Female Leaders in the Old Testament

“For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke 14:11).

Female heroines in Israel

Christian feminists rightly show how God used some women in both Old and New Testaments, and I don’t begrudge praise to these worthies.  Many of them were unintentionally heroic as they sought to be faithful to God e.g. the Hebrew midwives who defied Pharaoh (Exod 1:15-22), Jael (Judges 4:18-22; 5:24-31) and Rahab the harlot (Josh 2:1-24; 6:17-25).  However, being heroic doesn’t make them leaders.  Scripture even praises them for their courage and faith, and it is because of their courage that we know of them today, their deeds having been recorded in scripture.  But they were not leaders.

Female prophets in Israel

In an article on “Prophet” in Smith’s Bible Dictionary it distinguishes between the gift of prophecy and the prophetic order.  Samuel established colleges of the prophets, similar to our theological colleges, for training in the Law.  It was from these colleges that the inspired prophets who wrote scripture came i.e. the four Major Prophets and some of the twelve Minor Prophets in our Old Testament.  The other prophets had the gift of prophecy, such as Amos and Huldah; they were not leaders of Israel but brought God’s messages to them; just as the prophet Agabus in Acts was not a leader in the church.  And female prophets in the bible are not the norm but exceptions to the rule.  God can and does sovereignly change his laws when and where he wishes, but that is his prerogative, not ours. 

There are five prophetesses named in the Old Testament – Miriam (Exod 15:20); Deborah (Judges 4:4); Huldah (2 Kings 22:14-20; 2 Chron 34:22-28); the wife of Isaiah the prophet (Isa 8:3); and Noadiah, a false prophetess (Neh 6:14).  There is also an unspecified number of false prophetesses mentioned in Ezek 13:17-23.

Because God knew that false prophets would arise and ravage the Church (Old and New Testaments) he gave guidance as to how the people can identify them (Deut 18:20-22; Acts 20-28-29); once identified the false prophet is not to be feared or heeded.

Female leaders in Israel

There are only four women who could be regarded as leaders in Israel in the Old Testament – Miriam, Deborah, Jezebel and Athaliah – five if you count Esther.  Two of these were pagans; Athaliah usurped power and leadership, and Jezebel married it; so half of the female leadership of Israel was evil.  Miriam was a failure as a leader; which leaves Deborah – and Esther, who was more an influencer or an advocate than a leader because of her position as Queen – the only ones who can be commended. 

Miriam

The first of these feminist candidates for female leadership to consider is Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron, and a prophetess.  She is praised by the Christian feminists but the only comment we have in scripture about her is a negative one (Deut 24:9); she was a bad example and was held up to be a warning to the people because of her sin (Num 12:1-16).  In fact, Miriam was the one punished by God with leprosy, while Aaron was left untouched.  Miriam, a woman, tried to grasp equality with Moses, the male leader of God’s people, and was punished and made a public example.

It is significant that Moses was called by God to lead Israel (Exod 3:10) and this leadership passed on to Joshua after Moses died (Num 27:15-23).  Aaron was Moses’ spokesman (Exod 4:14-16) and therefore subordinate to him; he was also the high priest.  Only men were permitted to offer sacrifices to the Lord, and only those men who were of Aaron’s line.  In Exodus chapter 18, when the burden of leadership was becoming too much for Moses, he chose able men out of all Israel to judge the people.  So one has to wonder what kind of leadership was left for Miriam to exercise.  The scriptures record that she ledthe women in a song of praise and thanks (Exod 15:21) but it was common for the women of Israel to sing on significant occasions e.g. when David returned from battle with the Philistines (1 Sam 18:5-9).  Leading women in song doth not a national leader make.

As a “leader”, Miriam had her chance to lead responsibly while Moses was up on the mountain receiving the Law; but what happened while he was away?  The people made a golden calf and worshipped it, running around naked and participating in sexual immorality as part of that worship (Exod 32:25 KJV).  Where was Miriam during all this?  Aaron led the people in their apostasy and making idols.  Why didn’t Miriam, as co-leader, stop him or at least challenge him?

So whatever kind of leadership Miriam possessed, she must still have been subordinate to Moses and Aaron.  And she proved to be a weak leader and a bad example. 

