04 Deborah and Yael


Frymer-Kensky, Tikva   Reading the Women of the Bible: A new Interpretation of their Stories.  (Shocken Books, New York, 2002).



Deborah – Prophet and Judge   Judges 4:1-5

1 The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD; Ehud was dead.  2  So the LORD sold them into the power of the Canaanite king, Jabin, who reigned in Hazor. The general of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim.   3 But the Israelites cried out to the LORD; for with his nine hundred iron chariots Jabin harshly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years.  4  At that time the prophet Deborah, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel.  5 She used to sit under Deborah’s palm tree, between Ramah and Bethel in the mountain region of Ephraim, where the Israelites came up to her for judgment.


Summons to battle   Judges 4:6-10


6 She had Barak, son of Abinoam, summoned from Kedesh of Naphtali. She said to him, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, commands: Go, march against Mount Tabor, and take with you ten thousand men from Naphtali and Zebulun.   7 I will draw Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, out to you at the Wadi Kishon, together with his chariots and troops, and I will deliver them into your power.”  8  But Barak answered her, “If you come with me, I will go; if you do not come with me, I will not go.”  9 “I will certainly go with you,” she replied, “but you will not gain glory for the expedition on which you are setting out, for it is into a woman’s power that the LORD is going to sell Sisera.” So Deborah arose and went with Barak and journeyed with him to Kedesh.   10 Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh, and ten thousand men followed him.   Deborah also went up with him.



The Battle    Judges 4: 13-16



13  So Sisera called out all nine hundred of his iron chariots and all his forces from Harosheth-ha-goiim to the Wadi Kishon.   14  Deborah then said to Barak, “Up! This is the day on which the LORD has delivered Sisera into your power. The LORD marches before you.” So Barak went down Mount Tabor, followed by his ten thousand men.   15 And the LORD threw Sisera and all his chariots and forces into a panic before Barak.  Sisera himself dismounted from his chariot and fled on foot, 16 but Barak pursued the chariots and the army as far as Harosheth-ha-goiim. The entire army of Sisera fell beneath the sword, not even one man surviving.


Yael the Story  Judges 4:17-18



17 Sisera fled on foot to the tent of Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite, for there was peace between Jabin, king of Hazor, and the family of Heber the Kenite.  18 Jael went out to meet Sisera and said to him, “Turn aside, my lord, turn aside with me; do not be afraid.” So he went into her tent, and she covered him with a rug.



Mothering him to death  Judges 4:19-22



19 He said to her, “Please give me a little water to drink. I am thirsty.” So she opened a skin of milk, gave him a drink, and then covered him.  20 “Stand at the entrance of the tent,” he said to her. “If anyone comes and asks, ‘Is there someone here?’ say, ‘No!’”  21  Jael, wife of Heber, got a tent peg and took a mallet in her hand. When Sisera was in a deep sleep from exhaustion, she approached him stealthily and drove the peg through his temple and down into the ground, and he died.  22 Then when Barak came in pursuit of Sisera, Jael went out to meet him and said to him, “Come, I will show you the man you are looking for.”  So he went in with her, and there lay Sisera dead, with the tent peg through his temple.




The Song of Deborah and Yael   Judges 5


Song of Deborah.

1 On that day Deborah sang this song—and Barak, son of Abinoam:

2 When uprising broke out in Israel, when the people rallied for duty—bless the LORD!

3 Hear, O kings! Give ear, O princes!  I will sing, I will sing to the LORD,

    I will make music to the LORD, the God of Israel.


4 LORD, when you went out from Seir, when you marched from the plains of Edom,

   The earth shook, the heavens poured, the clouds poured rain,

5 The mountains streamed,  before the LORD, the One of Sinai,

    before the LORD, the God of Israel.


6 In the days of Shamgar, son of Anath, in the days of Jael, caravans ceased:

    Those who traveled the roads now traveled by roundabout paths.

7 Gone was freedom beyond the walls, gone indeed from Israel.

    When I, Deborah, arose, when I arose, a mother in Israel.




8 New gods were their choice; then war was at the gates.

    No shield was to be found, no spear, among forty thousand in Israel!

9 My heart is with the leaders of Israel, with the dedicated ones of the people—bless the LORD;


10 Those who ride on white donkeys, seated on saddle rugs,

     and those who travel the road, Sing of them 11 to the sounds of musicians at the wells.

     There they recount the just deeds of the LORD, his just deeds bringing freedom to Israel.


12 Awake, awake, Deborah!  Awake, awake, strike up a song!

     Arise, Barak!  Take captive your captors, son of Abinoam!

13 Then down went Israel against the mighty,

     the army of the LORD went down for him against the warriors.


14 From Ephraim, their base in the valley; behind you, Benjamin, among your troops.

     From Machir came down commanders, from Zebulun wielders of the marshal’s staff.

