Deborah: the warrior judge

Deborah ©MicahHayns

Judges 4 and 5

One of the memorable moments of 2019 in the UK was of Judge Lady Brenda Hale, President of the Supreme Court, declaring Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament unlawful. She was cool, calm and resplendent in her spider brooch!

She is a powerful advocate for a more balanced gender representation on the UK’s highest court, and yet she objects to the idea of positive discrimination:

“no one wants to feel they have got the job in any way other than on their own merits” [1]

Deborah Beneath the Palm Tree, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French, 1836-1902) or followers

It is unlikely that there was any semblance of positive discrimination going on in (around) 12th Century BC to enable Deborah to become a judge, and so we must assume that her position came about due to her own merits.

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

Judges 4.4-5

The book of Judges chronicles a cycle of rebellion and deliverance which follows this basic pattern: the people are unfaithful to God (Yahweh) and He delivers them into the hands of their enemies; the people repent and cry out for mercy, which He sends in the form of a leader or champion (a “judge”); the judge delivers them from oppression and they prosper; then after a while they fall back into unfaithfulness and the cycle is repeated.

The story of Deborah follows this pattern but is unique in the Hebrew bible as she is the only female judge.

A battle had broken out between the Israelites (with their general Barak) and Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army. Deborah summoned Barak and commanded him to go to Mount Tabor with 10,000 soldiers from the tribes of Naphatili and Zebulun. However, Barak refuses to go without her by his side.

If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.

Judges 4.8

She goes with him but not before warning him that if they won the battle then he won’t receive the glory for it as it would always be known that, ‘the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman’. (Judges 4. 9)

The battle is won and Sisera and his army of 900 chariots retreat with Sisera running away on foot into Jael’s tent (more on her and the fate of Sisera in tomorrow’s blog!).

The ‘Song of Deborah’ in Judges 5 is perhaps the oldest example of Hebrew poetry and is a victory hymn that retells the story and celebrates a military victory brought about by two women.

‘The peasantry prospered in Israel,
They grew fat on plunder,
Because you arose, Deborah,
Arose as a mother in Israel….
Awake, awake, Deborah!
Awake, awake, utter a song!’   

Judges 5. 7, 12

Reflection and Prayer

Here is my servant, whom I have chosen,
    my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
    and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
Matthew 12.18

Let us remember all those who work in judicial systems around the world: for the police, lawyers, barristers, judges and for all those who create our laws and work to ensure justice and peace. We particularly remember parts of the world where these systems have broken down, where justice isn’t administered with equality, and where the poor continue to suffer because of this.

O God of righteousness, lead us we pray, in the ways of justice and peace: Inspire us to break down all oppression and wrong, to gain for everyone their due reward, and from everyone their due service, that each may live for all, and all may care for each, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
A Prayer of Archbishop William Temple, 1881-1944)

[1] From Wikipedia,
 Bowcott, Owen (1 January 2019). “White and male UK judiciary ‘from another planet’, says Lady Hale”. The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077Archived from the original on 1 January 2019. Retrieved 1 January 2019.

Author: clarehayns

College Chaplain and Welfare Coordinator of Christ Church, Oxford | Mum of three boys | wife of a juggler and magician | Council of Reference of ZANE - | enjoys board games, dog walking, films, eating out.

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