Deborah and Barak

My Sunday school class is studying Deborah in Judges chapter 4. What is the Jewish wisdom concerning her relationship with Barak? Some say Barak was a coward and others say he respected her opinion as judge and connection to God as prophetess to lead them to victory.

I personally sensed he challenged her leadership skills and ability to actually “fight” a battle and not just declare one and send him off into it. What was the role of women in combat? I could not find an instance of women fighting battles.

Mary K.

Dear Mary,

Have you ever played the game “I Spy” with a young child? You might say, “I spy with my little eye something red that rhymes with boat,” and the child delightedly shouts out, “Coat – my red coat!” The game works because the child can picture the color red and can see his coat. Your words bring concrete images to his mind.

When we read the Bible at a young age, we do many art projects and see drawings in books that attempt to bring the Bible to life. Whether it is a picture of Adam and Eve in the Garden or the Israelites crossing the Red Sea on their way out of Egypt, we picture the events as if they were featured in a modern magazine or an online video. That is well and good for children, but too many of us don’t make the switch as adults to recognizing that this is not the role of the Bible. It is not a history book or a chronicle of events (even though the events did take place). It is a guidebook to running our own lives. Anything that is mentioned is there for our edification, while many historical events that took place are missing because they contain no guidance for us. Attempting to concretize the words of Scripture visually, takes us down the wrong path.

In the case you mention, ancient Jewish wisdom provides a variety of perspectives that, taken together and integrated, give us guidance for dealing with enemies, for the interaction of men and women, and for leadership, among other things. Trying to analyze Deborah and Barak as we might explore the psychology and connection between two historical or fictional characters is a mistake.

Israel was under terrible subjugation during that period of the book of Judges as a result of having departed from the Godly path. While Deborah’s greatness is uncontested, Barak’s is not. His lack of masculine leadership led to a vacuum that Deborah filled. While that worked in the short term, we see that after that era, subsequent judges were not as great as earlier ones had been. The nation is on a downward spiral, with occasional upticks.

That Bible chapter is not there to teach us whether women should be in combat. Ideally not, but in an emergency, you do what you have to do. The question for us is more a case of what consequences come from abandoning God, what years of oppression do to a culture, what the effect is on society when men and women’s roles are treated as interchangeable, and what happens to men when they cease being masculine. All these are subjects which we still need to understand millennia after Deborah and Barak.

Keep studying,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin


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