Character Study: Deborah - God's Iron Lady

...and the sons of Israel came up to her for judgment.

bee on flower

They used to call former Prime Minister of England Margaret Thatcher the Iron Lady for her plainspoken tough leadership. Well I wonder then if she wasn’t a distant descendant of an earlier female leader from Israel’s Old Testament days. In fact this one might have been the original Iron Lady.

Deborah was a prophetess and Judge in Israel – pretty much the top governmental office then, and the only woman ever to hold the position. She must have been something to see! Her story is told in the 4th and 5th chapters of Judges following a familiar pattern. First the people would do evil and fall away from serving the Lord, then God would judge them and deliver them into the hands of their enemies, then they would cry out and return to God and finally he would deliver them. Unfortunately, the lesson was never permanently learned and the whole cycle kept repeating.

Cycle of Judgment

Within this cycle, Deborah ruled while Israel was under God’s judgment. An army commander named Sisera under a king name Jabin had “oppressed the sons of Israel severely for twenty years.” (Judges 4:3) Here’s how she ruled. “She used to sit under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the sons of Israel came up to her for judgment.” (Judges 4:5)

I always think it is interesting to see how those who don’t believe women can hold positions of governmental leadership within the church get around this passage of scripture. Deborah did it. God clearly appointed her and Israel clearly accepted her authority. The sons of Israel lined up (under her own tree no less) to have their case judged by her; her spiritual weight was evidently heavy.

The level of her spiritual authority is particularly demonstrated after she summons a warrior leader named Barak. She tells him to fight their enemy Sisera because the Lord revealed to her, “’I will give him into your hand.’” Listen to how Barak responds: “’If you will go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.’” (Verse 8) He was not willing to go into battle without her. Lest you think that Barak was some sort of spiritual wimp, note that he is listed in the great Hebrews 11 Faith Hall of Fame. (See Hebrews 11:32)

Nonetheless, Deborah was willing to go to war while letting Barak know that his decision would mean he would forfeit any credit. “’I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the honor shall not be yours on the journey that you are about to take, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hands of a woman.’” (Judges 4:9)

Right before Barak headed into battle Deborah again declared victory and Sisera’s army was totally routed. In the aftermath there is a very interesting sub plot involving another feisty female and I will write more about that momentarily. Then Chapter 5 of Judges recounts a beautiful song of praise to God for victory sung jointly by Deborah and Barak.

Character revealed in actions

So, that’s the story of what Deborah did but what does that tell us about her character? Her actions reveal her character. The first thing I see is confidence so sure of God’s call that compromise stood no chance of hampering it. Deborah was plain spoken and direct, honest, decisive and courageous. No waffling. No shirking from hard choices. She probably saw life pretty black and white—no gray areas to vacillate over.

We don’t know her early history; nothing about how she came to realize she was a prophetess or when she was first led to sit under the “palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel.” But her gifts were obviously recognized as genuine or else the sons of Israel would not have come to her for judgment. Wow—and these were men! Actually submitting to the decision of a woman for their case. When Deborah told the nation to go into battle they trusted her and believed she had actually heard from the Lord. And of course she had!

Deborah was a woman of influence. I can’t help but believe that her strong leadership created an atmosphere conducive for other women to flourish. Now it’s time to talk about that other feisty woman in Chapter 4. Her name was Jael and she personally destroyed Sisera (the enemy Barak feared fighting without Deborah) by cunningly driving a tent peg through his head. You can read the details in Judges 4:17-22. Jael was every bit the spiritual daughter of Deborah and Deborah praises her in her song by saying, “’Most blessed of women is Jael.’”

Is there a character lesson from Deborah for those of us—both men and women--in leadership roles today? Yes. But don’t mistakenly admire Deborah for the wrong thing and automatically assume you can’t follow in her footsteps especially if you have a “softer” type personality. The point is not her “assertiveness” but her uncompromising integrity to be about God’s business.

What’s in a name

While Prime Minister Thatcher was nicknamed the Iron Lady, Deborah’s name is significant all by itself. Deborah means “bee.” That’s an important piece of information when studying any Bible personality. A name usually indicated the person’s character or their prophetic destiny. If we think about Deborah based on her name she is quite an appealing role model.

Bees are busy focusing on their appointed task. That’s why we might get stung if we don’t steer clear of them while they’re doing what they do best. Yes, bees are no nonsense creatures but ah…the results! All their industry is delightfully fruitful, producing one of nature’s most wonderful commodities: honey. I for one wouldn’t mind one bit being like a bee (or a Deborah) if I had such a sweet nutritious harvest to show for it.

Deborah had a great fruitful harvest. She didn’t neglect or compromise her call from God, as unusual as it was in her time. Deborah was a woman of influence and her spiritual mantle created an atmosphere of courage for both men and women. God favored her and that is seen most clearly in the Bible’s last line about her ministry. Remember that when she Judged Israel it had been under severe oppression for twenty years. The end result was a double portion of victory. “And the land was undisturbed for forty years.” (Judges 5:31)

Are you a Deborah? We could use a big crop of fresh honey in our day.


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