Nov 172010

Like many Bible readers, I come at the text from a blind spot created by Sunday school teaching and pulpit homilies and pop cultural sermonizing. The more I read it, the more fascinating it becomes—partly because it is never what I expect and not at all what I was taught. Part of me (the 15-year-old part, that is, about 90% of me) is still at the stage of being surprised and delighted by the moral waywardness of the characters, the shocking violence, and the prevalence of prostitutes and concubines. My Sunday school teacher, for example, did not dwell on the wonderful details of Ehud’s assassination of the fat king Eglon of Moab in the Book of Judges when the fat closes around the dagger and the shit gushes out of the wound (Ehud is kind of an Israelite Jason Bourne—the passage reads like that). [I realize I have posted about this story before—what does this tell you about me?]

003:015 But when the children of Israel cried unto the LORD, the LORD
raised them up a deliverer, Ehud the son of Gera, a Benjamite,
a man lefthanded: and by him the children of Israel sent a
present unto Eglon the king of Moab.

003:016 But Ehud made him a dagger which had two edges, of a cubit
length; and he did gird it under his raiment upon his right

003:017 And he brought the present unto Eglon king of Moab: and Eglon
was a very fat man.

003:018 And when he had made an end to offer the present, he sent away
the people that bare the present.

003:019 But he himself turned again from the quarries that were by
Gilgal, and said, I have a secret errand unto thee, O king:
who said, Keep silence. And all that stood by him went out
from him.

003:020 And Ehud came unto him; and he was sitting in a summer
parlour, which he had for himself alone. And Ehud said, I have
a message from God unto thee. And he arose out of his seat.

003:021 And Ehud put forth his left hand, and took the dagger from his
right thigh, and thrust it into his belly:

003:022 And the haft also went in after the blade; and the fat closed
upon the blade, so that he could not draw the dagger out of
his belly; and the dirt came out.

I turn from this to the equally shocking and delightful tale of Jael nailing Sisera’s head to the floor. Sisera is on the run after losing a battle to the Israelites. He asks Jael for a cup of water. She invites him into her tent and offers him a glass of milk instead. Exhausted, he falls asleep. Then she, um, drives a nail through his head. A kind of Home Depot-style biblical assassination. Here is the no-nonsense, stripped down account in Judges.

004:019 And he said unto her, Give me, I pray thee, a little water to
drink; for I am thirsty. And she opened a bottle of milk, and
gave him drink, and covered him.

004:020 Again he said unto her, Stand in the door of the tent, and it
shall be, when any man doth come and enquire of thee, and say,
Is there any man here? that thou shalt say, No.

004:021 Then Jael Heber’s wife took a nail of the tent, and took an
hammer in her hand, and went softly unto him, and smote the
nail into his temples, and fastened it into the ground: for he
was fast asleep and weary. So he died.

This is all well and good, but shortly after this passage (and I am grateful for Gabriel Josipovici’s guidance in understanding the intricacies here—see his wonderful book The Book of God), in one of those surprising textual shifts I am coming to expect, the author/editor of Judges repeats the whole story but in a different key, this time in a burst of sonorous, high flown poetry. Some of this serves to contextualize the incident in the larger history of Israel and ritually rehearse the long path that has led to this moment. But as we reach the climax of the revised version there are subtle adjustments of point of view and sympathy that are gorgeous and human. The accent shifts from Jael’s act of terrorism and rebellion to Sisera, the great king, going down to his death.

005:025 He asked water, and she gave him milk; she brought forth
butter in a lordly dish.

005:026 She put her hand to the nail, and her right hand to the
workmen’s hammer; and with the hammer she smote Sisera, she
smote off his head, when she had pierced and stricken through
his temples.

005:027 At her feet he bowed, he fell, he lay down: at her feet he
bowed, he fell: where he bowed, there he fell down dead.

