Flunking Sainthood

Flunking Sainthood

The Mormon Domestication of Deborah: What the LDS Gospel Doctrine Manual Did to One Kick-Butt Biblical Woman


Recently my ward’s Gospel Doctrine class tackled the Book of Judges, which the LDS teacher’s manual handles in one tidy lesson, #19.

“Who was Deborah?” asked the teacher.


“A prophetess,” piped up our bishop’s wife, who is probably the best scriptorian in our whole congregation. She knows her Bible cold, and can recount the story of Deborah. Deborah received revelation from God and–what a departure!–actually implemented it, unlike most of the other characters in Judges. She ruled the tribes of Israel righteously for forty years. Oh, and did we mention she is called a female prophet?

“Yes!” said the teacher. He seemed genuinely pleased at the “strong woman” direction of our conversation. It was an excellent class. But as I sat there I wondered how that same lesson was being taught in other wards throughout the Church, because in this case, the lesson manual is more of a hindrance than a help.


Barak is commanded to free Israel from Jabin,” the manual reads. “He
agrees if Deborah will go with him.” Well, sort of. The manual
conveniently omits the conduit of this revelation to Barak: Deborah, who
receives it as a direct commandment from God and then relays the
marching orders. A couple of pages later, the LDS manual does it again:
“What did the Lord command Barak to do?” And “on what condition was
Barak willing to go to battle against Sisera and his 900 chariots?”

The manual gives the impressions that 1) Barak had received his
commandment directly from God, and 2) he wanted his sidekick Deborah to
come along to the battle as moral support. The manual then reinforces #2
by lauding Deborah as a “righteous friend” and “true friend” to Barak.
Behind every good man, it seems, there is a good woman.


What the manual subtly does is strip Deborah of any power the Bible
gives her in her own right, by failing to mention her status as a
prophetess and her leadership role as a judge. In fact, at no point does
the manual even refer to her as a judge, let alone point out that she’s
the only wholly righteous one in the entire Book of Judges.

The Bible is clear that Deborah is not Barak’s sidekick, but his
boss. But the manual transforms her into a role that is more familiar
and comfortable for those unaccustomed to female leadership. She is
defined by one thing, and one thing only: her relationship with a man.
She is domesticated into a righteous and true friend who encourages
Barak to be a better man (“What qualities did she have that Barak may
not have had?” asks the manual).

I have no doubt that Deborah was an excellent and true friend to
Barak. She certainly gave him godly advice. But “friend” is just one of
the many roles God asked her to play. The quiet erasure of the most
public of those roles diminishes the Biblical witness.

  • http://Deborah Alan

    Those are all good points.
    My suggestion is to send your comments to the Church curriculum department with a request to receive a response on the suggested changes. I’ve found them to be open minded and at least willing to make changes for future publications.

  • Adrianna Wright

    Here, here Jana! Keep up the good work.

  • MC

    It’s hard to know what to label this little inaccuracy. Either A- whoever wrote this lesson was lacking in critical reading skills and actually thinks this is the way the story went down, or B- The story was deliberately mistold in order to hide Deborah’s authority. If #1 is the case, they really need to look into their hiring process. If #2 is the case, well, the most fit label for the error is probably “lie”.

  • prairie chuck

    I attended another ward when this lesson was taught. It began just as you said “Who was Deborah” Someone answered “A prophetess”. The teacher said “No, she was a righteous friend.” Even when the class member read scriptures saying she was a prophetess, the teacher said “That’s not the point of the lesson. The point is we all need good, righteous friends.”
    So I don’t know what the reason was for watering down Deborah’s role, the end result was a teacher who felt it essential to the lesson to limit role to “righteous friend.”

