Wibble Tuesday: Girl power (Judges 4–5)

Lost some time there, with travel and a touch of illness and whatnot. Sorry. On to the next judge. This one has more of a story than Shamgar.

Short snarky summary: Israel’s invaded again. The fairly useless general Barak raises an army, but all the real work in this story is done by women. Then we have a musical interlude.


So we get the usual prologue: the last judge died, Israel offended God, and they’ve been invaded by the conqueror du jour. This one is Jabin of Hazor — who I’m pretty sure was killed back in Joshua 11:10, so let’s suppose this is a different king of the same name — and the only thing worth mentioning about this guy is that he has iron chariots, which were totally a Big Deal in the ancient world.

This is the background we’re given, and then we get our heroine, Deborah. Interestingly, she’s one of the few “Judges” worthy of the name. Most of the redeemers we’ve seen so far and will see later would be better characterized as “heroes”, winning through military might and/or individual mightiness. But Deborah, we are explicitly told, leads people by being their designated decision-maker. This ties in with some standard gender-roles (wymmenfolk aren’t supposed to fight, no?) but the fact that we have a strong female character at all is pretty notable and makes up for the fact that she can’t fight. Seriously, Deborah might be the most active female character we’ve seen since… Rebecca or Tamar, back in Genesis? It hasn’t exactly been a parade of female empowerment or even agency.

As mentioned above, Deborah’s lack of prowess as a warrior disqualifies her from the redemption-through-might of Israel, which means we also need a proxy judge, a man of arms. She calls up Barak, a Naphtalite, about which we know pretty much nothing other than that he’s male and thus ostensibly qualified to lead an Israelite uprising against Jabin’s force, which is led by the commander Sisera.

Barak is basically a limp noodle and doesn’t answer the call with enthusiasm, only agreeing if Deborah comes along to back him up. Debbie’s annoyed and tells him that he’s going to end up upstaged by women for eing so lame. Seriously, Deborah is awesome and doesn’t take any shit from men. Where was this archetype for the past 6 books? Anyways, they muster 10,000 men of Zebulon and Naphtali, which is a pretty weak showing from two tribes which, when last seen, collectively boasted well upwards of 100,000 warriors.

Verse 4:11 provides an apparent irrelevancy, indicating that Heber the Kenite was living near the battleground. The Kenites were, we are informed, the descendants of Moses’s father-in-law, so presumably they’re a Midianite group, assuming that Moses’s father-in-law Hobab, mentioned here, is the same person as was previously called Reuel and Jethro. Weirdly, Kenites are mentioned predating Jethro, as early as Genesis 15, where they make a showing in a list of the indigineous people of Canaan. So it’s a bit mysterious just who these people are and what their relationship with Israel is. You’d expect those who are kin to Jethro to be able to claim bonds of kinship with the house of Israel, since Moses’s children are their cousins. So maybe there are Kenites as a whole, who have either neutrality or hostility with Israel, and the Hobabites, who are allies. Either way, Heber’s one of the latter, which ends up being significant.

The actual battle, in verse 4:12–13, is totally anticlimactic. Sisera moves on Barak’s camp, and Barak’s army charges them. Sisera’s army panics and flees, and Team Barak overtakes them (how does a force on foot overtake the chariots? Dunno) and slaughters them.

But Sisera himself escapes. Now it seems like a commander without an army isn’t a very threatening figure, but I guess glory comes from not just conquering the army but vanquishing its leaders, and with Sisera escaped, Barak’s victory is a bit hollow. Sisera takes refuge with the aforementioned Heber, which is why he’s relevant. Oddly, we’re told here in verse 4:17 that Jabin and Heber are allied, and now my political map is hopelessly muddled, because I assumed Heber was kin to and allied with Israel, which is at war with Jabin. So confusing.

The mystery of these alliances becomes that much more confusing when we look at the actions of Heber’s wife Jael, who welcomes Sisera with hospitality (offering milk when he asks for water), and then assassinates his with a tent spike to the brainpan after he falls asleep.

It’s not clear entirely what to make of this, either motivationwise or morally. From a Biblical perspective the apparent take-home is that Jael is good for killing a Bad Man. But nonetheless it’s a bit shocking, because in the Near East hospitality was a big deal, and abuse of a guest’s trust was a major crime in most societies, under which lens Jael coems across as totally screwed up. Add that to the fact that she didn’t seem to have a reason to do it (since her clan was allied with Sisera’s boss), nor was it necessary (as Sisera’s army was routed), and it’s hard to actually figure out what to make of Jael’s action. But she’s also an empowered woman, even if she’s using that power in inscrutable ways, so we get another point or two towards women who aren’t scenery.

Of course, the narrative reason for Jael is obvious: it’s Barak’s comeuppance and the the fulfillment of Deborah’s prophecy that a woman would get all the glory.

Chapter 5 is a triumphant song Deborah and Barak sang, so we get a verse-form praise of God, recounting of the story, and social criticism. There are some colorful turns of phrases to describe Israelites and their actions, and a verse mentioning our old friend Shamgar! This verse tells us more about Shamgar’s Israel that Shamgar’s own story does: in flowery language there’s an image of trade beign strangled and travelers avoiding the main roads, which suggests not merely conquest but lawlessness. Most of the song, however, is dedicated to the story of the muster and the victory. Interestingly, the muster as described in verses 5:14–15 is a lot more far-reaching than that described in the story: it asserts participation of Isschar, Ephraim, and Benjamin. The last of these is odd, because the geography and tribes involved suggest a northern local battle, and Benajmin’s territory is a long way off.

Verse 22–23 are somewhat mysterious in mentioning a previously unseen third party: Meroz, who it is asserted is cursed for not aiding Israel. They aren’t mentioned elsewhere, so maybe this part of the story is from a conflicting folk tradition which didn’t make it into the final cut of the prose narration.

Of course, the best part of the song is verses 28–30, which injects a vein of comedy, with the listener invited to consider Sisera’s mother, wondering where her son is, and figuring that he’s busy divvying up spoils of war. I guess it’s not as funny if you’re her, but it’s all in the presentation, and these few verses are authentically amusing.

Anyways, that there is Deborah. She’s a pretty cool lady, and I don’t think we get to see her like again for several books at least (seriously, I’m not sure who the next female character with agency is. Jezebel, maybe?).

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

One Response to Wibble Tuesday: Girl power (Judges 4–5)

  1. swildstrom says:

    If you recall, the story of Jael and Sisera played a prominent part in Trollope’s The Last Chronicle of Barset

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