preacher Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944), Deborah gave no sermons. Her work as “judge” simply meant that people asked her advice to help them settle differences. They could voluntarily accept or reject her non-binding suggestions: “She had no authority. Any good Christian can mediate between neighbors today.”12 Throughout the twentieth century, proponents of women’s official religious roles advanced Deborah as a model. Opponents argued that Deborah’s role was private and unofficial, or—if her authority had been official—Deborah was a divinely authorized exception not to be emulated today.

Judge Deborah and the Monstrous Regiment of Women

Through the centuries, interpreters usually distinguished between Deborah’s civil role as judge and her religious role as prophet—a distinction that likely did not apply to the world of Hebrew scripture. Proponents of women’s political power lifted up Deborah as an example of successful female civil leadership. Opponents argued that her judgeship was “honorary” and offered no precedent.

Medieval Christian clergymen occasionally compared their royal patronesses to Deborah, particularly when urging the women to political action that would serve their ecclesiastical interests. When the Roman Catholic Mary Tudor (1516-1558) ascended the English throne in 1553, Protestants debated whether Deborah, who judged Israel, served as precedent for female rule. In his notorious First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, the fiery Scottish preacher John Knox (c. 1513-1572) argued that Deborah’s role had been religious rather than civil. Deborah offered no warrant for British queenship. A female head of state created an unnatural, monstrous situation. However, when Mary’s Protestant half-sister Elizabeth acceded to the throne, most Protestant ministers were happy to praise Elizabeth as “England’s Deborah,” who battled against the “idolatrous” Roman Catholics, represented by the Canaanites.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, American suffragists asserted that since God had appointed Deborah to be a judge in Israel, women of their own day should have the right to vote. Suffragists mentioned Deborah’s title, “mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7), to support their arguments that society would benefit from women bringing their motherly values into a public sphere that had been corrupted by graft and other “male” vices. In 1948, when Israel became a state, the Sephardi chief rabbi, Ben Zion Meir Hai Ouziel (1880-1953) used the example of Deborah to support women’s rights to vote and hold office.13

When Governor Sarah Palin campaigned for the American vice-presidency in 2008, Christian reactions were reminiscent of sixteenth-century Protestant reactions to Mary and Elizabeth Tudor. Magazine and Internet articles by Pentecostal and evangelical supporters valorized Palin as a Spirit-inspired leader who, like Deborah, was raised up by God to do battle on behalf of biblical values.14

Conservative Reformed opponents, on the other hand, argued that God had chosen Deborah not as precedent for women’s elected or monarchical leadership but as a reproach to the fearful, godless men of Israel who were not up to the task of leadership. In like manner, the candidacy of Sarah Palin was “living proof that the Republican party is gutless, effeminate and cannot find a godly man willing to take a stand on pivotal moral issues….”15

A Mother and Housewife in Israel

Many nineteenth and twentieth-century female interpreters insisted that Deborah managed to fulfill household as well as public responsibilities. Some women commentators—like their male counterparts—“domesticated” Deborah, stressing her femininity, gentleness, and reluctance to enter the public sphere except as a last resort. Other interpreters, however, said that the prophetess had not been domestic enough. Deborah (and other working women) received sharp criticism from a male Methodist minister, Clovis G. Chappell (1882-1972), who wrote in 1942:

I have an idea that [Deborah] was not highly successful as a home-maker. Perhaps in spite of her greatness she was not quite great enough to succeed fully in two careers. Few women are. Of course there are exceptions to the rule. Now and then we meet women of such superb ability that they can be successful mothers and home-makers, and carry on a career at the same time. But such are rare indeed. It is my conviction that the career of wifehood and motherhood is big enough for any woman in the world. If she undertakes successfully to run a home and to run her nation as well she is mighty apt to make a mess out of one or the other. I have known a few very able women to get so interested in outside duties that their homes all but tumbled into ruins. I doubt if any success can atone for such inside failure.16

In the late twentieth century, however, Deborah was lifted up as a positive model for working women due to her harmonious marriage and her supposed ability to combine private and public roles effectively. Conservative evangelical Christian women in recent decades reflected on Deborah’s story to help them deal with their conflicted feelings about working outside the home. As “wife of Lappidoth” (4:4) and “mother in Israel” (5:7), Deborah, a godly prophetess, was the ideal biblical model of a working mother in a two-income family.17 Furthermore, Lappidoth was praised for supporting his wife’s career.

A Fiery Woman

Contemporary Jewish and Christian feminist interpreters have suggested that Deborah’s designation “woman (or wife) of Lappidoth” can be translated “woman of flames,” “woman of fire,” or “fiery woman,” evoking her assertive personality and strong leadership qualities.18 Such readings have evoked strong reactions from conservative Christians, such as Daniel I. Block, who criticized feminists’ “misguided” endeavors “to rob Deborah of a husband.”19

Through the centuries, countless Jewish and Christian women have turned to Judges 4-5 for personal and vocational inspiration. Their faith communities, however, have not been of one mind about the present-day implications of a biblical female prophet and judge. The persistence of these debates is striking. It reveals the ongoing power of scriptural interpretation to shape or support individuals’ perspectives on gender roles. These debates about Deborah also speak to the enduring power of a biblical character to capture the imaginations of countless readers through the centuries.


1 Origen of Alexandria, Homily on Judges 5.2 (SC 389:134); Origen, On 1 Corinthians, ed. Claude Jenkins, JTS10

2 Didymus of Alexandria, De Trinitate 3.41 (PG 39:988).

3 Megillah 14b; Pesah 62b-c.

4 Eliyyahu Rabbah 50.

5 Megillah 14a.

6 Thomas Aquinas, Commentum in Librum IV Sententiarum, Dist. 25, q. 2, art 1, in Opera Omnia, ed. Stanislas Fretté (Paris: Vivès, 1882): 11:52.