The repetitions and the grammatical parallels are magnificent. And instead of seeing the triumphant girl calling in the warriors to see what she has done, we see the mysterious and awesome moment of death. And yet the poet is not finished. For in the very next verse, the point of view shifts again, this time to Sisera’s mother. She does not know her son is dead. She is waiting for his chariot to appear on the horizon, waiting for him to come home from battle. And suddenly Jael’s triumphant moment is shadowed by the looming grief of the mother who fed the baby Sisera at her breast, had that kind of love for him. This is a sublime bit of writing, it seems to me, a hugely generous moment in the biblical text, when the victorious author/editor can imagine the horror and grief of the vanquished enemy.  The reader is asked to feel  not the smug superiority of the victor but pity for our shared humanity. This human moment is rendered all the more powerful by the fact that the poet, after showing us Sisera’s mother waiting (trying to tamp down her anxiety by imagining Sisera and his men dividing the spoils of victory), shifts away from the scene before she actually learns that he is dead.

005:028 The mother of Sisera looked out at a window, and cried through
the lattice, Why is his chariot so long in coming? why tarry
the wheels of his chariots?

005:029 Her wise ladies answered her, yea, she returned answer to

005:030 Have they not sped? have they not divided the prey; to every
man a damsel or two; to Sisera a prey of divers colours, a
prey of divers colours of needlework, of divers colours of
needlework on both sides, meet for the necks of them that take
the spoil?

005:031 So let all thine enemies perish, O LORD: but let them that
love him be as the sun when he goeth forth in his might.

Technically, we have a scene described in three different ways, from three different angles, three different points of view. The perspectives triangulate the scene, add pity to triumph, but they deepen the meaning without actually nailing (sorry) down a particular truth. In fact, by shifting to the point of view  to Sisera’s mother (in a chronologically simultaneous and parallel scene), the poet tells us there is not one truth. God is not only on the side of the winners.

Also note here how brief these scenes are, how precisely the poet is able to create physical scene in a word (Sisera’s mother looks through the lattice), sidestep into dialogue and then enter the mother’s mind for a bit of character consciousness that is wondrously human (denial) and appropriate to character.


  12 Responses to “Jael and Sisera, or something about the wisdom of letting women play with hammers and nails”

  1. Wonderfully observed. There’s a lesson behind the lesson.

  2. What motivated Jael to pick up hammer & nail?

    • Unclear. There is another text in which she is described as left-handed which connects her with Ehud the assassin of the fat king of Moab (see above). And she’s a woman killing a man which connects her with the story of Abimalech who is felled by a stone thrown from the city wall by a woman (and then asks his armour bearer to kill him so he won’t have died at the hands of a woman). It’s all very peculiar actually but fits with a pattern of wrongful or disorderly deaths in Judges. In any case, there is no explicit motive mentioned.

      • The lack of clear motive for such an action fascinates me.

        • And yet she seems so clear about what she is doing. In the Pseudepigrapha, she gets dressed up seductively and lures him into her tent. There’s a sexual component not evident in the Hebrew Bible. I prefer the story without the sex. But also it’s strange how trusting Sisera is (or exhausted). In the Pseudepigrapha, he wakes up while the nail is going in and has some lines of dialogue! Interesting question, what do you say when you wake up to find your sweetie driving a spike into your head?

  3. Great post – “Israelite Jason Bourne” indeed!

    I’d never noticed the compassion and lack of triumphalism in the end of the Jael story.

    I noticed Eglon’s mum didn’t get a mention though.

    If the story resonates with the 15 year old part of you, I must be in touch with my “inner six year old” that’s how old I felt when I was inspired to write The Eglon Song (egged on, no pun intended, by my real life 6 year old)

    You can check out the song here if you’d like…

  4. Why the mention of left-handedness? Considered inferior, dirty?

    • Not sure. Josipovici sees it as “sinister” or, on other words, not according to the general will of God. Judges is a book of fragmentation in which the Israelites tend to follow their own whims. The book is full of disorderly deaths in contrast with the orderly death and burial of the Patriarchs.

  5. Apologies if you’ve noted this already, but what version of the Bible are you reading? King James? And, why the particular version you are looking at, as opposed to any of the others? How much of a difference do you think it makes?

  6. Isn’t the primary thing with the left handedness an explaination for why they didn’t body search him effectively – looked on his left thigh for a sword but weren’t expecting to see anything hidden anywhere else?

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