Deborah

Then there is Deborah.  And it’s at least interesting that she is only mentioned in Judges.  In an obscure reading in 1 Sam 12:11, when Samuel recalled the Lord’s deliverances of Israel, as he rebuked the people for wanting a king, he recalls Bedan, whom some scholars think is Barak due to different manuscript readings, and others e.g. Douay Rheims Bible, suggest it could mean Samson “because he was of Dan”; but none here mention Deborah as one of the saviours of the nation along with Jerubbaal (Gideon), Jephthah and Samson.  And in Hebrews chapter 11, in the “roll of heroes of faith” it is Barak who is mentioned, not Deborah (Heb 11:32). 

I’m not trying to undervalue Deborah, I admire her, but I must point out these facts because the feminists won’t.  Even though Deborah took credit for the victory over Sisera and the Canaanite army, no doubt because she was commander of the Israelite forces (Judges 4:13), and Jael became the subject of praise in song because she slew Sisera (Jud 5:24-31), it was Barak who led the Israelite army and did the actual fighting, slaughtering the Canaanite army to the last man (Jud 4:16); and it is Barak who gets the mention in Hebrews chapter 11.  In the feminists’ efforts to magnify Deborah they often undervalue Barak; the scripture doesn’t do this.  Obviously, Barak played a more significant role than the feminists give him credit for.

The account of Deborah is found in Judges chapters 4 and 5; she is the only female leader in scripture who is commended; and she had a powerful and very effective leadership.  And when compared to some of the other judges, such as Samson and Jephthah, she is worthy of every commendation.  She judged Israel and resolved controversies (Judges 4:5), spoke messages from God (Judges 4:4, 6-7), led Israel back to God (Judges 5:7), and, with Barak, led Israel’s army against the oppressor (Judges 4:9, 14; 5:12); Deborah was also a prophetess (Judges 4:4).

Why did God choose Deborah, a woman, to be a judge and prophet, to lead his people?  Why did he even give her the gift of prophecy?  Scripture doesn’t say, so any reason given must be speculation.  Just because a woman was chosen by God to be a leader and prophet doesn’t abrogate the law; it doesn’t give permission to any and all women to take it upon themselves to become leaders and prophets.  It simply means that in this case God chose a woman for his own undisclosed reasons.

Esther

Esther was a godly and brave young woman who was taken to be King Xerxes’ queen.  As queen of the Persian Empire she was queen of Israel, a part of the empire, by default.  However, Esther did not rule in her own right and was subject to two men – her cousin Mordecai who caused her to approach Xerxes uninvited, a risky thing to do; and her husband Xerxes, the most powerful man in the world of his time.  Her rule did not amount to much, even though Queen, and it was also precarious.  She risked her life when she approached Xerxes’ throne uninvited; and the events in Esther chapter 1 show that even the court advisors and princes could remove her if they wished.  Although she was Queen, she had a very limited sphere of authority; even her decrees were only made with the king’s authorisation and in the king’s name (Esther 8:8), so she was really just a well-to-do wife, and her power would have been limited to the harem.  And dare I point out that after having recounted all of Esther’s courageous faith, the final chapter of the book is dedicated to the greatness of the two male protagonists, Xerxes and Mordecai.  I can understand the frustrations of women as they read what appears to be another example of the unfair treatment of women; but this is the bible; and the bible was written by men chosen by God “as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pet 1:21).

But let’s take a closer look at Esther.  Catherine Kroeger, a Christian feminist, says Esther “…ran counter to her husband’s expressed wishes.  (She) engaged in both wifely and civil disobedience in order to preserve her ethnic group in her husband’s empire…The king was delighted with his wife’s prudence, asking what further he might do (9:11-12) and then vesting her with authority” (Kroeger, page 18).

This is another glaring example of distortion and misrepresentation of the situation and/or the text.  The bible shows that she did not go against her husband’s express wishes.  Yes, she approached the king without being invited to do so, which was against the law (Esther 4:11); but there was a legal loophole which she took advantage of, even though it was at the risk of her life.  But she first spent three days in fasting and prayer: “Now it came to pass on the third day, that Esther put on her royal apparel, and stood in the inner court of the king’s house..…when the king saw Esther the queen standing in the court, that she obtained favour in his sight: and the king held out to Esther the golden sceptre that was in his hand.  So Esther drew near, and touched the top of the sceptre” (Esther 5:1-2). 

