Deborah: The Wisdom of Woman (sermon three in series, “Lessons from Political Leaders in the Bible”)




     There are two companion reasons that women have not served as frequently as men in positions of political leadership throughout history.  Of course, in some places women have served just as consistently as men, but that is the exception rather than the rule. Those two companion reasons that women have not served are:  1) that men dominating societies liked running things and made conscious choices about how to keep women from serving in the positions men wanted to keep; and 2) the persistent assumption that women were/are morally inferior to men.
    The idea that women are by nature morally inferior to men goes back to the horrible branding of all women by the behavior of Eve in the Garden of Eden where she apparently was the first to eat of the forbidden fruit. Anti-women’s groups have certainly gotten their mileage out of dear ole Eve. We all know with a little bit of careful reading in Genesis 3 that what Eve did was no worse than what Adam and the Serpent did. Therefore, Eve is no more dastardly than Adam or the serpent.
     Much has been written and spoken about the superior gender: male or female.  In several areas of life some women have demonstrated prowess over male counterparts. Politics may be one of those areas. The following are ten of the most successful women political figures, past and present. No man could do or could have done a better job in the context.  

  1. Sixty-seventh US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.  Some see Secretary Clinton as the epitome of triumph in the face of adversity. Although her presidential run against President Obama was unsuccessful, she achieved a high-ranking appointment in his cabinet. While she might have been the butt of a few bad jokes during her husband’s presidency, who’s laughing now?
  2. Governor Sarah Palin, proof that I didn’t create this list.  She was the youngest person and the first woman elected Governor of Alaska, Palin served there from 2006 until her odd and oddly timed resignation in 2009.  Four years ago, we knew her as the wildly popular vice-presidential nominee of the Republican Party.
  3. Margaret Thatcher holds the record for being the longest serving Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the twentieth century. Thatcher is also known for building a strong relationship between her country and the United States through President Reagan, for increasing home ownership, and reducing the government’s role in business.  She was forced to resign in 1990 after instituting some very unpopular taxes.  (I did several internet searches and couldn’t find any hits, not even one, for “popular” taxes.)
  4. Indira Gandhi fought her way up the political ladder and became Prime Minister of India in 1966, making her the first woman leader of a democracy in the world. Gandhi served as Prime Minister until 1977 and was reelected to the same position in 1980. Although her own bodyguards assassinated her in 1984, her importance to India and to clarifying the importance of women in politics will live on.
  5. Personal friend of Judge Stapleton, Sandra Day O’Connor worked as an attorney for many years before becoming the first female Supreme Court justice. She was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1981 by President Reagan.  She retired from the Supreme Court in 2005 for several reasons, perhaps the most pressing one being to care for her ailing husband.
  6. Angela Merkel is the first woman to serve as and the current Chancellor of Germany; she’s the first woman leader of Germany since it became a modern nation-state in 1871. Forbes Magazine sees her as the most powerful woman in the world. 
  7. Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt from 55 to 48 BCE, Cleopatra was the last ruler of the Macedonian Dynasty. She tried to enlist the help of Julius Caesar while trying to keep Egypt free and eventually bore him a son.  She won the protection of Rome through an affair with Mark Anthony, having three children with him. Cleopatra was a highly educated woman who studied philosophy and international relations and was well ahead of her time.
  8. Queen Elizabeth I. Queen of England from 1558 to 1603.  Her rule was characterized by acts of tolerance and government reforms.  Like Cleopatra, Elizabeth I was highly educated, and she turned her court into a great center of learning. Elizabeth remained single for life, although she was constantly under pressure to marry to form political alliances. Elizabeth is famous for defeating the invading Spanish Armada in 1588 but also for the long wars during her 45 year reign, now referred to as the “Elizabethan Age.”
  9. Golda Meir served as Prime Minister of Israel from 1969 to 1978. Becoming Prime Minister of Israel in the late 1960s was a real political feat for a female at that time. Known for being powerful and tough.  Meir retired from politics when her Labor Party fell from power as a result of the Yom Kippur War.
  10. Susan B. Anthony was an activist her whole life, fighting for equal rights for everyone. She worked to abolish slavery, reform education, and to gain for women the right to vote. She was the first woman ever to vote in a presidential election in 1872, even though she did so illegally and was arrested for her vote. Anthony continued to work tirelessly for women’s rights until her death in 1906.  If not for her work, women most assuredly would not have achieved the right to vote in 1920.

