23 Aug 2021

Deborah, the Prophet Like Moses

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, Patternism, Women

I have been wrestling with women in the Bible for a long time. I had arrived at “things surely believed” by 1992 on the “role of women.” LaGard Smith’s What Most Women Want confirmed all my positions. That is where it was for a number of years – a decade in fact. I never did any actual exegesis of any of the texts involved. They were just “self-evident.”

But Huldah and Phoebe were burs in my saddle. They became seriously uncomfortable when Rachael, my little 8 yr old girl, decided she was going to lead a song one night at Southside in Milwaukee. What to do? I did the restorationist thing – I went to the Bible and decided for the first time to actually exegete the text. That led to my presentation at ACU a long time ago on Huldah. See my article, Huldah Who? The Forgotten Ministry of a Lady Prophet.

So, over the years my understanding of Deborah has radically changed. Deborah has many similarities to Samuel who comes at the end of the Judges period. But more importantly Deborah is, I believe, seen by the narrator as something of a “prophet like Moses.” Scholars have often noted the connections between the Song of Deborah and the Song of Moses but the parallels go much further. There are no less than six narrative lines of connection between Prophet Deborah and Prophet Moses.

Deborah a Prophet Like Moses … The Moses Parallels

I have looked at Deborah in light of the “Book” of Judges as a whole and I have looked at her in light of the entire “Deuteronomistic history” (this is the single story of Israel between Joshua and 2 Kings. It forms a unified narrative). I have read published studies and commentaries from a wide perspective.

I have previously noted how the narrative compares Deborah to Moses, she is the prophet like Moses in her day. Here are a few more interesting details.

1) Deborah, like Moses – but unlike all the rest of the Judges in the book of Judges – actually is described as “judging” (settling disputes, etc).

2) Deborah, like Moses, is a prophet who channels the word of God to the people.

3) Deborah, like Moses, has a “spot” (h/t to Sheldon Cooper), a location where leading is done. Moses has a tent and Deborah has the “palm of Deborah.”

4) Deborah, like Moses, orders a military leader into action, presenting herself as the voice of God, but (like Moses) stays behind the troops on top of a hill to inspire the soldiers. Some see Deborah not going into battle as proof of her inferior rank to Barak but this simply ignores the narrative context. Deborah leads as Moses leads.

5) In the Battle by the Red/Reed Sea and at Mt Tabor, the enemy rushes in with their tanks (chariots) that are divinely disabled through the onrush of water.

6) Deborah, like Moses, sang a victory song to Yahweh’s glory that has been preserved to this day.

Deborah in the Deuteronomistic History

Deborah is the only Judge in the “book” of Judges called a prophet. In the Deuteronomistic History. The last Judge is Samuel who is also a prophet. Deborah is clearly the high point in the dark days between Moses and Samuel.

Deborah is the only Judge that is scandal free. Gideon leads the people into idolatry (8.22-28); Jephthah is simply unbelievable (11.29-40); Samson is an immoral womanizer. Judges from chapter 17 to 21 reads like a post-apocalyptic Mad Max on steroids.

Wife of Lappidoth.” This is the typical translation of Judges 4.4. This is an example of the amazing power of tradition and bias in translation. But it is far from certain that the text actually says that Deborah is married here. The Hebrew here can also be rendered as “fire woman” or “spirit woman.” Some translations actually indicate this in a footnote such as the New English Bible. Others simply fail to inform the English reader. To say that Deborah is a fiery woman or is a spirited woman is hardly the same thing as to say she is merely a wife (and if the traditional reading is the correct one it is not a textual claim that she is a “mere” wife).

Mother in Israel.” It is likely this is not literal description here. It is a description of what Deborah has done. That is she has brought protection, life and salvation to Israel. When we read the whole of the narrative from Joshua to Kings we learn that male prophets are also called Father when they are not literally Israel’s fathers. So in 2 Kings 2.12, Elisha cries out to Elijah as he is taken away in chariot, “Father! Father!” though Elijah is not Elisha’s father. And in 2 Kings 6.21, after Elisha has brought the blind Arameans into Samaria, the king addresses Elisha as “Father.” It is clear that this has nothing to do with biological reproduction and neither does “Mother” in reference to Deborah as the prophet who delivers Israel.

Deborah is denigrated by many. One popular writer states, “She was not a religious leader within the priesthood of Israel.” This particular line of reasoning I have struggled to understand for a very long time. The priesthood is hardly mentioned in the narrative from Joshua to Judges. The priests in the “book” of Judges lead to paganism (Judges 17) and that Levite and concubine is something out of a horror flick (Judges 19). If we follow the Deuteronomistic History down through though Kings we do find some more priests. In fact we find the High Priest Hilkiah submitting to the authority of the female prophet, Huldah (2 Kgs 22). Prophets held more authority in Israel than priests. Prophetic ministry is directly rooted in Moses’s own prophetic ministry (Dt 18.15-22). It is a stark biblical truth that, to my knowledge, she is the only ruler of Israel that not one negative action was remembered.

Kings submitted to prophets.
Priests submitted to prophets.

Deborah’s ministry was not a call to return to “male spiritual leadership.” The claim that God used Deborah “to shame the men of Israel,” is simply bogus. There is not a shred (literally) of support in the narrative of Judges for this claim. There were male reprobates in Deborah’s day just as surely as there were in Gideon’s, Jephthah’s, Samson’s, Micah’s, Eli’s. We have to imagine the days of Deborah as pretty demonic indeed if we think the men of those days were worse than Samson’s or the bleak stories that conclude the book. Such a position is invented and painted onto the text by men who literally cannot imagine a woman leading God’s people. But the narrative itself imagines that Deborah is another Moses.

Deborah’s ministry was a call, ordained by God himself, to return to Yahweh and his Covenant of Love. Deborah was in fact a Prophet like Moses, who led like Moses, who acted like Moses, who fulfilled God’s call like Moses.

God made her prophet and judge and leader of all Israel, because he wanted to. Deborah was simply a “woman” who was a prophet that was “exercising authority for Yisra’el at that time” (Judges 4.4, The First Testament: A New Translation).

Deborah reminds us that God has always seen male and female as one in God’s sight. So Deborah is Holy Spirit commentary on Joel 2.28,

I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;
your SONS and your DAUGHTERS
shall prophesy,
your old MEN shall dream dreams,
and your young MEN shall see visions.
Even on MALE and FEMALE slaves
in those days,
I will pour out my Spirit.

Thank God for the Deborah who was a shining light in the darkness.

Technical Resources

Bruce Herzberg, “Deborah and Moses,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 38 (2013), 15-33.

Related Articles on Women on this Blog

A Biblical Register of Roles God Has Called Women

Phoebe and Bobby V: Why those Who Insist that She was Not a Deacon, I Insist are Wrong

Voices on Female Deacons in the Stone-Campbell Movement

One Response to “Deborah, the Prophet Like Moses”

  1. john acuff Says:

    WOW you done quit preaching and gone to meddling and for this I praise God

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