To See the Enemy’s Family
“But… if it came to light, when my rival appeared, that he had a mother waiting for him....”
Several tribes of Israel, led by Deborah the prophet, triumph over the Canaanite king Jabin (Judges 4). The war ends when Yael the Kenite employs clever tactics to kill the Canaanite army commander, Sisera. In recounting the battle, Deborah’s poem (ch. 5) tells of Yael’s actions in vivid detail, praising Yael, the femme fatale:
שופטים ה:כד תְּבֹרַךְ מִנָּשִׁים יָעֵל
אֵשֶׁת חֶבֶר הַקֵּינִי
מִנָּשִׁים בָּאֹהֶל תְּבֹרָךְ.
Judg 5:24 Most blessed of women be Yael,
Wife of Heber the Kenite,
Most blessed of women in tents.
But the poem also highlights another woman, the mother of Sisera who was yearning for her son’s return:
שופטים ה:כח בְּעַד הַחַלּוֹן נִשְׁקְפָה
וַתְּיַבֵּב אֵם סִיסְרָא בְּעַד הָאֶשְׁנָב
מַדּוּעַ בֹּשֵׁשׁ רִכְבּוֹ לָבוֹא
מַדּוּעַ אֶחֱרוּ פַּעֲמֵי מַרְכְּבוֹתָיו.
Judg 5:28 Out of the window she peered,
the mother of Sisera gazed through the lattice:
“Why is his chariot so long in coming?
Why tarry the hoofbeats of his chariots?”
Depicting the mother of the vanquished enemy introduces a momentary pause within the narrative of the tumultuous and victorious war. It redirects the focus for a brief period away from the joy of victory and offers a poignant reminder of the enemy’s humanity.
Silence in the Wake of Victory
Whereas the biblical scene leaves us with Sisera’s mother waiting to hear his chariot’s return, the Israeli poet Haim Gouri (1923-2018), in his poem “His Mother,” depicts the uneasy silence left in the wake of the victory, culminating in the death of Sisera’s mother—an event that is not narrated in the Bible:
לִפְנֵי שָׁנִים בְּסוֹף שִׁירַת דְּבוֹרָה,
שָׁמַעְתִּי אֶת דּוּמִיַּת רֶכֶב סִיסְרָא אֲשֶׁר בּוֹשֵׁש לָבוֹא,
מֵבִּיט בְּאִמּוֹ שֶל סִיסְרָא הַנִּשְׁקֶפֶת בַּחַלּוֹן,
אִשָׁה שֶׁפַּס כֶּסֶף בִּשְׂעָרָהּ.
It was years ago, at the end of Deborah’s Song,
I heard the silence of Sisera’s chariot so long in coming,
I watch Sisera’s mother captured in the window,
a woman with a silver streak in her hair.
שְׁלַל צְבָעִים רִקְמָה,
צֶבַע רִקְמָתַיִם לְצַוְּרֵי שָׁלָל,
אוֹתָהּ שָׁעָה שָׁכַב בַּאֹהֶל כְּנִרְדָּם.
יָדָיו רֵיקוֹת מְאֹד.
עַל סַנְטֵרוֹ עִקְּבוֹת חָלָב חֶמְאָה וַדָּם.
A spoil of multi-hued embroideries,
two for the throat of each despoiler.
This is what the maidens saw.
That very hour he lay in the tent as one asleep.
His hands quite empty.
On his chin traces of milk, butter, blood.
הַדוּמִיָּה לֹא נִשְׁבְּרָה אֶל הַסּוּסִים וְאֶל הַמֶּרְכָּבוֹת,
גַּם הַנְּעָרוֹת שָׁתְקוּ אַחַת אַחַר אַחַת.
שְׁתִיקַתִי נָגְעָה בִּשְׁתִיקָתָן.
אַחַר זְמַן מַה שָׁקְעָה הַשֶׁמֶשׁ.
אַחַר זְמַן מַה כָּבוּ הַדִּמְדוּמִים.
The silence was not broken by the horses and chariots.
The maidens, too, fell silent one by one.
My silence reached out to theirs.
After awhile sunset.
After awhile the afterglow is gone.
אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה שָׁקְטָה הָאָרֶץ.
אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה לֹא דָּהֲרוּ סוּסִים וּפָרָשִׁים מֵתָיו לֹא נַעֲצוּ עֵינֵי זְכוּכִית.
אֲבָל הִיא מֶתָה, זְמַן קָצָר אַחַר מוֹת בְּנָהּ.
Forty years the land knew peace.
Forty years no horses galloped, no dead horsemen stared glassily.
But her death came soon after her son’s.
Poetry has the power to make sudden shifts in messages and emotions. In Deborah’s poem, what at first seems as an opportunity to convey empathic contemplation regarding the enemy through an allusion to his mother, is ultimately discovered to be a pedagogical ploy (hasbara?) that highlights the enemy's bloodthirsty nature.
The response of the “wisest ladies” (חכמות שרותיה, v. 29) to the anxious mother emphasizes the perceived malevolence of her son, the enemy, which includes abducting and raping women as war spoils:
שופטים ה:ל הֲלֹא יִמְצְאוּ יְחַלְּקוּ שָׁלָל
רַחַם רַחֲמָתַיִם לְרֹאשׁ גֶּבֶר
שְׁלַל צְבָעִים לְסִיסְרָא
שְׁלַל צְבָעִים רִקְמָה
צֶבַע רִקְמָתַיִם לְצַוְּארֵי שָׁלָל.
Judg 5:30 “Are they not finding and dividing the spoil?
