Power, gender politics and poetry in the story of Deborah

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.

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3 Responses to “Power, gender politics and poetry in the story of Deborah”

  1. elliot Says:

    Good one, IDB, though i disagree with your first paragraph’s conclusion. Your list of outstanding biblical women leaves off Rahab – a harlot who wasn’t an Israelite. Her action and insight into the big picture were inextricably tied into the fate of Israelites and the land. (Midrash relates that Rahab was the ancestor of some 8 priests and prophets, not to mention being an ancestor of Jesse, David’s dad, who is later a link in the chain said to link to Jesus . . . . and there’s Talmudic speculation that the aged Joshua [who coincidentally shares a Hebrew name with Jesus] married this reformed harlot Rahab).

    Nutshell of Rahab’s tale in the book of Joshua – sorry it’s long:

    Following Moses’ death, the new political/military/religious leader Joshua sends 2 spies into the walled fortress town of Jericho. Their first move was to go to the house of a prostitute along the wall. Outrageous? It’s reasonable to assume that military and political top brass among the Canaanites went to their courtesans at the time, so it’s a reasonable spyish move to gather intelligence and lay low, so to speak. The harlot Rahab immediately affirms that she knows that the Israelites’ G-d who has helped them is the supreme/only Lord in heaven above and on earth itself, and that the Israelites will utterly take over. Woah!

    She hides them on the roof among tall cut flax (flax indeed was harvested in that area, though that’s one of the few things to date known to be historically accurate in the Jericho story, other than some geographic references). She then lies to the soldiers sent by the city’s leader/war lord who are sent to ferret out the spies; she claims, in effect, they went thataway, through the city gate.

    Rahab then saves the day again: she lets the spies down the outer wall through her window, using a rope said to be red (the color for keeping out the evil eye). But she conditions her help to them on a strict oath: before they went to sleep, they must swear by the Lord and in good faith that Rahab and all her people will be kept safe when the Lord gives Israel its conquest. They do (‘our lives for yours!. . . we will treat you kindly and faithfully’) Though destruction ensues, Joshua and his spies totally live up to this oath. Rahabites are said to have lived in the midst of the Israelites in that area – indeed, that may be why whoever ‘wrote’ the book of Joshua saw fit to introduce this tale of how a harlot saved the day and gained protection for herself and her people.

    It’s a head-scratcher as to why a Canaanite harlot gains both momentary prominence and longstanding protection. And how/why does she have total wisdom/insight into the Israelites’ essential beliefs in their G-d? She is viewed as a high prophet by some. Yet she isn’t heard from again until her name appears in a later recitation of the ancestors of a king. No doubt some feminist folks claim that the harlot label was inserted to denigrade the woman lest she be viewed as important.
    But I think sort of the converse. The scribe chose a harlot – commonly dismissed as one of the lowest rungs of society – implicitly to emphasize that the bloody military conquest told in this first scroll following the 5 books of Moses is not the be-all-end-all takeaway for the reader. It’s not all about military strategems and pitched battle. We must look through social hierarchy. We must look to women’s ingenuity, spirituality and connection to what is eternal – and even look to the courage of a stranger. That’s an essential concern in order to understand the larger picture that engenders/vitalizes a people whose faith and footprint have survived unspeakable conditions for a few thousand years.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Wow! That is a great story. And I admit I didn’t know a bit of it.

      But my point was: the MAJOR women were included in the Bible as wives or mothers of important men. And Rahab, although a powerful and fascinating figure, is not a name that most people are familiar with. She’s not top-of-marquee with Sarah and Rebecca.

      (Completely unscientific bllog reader poll: How many of you were familiar with Rahab before Elliot’s great comment?)

  2. elliot Says:

    Ilana – fair enough. but my point about your lead-off isn’t to note who is prominent. It’s a concern over whether “Eve, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel – tend to be included not for their own individual accomplishments but for their role as wives or mothers. ” That’s not my takeaway, having been reading Torah schtuff since a straight-through read of King James I and II one summer in high school failed to result in divine revelation.

    I’m the first to agree that most of these scrolls likely were mainly written by priests who were men in the harsh world back in the day. That said, though, I think that women in the culture then, and their positions in society, were very important and very complex. The priestly class would want to emphasize women, given the fact that women play at least 1/2 the role in assuring that the faith persists into the next generation.

    This makes it all the more reasonable to interpret each female character drawn out the scrolls as having moral/intellectual/social/familial/tribal/religious/etc. roles that were FAR greater and more important than merely as wives and mothers. In fact, I think that family is largely what it’s all about, which could be another avenue to explore in Sam’s great inquiry into what Shabbas is all about.

    Many of the women in Torah – e.g., Eve, Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca, Zipporah, Rahab, Deborah, and Yael, though perhaps others as well (think Hagar and Jezebel) – sort of embody the evolving character of what came to be known as the Hebrew and then the Israelite gestalt as the Tanakh unfolds. That’s a pretty major role for women, and I don’t think it’s accidental at all. just my 2 cents plain.

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