7 Rivkah bat Meir, Meneket Rivkah: A Manual of Wisdom and Piety for Jewish Women, trans. Samuel Spinner, ed. Frauke von Rohden (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2008), 101.

8 Margaret Askew Fell Fox, Women’s Speaking Justified, in First Feminists: British Women Writers 1578-1799, ed. Moira Ferguson (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), 126.

9 Zilpha Elaw, Memoirs of the Life, Religious Experience, Ministerial Travels and Labours of Mrs Zilpha Elaw, An American Female of Colour; Together with Some Account of the Great Religious Revivals in America [Written by Herself], in Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women’s Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 147.

10 Phoebe Palmer, Promise of the Father; or, A Neglected Speciality (sic) of the Last Days (Boston: H. V. Degen, 1859; repr., Salem, Ohio: Schmul Publishers, 1981), 2-3.

11 Regina Jonas, Can Women Serve as Rabbis?, in Elisa Klapcheck, Fräulein Rabbiner Jonas: The Story of the First Woman Rabbi, trans. Toby Axelrod (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 106, 153, 171.

12 John R. Rice, Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives and Women Preachers: Significant Questions for Honest Christian Women Settled by the Word of God (Wheaton, Ill: Sword of the Lord, 1941), 53.

13 David Ellenson and Michael Rosen, “Gender, Halakhah, and Women’s Suffrage: Responsa of the First Three Chief Rabbis on the Public role of Women in the Jewish State,” in Gender Issues in Jewish Law: Essays and Responsa, ed. Walter Jacob and Moshe Zemer, Studies in Progressive Halakhah (New York: Berghahn, 2001), 70.

14 J. Lee Grady, “Sarah Palin and the Deborah Anointing,” http://charismamag.com/fireinmybones/Columns/091008.html (accessed March 16, 2014).

15 Brian Abshire, “Is Sarah the New Deborah?” http://christian-civilization.org/articles/is-sarah-palin-the-new-debor… (accessed January 2, 2010).

16 Clovis G. Chappell, Feminine Faces (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1942), 68-69.

17 Sara Buswell, The Challenge of Old Testament Women I: A Guide for Bible Study Groups (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1986), 115.

18 Mieke Bal, Murder and Difference: Gender, Genre, and Scholarship on Sisera’s Death, trans. Matthew Gumpert, Indiana Studies in Biblical Literature (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 57; Tammi J. Schneider, “Who is Interpreting the Text? A Feminist Jewish Hermeneutic of Deborah,” in Women in the Biblical World: A Survey of Old and New Testament Perspectives, Vol. 2, ed. Elizabeth A. McCabe (Lanham, MD.: University Press of America, 2011), 15; Susan Niditch, Judges: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 61.

19 Daniel I. Block, Judges, Ruth, New American Commentary 6 (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman and Holman, 1999), 192.

Comments (3)

Do you think that the original readers of the Deborah story felt cultural shock?

#1 - Martin Hughes - 04/17/2014 - 20:10

That is a great question! In chapter 6 of my book Deborah’s Daughters, I quote from Carol Meyers (Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context [New York: Oxford
University Press, 1988], 174) who observes that some elements of Deborah and Jael’s story correspond with the realities of Israel in the Iron Age, where “localized and sporadic defense problems…were met by a noncentralized ad hoc militia system.” In the absence of a formalized standing army “women could and did contribute to the defense effort.” Meyers adds: “Female participation in the military real is in fact a typical feature of pioneer societies.” A number of the twentieth and twenty-first century biblical scholars whom I cite argue that the Judges 5 song gives stronger roles to Deborah and especially to Jael, and that the author of the Judges 4 narrative, written later, “tamed” these warrior women (at least a little) so they would be more understandable, conventional, and palatable to the narrator—while the song itself would have been around much longer and probably fairly well known. My work as a historian centers on the story’s reception in the post-biblical period, but I would venture a guess that the original listeners and readers of Judges 4 and 5 would have found Deborah remarkable but not necessarily shocking.

#2 - Joy A. Schroeder - 04/18/2014 - 12:16

I suppose I would have answered my question with Yes and No.
But then I don't see the two heroines as representatives of a society of pioneers. They are not presented as daughters of the soil. Deborah does not have to do the work of a peasant, scrabbling on the hard earth, or struggle to put Lappidoth's food on the table: that is why she is portrayed sitting under a palm tree. Jael, the nimble gazelle, is no tough woman from a wagon train seeing off raiding Comanches with her shotgun. She has luxuries in her house and she uses these to gain and betray trust - a femme fatale, absolutely not a warrior queen. That's to say that this is a society with a leisure class, whose womenfolk do not fight in the front line but who inspire with their wonderful ideas or transform situations with their wiles. It's not a society of pristine virtue but a society in danger of disintegration with sub-groups going their own way: surely a mirror image of the society for which it was written. The message is surely that everything depends on God, who can use anomalous and even disgraceful things, such as women ordering men about, for higher purposes - a message which is both reassuring in that it reinforces the norms and culture-shocking in that it reminds people, the readers of the long sequence of deuteronomic history, that their salvation might have to come from thoroughly abnormal sources. There is quite a similarity between Jael and Delilah, the difference being that one is unequivocally on God's side and one is God's paradoxical instrument. The interpreters who noted that heroines are not necessarily good homemakers did, narrow minded as they were, in a way get the message about normal rules and moments when the rules are transcended.

#3 - Martin Hughes - 04/19/2014 - 19:57

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