Deborah, Yael and Sisera’s Mother, Themech
The Original Story: Judges 4–5
The prose account of Deborah the prophet (Judg 4), Israel’s only female judge, begins with her telling Barak that YHWH wants him to lead a battle against King Yabin and his general, Sisera (4:6–7). When Barak replies that he will only go if she accompanies him (v. 8), Deborah agrees, but prophesies that a woman, not Barak, will take Sisera’s life:
שׁפטים ד:ט וַתֹּאמֶר הָלֹךְ אֵלֵךְ עִמָּךְ אֶפֶס כִּי לֹא תִהְיֶה תִּפְאַרְתְּךָ עַל הַדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה הוֹלֵךְ כִּי בְיַד אִשָּׁה יִמְכֹּר יְ־הוָה אֶת סִיסְרָא וַתָּקָם דְּבוֹרָה וַתֵּלֶךְ עִם בָּרָק קֶדְשָׁה.
Judg 4:9 She said, “I will surely go with you. But there will be zero glory for you on the path you will take, for YHWH will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman. So Deborah arose and went with Barak to Kedesh.
As the battle turns against the Canaanites, a previously unknown character, Yael, enters the scene. She is the wife of Heber the Kenite, who is allied with Yabin (v. 17), towards whose tent Sisera flees from the battle. Yael invites him to shelter in her tent, where she speaks soothingly to him, feeds him milk, and covers him בַּשְּׂמִיכָה, under a blanket or rug (vv. 18–19). When he falls asleep, Yael kills him by hammering a tent peg through his head:
שׁפטים ד:כא וַתִּקַּח יָעֵל אֵשֶׁת חֶבֶר אֶת יְתַד הָאֹהֶל וַתָּשֶׂם אֶת הַמַּקֶּבֶת בְּיָדָהּ וַתָּבוֹא אֵלָיו בַּלָּאט וַתִּתְקַע אֶת הַיָּתֵד בְּרַקָּתוֹ וַתִּצְנַח בָּאָרֶץ וְהוּא נִרְדָּם וַיָּעַף וַיָּמֹת.
Judg 4:21 Yael wife of Heber took a tent-pin, and she took a hammer in her hand, and she came to him stealthily and struck him in the temple with the hammer, and it went into the ground—he was fast asleep and exhausted—and he died.
She then ushers Barak, who had been chasing Sisera, into her tent to display her bloody prize (v. 22).
The Poetic Account
The story is followed by a poetic rendition, known as the Song of Deborah (Judg 5), which is framed as the words of Deborah herself. After describing the battle, the poem offers an abbreviated version of Yael’s story. The poem omits most of the lead-up to the killing, mentioning only that while Sisera asks for water, Yael feeds him curds.
The poem differs from the prose on the details of Sisera’s death: he falls to the ground between Yael’s feet or legs as he dies, implying that he is standing and not sleeping when she strikes (vv. 26–27).
The song ends with a devastating scene of Sisera’s mother waiting for her son’s return:
שׁפטים ה:כח בְּעַד הַחַלּוֹן נִשְׁקְפָה וַתְּיַבֵּב אֵם סִיסְרָא בְּעַד הָאֶשְׁנָב מַדּוּעַ בֹּשֵׁשׁ רִכְבּוֹ לָבוֹא מַדּוּעַ אֶחֱרוּ פַּעֲמֵי מַרְכְּבוֹתָיו.
Judg 5:28 Through the window she looked down, Sisera’s mother cried shrilly through the lattice, “Why is his chariot so delayed in coming? Why does the noise of his chariots tarry?”
In an ironic twist, she imagines that he is late coming home because he and his men are dividing the spoils of their victory over the Israelites, including captured Israelite women:
שופטים ה:ל הֲלֹא יִמְצְאוּ יְחַלְּקוּ שָׁלָל רַחַם רַחֲמָתַיִם לְרֹאשׁ גֶּבֶר שְׁלַל צְבָעִים לְסִיסְרָא שְׁלַל צְבָעִים רִקְמָה צֶבַע רִקְמָתַיִם לְצַוְּארֵי שָׁלָל.