  • Jesse

    Although I agree that Deborah should be hailed as an example of a righteous and influential woman, there are some assumptions you make in your article that I find troubling.
    You seem to think Deborah, or any prophet for that matter, would be offended if a revelation she/he received did not feature her/his name in flashing neon lights as a preface when cited. My experience with prophets, both living and ancient, leads me to believe that they are humble and would rather give God the glory than take any for themselves. The manual correctly attributes Barak’s commandment from the Lord to the Lord (not Deborah, and not Barak). The Bible is a record of the Lord’s dealings with the House of Israel and is meant to glorify and draw us to Him.
    Calling Deborah “Barak’s boss” reveals a misunderstanding of the gospel principles surrounding leadership in the Lord’s Church. President Monson would never refer to himself as “The Boss” of the Church or any of its members. In fact, the doctrines surrounding the Priesthood tend in the opposite direction (see D&C 121:34-40).
    Your insistance that the manual focus its limited available space on Deborah’s role as an influential leader rather than on her role as a true friend ignores the priority that the gospel gives each of those roles. Clearly, trying to be a true friend is much more important (and applicable to everyday life) than aspiring to leadership positions, regardless of gender.
    In the end, you were looking for a great feminist lesson from the Old Testament manual and, being disappointed, claim that the manual is teaching the opposite of what you were looking for. Actually, the manual is just teaching a different lesson- one that the gospel gives a higher priority to.

  • Jana Riess

    Alan, it’s encouraging to hear that you feel the curriculum department would be interested in correcting this oversight. Thanks for that suggestion. Prairie Chuck, thanks for hitting the nail right on the head.
    Jesse, you raise a very good point about servant leadership, which should be emphasized above all. But this expectation is put upon Christians of both genders. Perhaps you could comb the manual for us and find examples of male prophets being referred to as righteous friends as their primary role, rather than as religious or secular leaders. I have not seen any examples of men being discussed solely in terms of their personal friendships with women, rather than their own actions as God’s servants.
    And as for limited space in the manual, “prophetess and judge” take up 20 characters, and “righteous friend” only sixteen, so perhaps you’re right that those extra four characters might have driven the GD manual right over the edge. 😉

  • Peter

    I actually taught this lesson last week to the teenagers of my ward, but I didn’t notice the lesson manual’s omission. That didn’t stop us from spending half the time talking about Deborah and Jael, however, so no harm done in that class. The kids were characteristically impressed by Jael’s stunt with the tent stake, but I was trying to make the point that Deborah was the more impressive figure, as one of the few prophetesses on record, and one of the few righteous judges in the Book of Judges. My best guess is that the manual’s obfuscation is an attempt to avoid the thorny issue of prophetesses, but I don’t know for sure.
    Oh, and I had to clarify for a couple confused kids that Barak was not spelled Barack. :-)

  • Methinks

    First I don’t have a problem with the lesson. The lessons miss a lot. A LOT. This is where personal study is crucial. And there will certainly be times in each of our lives where we will get to have a different emphasis presented to us. I don’t expect to cover everything in 1 or even 5 go arounds.
    That being said, the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy. We have women who are called by the authority of God who get up and speak to the church at large a few times a year and speak with the testimony of Jesus. I’ve always considered them prophetesses just as I’ve viewed the GAs, etc. who speak as prophets.
    If you’re looking for the capital P, prophet, president of the Chruch, why we had that less in RS and priesthood a few weeks back :)

  • Living in Zion

    So glad you are here, Jana! Thank you for this post. I appreciate your willingness to explain this scriptural account in its fullest measure. Since I serve in primary, I miss all the Sunday School lessons. I admit I don’t read the SS class outline in my personal study, either.
    Your post gave me a lot of food for thought.

  • Sally

    Jesse, nice try, but you’ll notice that the lesson manual does not blur the positions when it refers to Moses and Aaron. To pretend that there isn’t some outdated discomfort doesn’t help us.

  • Angie

    I liked your response to Jesse, Jana. It is amazing to me how easily people can overlook the obvious gender imbalances within the Mormon Church, including this subtle stripping of Deborah’s key contributions to God’s work as set forth in the Old Testament. But, since a key part of the Mormon religion is premised upon giving men priesthood gifts that women are purportedly not fit to have, it makes perfect sense that the Church’s lesson manual would describe her as a “friend” and ignore her role as a prophetess.

  • ssl

    I just taught this lesson a few weeks ago and was completely unnerved by the contradictions between the manual and actual scripture. I don’t want to be the person leaping out in front of the curriculum writers and church leaders, and this lesson put me in an awkward position where I felt that they were hoping I wouldn’t notice the realities about Deborah.

