Leadership by Women in the Old Testament

Leadership by Women

in the Old Testament


Leadership by women is less common than leadership by men, and we have suggested some reasons for this. We have already noted how, on one occasion, Sarah led Abraham, and this received God’s approval. Other notable women who acted as leaders with divine approval were Miriam, Deborah and Huldah. It is worth examining carefully what the Bible says about each of these, especially since some of those who disapprove of women acting as leaders present these women in an adverse light.



Hear what the LORD says:

 “... I brought you up from the land of Egypt,

and redeemed you from the house of bondage;

and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.”  (Micah 6:1, 4)

“Sent before you” means “sent to lead you”, and many modern translations use the word “lead”:

“I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to lead you.”  (REB, GNB, NIV)

That all three were stated by God to be leaders should be borne in mind when we look at Exodus.

Miriam is shown as actually leading in only one place, and on that occasion she is leading the women in a song:

Then Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and dancing. And Miriam sang to them:

“Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously;

the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.”

                                                                                    (Exodus 15:20-22)


Points to note about this account are:

(a) Miriam is described as a prophetess, i.e. one through whom God gave a public message to His people. There is no suggestion, however, that her activity in Exodus 15 consists of prophesying—she is leading in a song of thanks.

(b) On this occasion, after they had been saved from the Egyptians, Miriam led the women in timbrels and dancing. Exodus 15:1 shows Moses and the people of Israel singing a long psalm of celebration from which some writers have assumed that “Moses led the psalm, and gave it out for the men and then Miriam for the women” (Matthew Henry c.1700). This may have been the case, although the text does not state this; it is adding to Scripture to assert that Moses gave out the words and Miriam merely led the women in a refrain.

In Numbers 12 Miriam and Aaron criticised Moses because he had married a Cushite woman. Verse 2 indicates, however, that this criticism masked jealousy of Moses’ leadership and quite possibly an attempt to take over from him:

... and they said, “Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?”                          (Numbers 12:2)

In His response God stressed the unique position of leadership which Moses held in His sight:

And he said, “Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD make myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses; he is entrusted with all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in dark speech....”

 (Numbers 12:6-8)


There are three points to note from this account:

(a) Aaron and Miriam were punished not for aspiring to be leaders or prophets (for they were these already) but for attempting to overthrow the leadership of Moses.

(b) Both Aaron and Miriam were punished by God. It is often assumed that because Miriam alone became leprous that her sin was greater than Aaron’s; it is then assumed that her sin lay in that, although a woman, she tried to be a leader.

And the anger of the LORD was kindled against them, and he departed; and when the cloud removed from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, as white as snow.... And Aaron said to Moses, “Oh, my lord, do not punish us because we have done foolishly and have sinned....”                                                                                           (Number 12:9-11)

Note “the anger ... was kindled against them”, “do not punish us because we....”

(c) The text gives no indication as to why Miriam but not Aaron became leprous. Possibly she was the ringleader on this occasion since her name is mentioned first in verse 1. Nevertheless, the fault lay in their challenge to Moses’ unique leadership. There is no suggestion in the text that it was wrong for her to lead because she was a woman. As we have seen from Micah 6:4, Miriam received God’s approval as a leader.



The Book of Judges records a cycle whereby the people desert God, suffer oppression, appeal to God for help, and are sent a deliverer.

Whenever the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the LORD was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them.                         (Judges 2:18)

Amongst those whom God used to deliver the people was Deborah, and she is outstanding amongst the deliverers in that none of the judges in the Book of Judges is described as a prophet. Deborah, however, is a prophetess who judged. The nearest parallel is Samuel who was a prophet who judged.

Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment.                                                                       (Judges 4:4-5)

The English word “judge” obviously described the activity of settling disputes, something which Moses had undertaken and under pressure of work had devolved upon others (Exodus 18:22). In general, the judges were men. Deborah appears to have been an exception, but one approved by God, and the natural way in which she is introduced suggests no surprise that a woman should judge. However, in the Book of Judges the word “judge” has a wider meaning than merely someone who settles disputes. It means ruler, leader, or governor, the Hebrew word (shopet) apparently retaining the meaning which it had in the Mari texts and in ancient Canaanite Ugarit where it is used as a synonym for king. This can be seen in the manner in which Deborah acts with authority over Barak the military leader:

She sent and summoned Barak the son of Abinoam ... and said to him, “The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you...”       (Judges 4:6)

The same point is indicated in Ruth:

In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land…. 

