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Commentary Theology

Women Who Flipped the Patriarchal Script

Since finishing my posts on Genesis, I’ve received a few questions about Paul’s use of Genesis in 1 Timothy 2. In my post on Genesis 2, I said we can’t project back onto Genesis how Paul uses Genesis for struggling churches. 

WHAT?!

But Paul!

I know some may worry that I’m saying Paul was mistaken. (I’m not.) I’d love to jump there right now. But I already had this post written. And we’re only a few posts away from 1 Timothy, so please hang with me.

Today, let’s look at some amazing women in the Old Testament who completely break out of the patriarchal norm. William Webb coined the term “breakout” to describe when a biblical author cuts against the cultural grain and does what the original reader wouldn’t expect.[1]

These passages on women flip the patriarchal script on its head. And they prepare us for Jesus who will obliterate all social divisions, including gender. 

I’ll discuss three Old Testament breakouts: The Women in Judges, The Prophet Huldah, and Queen Esther. (See note 2 below for other OT breakout examples.)[2]

The Women in Judges

The book of Judges gives us glimpses of Israel’s leaders before the monarchy. Wickedness, corruption, and cowardice defined this era. Some men are bold and faithful. But what would have stood out to the original audience are the several exceptional women God works through. 

The first, and most obvious, is Deborah (see Judges 4-5). Deborah was a prophet and someone who “was judging” Israel (4:4, ESV). This word for “judging” can also mean “to rule or govern.” In her role, she “held court” or “sat” (i.e. “presided”) as judge (4:5) and authoritatively spoke for God (4:6-7). As a military leader, she gathered up Israel’s troops to defeat the enemy (5:6-8).

In a male-dominated world, this is quite an accomplished woman.

Many complementarians try to downplay Deborah’s role and what it means for us today. Some argue that it was shameful for a woman to lead and Deborah only stepped up because a man did not. The text never says this or implies it.

God flips the script on the gender narrative: Deborah and Jael serve not in spite of their gender, but because of it.

In Deborah’s song (chapter 5), we actually see that Sisera was defeated “in the days of Shamgar son of Anath,” who preceded Deborah as a judge (see 3:31). It seems Shamgar and Deborah had overlapping tenures (notice the flow from 3:31-4:4 without the headings). 

If God wanted to use a man as leader and/or prophet, Shamgar was available. But God did not. He chose Deborah. Consider, too, that Deborah is married (4:4). God could have called her husband to lead. But he did not do that either. 

Deborah gave Barak, a military leader, the opportunity to deliver Israel from the hands of Sisera, the Canaanite general. Barak’s resistance to go alone led to Deborah prophesying that his honor would be taken from him and given to a woman (4:9). This mocking of the lack of male military leadership in Israel isn’t directed at all men in general, but at Barak in particular.[3]

Who gets Barak’s honor? Deborah is likely in view, as shown in her song in chapter 5. Jael, the “most blessed of tent-dwelling women” (5:24), is probably also included. When Sisera sought out Jael’s tent for a hiding place during battle, she put him to sleep with warm milk and then drove a tent peg through his temple (see 4:18-22). 

This story reveals that God demonstrates his power by using the weak to shame and overcome the strong. God flips the script on the gender narrative: Deborah and Jael serve not in spite of their gender, but because of it.

Some complementarians try to get around this breakout by claiming that being a prophet and a pastor are at odds. Here’s an example:

It’s not true to say that because Deborah was a prophet and prophets are leaders, therefore women can be any type of leader including the preaching pastor of a church. The difference between a prophet and the preaching pastor of a church may well be as profound as the difference between a cat and a dog. Therefore the argument simply isn’t relevant or compelling.

What we know about prophets from the Old Testament seems to indicate that they operated outside the formal boundaries of the covenant leadership structure. In fact, the real value of the prophet in the Old Testament is their ability to speak truth to power. The prophet is regularly sent by God to rebuke those in formal office.[4]

Let’s set aside the obvious differences between Old Testament prophets and pastors. The problem with this view is that, in Judges, Deborah, while a prophet, does serve within the covenant leadership structure. She is the person holding formal office—as formal as possible in this era before Israel’s monarchy. She not only speaks for God as a prophet but she rules on God’s behalf as his judge.

Other complementarians imply that Deborah isn’t a precursor to women church leaders because Old Testament prophecy and New Testament gifts of preaching and teaching are not the same. Denny Burk says that teaching is “always authoritative because it instructs people what they are to believe and to do” but that prophecy is spontaneous and not instructive.[5]

But Sam Storms, a complementarian, describes the role of prophets this way: “Their primary role was to make known the holiness of God and the covenant obligations; to denounce injustice, idolatry, and empty ritualism; and to call God’s covenant people, Israel, to repentance and faithfulness.”[6]

Doesn’t this sound like what we’d want one of our pastors to do today? 

Finally, it’s noteworthy that we’re never told what Deborah did was wrong or wicked in the eyes of the Lord. In a time when everyone did what was right in their own eyes (see 21:25), Deborah worshiped the Lord and did what was right in his eyes.

