Okay, so last time I wrote a little bit about why Deborah is, objectively, the best judge. That sentiment still stands, but the cool thing about Deborah’s story is that she’s not the only woman who plays an important part in it. We have another hero of Israel in the person of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite (I have this weird image of a tribe of plastic Ken dolls that’s totally not appropriate to anything I’m going to discuss in this post) and the slayer of Sisera, the leader of King Jabin’s army.
Jael is an interesting figure because she emerges in the midst of a very bad situation. Her husband Heber has allied himself with Jabin after taking his clan and deserting the rest of the Kenite tribe (we’re told they’re descendants of Moses’ brother-in-law Hobab, so they’re effectively Israelites, though not descended from one of the twelve tribes). Sisera has fled the battle after his army’s been soundly beaten by Barak’s forces, and he’s seeking refuge in the camp of friendly neighbors, where he encounters Jael.
Jael’s clearly a smart woman, because she recognizes who Sisera is (or at least can tell that he’s someone important) and invites him to hide in her tent, where she gives him milk and a blanket for resting.
I know milk and a cozy blanket help me sleep.
Of course, then Sisera, who’s quite exhausted from all the fighting, dozes right off after this excellent treatment.
And then Jael takes a tent peg and hammers it through his skull.
Clearly, she was not happy with her husband’s choice of associates.
The structure of this part of the story is fascinating, because Jael fills the role of our disempowered underdog who has to resort to trickery in order to beat a much stronger opponent. She’s Abraham and Jacob and, yes, Ehud all over again. Sisera’s our familiar oppressor figure who meets an ignominious end because he fails to be wary of the meek and the weak.
This is not an especially original observation, but God seems to love stories of reversal.
Jael’s story hits this point particularly hard (maybe even with a hammer) because this isn’t just her fighting back against just Sisera, but against her own clan. Heber deserted the Israelites to ally himself with Jabin. I imagine that Jael didn’t care much for this situation, but being Heber’s wife, she wasn’t allowed to argue (in contrast to Deborah, who’s shown to be a respected authority in her community) so she had to relocate along with the rest of his clan. Recognizing Sisera as someone associated with Jabin, and gathering that he’s on the run from someone who might be friendly to Israel, she invites him in and tricks him as a method of rebellion.
You know, there’s another version of this narrative in contemporary popular culture with similar features: a woman defeating a male opponent with the use of a wooden stake that has overtones of the weak being empowered to take on the strong.
I know that Joss Whedon’s gone on record to say that Kitty Pryde was his inspiration for Buffy, but I wonder if indirectly he was taking his cues from a much earlier Jewish heroine.
Anyhow, Jael’s the one who gets to be the hero in this story, and that’s a fantastic thing. Really, she’s probably the high point for strong female figures in Judges, because from here on out things are going to get progressively worse for the Israelites and especially bad for the remaining women discussed in this book.