(Ruth 1:1)

In 2 Samuel God said of the judges:

In all places where I have moved with all Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”

(1 Chronicles 17:6)

Further information is supplied when the elders wished to have a king instead of Samuel the judge:

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to govern us like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” And Samuel prayed to the LORD. And the LORD said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.”          (1 Samuel 8:4-7)

KJV says “judge” here where the RSV says “govern”. The biblical explanation of “judge” at this time was one who governed, one who ruled, and one to whom God commanded to “shepherd my people.”


The Biblical text is entirely approving of Deborah and her leadership. This needs to be stressed because those who hold that it is against divine principles for a woman to be a leader attempt to downgrade Deborah. Some of the arguments used are as follows:

(a) The fact that God had to use a woman shows how low Israel had sunk.

(b) It is claimed that the lack of male leadership had been the cause of Israel’s problems.

(c) Deborah, it is argued, had come to the fore by her own power and intrigue.

(d) Deborah, it is argued, was not a leader like Samuel and other judges because she did not go round on a circuit like Samuel but sat in one place and people came to her.

(e) Deborah acted only in a private capacity.

(f) Barak, it is argued, is the real leader.

(g) It is claimed that the Song of Deborah and Barak in Judges 5:2 indicates that male leadership is God’s desire.


Each of the above claims is contrary to the Biblical text. Let us examine each of these claims in turn:

(a) There is nothing in the Book of Judges which suggests that spiritual life was worse at the time of Deborah than on previous or later occasions. Judges 4:1 says simply, “and the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD”. Deborah, however, was obviously helping to maintain Godly standards. It would indeed seem that because of her influence, spiritual life was higher at this time. Compare this with the occasion before Othniel was raised up as a deliverer:

And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, forgetting the LORD their God, and serving the Baals and the Asheroth.                                                                                                        (Judges 3:7)

Likewise, compare Deborah’s time with the position before Jephthah became judge:

And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth, the gods of Syria, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites, and the gods of the Philistines; and they forsook the LORD and did not serve him.                                                                                                                    (Judges 10:6)

Before and after Deborah, it is stressed that the people of Israel worshipped other gods; such is not stated to be the case while Deborah was judging.

It can be commented in addition that the claim that God had to use a woman because ‘Israel had sunk so low’ is a denial of the power of God. God raised up male leaders before Deborah and after Deborah and it is not appropriate to suggest that God could not have raised up a male leader instead of Deborah had he wished to choose a man. Evidently God considered Deborah suitable and acceptable for His purpose.

(b) When the people lacked a leader for a considerable time, they began to worship other gods:

But whenever the judge died, they turned back and behaved worse than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them; they did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways.                                                                                                   (Judges 2:19)

It was not lack of a male leader that caused Israel’s problems but lack of any leader.

(c) There is no evidence that Deborah had come to the fore by her own power and intrigue, but the fact that such a claim can be made indicates the bias with which this passage has been read by those who wish to assert that leadership by women is unacceptable to God.

(d) Two chapters in the Bible describe Deborah, whereas the first 25 chapters of 1 Samuel describe Samuel’s activity. To compare Deborah with Samuel on the basis of such little description is an argument from silence. How do know that Deborah did not also go round on a circuit? There are times when Samuel sat in one place and summoned people to him.

Look at the descriptions:

Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life. And he went on a circuit year by year to Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah. And he judged Israel in all these places. Then he would return to Ramah, for his home was there, and there also he judged Israel. And he built there an altar to the LORD.

(1 Samuel 7:15-17)

So when Samuel was at Bethel, Gilgal, or Mizpah, or Ramah, what happened? Here is what the Bible text says about Samuel:

Then Samuel said, “Gather all Israel at Mizpah, and I will pray to the LORD for you.” So they gathered at Mizpah…. And Samuel judged the people of Israel at Mizpah.                           (1 Samuel 7:5-6)

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah…                                                      (1 Samuel 8:4)

Compare this with the short report about Deborah:

… she used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment.                                                       (Judges 4:4-5)


Do Samuel and Deborah go out to the people, or do the people come to them? Here are examples of both of them judging, i.e. ruling, governing. And the people come to them! And at other occasions Samuel goes to the people. It is simply an argument from silence in an attempt to downgrade Deborah to suggest that, because she is reported on this one occasion as sitting in one place, that therefore she did not do as Samuel did on other occasions.

