Apparently in some of the back streets of the internet, there’s a fight about whether movies should star “strong female characters.” The whole question makes me nearly sprain something rolling my eyes, so I don’t actually know much about it.
I did read a post on the subject, though. The author, a woman, wrote it in response to a man who objected to “strong females” in stories. He claimed that they usurped a man’s rightful, God-given place as the protector of the weak.
Among other points in her post, the author of the rebuttal mentioned the Biblical example of Deborah. And I thought, “You think you won a point. But you really lost it.”
The thing about Christian patriarchalists is that they know their Bible. They know it like Westley and Inigo knew their fencing forms. It’s kind of like a game, sparring with them. First they lay down the rules—you must argue from the Bible. Nothing else is authoritative. Then they show up with all their Bible knowledge and interpretation and demolish you. They know what you’ll say, and they’ve developed a reflexive response for it. Maybe, if you’re really good at holding your own, they might acknowledge—as Westley did to Inigo—that you’re an artist of stained glass window caliber.
But how is bringing up Deborah in a debate about female leadership an automatic loss?
Yes, we’re talking about the same Deborah, the Old Testament judge, whose story is found in Judges 4-5. She lived during the time before Israel had kings. The people listened to her for God’s words and judgements, especially during this time when a nearby king oppressed them.
Deborah sent for Barak, obviously a warrior of renown. She informed him that God wanted him to gather troops and go against the enemy general, Sisera, in battle. Barak kind of blanched at the thought and said, “I’ll go if you go with me.”
“Fine, I’ll go,” Deborah said. “But just so you know—you’re not going to get any glory from this. Sisera will die by a woman.”
So they went up together and Barak mustered his troops. They met Sisera in battle; it didn’t go well for Sisera. God routed his army, and he himself escaped on foot. He found the tent of an ally, whose wife—Jael—invited him in to rest.
(Jael is the stuff of nightmares to patriarchal men. She pretended to be friendly, waited till Sisera collapsed from exhaustion, and then drove a tent peg through his head.)
Israel won a definitive victory, and the entire next chapter is “the Song of Deborah and Barak.”
If you read the account straight through, you might not see where Deborah went wrong. That’s because you’re probably forgetting the most important principle for interpreting a Bible story about a woman: authority.
Who was in authority? It’s hard to get around the fact that it’s Deborah. She was even married but still looked to as the judge. But women aren’t ever supposed to be in authority over men, therefore Deborah’s judgeship was somehow not God’s best. Even though God doesn’t seem to have realized that.
The teachers I sat under pointed to the fact that Barak was so reluctant. If this warrior was too uncertain to go into battle without Deborah, what did that say about the men of the time? Exactly. They were all weak. That’s why there was a woman in charge—because there weren’t any good men to step up and do it.
So the story isn’t about Deborah’s strength, but Barak’s weakness. It’s not Deborah’s honor, but Barak’s shame. It’s not about a woman, it’s about a man.
And there’s obviously an element of that, since it’s such a point that the victory went to “a woman.” But without the Authority filter over it, the story in general kind of shrugs at the fact that Deborah’s in charge. The point is not woman or man, but God.
But if you find yourself locked in combat with a patriachalist over female empowerment, and the twisty logic, leaps to conclusions, and sheer vigor of his arguments have forced you to the wall—don’t bring up Deborah. He’s already got her properly boxed up and out of the way. All you will do is reinforce his point (to himself) that a strong woman is merely compensating for a weak man. A woman who is trying to be “strong” is therefore trying to “weaken” a man.
It’s right there in the Bible. Remember Deborah?