I received the following question:

Does Deborah become a judge at 5:31 whereas before she was a prophetess?

The issue of Deborah, the prophetess and judge, is an interesting one. She is one of three prophetesses in the Old Testament (along with Miriam and Huldah. Noadiah was a false prophetess, and so doesn’t count.)

Deborah is often pointed to by those who want to show that women could be leaders in the Bible. The fact that she is the only Godly woman leader they can point to in the entire Old Testament over Israel (Esther over the Persians doesn’t count) seems to me to be a very significant fact the other way. God just doesn’t seem to have chosen women leaders. To trumpet the one exception out of dozens or hundreds of examples seems rather pathetic. We are trying to promote our ideas rather than look at things honestly.

The reason Deborah was chosen as a judge seems to be for two reasons. One was because the men had shirked their God-given responsibilities, so He turned to a woman when there were no men available. (That might well explain Huldah the prophetess as well. Although Jeremiah soon followed her.) The second was that the persecution that Jabin king of Canaan was bringing against the Israelites was particularly targeting the women. It seems that the Canaanites were supporting their polygamy by supplementing their women with captured Israelite girls. Because of their apostasy from the Lord, the Israelite men were helpless to protect their women or put a stop to this. In this environment, God chose a woman and mother in Israel to work to save her daughters when the men were not doing the job.

So very much the fact that Deborah was judging Israel seems to be to cry out to us that the men were not doing their job. Not that Deborah is not admirable and a great heroine of the Bible, because she is. But those who try to justify women in leadership roles because of her are interpreting with an axe to grind, rather than through an honest look at the truth. Unless we think our men are in an equally apostate condition today. Which they might be. But our women do not seem much better.

As for your question, no, Deborah was already a judge in Judges 4:4.

4. Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, was judging Israel at that time.

Here is Judges 5:31.

31. “Thus let all Your enemies perish, O LORD!
But let those who love Him be like the sun
When it comes out in full strength.”
So the land had rest for forty years.

At first glance, I wasn’t sure what this has to do with it. But then I remembered that you are reading Bullinger. He references the criteria for being a judge in Judges 2:16-19 and the “cycle” that Israel would go through in the time of the Judges.

16. Nevertheless, the LORD raised up judges who delivered them out of the hand of those who plundered them. 17. Yet they would not listen to their judges, but they played the harlot with other gods, and bowed down to them. They turned quickly from the way in which their fathers walked, in obeying the commandments of the LORD; they did not do so. 18. And when the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge and delivered them out of 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 oppressed them and harassed them. 19. And it came to pass, when the judge was dead, that they reverted and behaved more corruptly than their fathers, by following other gods, to serve them and bow down to them. They did not cease from their own doings nor from their stubborn way.

Bullinger argues that a judge was supposed to deliver Israel out of the hand of their enemies “all the days of the judge.” However, he points out that Deborah was judging Israel WHILE THEY WERE STILL BEING OPPRESSED BY THEIR ENEMIES. Therefore, Bullinger’s conclusion was that she does not meet the criteria of a judge. He says that though she “judged Israel” she was not a “judge.” This goes along with the fact that she was a woman, and God generally did not choose women to be rulers.

Well, Bullinger does have a point. However, the passage does say that Deborah was judging Israel. So it is hard to say that she was not a judge. However, she did call upon Barak to deliver Israel out of the hand of their enemies, rather than doing it herself. Barak was so gutless that he wouldn’t do it without her with him, perhaps evidence of the state of the men in Israel at the time and the reason God chose a female judge.

Bullinger also uses his numbers in Scripture to say that there were 12 judges, and Deborah would make 13, which is a bad number and so couldn’t be. Yet if we include Samuel, that would be 13 judges, and including Deborah would make it 14, which is also a good number. 12 would more match the usual number of government, not to mention the 12 apostles who will judge the 12 tribes. I would say that it is hard to prove things in this way.

So Deborah was judging Israel already in Judges 4:4. However, by the criterion of Israel being saved, neither Deborah nor Barak were meeting the criteria of a judge until after they defeated the Canaanites. Which of them judged after that, or if they judged together (as they delivered together) is hard to say. Hebrews 11:32 mentions Barak in its list of people of faith, but not Deborah. Interesting, when Barak was such a wuss. But does this mean that Barak became the actual judge? Again it is hard to say.