15  The princes of Issachar were with Deborah, Issachar, faithful to Barak;

     in the valley they followed at his heels. 


     Among the clans of Reuben great were the searchings of heart!

16  Why did you stay beside your hearths listening to the lowing of the herds?

     Among the clans of Reuben great were the searchings of heart!


17 Gilead stayed beyond the Jordan; Why did Dan spend his time in ships?

     Asher remained along the shore, he stayed in his havens.

18  Zebulun was a people who defied death, Naphtali, too, on the open heights!


19  The kings came and fought; then they fought, those kings of Canaan,

      At Taanach by the waters of Megiddo; no spoil of silver did they take.

20  From the heavens the stars fought; from their courses they fought against Sisera.


21  The Wadi Kishon swept them away; the wadi overwhelmed them, the Wadi Kishon.

      Trample down the strong!

22  Then the hoofs of the horses hammered, the galloping, galloping of steeds.


23  “Curse Meroz,” says the messenger of the LORD, “curse, curse its inhabitants!

     For they did not come when the LORD helped, the help of the LORD against the warriors.”

24  Most blessed of women is Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite,

     blessed among tent-dwelling women!


25 He asked for water, she gave him milk, in a princely bowl she brought him curds.

26 With her hand she reached for the peg, with her right hand, the workman’s hammer.

     She hammered Sisera, crushed his head; she smashed, pierced his temple.


27 At her feet he sank down, fell, lay still; down at her feet he sank and fell;

     where he sank down, there he fell, slain.


28 From the window she looked down, the mother of Sisera peered through the lattice:

      “Why is his chariot so long in coming?  why are the hoofbeats of his chariots delayed?”

29  The wisest of her princesses answers her; she even replies to herself,

30  “They must be dividing the spoil they took: a slave woman or two for each man,

     Spoil of dyed cloth for Sisera, spoil of ornate dyed cloth,

     a pair of ornate dyed cloths for my neck in the spoil.”


31 So perish all your enemies, O LORD!

     But may those who love you be like the sun rising in its might!

     And the land was at rest for forty years.







The times (entering the Promised Land, already occupied by others) calls for warriors.  F-K p. 45: “One, Deborah, initiates the battle, calling the troops to action and declaring the start of hostilities.  The other, Yael, delivers the coup de grace that completes the defeat of Canaan.”


F-K p. 45: “The story is in Judges 4 and the song is in Judges 5.  The Song of Deborah is a very ancient poem, one of the earliest writings that the Bible preserves: it was most probably written in the eleventh century (BC), soon after the events it  records.”


F-K p. 45: “Deborah was active in the public arena as part of her normal everyday life.  Her role as leader began sometime before the events related in the narratives by which she is remembered, but how she became a leader is one of the many facets of her life that went unrecorded.”


“Judges” did “judge” between 2 parties when there was a dispute but their PRIMARY status was as overall leader of the Israelites.  The Spirit of God anointed them in times of need, they rose up to lead Israel in a time of crisis.  They often continued on after the crisis was overcome.  Tradition says that there were 12 of them in the time period between Moses/Joshua and King Saul.



Deborah – Prophet and Judge   Judges 4:1-5

F-K p. 46: “… she is Lapidot-woman.  Eset lapidot could be translated “wife of Lapidot”, but it also means ‘woman of torches.”  Lapidot, “torches”, comes where we would ordinarily expect a husband’s name, but it is a strange-sounding name for a man and, moreover, does not have the standard patryonymic  “son of”.     Our translators DO opt for wife-of as the translation.


F-K p.46: “On the other hand, “woman of torches” or “fiery woman” fits the image of Deborah and would fit the story in the manner of biblical names.  “Torch-Lady” provides a significant wordplay, for it is Deborah, not her husband, who is the torch that sets the general Barak *(whose name means “lightning”) on fire,”


F-K p. 47: “The biblical story is not a biography: it is a memory of Israel’s defeat of Canaan, a defeat in which Deborah played an important role.  Only this role is remembered, and when the action begins, Deborah is already in mid-career.  The rest of her legend is unrecorded and unpreserved.”



Summons to battle   Judges 4:6-10

F-K p. 48: “Deborah hints that she is following up on a previous call to Barak: Did not the LORD God of Israel command?  God has spoken to Barak, and Deborah’s call is a second summons.  Barak is reluctant to go, like Moses before him, like Gideon and Samuel later in Israel’s history, others called by God to be envoys.  He seeks assurance that God is really with him and insists that Deborah go with him to the battle staging area where the warriors assemble.”



The Battle    Judges 4: 13-16

F-K p. 49: “Like Moses, Deborah is not a battle commander.  Her role is to inspire, predict, and celebrate in song.  Her weapon is the word, and her very name is an anagram of “she spoke” (dibberah).  The battle itself is not essential.  It is important only to remember that God fought: God distressed Sisera.  Deborah has announced God’s victory, Barak has facilitated it, and God has saved Israel.”


