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Jacob L. Wright

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2018

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Yael and the Subversion of Male Leaders in Judges

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https://thetorah.com/article/yael-and-the-subversion-of-male-leaders-in-judges

APA e-journal

Jacob L. Wright

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,

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Yael and the Subversion of Male Leaders in Judges

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TheTorah.com

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2018

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https://thetorah.com/article/yael-and-the-subversion-of-male-leaders-in-judges

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Yael and the Subversion of Male Leaders in Judges

The Canaanite general Sisera is killed by Yael in her tent but in an older version of the story, he died in battle at the hands of the Israelite general, Barak. The story was revised as part of a broader theme in Judges, to weaken the image of male military heroes through women and give the power to God.

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Yael and the Subversion of Male Leaders in Judges

Yael shows Barak that she killed Sisera, James Tissot, c. 1896-1902. Wikimedia

A Brief Summary of the War with Sisera

Judges 4 tells the prose story of Deborah and Barak and their battle against Yabin king of Canaan and his general, Sisera. According to the story, a prophetess named Deborah summons Barak ben Avinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali to lead ten thousand men from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulon to Mount Tabor and there await the coming of Sisera’s army (v.6).

Deborah informs him that YHWH will lead Sisera’s army into the Kishon ravine, and there Barak is to descend upon him from Mount Tabor and defeat him (v.7). Sisera leads his 900 chariots there and Barak descends from the mountains at Deborah’s command with 10,000 men (v.13-14). At that point, YHWH causes Sisera’s army to panic and Barak’s troops slaughter Sisera’s entire army with not one survivor (v.16):

שופטים ד:טז …וַיִּפֹּל כָּל מַחֲנֵה סִיסְרָא לְפִי חֶרֶב לֹא נִשְׁאַר עַד אֶחָד.
Judg 4:16 …The whole camp of Sisera fell by the sword; no one was left.

Surprisingly, the following verses narrate that someone was not felled by sword—Sisera.

The Yael Interlude

Sisera avoids the battle by running off on foot to the tent of Hever the Kenite, an ally of Yabin’s. Hever is not home, but his wife Yael is (v.17). She covers him in a blanket, gives him milk to drink, and stands guard at the tent’s entrance (v.18-20). When he falls asleep, she takes a tent pin and a mallet, and murders him by cracking his skull (v.21). Just then, Barak, who had been chasing him, arrives at the tent, and she shows him Sisera’s dead body with a tent pin in his temple (v.22).

Not One Survivor?

Sisera’s survival is surprising on a number of grounds.

Linguistic – The text says that “not one survived” from Sisera’s army, but this is not the case. If the text had wanted to express that everyone other than Sisera was killed, it should have said, “no one was left but Sisera.” Similar formulations appear elsewhere:

God destroys the Northern Kingdom (2 Kings 17:18)

לֹא נִשְׁאַר רַק שֵׁבֶט יְהוּדָה לְבַדּוֹ
None was left but the tribe of Judah alone.

God exiles Judah (2 Kings 24:14)

לֹא נִשְׁאַר זוּלַת דַּלַּת עַם הָאָרֶץ
No one remained, except the poorest people in the land.

King Jehoram’s family is slaughtered (2 Chron 21:17)

וְלֹא נִשְׁאַר לוֹ בֵּן כִּי אִם יְהוֹאָחָז קְטֹן בָּנָיו
No son remained other than Jehoahaz, his youngest.

Form – On form-critical grounds, v. 16, narrating the complete destruction of the army, should be the ending of the story, but the story continues with the escape of Sisera and the interlude with Yael. The appropriateness of v. 16 as an ending is made clear from the story of the rescue at the Sea in Exodus 14; the two stories share similar language and themes, specifically, YHWH’s throwing the enemy into confusing, causing them to panic.

שמות יד:כד וַיְהִי בְּאַשְׁמֹרֶת הַבֹּקֶר וַיַּשְׁקֵף יְ-הוָה אֶל מַחֲנֵה מִצְרַיִם בְּעַמּוּד אֵשׁ וְעָנָן וַיָּהָם אֵת מַחֲנֵה מִצְרָיִם.יד:כה …וַיֹּאמֶר מִצְרַיִם אָנוּסָה מִפְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי יְ-הוָה נִלְחָם לָהֶם בְּמִצְרָיִם.
Exod 14:24 At the morning watch, YHWH looked down upon the Egyptian camp from a pillar of fire and cloud, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. 14:25 …And the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for YHWH is fighting for them against Egypt.”

