Barak’s Insubordination (Judges 4)

Lambert Lombard, Jaël (1530-35). Museum Grand Curtius, Liège, Belgium.

The story of Deborah and Barak usually gets read in a very un-feminist way, in spite of the fact that she’s the only named female judge of ancient Israel (Judges 4:1-24). Preachers portray Barak as being too timid: he’s afraid to go into battle against Sisera’s army (4:8). He says to Deborah, “I will go if you go,” and the implied message of these interpretations is that if he would “man up,” then he would get the glory of killing Sisera. Instead, because Barak needs a woman to hold his hand, God delivers Sisera into the hand of a nomad woman (4:21).

This interpretation is a sleight-of-hand. It takes a story with a female hero and turns it into an object lesson about the dangers of giving up masculine strength and authority.

Some interpreters read this story in a more generous and less sexist way. They see Deborah and Barak as sharing power (the song in chapter 5 does name both of them as leaders), but Barak’s failing is that he does not adequately trust God. I’m not convinced by this reading, because I don’t really see why gender becomes a relevant point of their discussion in this interpretation.

I’m even less convinced by one alternative reading mentioned in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, which says that Barak is “inviting Deborah to bless the military expedition.” Again, if that’s the case, why does it matter to Deborah who gets the glory, or whether they are male or female?

Instead, I approach this text with a question I’ve heard asked about other female leaders—how would Barak’s response be different if Deborah were a man? If a male prophet had told him to gather the troops and meet Sisera in the field, would he have hesitated? I think there is something other that distrust of God or benevolent invitation in Barak’s resistance. I think it’s a challenge: “Lady, it’s easy for you, to talk about going to war. But will you put your life on the line?”

Read from this direction, Barak’s failing is not cowardice, but sexism. He is insubordinate to Deborah in a way that he would not be to Gideon or David or Moses, because she is a woman.

From this reading, her response makes sense: “Fine, but the path you are following will not lead to your glory; God will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.”

Deborah is willing to put skin in the game, to take the field of battle with the fighting men. But even she doesn’t deliver the killing blow. That service is performed by Jael (4:21), someone with even less power and standing, using a woman’s homemaker tools. Barak loses the glory of victory because he doesn’t trust a woman to lead him.

How would churches be different if this were the standard approach in sermons?