(e) She is hardly working “in a private capacity” when the text says: “And she sent and called Barak” (Judges 4:6), Barak being the military leader of Israel. According to the Biblical information given above (1 Chronicles 17:6, Ruth 1:1, 1 Samuel 8:4-7) Deborah was a ruler, a governor, a shepherd of God’s people. It would be strange if this could be described as “in a private capacity”.

(f) Barak was the leader in war but he did not take any action until summoned by Deborah who gave him God’s command. Barak declined to act unless accompanied by Deborah. Presumably he acknowledged, rightly, that Deborah was God’s agent and felt that her presence gave him the support without which he would be unable to be successful.

(g)  It is claimed that Judges 5:2 indicates that leadership should properly be male not female. This claim is based on the NIV translation:

When the princes in Israel take the lead...

Praise the LORD.

Since princes are masculine it is argued that masculine leaders are given divine approval, in contradistinction to female leaders.

The translation of this verse in particular, and the Song of Deborah and Barak in general, is uncertain because they contain many rare words and unusual grammatical forms. It is therefore unwise to base an argument about male leadership solely on the way this verse is translated in the NIV. Here is how other translations put this verse:

Praise ye the LORD for the avenging of Israel, when the people willingly offered themselves.            (Judges 5:2, KJV)

That the leaders took the lead in Israel,

that the people offered themselves willingly,

bless the LORD!           (RSV)

That warriors in Israel unbound their hair,

that the people came forward with a will,

for this, bless Yahweh!           (Jerusalem Bible)

Praise the LORD!

The Israelites were determined to fight;

the people gladly volunteered.            (GNB)


The whole song is celebrating the various groups of people who responded to the summons put by Deborah to Barak. Deborah herself is regarded as one of the leaders. Much praise, too, is given to Jael who on her own initiative killed Sisera, thus completing the rout begun by Barak.

“Most blessed of women be Jael,

the wife of Heber the Kenite,

of tent-dwelling women most blessed.”  (Judges 5:24)

Heber the Kenite himself seems to have played no part in the battle.

It cannot therefore be argued that the Judges 5 indicates that God desires male leadership.



Huldah was recognised as a prophetess and was consulted by King Josiah at a crucial point when the book of the Law had been discovered during repairs to the temple. In effect she was being asked to find out whether the book was the word of God or not.

And the king commanded Hilkiah the priest, and Ahikam the son of Shaphan, and Achbor the son of Micaiah, and Shaphan the secretary, and Asaiah the king’s servant, saying, “Go, inquire of the LORD for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found....”

So Hilkiah the priest, and Ahikam, and Achbor, and Shaphan, and Asaiah went to Huldah the prophetess, the wife of Shallum... and they talked with her. And she said to them, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel....”                                                                                        (2 Kings 22:12-15)

Points of relevance to our study are:

(a) There seems to be no question about whether it was appropriate for a woman to be a prophetess. Not only King Josiah but also the High Priest, Hilkiah, accepted her as a true prophet.

(b) Although Jeremiah and probably Zephaniah were likewise prophets of God at this time, Josiah told his men to go to Huldah.

(c) These events took place during the series of reforms begun by Josiah when he came to power.

Now in the eighteenth year of his reign, when he had purged the land and the house....                                                                  (2 Chronicles 34:8)

Although Huldah is only mentioned in this one incident, the reference to her as a prophetess suggests that she was one of the spiritual advisers in his reforms. Her prophecy accurately signalled the end of the monarchy of the kings of Judah.


Further Evidence in the Old Testament of the Approved Influence of Women

Religious teaching was to be passed on by the descendants of Aaron:

“...you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes which the LORD has spoken to them by Moses.”                                    (Leviticus 10:11)

It is not clear how or where they conveyed this teaching, but all Israel was in addition given this responsibility at home.

“...these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house....”                            (Deuteronomy 6:6-7)

That this teaching was done by the women as well as the men is clear from Proverbs:

My son, keep your father’s commandment,

and forsake not your mother’s teaching.        (Proverbs 6:20)


The Mother of King Lemuel

Proverbs 31:1-9 describes the teaching which King Lemuel was given by his mother. She warned him against sexual immorality and the misuse of alcohol. She advised him to protect the rights of the helpless and to be a righteous judge. There then follows an attractive description of a good wife. She is hard working, looks after the family’s needs, has the trust of her husband and has considerable independence of action:

She opens her mouth with wisdom,

and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.

