Rachel Conrad Carlson
Where Are The Women Leaders?
Where are the women leaders? I know I’m far from the first to wonder that as I read through the Bible (or take even a brief glimpse at Church hierarchy), but in a way, I suppose I’m lucky with the amount of women I did encounter in the Scriptures from an early age onward… though I wouldn’t have called it lucky for a lot of years of my life.
Lots of girls attend the Girl Scouts as they grow up, but for every Wednesday evening of my childhood, I attended an evangelical Bible study program for girls called Missionettes, culminating in the program for teens called STARs. There were Bible trivia quizzes, and state-wide conferences, weekend-long campouts and various challenges to secure our badges. But most of all, there was the curriculum. STARs is a four year program named for four women of the Bible–Susannah, Tabitha, Anna and Ruth–and each year was dedicated to one of them. Not only did we study their lives as indepthly as we could, we also read through the entire Bible in those four years, and memorized massive amounts of Scripture. Obviously, this was NOT the “cool” activity to be involved in, and by the age of 14 I desperately wanted out, but my mom would hear nothing of it. So finish it, I did. (Thanks, Carolyn Conrad!).
It wasn’t until my college years, and especially in the years since, that I realized what an incredible foundation that (oh-so-embarrassing) program provided me. I grew up knowing that women had a valuable place in the story of the Bible, that we were planted and placed on purpose to bring about God’s mission here on earth. I grew up not questioning my worth as a woman in the church. Honestly, that kind of certainty boggles my mind now that I’m older and have seen more of the worldwide church and am much more easily filled with questions, doubts and accusations. Also, as I consider my desire to act as a female leader in the Christian world (even in small/simple capacities), I wish that there were more strong examples of women leaders in the Scriptures.
So, it is with joy and even a sense of relief that I’m writing today about a woman who, even though she was not central to my STARs studies, has radically shifted the way I view women in positions of power in the Bible. Her name is Deborah, and somehow I went many years of my life without really knowing her story.
Though there are a handful of women prophets named in the Old Testament, Deborah has the extraordinary distinction of being called both a prophet and judge of Israel. She appears in Judges chapters 4 and 5, during a time when God’s chosen people were caught in a vicious cycle of turning away from God by ignoring sacred commands, facing oppression by their enemies, and then being directed back to God by a judge who led them to military victory against those enemies. And, incredibly, Deborah was one of those military leaders.
Judges 4 nonchalantly states that Deborah was judging Israel at that time, and that she sat under a palm tree and the people of Israel came to her for judgment. She fulfilled this supreme role of leadership in Israel for forty years, until the time of her death. When I think about the slow progression of women’s rights in America and how we didn’t have the right to vote until a hundred years ago, a female Supreme Court Justice until two years before I was born, or a female vice president until two years ago–and of course have never had a female president–the thought of a Hebrew woman leading the people of Israel a thousand years before Christ literally floors me.
And the craziest part is that she didn’t just give them advice. Judges 4 goes on to tell how she calmly summons the general of the armies, Barak, to her and informs him that the God of Israel has commanded him to take his troops and go to fight the enemy armies. He immediately responds, “If you will go with me, I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” Then Deborah states, “I will surely go with you. Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” Woah. So, not only is this military General too hesitant to fulfill God’s command and lead his army in battle without Deborah’s presence, she prophetically responds that yes she’ll go, but that the consequence of his hesitancy is that a woman will be given the glory of the final victory over the enemy general, Sisera. Which of course does happen through the impressive figure of Jael, who Jessica Curbis already beautifully wrote about in our series on Women in the Bible.
I’d like to encourage you to read Deborah’s whole story and her famous song (considered to be one of the best examples of ancient Hebrew poetry) in Judges 4 and 5. It truly is a remarkable couple of chapters! But to end today, I’d like to emphasize how the whole tradition of Israel hinges on the actions of the judges. Through great feats of courage and strength and obedience, God uses the judges to quite literally save the people of Israel over and over again, from the very beginning of their identity as God’s people with Abraham until the founding of Israel as a more formal nation. Yet, there are only 12 named in the Old Testament. And one of those 12 is Deborah.
As we highlight the strengths of women in the month of March (and here at Wisdom’s Dwelling, all year long), we can focus on St. Jerome’s wise words after he received criticism for dedicating his books to women: “These people do not know that while Barak trembled, Deborah saved Israel, that Esther delivered from supreme peril the children of God… Is it not to women that our Lord appeared after His Resurrection? Yes, and the men could then blush for not having sought what the women had found.”
May we all seek to find the courage and insight and obedience and open hearts that the women leaders of the Bible have modeled for us, as they allowed God to work through them to bring salvation. And may we also allow God to work through us to bring salvation here and now.