The story continues with the death of the entire Egyptian army without exception:

שמות יד:כח וַיָּשֻׁבוּ הַמַּיִם וַיְכַסּוּ אֶת הָרֶכֶב וְאֶת הַפָּרָשִׁים לְכֹל חֵיל פַּרְעֹה הַבָּאִים אַחֲרֵיהֶם בַּיָּם לֹא נִשְׁאַר בָּהֶם עַד אֶחָד.
Exod 14:28 The waters turned back and covered the chariots and the horsemen — Pharaoh’s entire army that followed them into the sea; not one of them remained.[1]

The outline of these parallels stories is clear: a group of chariots chase down the Israelites, YHWH causes them to suddenly panic and they retreat too late to save themselves from total annihilation.[2]

The strange element in the Judges story is that the leader of the army inexplicably gets off his chariot and escapes à pied in a different direction than his army before the battle. When “Sisera’s army falls before the sword” (וַיִּפֹּל כָּל מַחֲנֵה סִיסְרָא לְפִי חֶרֶב) during their retreat to Haroshet-hagoyim, Sisera isn’t even there!

Sequence – Immediately after Barak sees Sisera’s dead body, the text states:

ד:כג וַיַּכְנַע אֱלֹהִים בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא אֵת יָבִין מֶלֶךְ כְּנָעַן לִפְנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
4:23 On that day God subdued King Yabin of Hazor before the Israelites.

The placement of the verse puts the focus on the death of Sisera at the hands of Yael, but it would read much more naturally as a follow up to v. 16, in which Barak puts every single soldier in Sisera’s army to the sword.

Plot – Sisera’s escape leads to a plot incongruity. While Sisera escapes on foot, Barak chases after Sisera’s panicked army, who are trying to get back to their home base of Haroshet-hagoyim:

שופטים ד:טז וּבָרָק רָדַף אַחֲרֵי הָרֶכֶב וְאַחֲרֵי הַמַּחֲנֶה עַד חֲרֹשֶׁת הַגּוֹיִם וַיִּפֹּל כָּל מַחֲנֵה סִיסְרָא לְפִי חֶרֶב לֹא נִשְׁאַר עַד אֶחָד.
Judg 4:16 And Barak pursued the chariots and the army as far as Haroshet-hagoyim. The whole camp of Sisera fell by the sword; no one was left.

And yet, after Yael kills Sisera in his sleep, Barak appears at her tent:

שופטים יד:כב וְהִנֵּה בָרָק רֹדֵף אֶת סִיסְרָא…
Judg 14:22 Now Barak appeared in pursuit of Sisera…

But if Barak “pursued the chariots and camp to Haroshet-hagoyim,” how could he have been simultaneously tracking Sisera to the tent of Yael in Elon-betzaanannim?[3]

Sisera Originally Died with his Army

For these reasons, I suggest that in an older version of the story, Sisera is killed along with his army in the failed retreat to Haroshet-hagoyim. In order to rescue Sisera and to deliver him into the hands of Yael, a later author inserted the reference to Sisera’s escape by foot before the scene of the failed retreat. The insertion is repeated in v. 17a, which is the beginning of the Yael interlude. 

Giving the Victory to a Woman and Adding Barak’s Cowardice

The above evidence suggests that vv. 17-22 are a supplement to an earlier story in which Yael played no role. This helps explain a number of other unusual elements and textual incongruities in the earlier part of the story as well. Deborah calls Barak and tells him to take 10,000 soldiers and wait on Mount Tabor for Yhwh to lead Sisera’s chariots into the area, promising that Sisera will fall to his hand:

שופטים ד:ו …הֲלֹא צִוָּה יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵךְ וּמָשַׁכְתָּ בְּהַר תָּבוֹר וְלָקַחְתָּ עִמְּךָ עֲשֶׂרֶת אֲלָפִים אִישׁ מִבְּנֵי נַפְתָּלִי וּמִבְּנֵי זְבֻלוּן. ד:ז וּמָשַׁכְתִּי אֵלֶיךָ אֶל נַחַל קִישׁוֹן אֶת סִיסְרָא שַׂר צְבָא יָבִין וְאֶת רִכְבּוֹ וְאֶת הֲמוֹנוֹ וּנְתַתִּיהוּ בְּיָדֶךָ.
Judg 4:6 … “YHWH, the God of Israel, has commanded: Go, march up to Mount Tabor, and take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun. 4:7 And I will draw Sisera, Yabin’s army commander, with his chariots and his troops, toward you up to the Kishon ravine; and I will deliver him into your hands.”

