Female Judge in the Old Testament?

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Women in the Bible


How could Deborah be a judge? I thought women were not allowed to have this position.


Deborah is the fourth judge to be mentioned in the book of Judges. With the notable exception of her, the other judges functioned more like deliverers or saviors. According to the story, within a generation after the death of Joshua, "The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD and served the Baals….They aroused the LORD's anger…In his anger against Israel the LORD…[they] sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist." That would always result in the Israelites being in great distress. After some undefined period of time, when the people were suffering and thinking things over, God would raise up a judge or a deliverer in response to their cries for help. The problems would be relieved for a time. But then the judge would die and the people would, once again, forget and resume their bad behavior. The whole cycle would then be repeated.

Deborah is introduced in Judges 4-5 with four descriptive words or activities. First, she was called "a prophet." While her name, Deborah, might be translated "bee," it has the same consonants as the word for "speak" or "word." So by her very name, the Israelites might have thought of her as someone who was able to speak God's word. As a prophet, she would have been considered God's mouthpiece. Typically, a prophet was able to speak the word of God with some authority. And she was known for doing just that.

Next, she was identified as "the wife of Lappidoth." This is somewhat problematic because nothing more is ever said about her husband. He was not even mentioned when she went to the battlefield. Theoretically, he should still have been alive since she was called "wife" and not "widow." Nonetheless, this phrase could simply be a reflection of the patriarchal society in which she lived. Many scholars still believe that biblical women had to be married. But Deborah appeared to be functioning quite well on her own, both as a judge and as a prophet. It is possible, then, that the phrase, "wife of Lappidoth," should be translated as "woman of torches." (She certainly lit a fire under Barak!) If that's true, then Deborah didn't fit into any of the categories for a woman in that society. She would have been the exception. She would have been able to act under her own authority without asking or getting permission from a father or husband. Many people think that she must have been post-menopausal—old enough to be an elder.

Next, she was "leading Israel at that time." The fact that she was doing that says a few things about the society in which she lived. Let's be realistic here—if the leaders had been doing their jobs, if they hadn't been blatantly corrupt, the people would never have chosen her to lead them. Even military leaders sought her out. They went to her because they could count on her to speak the prophetic voice of God. She was a secure voice in a corrupt society. When she sent for Barak and commanded him to gather an army, he showed up and did as he was directed.

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