I have another writing project going on that’s been taking up a lot of my time. Until it’s completed, my updates may be a bit spotty. But not too much, hopefully, because Judges is actually fun to read.
This is a chapter with two major female characters who lead and defeat male characters. Deborah is the only female Judge, but not the only female prophet. She rules over the Israelites, and command Barak to go defeat Sisera’s army. Barak asks Deborah to go with him. Why? Does he feel that she’ll be a good luck charm, her divine mandate a help to him? Does Deborah have a reputation for military strategy as well as judgment and prophecy? Is Barak reluctant to go, and feels he can get out of it by demanding Deborah to go with him, assuming that as a woman she wouldn’t go into battle?
Regardless of the reason, Deborah pronounces that Barak won’t get credit for defeating Sisera, but rather a woman. Barak probably assumed she meant herself, but she means Jael, a foreign woman from the Kenites, descendents of Moses’ in-laws. Her husband welcomes Sisera into his tent, their peoples being allies. Then Jael murders him as he sleeps.
There’s no explanation given as to why Jael does this, nor does it say that her husband approves of it. In fact, her husband seems the perfect, gracious host, and by killing their guest Jael is violating a major taboo on the treatment of guests.
So of course I went and looked up some midrash on this, because those are always fun. There’s a word used in verse 18 that only appears once in the Bible, semikhah, and a lot of interpretation hinges on it – what did she cover him with? Add to this the idea that Sisera “entered her tent,” and a common interpretation is that she had sex with Sisera and that’s what left him worn out. She’s considered to have not sinned because she did it for a good reason, but I’d add to this that we don’t even know if she was willing. Maybe Sisera demanded her as part of his right as a guest, and perhaps that’s what prompted Jael to kill him, and her husband to not object.
I really don’t see how people can read this chapter and then turn around and tell women to not take leadership positions or to stay out of the military or what have you. Deborah’s depicted unambiguously as being in charge, and Jael gets all the credit for having defeated Sisera, a decision she made without consulting her husband. They are definitely not “submissive” women, and they’re treated as heroes.
The Japanese: oui ni tsuku “to take the throne” (v 2), ryou “counter for wheeled vehicles,” chikarazuku “force, with all one’s might,” osaetsukeru “to suppress” (v 3), douin suru “to mobilize” (v 6), eiyo “glory, honor, distinction,” tadachi “at once, right away” (v 9), haru “to pitch a tent” (v 11), yuukouteki “friendly, amicable” (v 17), oou “to cover with” (v 18), komekami “temple (of the head),” tsukarekitta “exhausted, worn-out,” shukusui suru “to sleep soundly” (v 21), kuppuku suru “to submit, to bow before” (v 23), assuru “to overwhelm” (v 24).
It’s worth noting the word for “prophet” uses different characters depending on whether it’s a regular prognosticator or one in the Bible. The difference is the yo in yogensha. The usual characters mean something like “one who speaks beforehand. The one used in the Bible would mean something like “one entrusted with words.” I’m not sure which is older or if this was a conscious choice by Japanese translators, but it’s an interesting variation.