Barak offers a surprising response:

שופטים ד:ח וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלֶיהָ בָּרָק אִם תֵּלְכִי עִמִּי וְהָלָכְתִּי וְאִם לֹא תֵלְכִי עִמִּי לֹא אֵלֵךְ.
Judg 4:8 But Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go; if not, I will not go.”

Deborah responds to this strange request with a rebuke:

שופטים 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 answered, “Very well, I will go with you. However, there will be no glory for you in the course you are taking, for then YHWH will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” So Deborah went with Barak to Kedesh.

Thus, Deborah is essentially punishing Barak for his craven need to have Deborah accompany him to battle. I suggest that this surprising demonstration of cowardice by the story’s protagonist (v. 8) and Deborah’s hard response (v. 9) are redactional supplements designed to foreshadow the story of Yael’s killing of Sisera. What clinches this as a redaction is Deborah’s speech to Barak on Mount Tabor:

שופטים ד:יד וַתֹּאמֶר דְּבֹרָה אֶל בָּרָק קוּם כִּי זֶה הַיּוֹם אֲשֶׁר נָתַן יְ-הוָה אֶת סִיסְרָא בְּיָדֶךָ הֲלֹא יְהוָה יָצָא לְפָנֶיךָ
Judg 4:14 “Up! This is the day on which YHWH will deliver Sisera into your hands: YHWH is marching before you.”

Deborah seems to have forgotten her own prophecy here, that Sisera will not fall into Barak’s hands but into the hands of a woman! Apparently, the editor did not feel it necessary to adjust this verse to make it fit with the supplement. Despite this textual bump, the redaction of this story is made with great artistry. The reader is likely meant to understand Deborah’s claim in v. 9 as meaning she will get the credit in place of Barak. Yet there’s a twist: At the end of the story, Deborah is correct about “the hands of a woman,” but now we know it’s a different woman.

Deborah Goes Up Twice

The existence of a doublet in v. 10 supports the idea that vv. 8-9 are secondary. After Deborah concedes that she will accompany Barak, the text states:

שופטים ד:ט …וַתָּקָם דְּבוֹרָה וַתֵּלֶךְ עִם בָּרָק קֶדְשָׁה.
Judg 4:9 … So Deborah went with Barak to Kedesh.

After this verse, we are told that Barak heads north to gather his troops:

שופטים ד:י …וַתַּעַל עִמּוֹ דְּבוֹרָה
Judg 4:10 …And Deborah went up with him.

This latter phrase is likely original to the story, and implies that Deborah’s accompanying Barak to Mount Tabor was always her intention; it required no coaxing from him and came with no punishment. The earlier supplement in vv. 8-9 recasts her accompanying Barak as a negative, and this editor included the doublet to emphasize the connection between Deborah’s going up with Barak and Barak’s failure to trust in YHWH without Deborah’s support.

Introducing Hever the Kenite

Likewise, the statement in v. 11 about Yael’s husband Heber, interrupts the flow between Barak’s gathering of troops and Sisera hearing about it:

שופטים ד:י וַיַּזְעֵק בָּרָק אֶת זְבוּלֻן וְאֶת נַפְתָּלִי קֶדְשָׁה וַיַּעַל בְּרַגְלָיו עֲשֶׂרֶת אַלְפֵי אִישׁ וַתַּעַל עִמּוֹ דְּבוֹרָה.
Judg 4:10 Barak then mustered Zebulun and Naphtali at Kedesh; ten thousand men marched up after him; and Deborah also went up with him.
ד:יא וְחֶבֶר הַקֵּינִי נִפְרָד מִקַּיִן מִבְּנֵי חֹבָב חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה וַיֵּט אָהֳלוֹ עַד אֵלוֹן (בצענים) [בְּצַעֲנַנִּים] אֲשֶׁר אֶת קֶדֶשׁ.
4:11 Now Heber the Kenite had separated from the other Kenites, descendants of Hobab, father-in-law of Moses, and had pitched his tent at Elon-bezaanannim, which is near Kedesh.
ד:יב וַיַּגִּדוּ לְסִיסְרָא כִּי עָלָה בָּרָק בֶּן אֲבִינֹעַם הַר תָּבוֹר.
4:12 Sisera was informed that Barak son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor.

This information about Heber is irrelevant to the story thus far, and is only introduced here to foreshadow Sisera’s escape to Yael’s tent.

Men Brought Down by Women in Judges

Why was the Yael episode added and by whom? (For a basic reconstruction of core versus supplement, see the appendix.) Various lines of evidence suggest that the Yael episode, and the accompanying supplements, emerged within the framework of the book’s editing in the post-exilic period.

