There aren’t a lot of women in the Hebrew Bible, and the most prominent ones – Eve, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel – tend to be included not for their own individual accomplishments but for their role as wives or mothers.
(Okay, I guess you could say that Eve is there in her own right for that bit with the serpent and the apple. But I’m not sure I’d call that an accomplishment.)
But chapters 4 and 5 of the Book of Judges feature two women who are powerful in their own right – Deborah and Yael. It tells us about how they helped the Israelites beat a more powerful enemy – while saying little about their husbands and virtually nothing about any offspring.
Last week I read the sections about Deborah, along with a couple of critical essays, for the first meeting of my Bat Mitzvah discussion group.
Let’s do a 60-second summary of the story for those of you who aren’t familiar with it:
Deborah’s story takes place at a time when the Hebrews had left Egypt and come into the land of Israel, but hadn’t yet developed a centralized kingdom. They were a bunch of tribes ruled by “judges,” who were probably more like chieftains than, say, an Alameda County Superior Court judge. This was probably around 1100 BCE.
The Hebrews were being oppressed at that time by the king of Canaan, whose top general was named Sisera. Deborah was a prophetess and judge, who resolved disputes while sitting under a palm tree. She summoned a Hebrew military leader named Barak and told him that God had commanded him to take 10,000 Israelite men into battle with Sisera. Barak said he would do so only if Deborah came with him. Deborah essentially said “fine, but keep in mind that you won’t get any credit –- people will say that Sisera was beaten by a woman.”
Barak and Deborah launched their attack and routed Sisera’s larger force of 900 chariots. Sisera fled on foot, seeking refuge at the tent of a woman named Yael, whose husband was an ally to the Canaanite king. Yael promised Sisera shelter and gave him food and drink. Then, when he was asleep, she took a hammer and drove a tent spike through his skull.
(Pretty bloody! I remember hearing the story from a high school friend and being fascinated/horrified by the spike-in-the-head bit, sort of like watching a Stephen King movie.)
That’s about all there is to the story. It is told twice – once as narrative, then again as a song or poem narrated by Deborah and Barak. My rabbi said that the Song of Deborah is possibly the second oldest piece of writing in the Bible, after the Song of the Sea (Mi chamocha) – there are just a handful of songs in the Bible, and schoars believe they predate the narrative sections.
So what struck me about the story of Deborah? Several things:
The gender politics of a female leader. The Bible itself treats Deborah and her gender matter-of-factly. It describes her as “a mother of Israel,” and includes her very telling comment to Sisera that he will face ridicule for letting a woman lead his people into battle. But it doesn’t denigrate her or treat her as any less than the male prophets and judges.
The early rabbinical commentators, though, are a very different matter.
We read several essays – one by Tamar Kadari, one by Rachel Elior – about how some of the rabbis who later interpreted the Book of Judges tried to bad-mouth or “tame” Deborah. For instance, the Talmud criticizes her for being haughty because she summoned Barak to come to her, rather than vice-versa. Some Talmudists extrapolated that Deborah sat under a palm tree to judge people because it would not have been “modest” for her to be alone with men in a house. Others interpreted the Bible’s bare-bones description of Deborah – “eshet Lapidot,” which could mean either “wife of Lapidot,” “woman of wicks” or “woman of fire” – to mean that God chose her as a prophet because she was so good at making wicks to give to her husband to bring to the Temple.
So the rabbinical authors of the Talmud couldn’t deal with the idea of a strong, positive woman leader – and tried to trim her image to fit the domestic, subservient women they idealized in their own society.
“The rabbinical tradition transforms her important public status… into a position associated with the weaving of candle wicks, reverence and modesty,” wrote Elior.
The huge unknowns and white spaces. There is much more unsaid than actually said about Deborah. Take her background – there is zilch on how she came to be a prophet, her early life, or even whether she had a husband. (That latter all depends on how you interpret “eshet Lapidoth.”)
Or take her relationship with Barak – the authors of Judges don’t address why Barak insists that Deborah come into battle with him. Is he cowardly or is he canny? Does he respect her as a visionary prophetess whose presence will inspire the troops? Is he jealous of her power and trying to call her bluff? Does he view her as a partner and want her by his side? No answer.
So I started thinking: Novel! novel! Novel! These stories are perfect fodder for a novelist. Just enough information to provide a framework… but so many unanswered questions that your creativity can run wild. That’s what Anita Diamant did in her terrific novel about the rape of Dinah, The Red Tent. My rabbi considers such works of Bible-based fiction as a kind of midrash – Biblical commentary – and I agree.
Amazing poetry. There is a section at the end of the Song of Deborah, the second version of the story, that just blew me away. It refers to Yael’s murder of Sisera. It is remarkable not just in its lyrical phrasing but in the cinematic way that it brings us into the mind of – who the heck thought this up? – Sisera’s mother, waiting for the son who will never return.
This is completely gratuitous: After all, Judges doesn’t tell us one itty bitty thing about the background of Deborah, so why should it spend precious lines on Sisera’s family? But there it is – and it is vivid and ironic and moving.
From an online version of the 1917 Jewish Publications Society translation of Judges:
Blessed above women shall Jael be, the wife of Heber the Kenite, above women in the tent shall she be blessed.
Water he asked, milk she gave him; in a lordly bowl she brought him curd.
Her hand she put to the tent-pin, and her right hand to the workmen’s hammer; and with the hammer she smote Sisera, she smote through his head, yea, she pierced and struck through his temples.
At her feet he sunk, he fell, he lay; at her feet he sunk, he fell; where he sunk, there he fell down dead.
Through the window she looked forth, and peered, the mother of Sisera, through the lattice: ‘Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why tarry the wheels of his chariots?
The wisest of her princesses answer her, yea, she returneth answer to herself:
‘Are they not finding, are they not dividing the spoil? A damsel, two damsels to every man; to Sisera a spoil of dyed garments, a spoil of dyed garments of embroidery, two dyed garments of broidery for the neck of every spoiler?’
So perish all Thine enemies, O LORD; but they that love Him be as the sun when he goeth forth in his might. And the land had rest forty years.