Leading with creativity and courage in challenging times – Learning from the example of Deborah (Judges 4 and 5)

Leading with creativity and courage in challenging times – Learning from the example of Deborah (Judges 4 and 5)

By Amanda Jackson, Executive Director of WEA’s Women’s Commission


 What are we meant to be making of this time? We want wisdom and we want to know what to do! But maybe we also need to wait, willing to adapt, ready to worship, so we can sense God’s direction. We could look at some big men in the Bible like David or Daniel who went through big challenges. But let’s look at one of the judges – Deborah.


Deborah was a remarkable leader – the only woman judge mentioned in the Book of Judges, she gets two chapters, see Chapters 4 and 5 (only Samson and Gideon get more space). She fulfilled her role faithfully. She was a judge in ungodly times – the people of God tended to have a roller coaster relationship with Yahweh – the highs of a few years followed by long times, when they pretty much did what they liked. In Judges 4 the nation is living under the oppression of the king of Canaan, who we are told had 900 iron chariots, and Deborah as the judge is there to remind the people of God’s ways: a daunting task. The ongoing pandemic, secularism of our age, or the manipulation of religion for political ends or the immorality we see in our nations may be like ‘iron chariots’. So what can we learn from Deborah’s strategies?



  1. Deborah carried out her role

    It says in verse 4 she carried out her role – “she held court” – under the palm of Deborah in the hill country. There is something wonderful about that picture of a leader out among the people, under a tree, not inside a building, listening, being there sharing in the daily life of people. She stayed focused on her role and was greatly respected because of that and maybe she stayed under the radar until God called her to the front of the stage.


    In small and big ways, we are called to stay faithful in various spheres. Deborah’s people were not a particularly faithful bunch but she was a beacon of justice and inspiration. The Israelites went to see Deborah to have their disputes resolved and problems sorted – about normal stuff like property, inheritance, family and marriage, libel, crimes. It reminds us of that verse in Jeremiah 29,7: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”


    Deborah was a truth teller

    But she also led her people like a shepherd, carrying them sometimes, feeding them, protecting them. All of the other judges led by doing amazing feats of super-hero stuff. Deborah is a mother to Israel. She calls herself that in her song in Chapter 5, verse 7. And when we remember the image that Jesus uses of a mother hen protecting her chicks (Luke 13,34) or when Moses says the Lord is an eagle teaching her chicks to fly (Deut 32,11)[1], we realise that our concept of leadership is sometimes limited to an unhelpful Alpha male perspective.


    God’s model is different, which is a comfort to most of us who are not marvel-heroic mega church pastors. Maybe mission is changing and community models are reviving – church under the palm tree. It’s what pastors do in every day that gives them the mandate to lead in times of challenge – maybe they are not legal judges but they try to show God’s ways: call out the hypocrisies; point the way to righteousness; protect the vulnerable; and celebrate the times of healing and overcoming.


    We must sometimes wonder why God lingers before taking action. Deborah must have prayed about those iron chariots and the oppression of her people but… staying faithful in her role was of vital importance to meet the coming crisis time. God has been preparing us for this time, so we are ready, we are not fearful and we can hear God’s voice despite the background static of the world. We may not feel 100% sure of that (!), but God wants us to call out, Here am I. In Judges, Deborah was faithful but it took her people 20 years to finally call out against oppression. Even the best of leaders cannot force the whole flock to be holy! We work with the willing and the ones who want to be willing.


    What holds people back tends to be fear

    In this story, fear is represented by the chariots of iron, 900 of them under the command of Sisera, down in the plains. This isn’t the first time in Judges that we have seen the danger on the plains of Israel. In Chapter 1 we read in verse 19 of how the Israelites “were unable to drive the people from the plains because they had chariots fitted with iron.” Joshua had clearly said that the Israelite army should completely destroy the enemy, otherwise it would put the people at risk of falling for false gods, compromising their values. And that inability to take all the ground has consequences generations later at the time of Deborah. God cannot act till his people are ready to turn from fear to hope in God. So let us be leaders who make way for future generations and don’t create blockages. And that’s really important now – do we want to get back to normal church life or is God calling us to something bravely new?