  • sethbryant

    “…driven the GD manual right over the edge. ;-)”
    Jana, by “GD manual” I assume you mean “Gospel Doctrine,” right?
    Any GD comments aside, this post seems to beg the question of why the current institutionalized parameters of prophecy and church leadership have to be imposed on a story from the Old Testament. It is quite clear to me that Deborah has been domesticated to fit an LDS worldview–but this is a natural byproduct of eisegesis, a seemingly much bigger issue in how the text is approached.
    Why not let scripture speak for itself, and let the chips fall where they may? If the Bible presents a prophetess leading Israel, and this is a threat to one’s worldview, then perhaps the worldview (and not the text) needs some revision. It would seem, however, that there is no “off” position to the “as far as it’s translated correctly” clause.

  • c clayton

    Most biblical scholars believe that Judges 4, the prose account of Barak and Deborah was a later historian’s interpretation of the the very ancient poem in Judges 5 (beginning in v. 2) usually known as the Song of Deborah. According to this view, the Song of Deborah was composed, probably by a woman, hundreds of years before Judges 4 was written. If that is so and you want to go back to the source, I’m not sure you’ll be happy.
    In Judges 5 she is characterized only as a “mother”, not as a prophetess at all. The writer of the lesson in the gospel doctrine manual is hardly the first person to put a spin on this strong woman. Many scholars see Judges 4 as a man’s interpretation and inferences based on Judges 5. Many modern translations want to make the Judges 5 characterization a “motherly protector” rather than a mere “mother”, but there is no evidence for this in the Hebrew text.
    The present set up for the gospel doctrine class requires that only one year is allowed for each book of scripture (counting Old and New Testaments as two books and combining the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price.) If you want to assign blame, blame that format; and don’t assume gender insensitivity in the poor writer whose assignment is to cover the whole fascinating and complex Book of Judges in one lesson and teach moral lessons at the same time; based on a book that is notably short of moral intentions. But I agree with the comment that you should share your view with the curriculum department. I really believe they want a good product.

  • JWL

    So here’s an angle which may split the difference. Deborah is identified as married, and not to Barak. It is true that technically women do not preside over men in the Church hierarchy. However, women do occupy powerful positions which regularly have them working closely with men not their husbands, and often in leadership over men de facto if not de jure. Those are pervasive and universal elements of how LDS congregations work. One way to look at the Deborah/Barak relationship is as a model of how men and women not married to each other work together in the Church. (I might note that I’ve found not everyone I made that suggestion to was that comfortable with it.)

  • DMc

    Maybe I missed the point. I usually do not mention my takes on scripture in meetings because they usually stop the show. I sat through this lesson silently and did not take affront to the thought of a woman leading. Doesn’t God work with what he has? If not a High Preist, then an Elder? If neither, then a Priest? If you have nothing but a group of self centered men then God has to go elsewhere to educate the chosen if he still chooses to strive with man. So, a woman gets the nod through selflessness, BIG DEAL. At least God was still talking.

  • Jana Riess

    Hmmm. Yes, I’m sure that God does work that way, but why would “lead and communicate through a woman” be considered Plan Z?

  • DMc

    Well, Jana, it seems to me that Plan Z fits the pattern. I used to wonder why Christ would tell Joseph Smith there are patterns in all things yet the words “Heavenly” and “Mother” never appear together in scripture. An LDS Hymn relates (my memory of lyrics is embarassing) “truth makes reason stare… surely I have a Mother there”, in Heaven, and the LDS Church supports the idea, but scripture only supports a “Father of Spirits”. Or does it?
    Symbolism is wispy thing, it’s there and gone. If somebody finds a more acceptable explanation then old conventions are lost among certain peoples. Hence an untallied number of ways to accept Christ. I prefer to think God created man in his image not the other way around. Therefore, one Godhead, one Religion. Not an original thought, but if the Church needs to be of one mind why rock the boat? However, God wants us to question his motives while we strive to be like his Son so we will learn through the Holy Ghost.
    Consider this symbolism. Isaac is a symbol of Jesus because both were raised from sacrifice, albeit in different ways, by their Fathers who begat them. That would make Abraham a symbol of God the Father and Sarah, someone who should not have had children because of advanced age, a symbol for Mary, who should not have had children because of virginity. Jesus’ Spirit, Jehovah, was forsaken and not allowed to return home to Heaven (touch me not for I am not yet ascended to my Father) by the Father that created Him. Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn, was forsaken and not allowed to return home by his father. This makes Ishmael the the symbol for Jehovah and Hagar, Ishmael’s mother, the symbol for Heavenly Mother. Hagar was also forsaken.
    We don’t know about Heavenly Mother (unless something else can be seen in Hagar’s life), but we do know Heavenly Mother is not being employed to help in “God’s own Purpose” which is unfolding by the power of the Priesthood. Therefore, maybe, those spirits with the potential to be earthly mothers do not wield the Priesthood while class is in session. Not because men are ever somehow better than women. The story of Deborah proves that. But because it fits a pattern, so that we may not be deceived. Not an empowering explanation as far as women are concerned, but it fits.

