Like A Girl

In July of 2017, Disney premiered a web series of short videos based on the famous Star Wars film franchise. This offshoot mini-series was entitled Forces of Destiny and focused on the female characters beloved by Star Wars fans: Princess Leia, Padmé Amidala, Jyn Erso, Ahsoka Tano, Maz Kanata, Rey, and Sabine Wren.

While many fans were thrilled with episodes that would appeal to young girls and give them a sense of strength and empowerment, other fans felt slighted. Apparently, six full-length Hollywood movies focusing on men like Anakin & Luke Skywalker, or Obi-Wan Kenobi, were not enough to make the male audience feel included! Apparently, some men become intimidated by the prospect of someone who can fight like a girl.

In Judges 4-5 we find the story of Israel’s only known female judge. Deborah, the author informs us, matter-of-factly, was a prophet and the wife of a man named Lappidoth (or a woman of Lappidoth), and she “was leading Israel at that time” (v. 4). As Rachel Held Evans explains, “As both prophet and judge, Deborah exercised complete religious, political, judicial, and militaristic authority over the people of Israel. She was essentially Israel’s commander in chief” (19). Deborah holds court under a palm tree and settles the disputes of the people of Israel, and it is here that she delivers a message from God to Barak, the captain of the Israelite army: God wants him to lead the army to defeat Sisera, the leader of the Canaanite force that is oppressing the Israelites.

Barak is scared and refuses to go without Deborah, who replies, “Because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman” (v. 9). Deborah leads the Israelites to the battle, and they are victorious as she prophesied – with a coda to the story featuring another fearless woman’s victory over a man. Sisera, fleeing the battlefield, takes shelter with his ally Heber the Kenite and Heber’s wife Jael. While he sleeps, however, Jael kills him by hammering a tent peg through his head, then smugly provides Barak with his corpse. Both the victory over the enemy army and over the enemy commander went to women.

When faced with stories like this, some Christians will claim that God only called a woman because no man would “step up” to lead the people of Israel. If interpreted this way, we can read Deborah’s comment about the Lord’s deliverance of Sisera as a condemnation of Barak – he has been so cowardly that God has to stoop to using a woman to accomplish his will.

Even in secular society, when we praise women as strong we often do so by distancing them from their femininity. Take, for example, this recent commercial’s examination of what it means to do things “like a girl.”

Why do we see leadership as an exception for women rather than God using the talents of all of his followers? Why do conservative theologians attempt to explain away Deborah as less chosen by God than other judges when, as Jana Reiss points out, she successfully rules Israel for forty years, and is the only judge recorded as being wholly righteous?

Too often the church’s relationship to women has involved suppressing them using certain portions of the Bible, like Paul’s culturally-specific instructions in Timothy, and ignoring the example of heroic women like Deborah and Jael. Despite verses such as Joel 2:28, which proclaims that “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy,” women have often had to serve God while facing opposition from men claiming to follow him.

In a recent Senate hearing, Senator Elizabeth Warren attempted to read a letter from Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow Coretta Scott King, which condemned Jeff Sessions as a racist unfit to hold public office. Republican Senate chair Steve Daines attempted to silence her, but she kept reading, leading Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell to frustratedly proclaim, in a statement that inadvertently became a feminist rallying cry: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

“Nevertheless, she persisted” has since been applied to a bevy of female leaders both real and imaginary, from Hermione Granger and Princess Leia to Sojourner Truth and Hillary Clinton. It could just as easily be applied to the bleeding woman who went to Jesus for healing, to Mary Magdalene refusing to leave Jesus’ feet, and to every Christian woman who has followed the example of Deborah and Jael in leadership and action. Nevertheless, she persisted, and the Lord delivered the enemy “into the hands of a woman.”

Talk Back

• The story of Deborah takes place within the era of the Judges. Read Judges 1:1-3:6, the introductory portion of the book. Where has Israel come from? Who was leading them prior to the judges? What does the book tell us is the problem that will lead to Israel's downfall?

• Read Judges 2:16-23. What role did the Judges play in the relationship between Israel and God?

Judges 4:4 tells us that Deborah was both a prophetess and a judge. Read Judges 4:4-7. How was Deborah helping to lead Israel? From these verses, what kind of work do you think she did as a judge? As a prophet?

• Read Judges 4:9. Deborah predicts that Sisera, the enemy general, will be defeated by a woman. That story is told in 4:17-22. Do you think Deborah's words "The Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman" gives moral justification to Jael's killing (and possibly seduction) of Sisera? Why or why not? Read also Deborah and Barak's retelling of the story in their song, 5:24-27. Is this praise of violent behavior and revelry in the death of an enemy appropriate for Christians today. If so, how so? If not, why is it in the Bible?

• From your reading of the story, do you think Deborah actually physically fight with Israel's armies, or did she simply act as a commander? What do you make of Barak's statement in Judges 4:8 that he won't go to war without her coming with him? What does that say about Barak's faith?

Judges 4 refers to Deborah as a judge of Israel, and does not call Barak a judge. However, in Hebrews 11:32-33, a number of judges are mentioned as heroes of faith, and the list includes Barak but not Deborah. Some have proposed that this is because the text of Judges does not tell us that Deborah actually fought. Others have suggested that the list in Hebrews 11 tends to pick more flawed characters than "pure" ones, and that is why Barak (the one with weak faith) was chosen rather than Deborah. What do you think?

• What do you think of claims that women such as Deborah and Ellen White were only called as God’s second choice because men didn’t step up when called?

• Why does the Bible contain examples of female disciples, entrepeneurs, prophets, and political leaders, but not pastors?

• The book of Judges contains two of the most blatant stories of women contributing to victory in war in the entire Bible. They are portrayed as powerful leaders and clever assassins. But the book of Judges does not bode well for women overall. The last three chapters of the book (19-21) contain some of the worst (!!!) violence against women recounted in the entire Bible (be cautioned before reading, these chapters are very disturbing). Why does the Bible include both glorious triumphs and complete moral failures alongside each other? What can we learn from this?

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