    We are about to see how crisis can bring new opportunity

    Judges 4 verse 3 tells us, that when the people had been cruelly oppressed for 20 years, they finally cried to the Lord for help. Deborah is already a prophet and judge, Now in a crisis, she is ready to offer a new level of leadership, fighting the Lord’s battle and encouraging and challenging her people to take up God’s vision.


    First of all, she knows she does not have to do everything herself and she knows who to call – Barak. She has listened to God: in verse 6 she is confident, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulon and lead them up to Mount Tabor. I will lead Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the River Kishon and give him into your hands.”’


    She carries a prophetic message and will encourage and cajole the people but she gives the fighting job to Barak. God has an army commander – it’s his job title – and he can call on 10 000 men from his tribes. Deborah is asking him to step into a new role as the commander for the whole nation. And note God’s humour, as Naphtali and Zebulon were not the biggest or best tribes, but God uses them mightily.


    We don’t have to be from the right pedigree, the best Bible colleague, the biggest church movement.


    Pastors/clergy feel a huge burden to be successful, to be active with programs, as well as having a model family life. We want our flock to be fully involved and we feel guilty when our programs are not as ‘successful’ as we might want. But if we went to Mindanao or Iraq or Sudan, we would see God giving men and women dreams that turn their lives upside down. They don’t know the ‘rules’ of church – they just chat about God to their friends and then they have a church and another. In Uzbekistan at the height of communist rule, one woman planted 80 churches by chatting the good news. Itinerant preachers in Burundi, Turkey and Indonesia have seen many lives changed.


    We can know that God will not just leave us in a mess


    When we are having to step into new responsibilities and deal with once in a life-time challenges, Deborah was ready to act and God assigned her Barak. If Barak does his part, God will do the rest and actually bring the victory. Let’s look in verse 6: This is his time. The outcome is not in doubt – God promises to deliver Sisera into Barak’s hands. Barak’s mistake is he let his nerves colour what he hears from God, and he says to Deborah: “If you go with me, I will go, but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.” (verse 8). Barak is not a bad guy and other Bible figures have had doubts – look at Gideon or Moses! But God has prepared Barak as a leader, he has 10 000 troops. That’s what makes Deborah say with gritted diplomacy, in verse 9: “Certainly I will go with you… But because of the course you are taking, the honour will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” She won’t give up on Barak or the other tribal leaders, she inspires them to take up their calling. We have an enormous responsibility, don’t we, as leaders, to show the way and to encourage others to get on and use their gifting boldly. To collaborate with God’s plans for Europe, whether they involve 10 000 or 10.


    The chapters in Judges are comforting about human foibles

    We will have some people around us who will need a push to rise to the challenge like Barak, and others who might not be willing at all, like some of the tribes who refuse to fight, but that should not make us give up because God can surprise us with Plan B. We will find a huge answer to prayer coming from left field, someone like Jael, just so we don’t forget God is the one in control.


    In verse 14, Deborah urges Barak: “Go! This is the day the Lord has given Sisera into your hands. Has not the Lord gone ahead of you?” It’s like a scene out of Lord of the Rings! Barak needed Deborah. Are there people you could be nurturing, training, pushing to step into something new?



    How not to be dismayed if not everyone rallies to God’s cause

    The song of Deborah in Judges 5 tells us that not all the tribes joined in the battle. She is pretty scathing about the four tribes that stayed safe beyond the Jordan or lingered on the coast (verse 16 and 17). We often quote that little phrase in Esther: “Who knows but you have come to this position for such a time as this.” (4,14). And we can see that principle here. Barak was the commander of two tribes but when Deborah sets out God’s battle plan to confront the tyranny of King Jaban and Sisera, he becomes a national commander in chief. Verse 14 tells us, “At Barak’s advance, the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and army.” This makes it clear that God acts after Barak begins the advance. Then the Lord routs the enemy, and then Barak and his men pursue and destroy the rest of Sisera’s troops.