So even though Esther approached the king, she went in humility and submission, waiting for his invitation to come.  Xerxes clearly did not see this as “wifely or civil disobedience”.  Chapter 1 of Esther shows the result of such wifely disobedience.  The previous queen, Vashti, refused to come to the king at his command: “therefore was the king very wroth, and his anger burned in him” (1:12).  Compare this with 5:2 above.  The king and his advisors saw that Vashti’s disobedience was a threat to the whole family structure, because if she was not punished, her example would spread throughout the kingdom, “For this deed of the queen shall come abroad unto all women, so that they shall despise their husbands in their eyes, when it shall be reported, The king Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the queen to be brought in before him, but she came not.  Likewise shall the ladies of Persia and Media say this day unto all the king’s princes, which have heard of the deed of the queen.  Thus shall there arise too much contempt and wrath” (1:17-18).  Clearly, Esther was not seen as disobedient.  So I suggest that the feminists take Esther as a role model, not of disobedience to their husbands, but of godly submission to them.

For judgment

I would also point out that, in general, female leaders, far from being a blessing to Israel, were God’s judgment on the nation for their sin.  “As for my people, children are their oppressors, and women rule over them.  O my people, they which lead thee cause thee to err, and destroy the way of thy paths” (Isa 3:12).

Feminist Arguments are not New

The rebellion of Korah is a striking example of the kind of arguments the feminists resort to.  Korah was a Levite, one of those authorised by God to serve him in the temple.  He, and Dathan and Abiram and On, and “two hundred and fifty princes of the assembly, famous in the congregation, men of renown” gathered together against Moses and Aaron, and said “Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them: wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the congregation of the LORD?” (Num 16:2-3).

See how Korah puts a pious gloss over his rebellion by claiming equality of holiness for the congregation, and that the LORD is among them just as he is with Moses and Aaron.  They wanted to destroy the order that God had established and replace it with themselves and their own agenda.  They even gathered a sizeable following with many significant leaders among them.  This is exactly the line that Christian feminists take.  There are now many leaders (bishops and popular personalities in the churches with huge followings i.e. “men of renown”, theological colleges, churches, and denominations) who are promoting and advocating women as leaders and teachers in the churches, and they argue that women are no less holy or worthy than men, and that God is with them. 

Korah’s privileged position was no defence or justification.  Moses rebuked him and reminded him of his privileged position as a Levite: “Seemeth it but a small thing unto you that the God of Israel hath separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to himself, to do service of the tabernacle of the LORD, and to stand before the congregation to minister unto them?  And he hath brought thee near to him, and all thy brethren the sons of Levi with thee: and seek ye the priesthood also?” (Num 16:9-10).  The rebels were just that – rebels!  And God does not tolerate rebellion – it is as the sin of witchcraft (1 Sam 15:23).  So, in judgment he gathered them together and the earth literally opened up and swallowed them all – the rebels, their wives, children, animals and possessions – everything that was theirs or connected with them was destroyed and removed from the congregation.  This is a very sobering lesson on how seriously God views such sin.

Is it not enough for women that God has saved them and they have eternal life with God to enjoy? 

Are they not content with serving God in the church, like the Levite, but they must have the “priesthood” also? 

But it doesn’t end there……

 “But on the morrow all the congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron, saying, Ye have killed the people of the LORD……And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Get you up from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment”; and 14,700 people were killed by the LORD before Moses and Aaron were able to make atonement for them (Num 16:41, 44, 45).

This is so applicable to the issue of women in ministry and to the feminists who are pushing for it.  Even when the people of Israel saw the earth open up and swallow the rebels and all that pertained to them, an act that only God could do, they still blamed Moses and Aaron!  It’s clear that the Christian feminists’ argument is not with men whom they perceive to be trying to suppress women, but with God who ordained the role of women in the family and the Church!

I’m not saying that God is going to open the heavens and hurl fire and brimstone on the heads of Christian feminists because they are advocating women eldership and teaching authority.  All I’m saying is that as there is such a clear analogy here in the rebellion of Korah, the feminists are under warning, and should step back and re-think their false theology and practice.  There is no biblical warrant to make any change whatsoever in the church when that change is clearly forbidden by God in his word. 

References

Kroeger, Richard, and Kroeger, Catherine, 2004, Internet article “Women Elders: Called by God?” no longer on the internet.

Unless otherwise stated, Scripture references in this article are from the King James Bible.