Judg 5:30“Aren’t they finding and dividing the spoil? A womb or two for each man’s head, spoil of dyed cloth for Sisera, spoil of dyed cloth, an embroidered cloth or two, spoil for their necks!”
The text never describes the scene in which she finds out her son is dead, leaving this to the reader’s imagination.
Biblical Antiquities: Rewritten Bible
The story of Deborah and Yael is retold in the Biblical Antiquities (Liber antiquitatum biblicarum [LAB]). The work was initially attributed to the first century B.C.E. Jewish historian and philosopher Philo of Alexandria, but once scholars recognized that the style and themes were distinct from Philo’s, the author became known as Pseudo-Philo.
Composed in the first or second century C.E., Biblical Antiquities survives only in Latin, but most scholars believe it was composed in Hebrew and translated to Greek and then into Latin. If it was indeed written in Hebrew, it was likely composed in Palestine. Biblical Antiquities rewrites Israelite history from creation to the death of King Saul, but is selective in what it includes.
The stories it chooses to reimagine are often those involving women, and the author routinely enhances the roles of female characters. Some have even suggested that the author was herself a woman; certainly the author’s penchant for female characters is apparent in its rewriting of Judges 4–5. The new version expands in particular on two aspects of the biblical accounts: the theme of motherhood and the sexual innuendo present in the killing of Sisera.
Deborah: A Mother in Israel
The Song of Deborah refers to Deborah as אֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, “a mother in Israel” (Judg 5:7), in the sense that she mothers the nation. This suggests that she has a leadership role in as well as responsibility for the nation. Biblical Antiquities magnifies Deborah’s image as a mother of the people. As she approaches the end of her life, the Israelites gather around her much as Jacob’s children do when he is about to die (Gen 49):
LAB 33:1 And when the day of [Deborah’s] death approached, she sent and assembled all the people and said to them, “Now listen, my people. See, I instruct you as a woman of God and enlighten you as one of the female sex. Obey me like your mother and turn to my words as ones who will die.”
The people respond to Deborah’s use of maternal imagery by relating to her as their matriarch:
LAB 33:4 “See now, mother, you are dying and leaving your sons [or: children]; to whom do you entrust them?”
Yael Mothers Sisera
The maternal element is already prominent in Yael and Sisera’s interactions in Judges 4–5. She mothers him by promising to keep him safe, tucking him in, giving him his milk or curds, and allowing him to fall asleep (vv. 18–19). The rabbis saw this maternal imagery, with one midrash indicating that Yael offered Sisera milk from her breasts (b. Niddah 55b). Biblical Antiquities further highlights the theme of motherhood in Yael’s interactions with Sisera. It builds up the scene with Sisera speaking like a child, and Yael like his mother, telling him he must rest while she goes to get him a drink:
LAB 31:4 After this Sisera was parched and said to Yael, “Offer me a little water, because I am disjointed and my soul is burned by a devouring flame that I saw in the stars.” Yael said to him, “Rest a little, and then you will drink.”…
The text continues with Yael obtaining the milk directly from a ewe (LAB 31:5), connecting the general-turned-little-boy to this mother animal. Additionally, this version of Yael mothers Sisera more intensely. He repeatedly complains that he is “burning” or “blazing” (31:4, 6) and the narrator describes him as “disjointed,” “dissolved,” or “out of sorts” (31:4, 5) The implication is that he is sick, maybe with a fever, and Yael will nurse him back to health. Sisera’s stated desire to return home to his mother also creates a parallel for the reader: eventually, Sisera will return to his mother, but for the time being, Yael will fill that role for him.