    1. Rising to be God’s hero

    God chooses the qualified, but he also works with anyone who is willing and ready. Enter Jael, the woman who kills Sisera. Who is she? She is the wife of Heber the Kenite, people who have maintained peace with Israel’s enemy. They live away from other members of the tribe. There is a sense of compromise here. Has Heber run off to get away from danger and left his wife at the tent?


    Why should she care for God? We are not told about her faith, only her actions, but we can only assume she is prepared to act because God inspires her. She invites the commander, Sisera, into her tent – very risky behaviour for her, it would have meant death if they were discovered.


     But in Judges 4 verse 21 we are told: “Jael, Heber’s wife, picked up a tent peg and a hammer and went quietly to him while he lay fast asleep, exhausted. She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died.” What an amazing action. Pretty gruesome (although a lot worse things are described in the Old Testament). But it destroys the power of the enemy. It says in verse 23-24: On that day God subdued the king of Canaan… And the hand of the Israelites pressed harder and harder against Jabin king of Canaan until they destroyed him.” In a time of desperate pressure which was probably especially dangerous for women, Jael shows strategic bravery.


    1. Deborah’s leadership is the way she worships

    Chapter 5 is her amazing song proclaiming the enduring truth of God’s righteousness and justice. And the power that can change circumstances when leaders and the people willingly offer themselves to God’s cause. Leading must be based on worship of God.Deborah’s song reminds us:



    Responding to chariots of iron is a spiritual battle as well as a physical battle verse 20 says, “in the heavens the stars fought”. God actually routs the enemy forces. Not sure how much you seek out the prophetic, the angelic. There’s a lot of crazy stuff out there, but there is a battle in the heavenly places that Deborah is very aware of.


    Remember God’s actions with gratitude and tell future generations so that God is exalted for many generations.


    Value the contribution of all – the princes of Issachar, tribes that were only a remnant, Jael and Barak. God needs leaders like Deborah and everyday Christians giving everything. Three times she mentions the importance of ordinary villagers joining the fight. We need to value the whole body of Christ!


    Maintain integrity and cry out for justice. The song pictures Sisera’s wife and household waiting for Sisera to bring home the spoils of war, including female slaves as well as garments and jewels. She is complicit in her son’s evil and Deborah imagines the mother’s downfall. God sees wickedness, that is a comfort to us but also a warning. And her own contribution? This is a tricky one isn’t it? She is not afraid to say that she has been used by God. She says of herself, in verse 7: “I arose, a mother in Israel”. She is aware that she has all of God’s resources (wisdom, prophetic insight) and is humble enough to be able to receive them without growing arrogant.


    Deborah manages it by seeing herself as a mother. What does the term, “mother in Israel”, conjure for us? Caring, nurturing, wise, strong, pushing her children on – seeing potential, giving life.


    Our role is to point people to God. Deborah’s song finishes with, “May all who love you be like the sun when it rises in its strength.” In whatever challenging time we face, we can declare that hope.


    As a judge, Deborah


                – stayed focused

                – pastored

                – stood for truth.


    When crisis came, she


                – knew her calling

                – encouraged and raised up others

                – fought God’s battles in His strength.


    Proclaiming the victory, she

                – worshipped

                – proclaimed God’s righteousness and justice

                – was confident of her place in God’s story, but also the place of so many other faithful believers.



    Spurgeon, the great English preacher of the 19th century said this (and it may ring a little oddly in 21st century ears, but Barak and Deborah would certainly identify):


    “On the basis of our Saviour’s atoning sacrifice and in the strength of the Holy Spirit’s power, we charge you who love Jesus to fight bravely in this holy war, for truth and righteousness, for the kingdom and the crown. Onward! The battle is not yours but God’s, and you will yet hear Him say, ‘Well done, brave warrior, well done!’”


    [1] In different versions of Deuteronomy 32,11, the eagle is referred to as ‘it’ or ‘she’. Because it is an analogy about God, who is ‘He’ in verse 10 and 12, maybe translators are reluctant to see the eagle as ‘she’ even though the pronouns used in verse 11 are both feminine and masculine.

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