There’s one more woman in Judges whom God uses to upend patriarchal norms. Samson’s mother in Judges 13. In this text, we see that the Lord appears to her, not her husband (Manoah) to announce the birth of her son. The woman believes the Lord’s message but the man questions it.

When the man asks the Lord to appear to him (likely for confirmation) the Lord chooses to appear to the woman a second time. After the Lord appeared to them both, Manoah is afraid and believes the Lord will kill them. It’s his wife who reassures him and says if the Lord wanted to do that, he would have already (see v 23).

God prioritizes coming to a woman, not a man. It is a woman, not a man, who has resolute faith in what God is doing. This is another subversive text showing women are valued, worthy, reliable, and have a primary role in God’s plan. God again incrementally moves the story of humanity a tad bit closer back to the ideal ethic he began in the Garden.

The Prophet Huldah

Huldah is a female prophet and her story is in 2 Kings 22:14-20 (cf. 2 Chron 34). She prophesied during the reign of Josiah (c. 640-608 BC). In Josiah’s eighteenth year as king, during the temple restoration project, Hilkiah the priest found the book of the Law (probably Deuteronomy). Josiah commanded Hilkiah to “go, seek an oracle from the Lord for me and the people—for all Judah” (2 Kings 22:13).

Hilkiah went with four other men and found Huldah, a woman (v 14). She spoke God’s word to them about the coming disaster of invasion and exile. But she told Josiah that he will die in peace because of his repentant heart (vv 15-20).

Here’s the thing. Zephaniah and Jeremiah were both well-known male prophets during this time (see Jer 1:2; Zeph 1:1). Why didn’t Hilkiah go to them?

Why didn’t Huldah seek male confirmation from Jeremiah or Zephaniah, or even her husband (see 2 Kings 22:14) before she prophesied?

The text doesn’t say.

Huldah’s prophetic voice is legitimate as it stands, regardless of gender. With confidence and courage, she speaks the authoritative word of God to Hilkiah, King Josiah, and all of Judah (see 22:13).

These women didn’t serve with asterisks next to their names.

These men did not reject her because of her gender. This shows God again defying and uprooting the patriarchal norm.

Queen Esther

During Israel’s exile, Haman, an advisor to the Persian king, plotted to kill all the Jews. God raised up Esther, a Jew, to become queen of Persia and save Israel from genocide. Without Esther’s intervention, God’s people would have been exterminated. God’s saving plan to redeem the world through Abraham’s line, leading to Jesus, would have ended.

Though Esther didn’t hold a formal religious position, her leadership is exceptional in a world where women were not valued as leaders (and the previous queen was deposed for disobedience!). That God would raise up a woman to save his people—and enshrine it in his holy Scriptures—is completely counter-cultural.

It flips the values of the world upside down.

Summing It Up

God used these prominent women to serve and lead his people in the Old Testament because they were women. They didn’t serve with asterisks next to their names. And they weren’t mere exceptions to the patriarchal rule. Instead, these women led Israel to imagine a better future for God’s people where equality and mutuality are embraced and treasured.

Now, let’s move on to the New Testament. We’ll start where everything starts—and finishes.

Jesus. 


Notes

[1] William Webb, Slaves, Women, Homosexuals (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001), 91-102.

[2] Some other “breakouts” to explore: 

  • Moses’ sister Miriam (Ex 15:20; Mic 6:4) and Isaiah’s wife (Is 8:3) are both identified as prophets. Micah 6:4 even identifies Miriam as one of the leaders of Israel.
  • Women served at the entrance to the tent of meeting and tabernacle (Ex 38:8; 1 Sam 2:22). The Hebrew word “serve” in these verses means “to fight/wage word” perhaps implying “to guard.” While women were not priests, this showed they played an important role in keeping watch over Israel’s sacred space.
  • Ruth’s courage, strength, initiative, and persistence to find a husband allows the family tree that would lead to David, and then Jesus, remain unbroken.

[3] Webb, Slaves, Women, Homosexuals, 96.

[4] Paul Carter, “What Deborah Does and Doesn’t Say About Women in the Church,” TGC Canada Blog, 7/22/2017.

[5] Denny Burk, “The big mistake egalitarians make when they interpret Paul,” Southern Equip, 7/2/2019. 

[6] Sam Storms, “What Does Scripture Teach About the Office of Prophet and Gift of Prophecy?” TGC Blog, 10/8/2015.

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Theology

Remember: Just Because They are in the Bible Doesn’t Mean We Should be Like Them

The judges are a great sign of God’s grace.  But they are not an adequate solution to the problems of Israel.  They are a fairly motley crowd who are certainly not models of godly living.  Jephthah kills his own daughter, and Samson is a womanizing thug.  We miss the point if we try to turn them into great heroes for the Sunday-school class to emulate.  While praising God for the deliverance he achieved through them, we should be longing for a better leader, who will bring about a lasting solution to the problem of Israel’s sin; we should be longing for a king. 

– Vaughn Roberts, God’s Big Picture, p. 80