As with the Egyptians and their chariots, God has caused a flash flood which created mud, which made the chariots of Sisera useless.


There are a number of emphatic reminders through the story of the reality that Deborah is a woman


F-K p. 50: “If she had children, they played no part in the story.  The motherhood of the “mother in Israel” goes beyond biology.  It describes her role as counselor during the days before the war, and it indicates her role in preserving the heritage of Israel, in her case by advising in battle.”


In the song (chapter 5)   F-K p. 50: “Deborah portrays Sisera’s mother eagerly awaiting the defeat of Israel.  Nor does Sisera’s mother (in Deborah’s vision) show any sympathy for Israelite women, for she sits gloating over the many girls her son will bring back as spoils.  These mothers do not arc in solidarity over the tragedy of war, on the contrary, each has sympathy only for her own people.   As “mother in Israel”, Deborah is fiercely protective of her own – she is not a member of some international club of mothers.”


F-K p. 51: “The fullest sense of Deborah as mother is revealed in her name, which is not only an anagram of “she spoke”; it is also a noun meaning “bee”.   This name may hint at the fullest sense of her as “mother in Israel.”  Like the queen bee, she raises up the swarm for battle, sending out the drones to protect the hive and conquer new territory.”


Yael the Story  Judges 4:17-18

F-K p. 51: “Here is the warrior Yael whom Deborah mentioned at the beginning of her song.  A woman warrior, perhaps married, the wife of Heber the Kenite.  And perhaps not, for heber means “a group”.  Instead of Yael the wife of Heber the Kenite, the Song may refer to Yael the woman of a band of Kenites.  Whether mentioned or not, the husbands of Yael and Deborah play no role in the action.”


F-K p. 53: “The story tells us that Heber had a treaty with the Canaanites.  This makes sense: Kenites were often smiths, and Heber may have pitched is tent not too far from the battle in order to service the weaponry.”


F-K p. 52 “Deborah finds Yael praiseworthy.  When the warrior comes to her tent, Yael treats him with dignity.  Then, as he stands there, Yael grabs the tools she has on hand and fells him, smashing his skull and piercing it.  The more familiar story portrays a sleeping Sisera, but in the Song, he is erect, and sinks to his knees and falls prone as she stands over him.”


F-K p. 52: “But the image of Sisera falling between Yael’s legs is not a sexual allusion.  It is rather a savage grotesquery of childbirth.  Sisera doesn’t find sexual release and the “little death” of orgasm; he finds total death.  Rather than being delivered to life, he is delivered to death.  The Song delights in this and repeats the phrase “between her legs” twice, for in delivering Sisera to death Yael helped deliver Israel to life.  Just as the “motherhood” of Deborah involved directing battle, this savage “motherhood” of Yael “rebirths” Sisera to his death.”



Mothering him to death  Judges 4:19-22

F-K p. 55: “Deborah had foretold that Barak’s battle with Canaan would not bring him personal glory, “for into the hand of a woman the LORD will deliver Sisera”.  And indeed Barak never became a political leader in Israel.  And as for the image of women: Yael in the story stands for stealth rather than ferocity.”


F-K p. 55: “The Song remembers Yael of Strength; the story Yael of Stealth.  Neither presents a Yael of Seduction.  That is left to later readers, beginning with the Graeco-roman period, when many of the biblical stories about women were eroticized.”     (in the book of Judith, with the invasion of the Assyrians, she seduces the general Holofernes and cuts off his head)


F-K p. 56: “The difference between Yael and Judith is precisely the difference between biblical ideas and the ideas that came into Israel from the Greek world.  In classical biblical works, the beauty of women is never their weapon.  It can make them vulnerable to male desires, as with Sarah and Bathsheba, but it does not help them manipulate such desires.  It is not until Esther, one of the latest of the biblical books, that the beauty of woman is any use to them, and even Esther cannot rely on her beauty  to influence Ahasuerus.”


F-K p. 56: “When a warrior approaches a tent in wartime, we normally fear, not for the warrior but for the woman inside.  We brace ourselves for a violent rape in which the warrior brutally penetrates the woman.  Instead it is Yael who penetrates with her weapon.  Women in their tents are not always victims.”


SUMMARY – Rahab and Yael

F-K p. 57: “Both are women marginalized within their own society, Rahab as a prostitute and Yael as a Kenite in Canaan.  As a result, neither has a stake in the power structure of Canaan.  They are living their normal lives, each in her own house, when political events encroach upon them as the Israelite men come to Rahab’s house and Sisera to Yael’s tent.  Each has a “moment of truth” when her destiny is thrust upon her and she has to demonstrate her loyalties: Rahab to the spies or to the King of Jericho, Yael to Sisera or Israel.  At that moment, confronted by history and destiny, each woman abandons whatever claims the Canaanites might have to her loyalties, deceives the Canaanite men, and acts for God and Israel.”

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