Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Deborah: Another verse for a primary song.

The Mormon children's song, "Follow the Prophet," has nine verses. There are verses for the prophets Moses, Daniel, and Noah, even one for Jonah. For a long time, I have thought that we should have a verse for Deborah. Here's my attempt to write one:

               Deborah was a prophet; she judged Is-ra-el.
               She went up to battle and Canaan's army fell
               Deborah helped her people by listening to the Lord.
               Israel was delivered from Sisera's sharp sword.

Celebrating Deborah did not come easily for me. I still remember how much the story of this Old Testament prophetess confused me as a young woman. I had heard so many lessons about women's exalted roles as wives and mothers, that Deborah's roles as military adviser, judge, and prophet seemed to be at odds with my understanding of gender in God's plan. Her story didn't fit into what I thought was a clear-cut hierarchy of priesthood authority and stewardship that God had laid out for His people.

I was in my late 20s before I was able to admit to myself that Deborah's story thrilled me. When I first said it out loud (during a conversation with the man who would later become my husband), it felt like a significant moment of self-awareness. Claiming Deborah meant admitting that I wanted to be valued - not only in my secular life, but in my spiritual community as well - for more than my wife/mother potential. It meant admitting that seeing women in strong leadership positions was important to me. It meant acknowledging that I wanted God to use all of me: not just my tenderness and kindness, but also my bravery, my cleverness, my ability to lead. It meant recognizing that my heart leaped for joy at the thought of God speaking to His people through a woman.

When I mentioned Deborah in the young women's class that I taught recently, none of the girls knew anything about her. They were surprised, as I had been when I was their age, that a woman could do the things that Deborah did. So I was particularly pleased when I saw that the March 2014 Ensign includes Deborah in an article by Faith Watson describing exemplary women of the Old Testament. A search of lds.org led me to another Ensign article, this one from 1990, that goes into greater depth about Deborah and mentions other prophetesses of the Bible.

I do not wish to cast a shadow on my sincere appreciation for Faith Watson's work, but there is one sentence in the article that I feel needs careful unpacking:

           In her role as prophetess, Deborah did not hold the priesthood or possess ecclesiastical 
          keys but enjoyed the gift of prophecy in a more general sense (see Revelation 19:10)*.

I read this sentence as a clarification meant to a) distinguish Deborah's role as prophet(ess) from the office of president/prophet of our church today and b) square her prophet status with our current teaching that only men may hold the priesthood. The text of that sentence is fine. My concern is that the subtext might diminish Deborah's prophetic role. What the article fails to point out is that prophecy was not generally associated with priesthood in the Old Testament; Deborah's lack of priesthood authority does not change her status as prophet. Downplaying Deborah's prophetic role might make it easier to maintain traditional, simplistic notions of gender differences and church hierarchy, but it does a disservice both to Deborah and to those who want to learn from her story.

The referenced scripture, Revelations 19:10, teaches us that "the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy." The idea that every follower of Christ can have the spirit of prophecy, i.e. can receive revelation from God, is powerful and beautiful. But it is important to acknowledge that Deborah's prophetic gifts were unusual and that they reached beyond the stewardships that we normally assign to women in the Church. The divine revelation given to Deborah in Judges 4 was not meant for her personal life, or her family life, or for the women in her congregation. Her revelation led the people of Israel - her people - to deliverance from their oppressor.


*The author includes a footnote here referencing  James E. Talmage's  The Articles of Faith, 12th ed. (1924), pp. 228-29.


  1. I like your Deborah verse a lot. Can we also have one that says something about each of us being able to be guided by God individually and then in the chorus replace "follow the prophet" with "follow your conscience."

    Anyway, on the priesthood: so as I've always understood it in Old Testament times the priesthood was only held by the Levites. So take Daniel, for instance. He was of the tribe of Judah (at least that's how I'm understanding Daniel 1:6). Therefore not a Levite. therefore didn't hold the priesthood or any ecclesiastical keys. (Actually, I don't think this idea of keys is an Old Testament idea at all. First time it comes up is between Jesus and Peter.) Anyway, point is that yeah, maybe Deborah didn't hold the priesthood, but neither did a lot of our Old Testament prophets. Daniel and Deborah are on the exact same footing as far as prophets go...except that Daniel wasn't a big political or military leader.

    1. Good points, Jamie. While I think that "following the prophet," is an important part of our doctrine, the way we sometimes talk about it is very, very problematic. I'm hoping to do a blog post about that topic soon.

    2. I agree with the point you made about priesthood and keys. That was something that bugged me in the article. Why single out Deborah as priesthood-less and key-less? The obvious answer is that she is a woman, and the Ensign wants to make it very clear that priesthood is men-only.

      I decided not to address that particular point in the post, because I'm not a Biblical scholar, and I didn't feel confident in my assertions. Also, I didn't want to quibble too much with the Ensign article. I am truly appreciative that Deborah was included.

      Finally, I thought about comparing Daniel and Deborah, but it gets tricky. Deborah was considered a minor prophet. Her prophecies led to her people's deliverance, but (as far as we know) she did not have the far-reaching prophetic visions that Daniel did.

      That said, I have been thinking of editing the post to include at least some allusion to the point about priesthood keys.


    3. I've edited the post to reflect the ideas in the comment above. Hope it all makes sense.

  2. My personal thought is that just because men say that women don't have the priesthood doesn't mean that they don't. II have a stake president who told me thatthe things that women do initiatories in the temple have nothing to do with the priesthood and I don't believe that at all. Again I think God decides,not man.

    1. Heidi, thank you for your comment. It's really unfortunate that your stake president said that.

    2. Also, I like your idea that we should decide for ourselves what powers God has given us.