—A girl or two for every man;
spoil of dyed stuffs for Sisera,
spoil of dyed stuffs embroidered,
two pieces of dyed work embroidered
for my neck as spoil?”
The fantasy of the wisest Canaanite ladies is of course a bitter irony. While the mother finds solace in imagining her son’s participation in the victory celebration, the readers know that Sisera lies lifeless in Yael’s tent. A poem, more so than prose, easily skips between realms and visualizes people’s thoughts and intentions.
Yet, we should remember that the scene involving Sisera’s mother is an imaginative construct of Deborah, or of the poet working behind the scenes to portray Sisera as the embodiment of cruelty and malevolence. Consequently, his defeat, especially at the hands of a woman he trusted, is regarded as a manifestation of historical (and poetic!) justice.
Unlike Gouri’s poem, Deborah’s Song does not fully embrace the literary freedom to imagine the enemy within their authentic surroundings, in a way that would acknowledge their inherent humanity.
Esau Sees Jacob’s Family
But there is a counterexample: the story of the reconciliation between Jacob and Esau. Here the adversary’s family is recognized in a way that encourages readers to view them as fellow human beings.
After leaving Laban’s home, Jacob prepares for an encounter with Esau. He organizes his family into groups, based on whom Esau will meet first. On the surface, this division starkly illustrates the love hierarchy that governs Jacob’s family relationships. The secondary wives (שפחות, Gen 33:2) and their children are the first to encounter Esau, implying they hold the least significance in Jacob’s concerns. Following them are Leah and her children, who may be considered more important and possibly more loved. The last to meet Esau, and thus seemingly first in the hierarchy of Jacob’s affections, are Rachel and Joseph.
But Esau himself does not interpret the division into camps as a manifestation of hierarchy. He rather perceives it as a gradual unveiling of Jacob’s familial world, which leaves a deep impression on him. This is evident in his inquiry to Jacob:
בראשית לג:ה וַיִּשָּׂא אֶת עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת הַנָּשִׁים וְאֶת הַיְלָדִים וַיֹּאמֶר מִי אֵלֶּה לָּךְ וַיֹּאמַר הַיְלָדִים אֲשֶׁר חָנַן אֱלֹהִים אֶת עַבְדֶּךָ.
Gen 33:5 Looking about, he saw the women and the children. “Who,” he asked, “are these with you?” He answered, “The children with whom God has favored your servant.”
Jacob provides only partial response to Esau, by referring to the children, not the wives. After Esau meets everyone, he asks Jacob again, מִי לְךָ כָּל הַמַּחֲנֶה הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר פָּגָשְׁתִּי, “What do you mean by all this company which I have met?” (v. 8a). Jacob responds: לִמְצֹא חֵן בְּעֵינֵי אֲדֹנִי “To gain my lord’s favor” (v. 8b), probably alluding to an offering of animals he meant to give to Esau. However, Esau is uninterested in a gift; instead, he is focused on understanding Jacob’s circumstances and offers to travel together with him or leave some of his men to accompany him (v. 12, 15).
By presenting his family to his former rival, Jacob submits himself to him and exposes his vulnerability and mortality. Through this gesture, Jacob reminds Esau of his humanity. Esau comes to recognize an entire world that is now integral to what constitutes Jacob. Consequently, the desire for revenge gives way to life.
A modern recognition of the humanity of the enemy through an encounter with their family is encapsulated in a poem by Taha Muhammad Ali, a Palestinian poet from the Galilee (1931-2011). Ali was 17 during the 1948 War of Independence and fled to Lebanon. In his poem “Revenge,” he unveils a way to transcend the urge for vengeance, leaving space for a pure mourning.
לִפְעָמִים מִתְחַשֵּׁק לִי
אֶת הָאִישׁ שֶׁרָצַח אֶת אָבִי
וְהָרַס אֶת בֵּיתִי
וְשִׁלֵּחַ אוֹתִי עֵירֹם וְעֶרְיָה
לְכָל הָרוּחוֹת שֶׁל עוֹלַם הַבְּרִיּוֹת הַצַּר.
At times … I wish
I could meet in a duel
the man who killed my father
and razed my home, and razed our home,
expelling me, bare and naked
into a narrow country.
וּמָצָאתִי מְנוּחָה נְכוֹנָה
And if he killed me,
I’d rest at last,
and if I were ready—
I would take my revenge!
אֲבָל…אִם יִתְגַּלֶּה לִי
אִמָּא שֶׁמַּמְתִּינָה לוֹ
אוֹ אַבָּא שֶׁמַּנִּיחַ אֶת כַּף יְמִינוֹ
עַל כִּבְרַת הַלֵּב בְּחָזֵהוּ
בְּכָל פַּעַם שֶׁהַבֵּן שֶׁלּוֹ מְאַחֵר
אֲפִלּוּ רֶבַע שָׁעָה
מֵעֵבֶר לְמוֹעֵד שׁוּבוֹ –
אִם הִכְנַעְתִּי אוֹתוֹ.
But… if it came to light,
when my rival appeared,
that he had a mother
waiting for him,
or a father who’d put
his right hand over
the heart’s place in his chest
whenever his son was late
even by just a quarter-hour
for a meeting they’d set—
then I would not kill him,
even I could.
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Dr. Gili Kugler is a Senior Lecturer of Biblical Studies in the University of Haifa. Until recently she was a lecturer in Biblical Studies and Classical Hebrew at the University of Sydney. She holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and teaches and writes about topics such as chosenness in biblical theology, religion and politics in prophecy, and biblical narratives and mythology in light of modern psychology. She is the author of several articles as well as the book When God Wanted to Destroy the Chosen People: Biblical Traditions and Theology on the Move (De Gruyter, 2019).