Themech, Sisera’s Mother
In the biblical account, Sisera’s mother is unnamed, and her story appears only at the very end of the poetic rendition, where she anxiously ponders her son’s long absence. Biblical Antiquities gives her a name, Themech, which increases her importance, gives her a more integral role in the story, and portrays her more negatively. She is mentioned not only after Sisera’s death, but also at the beginning of Sisera’s encounter with Yael, where he vows to return home to his mother with her. Here, we glimpse what Sisera seeks when he flees to Yael’s tent: maternal comfort. Disjointed from the battle, he can think of only two things: sex and his mother. Yael promises both sex and surrogate motherhood.
Themech expresses none of the anxiety about her son that we see in Judges 5; instead, she gathers her friends to await Sisera’s return, confident that he is coming, and mentions only the captive women he will bring, not other spoils of war:
LAB 31:8 Now Sisera’s mother was called Themech. She sent to her friends, saying, “Come and we will go out together to meet my son, and we will see the daughters of the Hebrews whom my son will bring with him as concubines.”
It is an unflattering portrayal, this image of a woman waiting to see the war captives her son will rape.
In Judges, the story ends before Sisera’s mother finds out what has happened to him. Biblical Antiquities adds a powerful final scene to her story. After Yael kills Sisera, she invites Barak to her tent to see what she has done:
LAB 31:9 And Barak, having entered, found Sisera dead and said, “Blessed be the Lord, who sent your spirit and said, ‘Sisera will be handed over into the hand of a woman.’” And having said this he took away Sisera’s head and sent the thing to his mother, and delivered it to her, saying, “Take your son who you hoped would come with spoil.”
Barak taunts Themech not only over her son’s death but also over her disappointed expectations of his victorious return home with captive women as spoils.
Yael Entices Sisera
The biblical story of Yael is suggestive. Yael beckons Sisera, welcoming him into her tent while her husband is not home:
שׁפטים ד:יח וַתֵּצֵא יָעֵל לִקְרַאת סִיסְרָא וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו סוּרָה אֲדֹנִי סוּרָה אֵלַי אַל תִּירָא וַיָּסַר אֵלֶיהָ הָאֹהֱלָה וַתְּכַסֵּהוּ בַּשְּׂמִיכָה.
Judg 4:18 Yael came out to greet Sisera and said to him, “Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me, do not be afraid.” So he entered her tent, and she covered him with a blanket.
When Yael approaches Sisera to kill him, the text says וַתָּבוֹא אֵלָיו, “she came to him” (4:21), a phrase that is often associated with sex. The act of killing by forced penetration mimics a rape, a connection made clearer by the musings of Sisera’s mother about the wartime sex slaves he might bring home. In the Song of Deborah, when Yael strikes Sisera, he falls בֵּין רַגְלֶיהָ, which in context likely means “between her feet,” but can also be translated with the more sexual “between her legs.” Indeed, rabbinic midrash says as much (b. Yebamot 103a):
בין רגליה כו'! לישנא מעליא. אמר רבי יוחנן: שבע בעילות בעל אותו רשע באותו היום...
“Between her legs” this is a euphemism. Rabbi Yohanan said: “That wicked man had sex [with Yael] seven times that day….”
There is no need to see actual sex between Yael and Sisera, and I do not, but the wording and imagery in Judges 4–5 are sexually charged.
Sexual Innuendo in Pseudo-Philo
While not explicitly stating that the two had sex, Biblical Antiquities retells the story with more sexual innuendo then does the Bible. In Biblical Antiquities, Deborah informs Barak that she has learned through prophecy that the enemy general, Sisera, is saying to his troops: “I will go down to overcome Israel with my strong arm, and I will divide their spoil among my servants, and I will take the beautiful women for myself as concubines” (LAB 31:1). Perhaps expecting Sisera’s rapacious intentions, Yael dresses up before going out to greet him:
LAB 31:3 When Sisera, on a horse, had fled to save his life, Yael the wife of the Kenite adorned herself in her finery and went out to meet him, and the woman was exceedingly beautiful…
In Judges, Sisera is headed to her tent already, since her husband is an ally, while in Biblical Antiquities he is simply running for his life when Yael takes initiative to lure him to her tent. Going out to meet a man who is not already headed her way and convincing him to enter her tent is loaded with sexual possibilities:
LAB 31:3 …Seeing him, she said to him, “Come in and eat some food and sleep until evening; I will send my servants with you. For I know that you will remember me and repay me in kind”…
The highlight of Yael’s seduction plan is the scattering of rose petals on her bed:
LAB 31:3 …And entering, Sisera saw roses scattered on the bed, and he said, “If I will be safe, I will go to my mother, and Yael will be my woman.”
