When a Good Woman is Found
“And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets…..” (Hebrews 11:1, ESV)
Context matters. This particular list of the faithful matters. It confirms those heroes of the past we as Christians should admire, emulate, and praise. It’s all well and good until everything comes to a screeching halt at the mention of the name Barak. Barak, the man who failed to assume his proper role. Barak, who was so cowardly in asking for Deborah’s presence in battle that he was publically shamed by having his victory given over to the hands of a woman.
Barak’s story is consistently preached as a cautionary tale of what befalls a nation of weak men, men who do not have the faith to obey God without having to beg the women for help. If this is true, why is his name listed among those of the Noble? The Faithful? The Hebrews 11 Laureates? What gives?
My mother also read Ron Pierce’s chapter "Deborah: Only When a Good Man is Hard to Find?" and, with a spark in her eye, announced she liked it. Why? Because it asserts that everything she and I—and pretty much every man, woman, and child I know—have been taught about Deborah and Barak is wrong. According to Pierce's contribution to Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible, Barak is not a cautionary tale; he is instead an example of a humble, faithful man submitting to something larger than himself, even if it meant that another player, a lowly tent-dwelling woman, would have the honor of avenging the rape and slaughter of the Israelite people. Because of his willingness to step back from the cultural norms, submit to Deborah’s leadership, and hand the glory over to Jael, Barak gains his place among those the author of Hebrews wants us to admire and respect.
I realize I just spent roughly 200 words talking about Barak in a review about Deborah–but that is part of the point. Current church culture, particularly the conservative, traditional side, has a knee-jerk reaction against women in positions of influence and authority. Our automatic assumption is that any scriptural example to the contrary is an indication of something off balance, rather than accepting it at face value and reaching the same conclusion the author of Hebrews apparently did—Barak’s submission to Deborah was worthy of praise, not rebuke.
Pierce argues that Deborah, a “woman of valor,” was an established, unquestioned authority in Israel, whose influence and authority was on par with Samuel. He is doubtful that she was even married, suggesting instead that “woman of Lappidoth” actually refers to “Woman of Fire.” She likely chose Barak due to his knowledge of the future battlefield and so called him rather than leading the charge herself. Pierce deviates from commonly accepted interpretations when he discusses the exchange after Deborah's charge to Barak. Peirce points out that not only does Deborah accept Barak’s request that she accompany him without hesitation, but that Barak wanting prophetic counsel while in battle is entirely reasonable and acceptable. What about the bit where Deborah tells Barak that the glory will go to a woman? Pierce asserts that Barak was so eager to dive into the task that he had actually interrupted Deborah’s commissioning speech, namely the part where Jael would be responsible for the ultimate victory. This news doesn’t seem to bother Barak in the least, and he and Deborah leave and wage a successful battle.
Pierce reminds his readers that Deborah is no troublesome woman, forced into her role as judge due to a lack of decent men. Instead, she is portrayed positively throughout Judges, serving faithfully in a role that is respected by her people. Pierce requires his readers to notice that Barak demonstrates immense faith agreeing to lead the Israelites into battle while knowing he will not gain the traditional victor’s glory, accepting potential social stigma and thousands of years of shaming from other men.
It bears repeating that Deborah operated as the unquestioned spiritual and civil leader for the Israelite people, something that is frequently overlooked or outright preached against. One of the challenges Christian women frequently face today is a consistent devaluing of our God-given gifts and contributions, both in civic and church realms. Often, we are taught from a young age that our rising to positions of prominence and influence is a sign of judgment and shame for the men around us, a mentality that is damaging for both men and women alike. According to Pierce, using Deborah’s story as an “exception to the rule” or as a cautionary tale is a wrong-headed and misleading approach. Barak is not being shamed in this episode. Rather, Deborah and Barak’s story aims to show that God, not man, gains the ultimate credit for freeing His people from oppression, even to the extent of overthrowing expectations to make a point. Deborah is given due respect, and willingly gives Barak the guidance he seeks, which he then uses to make Jael’s ultimate victory over Sisera possible. In application, Pierce encourages his readers to reconsider how they view the women around them, to follow wise, capable female leadership even in a world that is unaccustomed to such things. Women in leadership is not a sign of the end of things; if anything, it is likely a sign God may be doing something different than we would generally expect.
My takeaway? Be like Deborah. Be like Barak. Be faithful to the task God has assigned you to. And pay attention to and support those women who seek the good of those around them, even as they do it from a position of authority and influence.