What Do Deborah and Barak Want to Tell Complementarians and Egalitarians?
More women are occupying positions of leadership than ever before. Yet the jury seems evenly split whether such changes should be welcomed or resisted—both outside and inside the Church. As Carolyn Custis James explains in her new book Malestrom:
Plenty of Christian men welcome these changes and in fact have advocated for them. But others view the rise of women with concern, even alarm, and strive to stem the tide. The belief in a zero-sum game between the genders, where gains for women represent losses for men, makes the rise of women difficult to swallow. (98)
Alarm and advocacy, two positions on either side of the contemporary gender debate. But what does the Bible say? Enter Deborah and Barak, a “gender minefield” story that bears prophetic insights for both Complementarians and Egalitarians.
Read the excerpt below and engage Malestrom yourself for greater insights into the rise of women and crisis of manhood.
Today’s churches are filled with successful Christian women who are climbing the corporate ladder and occupying leadership positions in a wide range of professions. More and more women are in the workplace by choice and calling — not out of necessity. Evangelical seminaries are producing gifted female graduates, and many are moving into all sorts of ministry and pastoral leadership positions. In this age of the Internet, some evangelical female bloggers have followings that surpass megachurch attendance. Young girls have ambitions and dreams that are different than those of their parents. Those dreams may include marriage and children, but they have other dreams as well.
Plenty of Christian men welcome these changes and in fact have advocated for them. But others view the rise of women with concern, even alarm, and strive to stem the tide. The belief in a zero-sum game between the genders, where gains for women represent losses for men, makes the rise of women difficult to swallow. Women once lauded as “the backbone of the church” are now perceived as a threat.
This is not a new situation. The Bible contains plenty of “unforeseen situations” where women appear to outshine the men. These stories create enormous problems for interpreters because they violate the patriarchal principle that men lead and women follow. The power of these biblical narratives is intensified by the fact that these stories aren’t situated in an egalitarian western culture, but are embedded in a full-blown patriarchal context where men are primary and hold the reins of power.
The classic “unforeseen situation” in the Bible is the Old Testament story of Deborah, Barak, and the mallet-wielding female, Jael, who drove a tent peg through the head of Israel’s sleeping enemy, General Sisera. The story is a gender minefield for those who seek to regulate the cultural rise of women. In this Old Testament narrative, women are the heroes, while the men (primarily Barak) draw a firestorm of criticism for being cowardly, spineless, and weak. Not only is the leading male figure in this story bested by a woman — Barak is bested by two women!
Debating gender camps are quick to take sides. Egalitarians view Deborah as one more biblical nail in patriarchy’s coffin. African scholar Tokunboh Adeyemo, who was born and bred in a thoroughly patriarchal culture, could not resist pointing out the countercultural implications of Deborah’s leadership role in this biblical story. “Despite living in a male-dominated culture, she served as head of state, commander-in-chief and chief justice. Her achievement should put an end to debate about whether women can provide leadership.” For many women searching the Bible for confirmation of their God-given leadership gifts and calling, Deborah is their “Aha!” moment. “If Deborah, why not me?!”
Complementarians respond to the Deborah story by scaling down her significance and caricaturing her leadership as nothing more than a punishment for men — “a living indictment of the weakness of Barak and other men in Israel who should have been more courageous leaders.” They warn against drawing conclusions about female leadership from her story and argue that modern Christians ought not to make theological deductions from the “precarious” period of the judges. The inference is that Deborah would never have risen to power if men had been leading as God intends. Deborah, they insist, is an exception to the rule and “a special case.” Some complementarians even go so far as to reduce her prophetic role “to private and individual instruction” — despite the fact that she publicly calls the nation to war and publicly accompanies the general and his army into battle.
Egalitarians, even as they exalt the leadership role of Deborah, have little respect for Barak. Echoing the complementarians, they depict Barak as a “spineless” man who reacts to God’s call to battle with “childlike overdependence on Deborah and implied lack of trust in God.” These egalitarians conclude it was Barak’s failure as a leader that “forced women [Deborah] to step across contemporary Israelite boundaries and fulfill the divine purpose.” Ironically, both sides of the gender debate make the “weakness” of Barak the proximate cause of Deborah’s irregular elevation. Modern patriarchal assumptions create strange bedfellows.
All too often, Barak becomes the red-faced poster-child of cowardice, the icon of diminished manhood, a casualty of patriarchal standards of what it means to be a man. The entire narrative becomes a potent opportunity for chastising men for failing to man up.
As we might expect, the criticism doesn’t stop with Barak, but extends to Deborah and Jael, despite their being hailed as the obvious heroes of the story. Deborah is demeaned as nothing more than “punishment” for fainthearted men. She is an exception to patriarchal norms and so her leadership doesn’t carry any lasting significance. Once I even heard Deborah criticized for singing too much about herself, although I’ve never heard anyone lodge that same criticism at King David. Consistency is not always a virtue in the gender debates.
Jael, in turn, is disparaged as “treacherous” and “subversive to her husband,” and is even lampooned for violating ancient customs of hospitality. Some speculate that she sexually enticed Sisera into her tent. Her actions are interpreted as “deviant” for undermining the proper role of a wife. In other words, Jael was unsubmissive to her husband.
The Holy Triumvirate of Two Women and a Man
Something is terribly out of whack here. The biblical narrative contains not the slightest whisper of criticism for any of the three leading characters. Not a murmur! Not here or anywhere else in Scripture. To the contrary, this triumvirate of two women and a man are honored and praised to the heights. Critics, it seems, have gotten caught up in the contemporary gender debate and lost sight of the Bible in the process. (pgs. 97–101)
By Carolyn Custis James
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