Tuesday, December 29, 2009
In Old Testament Israelite society men and not women, were generally the leaders. Men were the ones who controlled the political and religious decisions and who ruled the land. However there are some exceptions to this general state of affairs. Whilst we could pick out examples of poor leadership by women in the Old Testament (Jezebel springs to mind), there are also inspiring stories of God using women to lead his people in the face of adversity.
Deborah was one such woman. A prophetess, a Judge and a military leader – an extremely powerful combination of authority and responsibility. She was chosen by God to be Israel’s leader at the time of the Judges. Moses and Samuel were the only other Old Testament characters to fulfil all of these roles.
"Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites came to her to have their disputes decided.” Judges 4:4-5
There is no doubt that Deborah was acting within the will of God. Her prophesies were fulfilled and the writer of the book of Judges is entirely positive in his description of her. Deborah was also known as the Mother of Israel because of her successful leadership - a title which was as close to ‘Patriarch’ as a woman could get in such a male dominated society. She is impressive enough when assessed regardless of her gender, but when one considers the restrictions that culture and the society of the day put on her, her achievements can be regarded as truly groundbreaking. It would appear then, that in Deborah’s case God was very much in favour of women in authority.
Huldah the prophetess was another woman used by God in a key authoritative role.
“Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam, Acbor, Shaphan and Asaiah went to speak to the prophetess Huldah, who was the wife of Shallum son of Tikvah, the son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe. She lived in Jerusalem, in the Second District. She said to them, "This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: Tell the man who sent you to me...” So they took her answer back to the king.” 2 Kings 22
In this extract we read that Huldah was consulted by Hilkiah and the Kings advisors on his behalf. Hilkiah was also a priest. Huldah's words were taken back to the King as authoritative and from God himself, so much so that they were immediately acted upon. It is clear then that in this instance a woman definitely had authority and was treated with respect by the leaders of the day.
Deborah and Huldah are both portrayed in the biblical accounts as explaining and proclaiming the word of the Lord to important men in an authoritative way. As authority and teaching are two of the reasons that Conservative Evangelicals often oppose women’s ordination these texts must be grappled with by those who contest it. It is not enough to find texts which appear on a first reading to be against women having authority in the church and using these to argue an opposing view. Unfortunately this is exactly what so often happens, despite there being clear texts in the Bible which describe and support women having authority over men and proclaiming the word of God to them.
Countering what I would describe as a 'plain reading' of the Deborah and Huldah accounts; some Conservative Evangelicals like Thomas Schreiner (writing for the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood), draw attention to the context of both Deborah and Huldah. (Interestingly 'context' suddenly becomes much more relevant and less is said about taking scripture at face value on this occasion)...Schreiner sees their roles as complementary and supportive ministries. Further to this he argues that this ministry fostered and preserved male leadership.
“Deborah is a special case because she seems to be the only judge in Judges who has no military function... Deborah is not asserting leadership for herself; she gives priority to a man...Deborah did speak the word of God, but her attitude and demeanour were such that she was not asserting her leadership. Instead, she handed over the leadership, contrary to the pattern of all the other judges, to a man.” (Schreiner, 1997)
It is sometimes claimed that both women lived at times when Israel was short of men who were willing to step up to the mark and lead. Barak’s reluctance to go into battle without Deborah is seen by some to be an example of this. Deborah attempts to back away from the military responsibility which should have been Barak’s, but is forced by his reluctance to take on a more prominent role. This argument claims that if a man will not respond to God’s call, then God will use a woman, but only as a ‘second choice’. His ‘best’ is the leadership of a man. Indeed Schreiner differentiates between Deborah and other prophets by pointing out that she isn’t explicitly described as being raised up by God:
“But in the case of Deborah, there is no explicit statement that the Lord raised her up...I am not suggesting that the Lord did not raise her up, for He did bring evident blessing to Israel through her, but it may indicate that the nature of her role as a prophet and a judge was different from that of the other judges in that she did not exercise leadership over men as the other judges did.” (Schreiner, 1997)
The problem I have with Schreiner's argument is that nowhere in the bible is it suggested that Deborah or Huldah are anything other than God’s chosen prophets who both clearly wielded considerable authority over important men. Huldah advised the advisors of the King – a badge of authority indeed! How anyone can see Deborah as anything other than a leader I cannot tell! Both women’s evident blessing and proclamation of God’s truth are the only indications of their divinely inspired leadership and God given authority that we should need.
I have to conclude then, that if God chose two women to have authority in the Old testament, then why not today? To deny Deborah and Huldah's God given prophetic/leadership status is to twist the Biblical accounts, making them fit a predetermined theology of male only leadership. But these passages demand that we have to take biblical approval of women's leadership seriously and then ask candidly; what does this mean for God's church today?