     The “judges” in ancient Israel were powerful leaders in the days before the monarchy–that is, before the days of Israel’s first king, King Saul.  These leaders usually acquired their political positions after they led Israeli troops to be successful in battle.
     The first such judge, Othniel, set the pattern: the oppressed Hebrews cried out to God, and the spirit of God came Othniel who judged Israel’s concerns as worthy and then himself went out with the troops to battle.  The Hebrews believed their win was God’s doing so they praises God and got Othniel a contract.  
     We don’t know how Deborah rose to power–through a similar incident or strictly because of her wise judgments.  In the book of Judges, there’s a story of Deborah and a song of Deborah placed side by side.  In the song, Deborah describes total breakdown of order in Israel. Travelers had to go around Hebrew territory to avoid danger; in those days there was no rescue, someone sings, “Until I arose, Deborah, until I arose, a mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7).  Somehow Deborah brought order back to Israel.  How this happened, again, neither the song nor the story tell us.
     One day, Deborah called General Barak and said to him, “Did not the God of Israel command us, ‘Go and pull toward Mount Tabor and take with you ten thousand men from the men of Naphtali and Zebulun. I will draw Sisera, the head of Yavin’s army, and his chariotry and masses to Wadi Kishon, and I will give him into your hand.”‘
       Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go; if you will not go with me, I will not go.”
     Judge Deborah responded. She said, “I will indeed go with you, especially since you will get no glory on the way you are going, for into the hand of a woman will God deliver Sisera.”  This is exactly what it happened.  Deborah went with Barak to Qedesh.  Barak gathered the troops, and ten thousand men went with them.  Deborah won the battle.
      What prompted Deborah to call Barak in the first place?  Maybe the people asked that she call him. The people not only regularly went to her for guideance, but also they came to her for a particular kind of “judgment.” The poem provides a hint as to what they wanted: “Then the people of God went down to the gates:  ‘Awake, awake, Deborah.  Awake, awake, sing a song.  Arise, Barak, take your captives.'” (Judges 5:12).  This heart-wrenching outcry may have motivated Deborah to begin the war of Liberation.
      Deborah calls Barak in her role as a prophet, a catalyst through whom God works. Moreover, Deborah hints that she is following up on a previous call to Barak: Did not the God of Israel command it?
    God had already spoken to Barak, and Deborah’s call is a second summons. Still, Barak is reluctant to go, like Moses before him, like Gideon and Samuel after him, others were called by God to be envoys. He seeks assurance that God is really with him and insists that Deborah go with him to the front lines where the warriors assemble.
    Readers have often been bothered by Barak’s reluctance to go without Deborah, declaring that his hesitation makes him “less manly” or tarnishes his potential glory. But Barak has good reason to be insecure: Yavin, after all, has nine hundred chariots!
    Prophets play several roles in battle: they stir and inspire the troops.  They declare God’s timing for fighting to begin. Prophets are such an important presence in battle that Elijah and Elisha are called “Israel’s chariot and cavalry.”
    Many readers of this story have been particularly troubled by the presence of women in war, believing that women are out of place there and assuming that ancient Israelites would have felt the same way.  Yet, most of the Assyrian prophets were women, and reports from both the ancient and more recent Near East show a consistent pattern of the presence of women to inspire the troops and taunt the enemy. There is no reason to think that biblical readers found anything strange about Barak’s request to Deborah, as either prophet or woman.
    “Sisera mustered all his chariotry, nine hundred iron chariots, and all his people from Harosheth‑Hagoyim to Wadi Kishon….Deborah said to Barak, ‘Arise, for this is the day that YHWH gives Sisera into your hand. Does not YHWH go out before you?’….Barak quickly descended from Mount Tabor and ten thousand men after him….YHWH distressed Sisera and all the chariotry and all the camp by the sword before Barak and Sisera descended from his chariot and fled on foot….Barak chased the chariots and the camp to Harosheth‑Hagoyim and fell on Sisera’s camp with the sword. Not even one remained.”
     On Mount Tabor, Deborah the prophet announces the victory. She herself does not go down to the battle. Like Moses, Deborah is not a battle commander. Her role is to inspire, foretell, and celebrate when a celebration is in order. Her “weapon” is the word, and her name is an anagram of “she spoke” (dibberah). The battle itself is not essential to the story.  It is important only to remember that God fought and won: God “distressed” Sisera. Deborah announced God’s victory, Barak facilitated it, and God carried it out. The Song of Deborah provides a glimpse into how God defeated Canaan: God brought a flash flood that made a bog of sliding mud in which chariots were useless.
     Both the story and the song emphasize the fact that Deborah is a woman. The story tells us that she was a prophetess‑woman, adding the word “woman,” ishah, when the female noun “prophetess,” nebi’ah, already conveys that information. She is called “Lapidot”‑woman or Lapidot’s woman, again repeating the word “woman,” eshet.
     The song stresses that Deborah was a “mother in Israel.” The femaleness is neither hidden nor incidental: it is an integral part of the story. The motherhood of this “mother in Israel” goes beyond biology. It describes her role as counselor during the days before the war, and it indicates her role in preserving the heritage of Israel, in her case by advising in battle.
     The fullest sense of Deborah as mother is revealed in her name, which is not only an anagram of “she spoke”; it is also a noun meaning “bee.” Like the queen bee, she raises up the swarm for battle, sending out the drones to protect the hive and conquer new territory.  (Much material in segment two of this sermon has been borrowed and sometimes quoted directly from Professor Tikva Frymer-Kensky; she was Professor of Hebrew at the University of Chicago Divinity School.  An amazing career cut short; death took her in her early 60’s.)

    Mary Wolestonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley who authored Frankenstein, was a determined women’s liberation advocate in England well ahead of her time.  Her very important book, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, remains a significant piece of literature.  May I share some quotes from that work that jump out at me?

“I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.”

“My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.”

“[I]f we revert to history, we shall find that the women who have distinguished themselves have neither been the most beautiful nor the most gentle of their sex.”
“Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.”

“I love man as my fellow; but his scepter, real, or usurped, extends not to me, unless the reason of an individual demands my homage; and even then the submission is to reason, and not to man.”

“…men endeavor to sink us still lower, merely to render us alluring objects for a moment; and women, intoxicated by the adoration which men, under the influence of their senses, pay them, do not seek to obtain a durable interest in their hearts, or to become the friends of the fellow creatures who find amusement in their society.”

“I earnestly wish to point out in what true dignity and human happiness consists. I wish to persuade women to endeavor to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonymous with epithets of weakness, and that those beings are only the objects of pity, and that kind of love which has been termed its sister, will soon become objects of contempt.”

*At this point in the Gathering, the Pastor left his prepared notes and spoke without notes of any kind.  There is no transcription.  You may listen to the last part of the sermon by finding the link to it on the church’s website’s home page.

Weeks or months from now, the sermon may be transcribed and offered in print.