The core of the book of Judges, namely chapters 3-16, are built upon brief and disparate pre-exilic accounts of Israelite local heroes. These heroes are primarily northern in origin, and the oldest versions of their tales likely come from this region, although the tales of their heroism made their way to Judah, and became part of Judean lore. These stories were eventually recast by the editors of the book of Judges to cover the period between Joshua’s conquest and the monarchy, and to tell the stories of Israel’s leaders during this period. As part of the editing process, elements were added to the stories to make them fit with the overall project of the editors.

For example, the editors wanted to present the hero of each story as a judge or chieftain over all Israel. Thus, in the original Sisera narrative, Deborah was likely a local prophetess who is sent by YHWH to deliver a message and appoint Barak as leader; a similar role is played by Ahiyah the Shilonite (1 Kings 11:29), Elijah (1 Kings 18:46, 19:15, 21:17), and Elisha (2 Kings 5:8, 6:10, 9:1).[4]

The editor of Judges (see indented text below), turns Deborah the prophetess into a chieftain, to whom all of Israel comes for judgment (a midrash-style reinterpretation of the word shofet in this context, perhaps inspired by the image of her sitting under a tree):

שופטים ד:ד וּדְבוֹרָה אִשָּׁה נְבִיאָה אֵשֶׁת לַפִּידוֹת
Judg 4:4 Deborah the prophetess was the wife of Lappidot
הִיא שֹׁפְטָה אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּעֵת הַהִיא.
She was Israel’s chieftain at that time.
ד:ה וְהִיא יוֹשֶׁבֶת תַּחַת תֹּמֶר דְּבוֹרָה בֵּין הָרָמָה וּבֵין בֵּית אֵל בְּהַר אֶפְרָיִם
4:5 She used to sit under the Palm of Deborah, between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim,[5]
וַיַּעֲלוּ אֵלֶיהָ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לַמִּשְׁפָּט.
and the Israelites would come to her for decisions.
ד:ו וַתִּשְׁלַח וַתִּקְרָא לְבָרָק בֶּן אֲבִינֹעַם מִקֶּדֶשׁ נַפְתָּלִי וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו…
4:6 She summoned Barak son of Abinoam, of Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him…

The editor’s decision to cast Deborah as the ruler of Israel during the golden period, when one of the last Canaanite strongholds fell to the Israelites, fits with another of the book’s overall programs, namely, to subvert the heroic model and the male martial power that conventionally undergirded the authority of ancient states. To the post-exilic editor of Judges, heroic military leaders like Barak, Gideon, or even Saul and David were not the ideal rulers. In fact, the core stories of Judges are anti-monarchic; the heroic Gideon turns down the crown, and declares that only YHWH can rule Israel (8:23). The only chieftain who takes the crown in Judges is Gideon’s villainous son Abimelech (9:6), who murders all his brothers and dies in ignominy.[6]

One way Judges makes this point is by consistently placing the fate of powerful male warriors into the hands of women. This happens to many of Israel’s leaders in Judges—in what are all likely to be additions to the core narrative. 

Abimelech

The most explicit example of a man dishonorably killed by a woman is Abimelech. In his siege on the city of Tebetz, Abimelech’s army is encamped before a tower, which he is about to set on fire:

שופטים ט:נג וַתַּשְׁלֵךְ אִשָּׁה אַחַת פֶּלַח רֶכֶב עַל רֹאשׁ אֲבִימֶלֶךְ וַתָּרִץ אֶת גֻּלְגָּלְתּוֹ. ט:נד וַיִּקְרָא מְהֵרָה אֶל הַנַּעַר נֹשֵׂא כֵלָיו וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ שְׁלֹף חַרְבְּךָ וּמוֹתְתֵנִי פֶּן יֹאמְרוּ לִי אִשָּׁה הֲרָגָתְהוּ וַיִּדְקְרֵהוּ נַעֲרוֹ וַיָּמֹת.
Judg 9:53 But a woman dropped an upper millstone on Abimelech’s head and cracked his skull. 9:54 He immediately cried out to his attendant, his arms-bearer, “Draw your dagger and finish me off, that they may not say of me, ‘A woman killed him!'” So his attendant stabbed him, and he died.

Abimelech tries to undo the disgrace of being killed by a woman by having his male attendant finish him off. That the ruse is a failure becomes clear in the book of Samuel, in which Joab imagines David lecturing him about the dangers of laying siege too close to a wall or tower:

שמואל ב יא:כא מִי הִכָּה אֶת אֲבִימֶלֶךְ בֶּן יְרֻבֶּשֶׁת הֲלוֹא אִשָּׁה הִשְׁלִיכָה עָלָיו פֶּלַח רֶכֶב מֵעַל הַחוֹמָה וַיָּמָת בְּתֵבֵץ…
2 Sam 11:21 Who struck down Abimelech son of Jerubbesheth? Was it not a woman who dropped an upper millstone on him from the wall at Tebetz, from which he died?…

Since weapons of war are reserved for men, this unnamed woman wields a utensil from her domestic activities as a woman. As the Abimelech story offers no reason for the siege of Tebetz in the first place, the account was likely added to the core Abimelech story by the editor of Judges. 

