“Wake up, Deborah, wake up!
Wake up, wake up, and sing a song!
Arise, Barak!
Lead your captives away, son of Abinoam!”
Judges 5:12

The period covered by the book of Judges sees the people of Israel living in uneasy cohabitation with their Pagan neighbours. Years later, in Babylon, they would name this experience ‘Exile’, and would contrast it with the joy and ease of living behind Jerusalem’s safe walls, in the shadow of their own God’s temple. In the time of the Judges this is a vocabulary they have not yet learned: all they know is that they are in an alien land, always under pressure and often under direct attack. Their wistful discomfort is captured in the repeated lament ‘In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes’. They sense dark chaos around them, and wonder if it has perhaps seeped into them. They are an uncannily resonant picture of the churches of the Western world in the twenty-first Century! Like us, they waver in their faith. Like us, they sense a deep loss of confidence. Where is the God of the Exodus spectacle when you are negotiating living-space with your unruly and difficult neighbours?

There is a key character in this book without whose story the picture is far from complete: Deborah, a woman in a world of men. Deborah may be the greatest and best of the Judges, offering us life lessons for our own time – particularly in the confidence with which we relate to our post-Christian, newly pagan culture. Four aspects jump out of Deborah’s story to profile leadership and mission in challenging times.

Firstly, Deborah leads against the stereotypes of her day. She has wisdom and authority; she shows courage and self-confidence; she is unafraid to make decisions on behalf of the nation. All these are traits more often associated, in her day, with men. Men hunt, women wait at home. Men fight, women stand on the sidelines, or are carried off as helpless victims. Men lead, women follow. Deborah bucks every one of these trends, and has God’s backing for it. She leads out of who she is – who God has made her – not out of the expectations of others. She is the ultimate paradigm-busting leader, and a brilliant model for those of us leading in a time when all our paradigms are failing. Can you see, in Deborah, the call to lead beyond – and against – your stereotypes?

Secondly, Deborah is before all else a prophet. She hears God’s word for her generation and speaks it out with confidence. When we first meet her, she is applying the wisdom of God to the disputes and difficulties arising among the people.

At the appropriate time, she delivers a direct message from God to Barak. In a time of change; of newness; of significant challenge, her actions are shaped by the word she believes God to be speaking. Sometimes there are not enough clues in our environment to tell us what to do. No amount of analysis will reveal a way forward. We need something more: a word that speaks from elsewhere, unlocking our situation. Deborah demonstrates that times of transition and turmoil cry out for people who will listen for the newness of God’s word.

Thirdly, Deborah is not afraid of teamwork. She partners with Barak, and in the songs sung about them, their names are all but interchangeable. This is a cross-gender partnership at a time when leadership is very definitely seen as a male domain. Barak is not afraid to admit to his need of Deborah, but neither is Deborah afraid to acknowledge that it is through Barak that the victory will be achieved. They need each other, and model what it means to work in mutual respect and dependence. How remarkable to find such a lesson buried in a text that is thousands of years old – knowing how hard we find it still to learn this lesson. Are you ready to partner with those whose backgrounds and skills are different to your own? Are you able to admit your need of them?

Lastly, Deborah responds to the evident needs of God’s people in a particular time and place. The stories of the Judges are all stories of individuals taking a stand – choosing to rise up rather than lie down. The memorable chorus of the ‘Song of Deborah’ captures this for al time – ‘Wake up!’

Deborah is willing to step into the vacuum she sees in her culture. She engages. When others are saying, “It’s too complex, we don’t know what to do,” or “It’s too frightening, we don’t want to do it,” or “It’s too difficult, there’s nothing we can do,” Deborah says, “Well someone needs to do something!” She takes action. She moves forward. In an era in which the people perish for lack of vision, she sees the future and moves towards it. Her actions stand in stark judgement of those who do nothing.

Deborah is the model for those who are willing to make a stand for the purposes of God in their generation: those who see what is happening around them and choose to engage, hearing God’s word and implementing it: being imprisoned neither by the expectations of their culture nor by the stereotypes held within their faith community. What does this mean for us in our own age? It flows in two directions. In terms of those we work closely with, who perhaps already share our belief system, it will affect our leadership. In terms of those we interact with more widely, most of whom do not believe as we believe, it will affect our understanding of mission and evangelism. Both these dimensions can be shaped by Deborah’s example, which calls you to:

  1. Be who you are, not who the culture tells you to be. Is your church, and your culture, bogged down in stereotypes that limit who can act and who can speak? Break them. Lead against the stereotypes. Surprise friends and strangers with the wonders of what God can do through you.
  2. Seek God for yourself, and learn to act on what he says to you. Be one of those rare people who has access to information others don’t have; who is inspired by a source deeper than the everyday; who sees beyond the visible and obvious.
  3. Build partnerships of inter-dependance, especially with those who are different from you, whose skills and attitudes complement your own. Instead of highlighting differences, seek common goals and work together. Learn to celebrate complementarity in gender; in talent; in character.
  4. Lastly, don’t sit back, overwhelmed by complexity, when God is calling you to stand. Find the threads of the Kingdom in the culture that surrounds you and follow where they lead. Have the courage in the face of both opposition and indifference, to live a life that counts for something.

The late Brennan Manning suggests, “What the world longs for from the Christian faith is the witness of men and women daring enough to be different, humble enough to make mistakes, wild enough to be burnt in the fire of love, real enough to make others see how unreal they are.”

Are you ready to be part of a Deborah generation?