This trope is used in television, movies, and music today, but it would also have been recognizable as a sexual signal to an ancient audience, since it was common in Greek erotic literature. More to the point, Sisera recognizes it as erotic: it is only after he sees the rose petals that he vows to make Yael his woman if he escapes safely.
Motherhood and Sex Together?
The combination of motherhood and sex in Yael’s interactions with Sisera is disturbing, with shades of Freud’s Oedipus. Indeed, some readers have resisted seeing both maternity and eroticism in Judges 4–5 precisely because the two seem incongruous.
But the reader should consider that sexuality and motherhood are both extraordinarily powerful symbols, and thus it is not unheard of for an author to combine the two, even if it is uncomfortable to contemplate. It is also important to note that both are indeed symbols and should not be taken literally; the text uses sexual imagery but nowhere states that Yael and Sisera actually have sex.
A Rewritten Story
Why did Pseudo-Philo rewrite the biblical text in this way? There are several factors at play.
Biblical Antiquities was likely inspired to rewrite Yael’s character in a more sexual way by the book of Judith, in which Judith, a beautiful widow, attracts and then assassinates the Assyrian general Holofernes in order to free her people from Assyrian oppression. For example, Yael’s adornment before she goes to find Sisera calls to mind Judith, who bathes and dresses up to seduce and then murder Holofernes (Judith 10:3–4).
In both cases, the heroine’s adornment is the equivalent of a soldier donning armor before battle, since her beauty and fancy dress are her weapons. The narrator’s comment on Yael’s beauty also echoes the book of Judith’s extensive praise of its heroine’s physical appearance and suggests seduction, and Yael’s suggestive words to Sisera call to mind Judith’s verbal foreplay with the general Holofernes. Finally, both characters create an erotic tableau for their targets, Yael with rose petals and Judith by reclining on a lambskin in Holofernes’ tent.
Since Judith itself is built on the Yael account in Judges, and alludes to it continually, it is not surprising that Biblical Antiquities would, in turn, draw on Judith to expand its Yael account. Not incidentally, Biblical Antiquities’ version of the Yael story also borrows parts of its theology from Judith, with both characters praying to God before undertaking their tasks and both emphasizing their roles as divine instruments.
Regarding the increased role for Sisera’s mother, it has been suggested that Biblical Antiquities takes a special interest in mothers as indicators of their children’s destiny: a good mother ensures a good future, while a bad mother signals doom. Themech and her offensive words thus serve as explanation and justification for Sisera’s fate, especially because Sisera’s wish to go to his mother indicates a close relationship between the two.
The maternal aspects of Yael and Deborah’s characters may relate to Biblical Antiquities’ general interest in mothers and femininity. It would seem that Biblical Antiquities made these two characters less threatening to readers by focusing on their maternal qualities. Both characters are transgressive, Yael because she kills a general by penetrating him with a phallic weapon, Deborah because she leads her people, and both because they are apparently childless in a textual world preoccupied with birthing sons.
By hammering home both women’s maternal roles—Yael as surrogate mother to Sisera, Deborah as “a mother in Israel”—the author makes both women more palatable to an ancient audience that may have been unnerved by their boldness and independence.
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Dr. Caryn Tamber-Rosenau is instructional assistant professor of Jewish Studies and Religious Studies at the University of Houston. She studies women, gender, and sexuality in the Bible and Second Temple literature. She is the author of Women in Drag: Gender and Performance in the Hebrew Bible and Early Jewish Literature (Gorgias, 2018). For more on Tamber-Rosenau’s work, visit www.caryntamber-rosenau.com.
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