She looks well to the ways of her household,

and does not eat the bread of idleness.

Her children rise up and call her blessed;

her husband also, and he praises her:

“Many women have done excellently,

but you surpass them all.”

Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,

but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.

Give her of the fruit of her hands,

and let her works praise her in the gates.        (Proverbs 31:26-29)


Wise children and a wise husband will look to the teaching of a wife such as this. There is no clear, hard-and-fast distinction between men and women in the teaching done in the home.



While the husband was obviously regarded as head of the family, in patriarchal times and in the Law, the independence the wife was able to exercise should not be underrated. There were times when the wife had to act against the wishes of the husband, one well-known instance being that of Abigail and Nabal.

The woman [Abigail] was of good understanding and beautiful, but the man [Nabal] was churlish and ill-behaved.                 (1 Samuel 25:3)

Abigail ignored her boorish husband, saved him and his men from slaughter and saved David from bloodguilt. Whereas Nabal scorned David, Abigail recognised that David was doing God’s work and she respected David’s future position as king.

“...the LORD will certainly make my lord a sure house, because my lord is fighting the battles of the LORD; and evil shall not be found in you so long as you live.”                                                          (1 Samuel 25:28)

David was grateful to her,

“Blessed be your discretion, and blessed be you, who have kept me this day from bloodguilt and from avenging myself with my own hand! .... Go up in peace to your house; see, I have hearkened to your voice, and I have granted your petition.”                                           (1 Samuel 25:33-35)

David was correct to hearken to a woman’s voice.


The Wise Woman of the City of Abel of Beth-ma’acah

One of those who rebelled against the rule of King David was “a worthless fellow, whose name was Sheba”. He was pursued by David’s commander, Joab, into the city of Abel of Beth-ma’acah. The city was put under siege:

Then a wise woman called from the city, “Hear! Hear! Tell Joab, ‘Come here, that I may speak to you.’ ” ... “Listen to the words of your maidservant.” ...“I am one of those who are peaceable and faithful in Israel; you seek to destroy a city which is a mother in Israel; why will you swallow up the heritage of the LORD?”                 (2 Samuel 20:16-19)

After negotiation over Sheba’s life, it was agreed that the siege would be lifted if Sheba were killed:

Then the woman went to all the people in her wisdom. And they cut off the head of Sheba the son of Bichri, and threw it out to Joab. So he blew the trumpet, and they dispersed from the city, every man to his home. And Joab returned to Jerusalem to the king.                      (2 Samuel 20:22)

The city was saved because Joab and the people listened to the words of a wise woman.


A Wife’s Wise Advice to a Frightened Husband

In Judges 13, Samson’s parents are visited by an angel. When Manoah, Samson’s father, realises this, he is afraid:

And Manoah said to his wife, “We shall surely die, for we have seen God.” But his wife said to him, “If the LORD had meant to kill us, he would not have accepted a burnt offering and a cereal offering at our hands, or shown us all these things, or now announced to us such things as these.”                                                                               (Judges 13:22-23)

Manoah is fearful, while his wife is calm and sensible and offers rational advice. She is not dismissed, either in the account or by her husband, on the grounds that advice from a woman should not be heeded. And events prove her right.


Women of Evil Influence

Just as there were men of evil influence, so there were women, whether women in power like Jezebel or Athaliah or the prostitutes against whom warnings are given in Proverbs:

... I have perceived among the youths,

a young man without sense ...

And lo, a woman meets him,

dressed as a harlot...

With much seductive speech she persuades him...

All at once he follows her...    (Proverbs 7:7-22)

More often than not, however, women are the victims of men’s power, such as Tamar (2 Samuel 13) who suffered premeditated rape, or the women who were concubines (Judges 19). All such behaviour was contrary to God’s intentions for mankind “from the beginning”.


Conclusions on Leadership and Influence by Women in the Old Testament

Because of the particular requirements for priesthood, most males and all females were excluded from being priests.

Domestic circumstances would frequently have made it difficult for women to be leaders, and in a male-orientated society this would probably be sufficient reason as to why there are only a few women leaders.

Leadership by women was the exception rather than the rule.[1] This, however, makes their acceptance all the more notable. Miriam and Deborah were acknowledged as leaders without any surprise being expressed.

