Summary: The story of Deborah is often used to encourage women to seek leadership and teaching roles in the church.
There are many wonderful, godly women in the Bible. Deborah, whose name means 'honey bee,' served as a Judge during a very dark time in Israel. She is an example of positive female influence as a "mother of Israel" who encouraged people to follow the Lord (Judges 5:7). Deborah is an example for every woman to follow. She clearly understood God's voice and used her relational influence to encourage men to lead and to give themselves willingly on behalf of others (Judges 5:2,7,18).
The primary rulers and commanders of Israel and their armies were Judges for almost 350 years that included some of Israel's worst times because there was an absence of male leadership. The lesson learned from the book of Judges is that it is a record of what not to do or follow.
"In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes." (Judges 17:6 ESV, also 18:1, 19:1, 21:25)
Deborah's serving as a Judge was actually a rebuke to Israel for the absence of male leadership. That is made clear by the Prophet Isaiah during another dark period in Israel's history, when he asserted that women ruling was a sign of God's judgment:
"My people-infants are their oppressors, and women rule over them. O my people, your guides mislead you and they have swallowed up the course of your paths." (Isa 3:12 ESV)
Deborah was "a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth" who was "judging Israel at that time" (Judges 4:4). She "would sit under the palm tree" and not in a public court, "And the children of Israel came up to her" privately "for judgment" (Judges 4:5). Others female prophets include Miriam (Ex 15:20), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), Anna (Luke 2:36), and the four daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9).
Deborah did not publicly teach how the laws of God were to be applied and carried out for the people of Israel (Judges 4:5). Just as Huldah and other prophetesses, she is another example of a woman limited to private and individual instruction, unlike other Prophets (Judges 4:5; 2 Kings 22:14-20).
Deborah received a prophetic word from God for Barak and encouraged him to lead and summon the army because God had called him to command them and claim victory over Sisera. Unfortunately, Barak rejected God's call and said to Deborah, "If you will go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go" (Judges 4:8 ESV).
Deborah reprimanded Barak for failing to lead and prophesied, "I will surely go with you; nevertheless there will be no glory for you in the journey you are taking, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman" (Judges 4:9 ESV).
The Bible presents Deborah's story as a criticism of Barak's failure to heed God's call to lead. She told Barak that God desired him to lead Israel and rebuked him when he would not take charge (Judges 4:6-9). Deborah did not take control when Barak refused to lead. Instead, she submitted to God directing Barak's steps to victory.
"…Has not the LORD, the God of Israel, commanded you, 'Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking 10,000 from the people of Naphtali and the people of Zebulun'" (Judges 4:6b ESV)
Deborah prophesied that Sisera, who was a threat to Barak, would be killed by a woman.
"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.'" (Judges 4:9 ESV)
The wife of a Kenite man, Jael, met Sisera and invited him into her tent, where she killed him with a tent peg and fulfilled the prophecy (Judges 4:21).
The story of Deborah demonstrates that God uses people without being bound by how they are ranked by human culture. Before Deborah's account, the story of Ehud, the left-handed deliverer, is told (Judges 3:12-30). In Eastern culture, the right hand was associated with strength, authority, and wisdom. The left hand was associated with weakness, foolishness, and waywardness (see Gen 48:12-20; Ex 15:6, 12; Isa 48:13; Ps 110:1; Eccl 10:2; Matt 25:33, 41). The story of Gideon follows after Deborah. He was the youngest member of the weakest clan (Judges 6:15). These stories reveal that God is not partial when He uses someone for His purposes.
Deborah's acting as a Judge was not the same as the other major Judges of the time (Judges 4:4). Her name is not found in lists that include Barak (See 1 Sam 12:9-11; Heb 11:32). Her story reveals that gender is essential and is an example of why the Bible gives specific roles and commands to men and women.
Shamgar distinguishes himself from Barak through his courage and defense of the nation. The Bible descriptively states that God raised up some judges for the nation, but it does not say every judge was raised by Him (Judges 2:16-18). It also does not say that God appointed Shamgar or Deborah, even though others clearly were. In the days of Shamgar, "the highways were abandoned, and travelers kept to the byways" and "villagers ceased" (Judges 5:6 ESV). When Deborah arose as a mother in Israel, it became a time of poverty rather than prosperity (Judges 5:7). The people suffered under both Shamgar and Deborah.