  • dillet

    To agree with c clayton and expand on the comments of JWL, Mormons define leadership and its power differently than does the rest of the world. Our power consists of responsibility to serve God and humanity, and when we are filled with the desire to do so without motives of pride, ambition or domination, the true power of God operates through us (male OR female) to accomplish His purposes.
    As an LDS women I relate to righteous priesthood holders as a colleague, all of us striving to prepare the world for the Second Coming of Christ. Actually, I find that righteous men tend to hold good women somewhat in awe, and to rely on their inspiration and counsel. Men who do otherwise haven’t figured it out yet.

  • Pingback: Female Prophets in the OT: This Week in the Twible, 2 Kings 19 to 24 - Flunking Sainthood

  • katie

    Late to the party, but thank you for this. This lesson made my blood boil.

  • Pingback: How do Mormons teach the Old Testament? | Flunking Sainthood

  • Pingback: GD Lesson 30: The LDS Church and Prophetesses : Nearing Kolob Nearing Kolob

  • deacon blues

    This is very interesting and true. the church manuals are becoming famous for subtle obfuscations.

  • Gilgamesh

    I love the story of Devorah too. But let’s be fair. The lesson covered the entire book of Judges and was intended to be delivered in 45 minutes. Your criticism of its omissions are longer than the entry on Devorah. The manual had reference to some relevant scriptures. The way it speaks of the Lord commanding Baraq is similar to how it might speak of the Lord commanding David even if it came through Nathan. There is also a need to keep a Sunday School lesson on track and not put a nervous teacher in a position where someone could take the whole thing down a rabbit hole discussing what a prophetess is since there is no clear revelation that tells us more about it and any such conversation would get speculative quickly.

    Personally I could spend hours just dissecting the poetry form of the story in Judges 5. Also Yael gets cut out entirely and she was the first woman recorded doing temple work! (Judges 4:21 and 5:26) But again 45 minutes, entire book to cover, focus on basic Gospel teachings, avoid controversy, cut lots of stuff.

Previous Posts

Another blog to enjoy!!!
Thank you for visiting Flunking Sainthood. This blog is no longer being updated. Please enjoy the archives. Here is another blog you may also enjoy: Fellowship of Saints and Sinners Happy Reading!!! ...

posted 3:12:01pm Jul. 05, 2012 | read full post »

Thank You, Flunking Sainthood Readers!
OK, I admit it. I have a Google Alert on the title Flunking Sainthood, so that the search engine lets me know when there are new reviews or discussions about the book. In the last few weeks it has been exciting -- and humbling -- to see the many ...

posted 12:41:10pm Jan. 25, 2012 | read full post »

NYC Conference on Mormonism & American Politics, February 3-4
"First Mitt won Iowa, then he lost Iowa? That's a classic Romney flip-flop." --Stephen Colbert     Working with the theory that there hasn't been nearly enough attention to Mormonism and politics this year, what with it being ...

posted 11:09:19am Jan. 23, 2012 | read full post »

Writing Retreat
Friends, I will be offline until January 23 for a writing retreat. I'm bringing my computer, ...

posted 8:47:20pm Jan. 14, 2012 | read full post »

Fun with the Book of Lamentations
Actually, no. That title was just a ...

posted 11:33:13am Jan. 13, 2012 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.