Jephthah

Jephthah famously makes an oath to sacrifice the first person to come out to greet him upon his triumphant return home from battle. That person turns out to be his only, beloved daughter. When Jephthah realizes what he has done, he reacts with the following cry:

שופטים יא:לה וַיְהִי כִרְאוֹתוֹ אוֹתָהּ וַיִּקְרַע אֶת בְּגָדָיו וַיֹּאמֶר אֲהָהּ בִּתִּי הַכְרֵעַ הִכְרַעְתִּנִי וְאַתְּ הָיִיתְ בְּעֹכְרָי וְאָנֹכִי פָּצִיתִי פִי אֶל יְ-הוָה וְלֹא אוּכַל לָשׁוּב.
Judg 11:35 On seeing her, he rent his clothes and said, “Alas, daughter! You have brought me low; you have sullied me! For I have uttered a vow to YHWH and I cannot retract.”

The term, הכרע, literally “to bring to one’s knees,” is emphasized by the pun with בעכרי, “you have sullied me,” whose root (ע.כ.ר) has the same three letters but in a different order. The term כרע actually connects the Jephthah story directly to the poetic telling of the Yael account in ch. 5. After Yael kills Sisera,[7] the poem describes Sisera at Yael’s feet:

שופטים ה:כז בֵּין רַגְלֶיהָ כָּרַע נָפַל שָׁכָב בֵּין רַגְלֶיהָ כָּרַע נָפָל בַּאֲשֶׁר כָּרַע שָׁם נָפַל שָׁדוּד.
Judg 5:27 At her feet he sank, lay outstretched, at her feet he sank, lay still; where he sank, there he lay—destroyed.

The word “sank” comes from the same root as “bring to one’s knee” just in a different verb form. Both men are brought low by women in different ways.

That the interlude with his daughter (11:33-40) may be a supplement to the story is implied by the fact that it interrupts the flow between Jephthah’s success in battle (11:33) and the appearance of the Ephraimites to complain that they were not included (12:1), leading to the civil war.

Samson

Samson is given the gift of superhuman strength by God before he is even born and he uses this strength to fight the Philistines. His fortunes change in Judges 16, however:

שופטים טז:ד וַיְהִי אַחֲרֵי כֵן וַיֶּאֱהַב אִשָּׁה בְּנַחַל שֹׂרֵק וּשְׁמָהּ דְּלִילָה. טז:ה וַיַּעֲלוּ אֵלֶיהָ סַרְנֵי פְלִשְׁתִּים וַיֹּאמְרוּ לָהּ פַּתִּי אוֹתוֹ וּרְאִי בַּמֶּה כֹּחוֹ גָדוֹל וּבַמֶּה נוּכַל לוֹ וַאֲסַרְנֻהוּ לְעַנֹּתוֹ וַאֲנַחְנוּ נִתַּן לָךְ אִישׁ אֶלֶף וּמֵאָה כָּסֶף.
Judg 16:4 After that, he fell in love with a woman in the Wadi Sorek, named Delilah. 16:5 The lords of the Philistines went up to her and said, “Coax him and find out what makes him so strong, and how we can overpower him, tie him up, and make him helpless; and we’ll each give you eleven hundred shekels of silver.”

Delilah coaxes him into telling her that if his hair is cut, he will become a normal human. Samson, of course, does not know that she has been bribed by the Philistines, and he falls asleep in her lap. Delilah then calls a man to cut his hair, and he is taken prisoner by Philistines who take him to Ashkelon where he dies.

The Delilah story (ch. 16) comes after what appears to be the ending of the Samson story in the previous chapter (ch. 15):

שופטים טו:כ וַיִּשְׁפֹּט אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל בִּימֵי פְלִשְׁתִּים עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה.
Judg 15:20 He led Israel in the days of the Philistines for twenty years.