It is not correct to argue, as some do, that the occasions when women were leaders was when spiritual life was at a particularly low ebb. In Judges the evidence is that spiritual life was better when Deborah was judge; similarly Huldah was a prophetess during the spiritual reforms of Josiah, one of the few good kings.

There is no suggestion in the Old Testament that leadership by women is in itself wrong or unacceptable.

The criterion as to whether particular leadership or influence by a particular woman is approved by God is whether it is done in accord with His will. This is the same criterion that is applied to men. It is a matter of how the leader led, not the gender of the leader.

There is no divine principle by which men are always to lead. Male leadership was often the outcome of society, and was approved by God for that time. However, the approval given to the significant leadership by women suggests that God was equally approving of women leaders.


In Between the Old Testament and the New Testament

The Old Testament shows men and women sometimes behaving well, sometimes badly. It does not scorn women in a misogynist (“woman-hating”) manner. Misogynist views are, however, expressed in some of the books written between the two Testaments, including what is known as the Apocrypha. There are three ways we can observe this:


(1) Jewish stories

Jewish stories elaborated on the account in Genesis 1-2, but in an anti-woman manner:

When God was on the point of making Eve, He said: “I will not make her from the head of man, lest she carry her head high in arrogant pride; not from the eye, lest she be wanton-eyed; not from the ear, lest she be an eavesdropper; not from the neck, lest she be insolent; not from the mouth, lest she be a tattler; not from the heart, lest she be inclined to envy; not from the hand, lest she be a meddler; not from the foot, lest she be a gadabout. I will form her from a chaste portion of the body,” and to every limb and organ as He formed it, God said, “Be chaste! Be chaste!” Nevertheless, in spite of the great caution used, woman has all the faults God tried to obviate. The daughters of Zion were haughty and walked with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes; Sarah was an eavesdropper in her own tent, when the angel spoke with Abraham; Miriam was a talebearer, accusing Moses; Rachel was envious of her sister Leah; Eve put out her hand to take the forbidden fruit, and Dinah was a gadabout.

(Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, translated from the German by Henrietta Szold, volume 1, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1937), pp. 64-69.)[2]

The intention of these stories may be to warn against evil conduct, but they can easily be seen as a general statement that women behave badly. Even more so when men and women are compared adversely:

The voice of women is shrill, not so the voice of men; when soft viands are cooked, no sound is heard, but let a bone be put in a pot, and at once it crackles. A man is easily placated, not so a woman; a few drops of water suffice to soften a clod of earth; a bone stays hard, and if it were to soak in water for days.                                                                (Ibid)


(2) Adam was praised, Eve was condemned

The apocryphal book called Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach, has much wise advice, but it also contrasts Adam and Eve so as to praise Adam and condemn Eve:

From a woman sin had its beginning,

and because of her we all die. (Ecclesiasticus 25:4)

but of Adam it says:

Shem and Seth were honoured among men,

And Adam above every living being in the creation. (49:16)

Contrast this with Paul’s comments that “... by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:21-22).


(3) Esther is downplayed in the Apocrypha

The book of Esther was translated into Greek, perhaps in 78 BC. Additions were made to portray Esther in a manner more suited to the understanding of Judaism in the first century BC Hellenistic world. Esther’s beauty is emphasised, and her brains and skill downplayed. She is depicted in the apocryphal version as a pious but passive girl.[3] Josephus, in his retelling of Esther, downplays her active role even more.


Jesus and Paul

Being brought up in a Jewish environment, Jesus and Paul would have been aware of these attitudes in Jewish tradition. Significantly, unlike church writers in later centuries, they never used these in their assessment of women. Reference to Genesis is straightforward, not fanciful, and not in a manner to put women down.


[1] A phrase sometimes quoted is: “The exception proves the rule.” In popular understanding, this is taken to mean that if you find one exception, it proves that a particular rule is normally true. There are two problems with this explanation. Firstly, “The exception proves the rule” is a proverb, not Bible teaching. Secondly, the phrase seems to be a shorter version of a Latin legal maxim from the 17th century, which (translated from Latin) reads: “Exception confirms the rule in the cases not excepted”. In other words, a rule applies except where it does not apply! However, there is no divine rule given in the Bible that leaders must always be masculine. God chooses leaders as He wishes. There is no rule stated in Scripture that judging, ruling and teaching are a male preserve.

[2] http://www.bible-researcher.com/eve-legend.html

[3] Oxford Companion to the Bible (OUP, 1993), eds. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, page 813.

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