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Seeing as we read

March 16, 2009

Right up front you should know that I sometimes have read things in Scripture that were not there.  For instance I can remember hearing either from the pulpit or in women’s studies in years gone by that Deborah was a judge over Israel, because there were no men suitable or able to take that leadership role.  Now those were probably not the exact words but the implication was nevertheless, that Deborah led only as a second choice.  Truthfully that is an assumption to make Scripture fit with our presumption.  Therefore I can remember that I used to read Judges 4 through the lens that the Scripture said something that it in fact did not say.  What does the Word says?  Let’s look…

Judges 4:4-6: “At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife, of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment.  She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you…” (the passage continues with Deborah giving instructions to Barak on what he is to do to fight against Sisera, commander of the army of King Jabin in Canaan who was oppressing Israel).

Several things we should note:  Deborah was a woman, she was a prophet (the NRSV translates it above as “prophetess,” she was judge for all of Israel, she is identified not by genealogy but by location — they knew where to find her, she gave instructions and people acted (as with Barak).

I have also heard people qualify ministry for women if they are ministering with their husband.  Certainly this is a wonderful thing, but I think we will find that within Scripture not all women that ministered were married.  As I dug into the story of Deborah I quickly found there is more to this story than assumptions. Clearly, the Word does not qualify Deborah as judge over Israel because there were no suitable men to be judge.  The assumption is false.

I am drawing attention to Deborah because as judge of Israel she stepped out of the traditional role that a woman had at that time in Middle Eastern culture.  A judge in Israel was a deliverer, Deborah was a military leader, she rendered judgment and is also known as a prophet. A prophet mediated God’s word to the people.[1] We could actually do a study on the reference to Deborah as a mother of Israel (Judges 5:7).

We are right to recognize that a woman judge was unusual. She is the only one listed in the book of Judges. It is also remarkable, but not impossible. Unless forbidden by the culture or the law women could assume various public roles in Israeli society.[2] In fact sometimes we need to acknowledge the cultural reasons why they were not more prominent.

Why have we taught that Deborah was a judge because there were no men suitable to be judge?  Maybe you think I’m referring to something from the past and I acknowledge I first heard this assumption back in the 1980’s, but I heard it again just last year in a discussion among men and women.  Things stick with us and they can color the way we read the Word.  Have we intended to do this?  No, I do not think we intentionally read into the text something that is not there, it just happens.

There is significance in Scripture when “exceptions” occur.  Quite often the exception that occurs relates to women.  We become aware of these are exceptions as we know and understand the culture of that time period.  And yes we will not always be able to cross every “t” and dot every “i” concerning historical or cultural specifics.  But as we read, study and learn we can pay attention and seek to know how we are to live today.

On Deck: If you have been thinking about reading in the Gospels I invite you to join me in reading the book of Luke. Make a note of the instances where women are mentioned or present. Next Monday we will be taking a look at Jesus and women.


[1] David Noel Freedman, ed., Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, [Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000], p. 331.

[2] Ibid., p. 332

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