Verses like these are the standard ending of a hero’s story in Judges, which implies that chapter 16 is a supplement. This is supported by the repetition (Wiederaufnahme) of the same ending at the end of chapter 16:

שופטים טז:לא וַיֵּרְדוּ אֶחָיו וְכָל בֵּית אָבִיהוּ וַיִּשְׂאוּ אֹתוֹ וַיַּעֲלוּ וַיִּקְבְּרוּ אוֹתוֹ בֵּין צָרְעָה וּבֵין אֶשְׁתָּאֹל בְּקֶבֶר מָנוֹחַ אָבִיו וְהוּא שָׁפַט אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה.
Judg 16:31 His brothers and all his father’s household came down and carried him up and buried him in the tomb of his father Manoah, between Zorah and Eshtaol. He had led Israel for twenty years.

Deconstructing Male Power

In addition to magnifying the power of women, the book of Judges also emasculates some of its powerful male characters, as it does with Barak.

Eglon’s Unmanly Assassination

Ehud ben Gera, who frees Israel from the Moabite king Eglon, is left-handed (not a warrior’s trait by ANE standards),and assassinates the king in secret by pretending to have an important message for his ears and tricking him into a private interview. Ehud then stabs him in the stomach with his hidden dagger and runs away before the Moabites realize what he has done.

The story of the assassination (4:15b-26) is likely a later addition to a much briefer Ehud account, which has YHWH appoint him as a savior (4:15a), followed by his blowing the shofar and leading the Ephraimites in battle against Moab (4:27-30). The seam between the assassination account and the war is clear from the discontunity between v. 26, which has Ehud escape to Seir, and v. 27 which has him leading the Ephraimites in battle. Although why the story was added is not entirely clear, have noted the similarity between Ehud’s assassination of Eglon and Yael’s assassination of Sisera; both are effective and praiseworthy, but neither are classically “manly.”[8]

Gideon

Just as the Deborah supplement paints Barak as afraid to go to war without Deborah, the Gideon account contains a late introductory story[9] in which Gideon is approached by an angel while he is hiding in his father’s grain silo. The angel calls him a powerful warrior, but Gideon is apprehensive about going to war. He asks for more than one proof that YHWH will assist him and consequently, his triumph is ascribed to the fact that YHWH “goes with” him into battle (6:15-16).[10] 

The Power of YHWH

The older story of Barak’s triumph over Sisera was transformed into one in which Deborah becomes the central power and Sisera is brought down not by the Israelite general but by a Kenite woman. By revising the story in this way, both Barak and Sisera are taken down a peg. Powerful men are not the prime movers in the story, instead YHWH is pulling the strings, working often through women.[11]

The Yael episode is thus one example of an overall conception by the post-exilic editor of the book of Judges who uses the subversion of male power as a theme to highlight the ultimate power of YHWH over Israel. As Gideon himself says, when the Israelites petition him to become their king:

שופטים ח:כג …לֹא אֶמְשֹׁל אֲנִי בָּכֶם וְלֹא יִמְשֹׁל בְּנִי בָּכֶם יְ-הוָה יִמְשֹׁל בָּכֶם.
Judg 8:23 “I will not rule over you myself, nor shall my son rule over you; YHWH alone shall rule over you.”
Appendix

Reconstructing the Core Sisera Narrative[12]

