The relationship between the Deborah story and the modern controversy on women in leadership is a tricky one. There is much profit to be made on both sides of the fence from citing Deborah as an example of a "female leader of Israel" by the left-wing, and a "prophetess who deferred real leadership to a man" by the right-wing. However, the best approach to studying any narrative passage in the Bible is to go through the literary and historical processes before drawing theological conclusions. What did it mean to the original audience? If the Deborah story is a product of the so-called "Deuteronomist school" in Josiah's day and context, then we can summarize the author's intent of the Deborah story as the following: "Because of Israel's declining morality and faith, there were no men who were willing to deliver Israel from their enemies. Despite this, the LORD was able to use two women to accomplish His goal of delivering Israel. Unfortunately, Jael's actions and Deborah's symbolism, while achieving a righteous end, foreshadow Israel's national future of paganism and prostitution." To arrive at this conclusion, consider that any interpretation of the Deborah story has to take into account the following: (a) the large theme of exile and restoration from Deut-Kings (+ Jeremiah), (b) the smaller theme of increasing defectiveness of the Judges themselves as the cycles progress from Othniel (Judah) northward to Samson (Dan), (especially once we cross into the northern kingdom with Deborah) and (c) the treatment of women in the OT as a whole, which is almost always framed with double-entendres and sexual connotations. So here are the points that define the interpretation of the Deborah story: 1) The author and audience of Judges viewed Deborah's female gender as her "defect". (and Jael's also) Being a woman is apparently worse than being left-handed (Ehud) while not as bad as being doubly unfaithful (Gideon). (Based on her placement between the two, and based on the larger treatment of women, it is an unavoidable conclusion that is not easily accepted from the left-wingers who would reject it out of disgust or the right-wingers who would view such an assertion as inappropriate for "inspired scripture".) 2) In the context of "womanhood as a defect", the author describes Deborah unwittingly leading Israel "like a woman" - on a high hill, under a green (palm) tree, offering the direct council of the diety. (All of which were characteristic symbols of the Asherah fertility cult.) Now while Deborah is clearly stated to be a prophetess of YHWH and not one of Asherah, the author has taken care to make her look dangerously close to the fertility goddess on the high hill under her Tree of Life, and presumably that is what makes her council so attractive to the "sons of Israel", and foreshadows their eventual attraction to the real cult leaders (Deut 12:2, Jer 3:6). The same kind of ambiguous sexual imagery is present in the Rahab story, where the two spies "spend the night" in her brothel, even though the reader knows that nothing sinful happened, the point being that whether Israel realizes it or not, the inclination of their subconscious actions leads them ever closer towards corruption and idolatry. 3) In the same way that Deborah "leads like a woman", Jael "wages war like a woman". That is, not with swords and chariots, but by inviting the enemy into her "tent", satisfying him with her "bowls of milk", covering him with a "rug", and then killing him as he lays "between her feet". In summary, despite their "gender defect", these women were able to accomplish God's goal in the short-term, but their actions and symbols foreshadowed the seeds of a longer-term debauchery that would result in the eventual exile of Israel. So does any of this translate over to the modern debate over women leaders? Yes, and it has the effect of subverting both sides of the spectrum. 1) The liberals are right in asserting that Deborah and Jael were examples of women leaders who were the deliverers of God's people. However, in their zeal for "egalitarian progress" in the area of church leadership, they often trivialize or overlook the negative effects that sexuality itself can have on a woman's ability to lead men over the long term. 2) The conservatives are right in asserting that there are some tasks (like fighting battles) for which women are not cut out. However, they are wrong in concluding from this that God has never called and will never call a woman to leadership positions as a matter of "Biblical principle". So in summary, the message I glean from this story by itself is that women leaders will be ineffective in contexts where their sexuality itself proves to be a distraction. But when combining that point with the fact that there is "no male or female in Christ", then given the renewed heart that comes through faith in Jesus by his people, there does exist areas where the weaknesses of the flesh can be held in check (under the power of the Spirit), and where women certain can and should be called to leadership roles (including what we Baptists would call "senior pastors"). Comments?