שופטים ד:א וַיֹּסִפוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לַעֲשׂוֹת הָרַע בְּעֵינֵי יְ-הוָה וְאֵהוּד מֵת. ד:ב וַיִּמְכְּרֵם יְ-הוָה בְּיַד יָבִין מֶלֶךְ כְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר מָלַךְ בְּחָצוֹר וְשַׂר צְבָאוֹ סִיסְרָא וְהוּא יוֹשֵׁב בַּחֲרֹשֶׁת הַגּוֹיִם. ד:ג וַיִּצְעֲקוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל יְ-הוָה כִּי תְּשַׁע מֵאוֹת רֶכֶב בַּרְזֶל לוֹ וְהוּא לָחַץ אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּחָזְקָה עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה.
Judg 4:1 The Israelites again did what was offensive to YHWH — Ehud now being dead. 4:2 And YHWH surrendered them to King Yabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. His army commander was Sisera, whose base was Haroshet-hagoyim. 4:3 The Israelites cried out to YHWH; for he had nine hundred iron chariots, and he had oppressed Israel ruthlessly for twenty years.
ד:ד וּדְבוֹרָה אִשָּׁה נְבִיאָה אֵשֶׁת לַפִּידוֹת
4:4 Deborah the prophetess was the wife of Lappidot
הִיא שֹׁפְטָה אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּעֵת הַהִיא.
She was Israel’s chieftain at that time.
ד:ה וְהִיא יוֹשֶׁבֶת תַּחַת תֹּמֶר דְּבוֹרָה בֵּין הָרָמָה וּבֵין בֵּית אֵל בְּהַר אֶפְרָיִם
4:5 She used to sit under the Palm of Deborah, after Palm of Deborah, add [between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim]
וַיַּעֲלוּ אֵלֶיהָ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לַמִּשְׁפָּט.
and the Israelites would come to her for decisions.
ד:ו וַתִּשְׁלַח וַתִּקְרָא לְבָרָק בֶּן אֲבִינֹעַם מִקֶּדֶשׁ נַפְתָּלִי וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו הֲלֹא צִוָּה יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵךְ וּמָשַׁכְתָּ בְּהַר תָּבוֹר וְלָקַחְתָּ עִמְּךָ עֲשֶׂרֶת אֲלָפִים אִישׁ מִבְּנֵי נַפְתָּלִי וּמִבְּנֵי זְבֻלוּן. ד:ז וּמָשַׁכְתִּי אֵלֶיךָ אֶל נַחַל קִישׁוֹן אֶת סִיסְרָא שַׂר צְבָא יָבִין וְאֶת רִכְבּוֹ וְאֶת הֲמוֹנוֹ וּנְתַתִּיהוּ בְּיָדֶךָ.
4:6 She summoned Barak son of Abinoam, of Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “YHWH, the God of Israel, has commanded: Go, march up to Mount Tabor, and take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun. 4:7 And I will draw Sisera, Yabin’s army commander, with his chariots and his troops, toward you up to the Kishon ravine; and I will deliver him into your hands.”
ד:ח וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלֶיהָ בָּרָק אִם תֵּלְכִי עִמִּי וְהָלָכְתִּי וְאִם לֹא תֵלְכִי עִמִּי לֹא אֵלֵךְ. 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.
4:8 But Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go; if not, I will not go.” 4:9 She answered, “Very well, I will go with you. However, there will be no glory for you in the course you are taking, for then Yhwh will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” So Deborah went with Barak to Kedesh.
ד:י וַיַּזְעֵק בָּרָק אֶת זְבוּלֻן וְאֶת נַפְתָּלִי קֶדְשָׁה וַיַּעַל בְּרַגְלָיו עֲשֶׂרֶת אַלְפֵי אִישׁ וַתַּעַל עִמּוֹ דְּבוֹרָה.
4:10 Barak then mustered Zebulun and Naphtali at Kedesh; ten thousand men marched up after him; and Deborah also went up with him.
ד:יא וְחֶבֶר הַקֵּינִי נִפְרָד מִקַּיִן מִבְּנֵי חֹבָב חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה וַיֵּט אָהֳלוֹ עַד אֵלוֹן (בצענים) [בְּצַעֲנַנִּים] אֲשֶׁר אֶת קֶדֶשׁ.
4:11 Now Heber the Kenite had separated from the other Kenites, descendants of Hobab, father-in-law of Moses, and had pitched his tent at Elon-bezaanannim, which is near Kedesh.
ד:יב וַיַּגִּדוּ לְסִיסְרָא כִּי עָלָה בָּרָק בֶּן אֲבִינֹעַם הַר תָּבוֹר. ד:יג וַיַּזְעֵק סִיסְרָא אֶת כָּל רִכְבּוֹ תְּשַׁע מֵאוֹת רֶכֶב בַּרְזֶל וְאֶת כָּל הָעָם אֲשֶׁר אִתּוֹ מֵחֲרֹשֶׁת הַגּוֹיִם אֶל נַחַל קִישׁוֹן. ד:יד וַתֹּאמֶר דְּבֹרָה אֶל בָּרָק קוּם כִּי זֶה הַיּוֹם אֲשֶׁר נָתַן יְ-הוָה אֶת סִיסְרָא בְּיָדֶךָ הֲלֹא יְהוָה יָצָא לְפָנֶיךָ וַיֵּרֶד בָּרָק מֵהַר תָּבוֹר וַעֲשֶׂרֶת אֲלָפִים אִישׁ אַחֲרָיו.ד:טו וַיָּהָם יְהוָה אֶת סִיסְרָא וְאֶת כָּל הָרֶכֶב וְאֶת כָּל הַמַּחֲנֶה לְפִי חֶרֶב לִפְנֵי בָרָק
4:12 Sisera was informed that Barak son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor. 4:13 So Sisera ordered all his chariots — nine hundred iron chariots — and all the troops he had to move from Harosheth-hagoyim to the Wadi Kishon. 4:14 Then Deborah said to Barak, “Up! This is the day on which YHWH will deliver Sisera into your hands: YHWH is marching before you.” Barak charged down Mount Tabor, followed by the ten thousand men, 4:15 and YHWH threw Sisera and all his chariots and army into a panic before the onslaught of Barak.
וַיֵּרֶד סִיסְרָא מֵעַל הַמֶּרְכָּבָה וַיָּנָס בְּרַגְלָיו.
Sisera leaped from his chariot and fled on foot
ד:טז וּבָרָק רָדַף אַחֲרֵי הָרֶכֶב וְאַחֲרֵי הַמַּחֲנֶה עַד חֲרֹשֶׁת הַגּוֹיִם וַיִּפֹּל כָּל מַחֲנֵה סִיסְרָא לְפִי חֶרֶב לֹא נִשְׁאַר עַד אֶחָד.
4:16 And Barak pursued the chariots and the soldiers as far as Harosheth-hagoyim. All of Sisera’s soldiers fell by the sword; not a man was left.
ד:יז וְסִיסְרָא נָס בְּרַגְלָיו אֶל אֹהֶל יָעֵל אֵשֶׁת חֶבֶר הַקֵּינִי כִּי שָׁלוֹם בֵּין יָבִין מֶלֶךְ חָצוֹר וּבֵין בֵּית חֶבֶר הַקֵּינִי. ד:יח וַתֵּצֵא יָעֵל לִקְרַאת סִיסְרָא וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו סוּרָה אֲדֹנִי סוּרָה אֵלַי אַל תִּירָא וַיָּסַר אֵלֶיהָ הָאֹהֱלָה וַתְּכַסֵּהוּ בַּשְּׂמִיכָה. ד:יט וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלֶיהָ הַשְׁקִינִי נָא מְעַט מַיִם כִּי צָמֵאתִי וַתִּפְתַּח אֶת נֹאוד הֶחָלָב וַתַּשְׁקֵהוּ וַתְּכַסֵּהוּ. ד:כ וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלֶיהָ עֲמֹד פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל וְהָיָה אִם אִישׁ יָבוֹא וּשְׁאֵלֵךְ וְאָמַר הֲיֵשׁ פֹּה אִישׁ וְאָמַרְתְּ אָיִן. 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. ד:כב וְהִנֵּה בָרָק רֹדֵף אֶת סִיסְרָא וַתֵּצֵא יָעֵל לִקְרָאתוֹ וַתֹּאמֶר לוֹ לֵךְ וְאַרְאֶךָּ אֶת הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה מְבַקֵּשׁ וַיָּבֹא אֵלֶיהָ וְהִנֵּה סִיסְרָא נֹפֵל מֵת וְהַיָּתֵד בְּרַקָּתוֹ.
4:17 Sisera, meanwhile, had fled on foot to the tent of Yael, wife of Heber the Kenite; for there was friendship between King Yabin of Hazor and the family of Heber the Kenite. 4:18 Yael came out to greet Sisera and said to him, “Come in, my lord, come in here, do not be afraid.” So he entered her tent, and she covered him with a blanket. 4:19 He said to her, “Please let me have some water; I am thirsty.” She opened a skin of milk and gave him some to drink; and she covered him again. 4:20 He said to her, “Stand at the entrance of the tent. If anybody comes and asks you if there is anybody here, say ‘No.'” 4:21 Then Yael wife of Heber took a tent pin and grasped the mallet. When he was fast asleep from exhaustion, she approached him stealthily and drove the pin through his temple till it went down to the ground. Thus he died. 4:22 Now Barak appeared in pursuit of Sisera. Yael went out to greet him and said, “Come, I will show you the man you are looking for.” He went inside with her, and there Sisera was lying dead, with the pin in his temple.
ד:כג וַיַּכְנַע אֱלֹהִים בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא אֵת יָבִין מֶלֶךְ כְּנָעַן לִפְנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
4:23 On that day God subdued King Yabin of Hazor before the Israelites.
ד:כד וַתֵּלֶךְ יַד בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הָלוֹךְ וְקָשָׁה עַל יָבִין מֶלֶךְ כְּנָעַן עַד אֲשֶׁר הִכְרִיתוּ אֵת יָבִין מֶלֶךְ כְּנָעַן.
4:24 The hand of the Israelites bore harder and harder on King Yabin of Canaan, until they destroyed King Yabin of Canaan.

Published

January 25, 2018

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Last Updated

October 13, 2019

Footnotes

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Dr. Jacob L. Wright is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and the Director of Graduate Studies in Emory’s Tam Institute of Jewish Studies. His doctorate is from Georg-August-Universität, Göttingen. He is the author of Rebuilding Identity: The Nehemiah Memoir and its Earliest Readers (which won a Templeton prize) and David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory