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Yael is my favorite Biblical character and, as a result, she’s Norea’s favorite as well! This is about the two biblical versions of the character and a hypothesis about why two versions exist.
Yael, the murderer of Sisera, military leader of the Canaanite chariots, is a controversial character in the history of Biblical commentary, and for good reason. Within the traditionally male-dominated canon, most examination of Yael’s character has not been kind. She is typically portrayed as either a victim who preemptively committed murder to save herself, or she is an unethical wench who willfully dishonored a powerful man. The problem with these portrayals of Yael, however, is not whether they are fair assessments, but, rather, whether they are accurate at all. There are two versions of Yael in the Hebrew Bible, a prose version in Judges 4 and a poetic version, the ‘Song of Deborah,’ in Judges 5. The Song was written earlier, but redactors placed the prose version first when developing the book of Judges. In this paper, I will discuss the two versions of Yael, the differences between them, and I will explore what agenda may have caused the redactors to place the older Song after the prose.
In Judges 4, Yael betrays Sisera’s trust and breaks the laws of sanctuary. In one archaeological exploration of the Kenites, Yael’s tent is supposed to have been located at Elon Bezaannaim, a “sanctified spot and a place of refuge where protection was given even to an enemy” (Mazar, 302). In Judges 4, Sisera fled to her tent because “there was friendship,” and “Yael came out to greet Sisera and said to him, ‘Come in, my lord, come in here, do not be afraid.’” (Judges 4:17-18). Yael covered him with a blanket, and offered him milk when he requested water. She waited until Sisera “was fast asleep from exhaustion” (J 4:21) and murdered him with a mallet and tent pin. Sisera had instructed her to guard the entrance, but instead she sought out Barak to inform him.
Yael’s violation of the cultural rules of sanctuary is one reason her story has always been controversial. As witnessed in other stories (Gen 18, 19, Jud 19, for example), the laws of sanctuary are among the most highly regarded in the ancient Near East. Taking advantage of Sisera’s trust in order to lure him to his death would have been viewed negatively at the time Judges 4 was written. Also, Yael acts independently of her husband, “coming out” from her tent to greet Sisera. As the wife of Heber, she may be waiting for her husband on the edge of the battlefield, as many other women of the Hebrew Bible have “waited,” including, ironically, Sisera’s mother, in the Song of Deborah. Other stories, such as Jud 11 and Gen 34, seem to imply severe consequences for women who leave their abode alone. Yael, a wife, comes out from her tent alone, offers Sisera sanctuary, then seduces and kills him.
Regarding the dual nature of Yael, Susan Niditch explores various commentary that struggles with the “two competing images of the feminine: the devouring, constricting womb that suffocates and kills, arresting development, and the nurturing, fertile, protecting originator and sustainer of life” (Niditch, 305). She argues that male-centered psychology has historically restricted the feminine to conflicting roles of life-giving/smothering and nurturing/controlling, always relegated to the unconscious/emotional portion of the mind, and always discussed in terms of the development of male consciousness. Of Yael, she says, “this archetype, like its specification in the Greek sphinx, manifests a man’s fear of both death and his own sexuality, his insecurities” (Niditch, 311-12). Yael offers Sisera sanctuary, comfort, her breast and a blanket. After he succumbs to the fatigue of battle, she murders him dishonorably, felling the warrior in his sleep, the archetypal embodiment of sex and death.
The problem with portraying Yael so narrowly, however, is that two versions of her story exist. Because the ‘Song of Deborah’ comes after the prose version and because the prose version offers more details, the commentary historically focuses on the prose and ignores the poem as a mere compliment to the primary story. The error in this logic will be discussed later, but first, let me describe some textual differences that reveal incongruities in the two versions. Most of the plot points I summarized earlier in Judges 4 are absent in the Song of Deborah. There is no mention of a prior relationship between Yael and Sisera that would imply a sense of trust, and Jabin is not present. The poem does not explain how or why he fled to Yael’s tent, but rather shows him fleeing the battle, and then focuses solely on her, as “most blessed of women” (J 5:24). He asks for water, but she offers milk, then kills him. The milk’s vessel is “princely,” (v25), but nothing suggests she wooed him. In fact, variant translations offer “lordly bowl” (Hauser, 34) or “lordly krater,” which the commentary suggests may be “a bowl with heroic scenes painted on it” (Halpern, 388). This alternative provides the possibility that the bowl’s distinction is a descriptive element of Yael’s character, not necessarily suggesting an element of heightened charity. Further, this version does not even suggest that Sisera was anything other than awake and alert at the time of his death. It may be read as if the pastoral Yael offered him milk because it was more plentiful to her than water, and then she took advantage of the fact that he was occupied.
Besides the sparsely detailed rendition of Sisera’s death, there are other important differences between the two versions. In Judges 4, King Jabin is mentioned three times as the king of the Canaanites, but Judges 5 names Sisera as the head of the army, and his mother is introduced as having a leadership role. Heber the Kenite is introduced in Judges 4:11 to set up the explanation in 4:17 that Sisera is comfortable retreating to Yael’s tent. Yael is introduced verse 17, as the wife of Heber. The relationship between them is dependent on a friendship between Heber and Jabin, but the Song does not mention it. Rather, Yael features prominently in the Song, mentioned as early as 5:6, “In the days of Shamgar son of Anath, In the days of Yael, caravans ceased,” and very little context is offered to define her character. In fact, when the two versions are placed together, the prose version seems to flesh out the ambiguities in the Song and, together with the fact that it precedes the ‘Song of Deborah’ in the book of Judges, the song seems to compliment the prose.
The problem, however, is the Song precedes Judges 4 historically. According to Baruch Helprin, “The historian in Judges 4 worked with SongDeb as his primary material” (Helprin, 392). We know the book of Judges had the purpose of building a case for the monarchy, so it makes sense that it was formed after the monarchies were firmly established. However, some scholars, such as Michael Coogan and W.F. Albright, date the Song of Deborah as 11th century BCE or older, because of the poetic structure and archaic language. It is probably one of the oldest texts of the Hebrew Bible surviving in its original form (Helprin, 379). The placement of the Song after Judges 4 should ignite the curiosity as to the intent of the redactors, but, according to Baruch Helprin, “scholars have elaborated various theories concerning the relationship of the two chapters not so much to each other as to historical fact” (Helprin, 380). It is clear the authors of Judges 4 used the Song of Deborah as their source material and made significant changes to the story before positioning their version before the poem.
For instance, the authors of Judges 4 inserted the character of King Jabin into the story. The Jewish Study Bible commentary says “Canaan, which was divided into many royal city-states, was not ruled by a king” (517). Sisera led the Canaanites into battle in the Song, and Yael killed their leader. Adding King Jabin to the story demotes Sisera and creates the opportunity for his betrayed trust because of the pact between King Jabin and the family of Heber. According to Halpern, Judges 5, the earlier version, can be translated to understand that Yael is “either ‘the wife of Heber the Kenite’ or ‘the woman of the Kenite community/band,’” while Judges 4 “leave(s) no doubt. Yael is ‘the wife of Heber the Kenite,’ a fact that has programmed all subsequent views about her” (Halpern, 393). In the prose version, Yael is introduced in the context of this relationship, a plot element that both undermines the importance of her action and also frames it in potentially negative terms.
That version contrasts sharply with the Song, in which Yael is praised as an established hero associated with Shamgar son of Anath, “who slew six hundred Philistines with an ox-goad,” in Judges 3:31. She is praised as “most blessed of women,” as if to absolve her of any repercussions of what follows. In the Song, Sisera flees his army and appears in Yael’s tent. After v20, his name is not mentioned during the encounter with Yael until “She struck Sisera, crushed his head,” v26. After the slow description of his murder, his name is used again to describe his waiting mother, watching for his return. In this version, the stars defeated the mighty army and their leader fled to Yael, who ended the conflict herself. In the prose version, the writers demoted Sisera and added scenes to explain why he entered Yael’s tent and how she, a mere woman, was able to subdue him.
Even so, commentators like Helprin discount an agenda, stating that the discrepancies are owed to the fact that the writer of Judges 4 supplied “supplementary historical detail by association and deduction….The association is purely functional in nature” (Helprin, 392). The lack of an agenda in Judges is antithetical to the very nature of the book as we understand it, however. It is generally accepted that Judges was written with the express purpose of justifying the monarchy, so it seems irresponsible from a scholarly position to narrow the reasons for discrepancies to mere functionality. If only because the prose version was positioned before the Song in the book, automatically framing our perception of the poetic version, there does appear to be an agenda. Given the current controversy surrounding the character, I believe the authors of Judges 4 struggled in a similar way with their version of Yael, in the Song that Niditch argues is ripe with explicit connotations of sexuality, submission and rape. If we look more closely at this version of Yael, we might find an agenda.
For Niditch, the Yael of Judges 5 has faced a potential rapist and, in language that represents a role reversal, “rapes” Sisera instead. This version is very different from the nurturing/destroying archetypal mother of popular perspective and offers, rather, a hero who symbolizes the underdog Israel sloughing off victimization and facing the more powerful enemy on her own terms. Judges 5:27:
Between her legs he knelt, he fell, he lay
Between her legs he knelt, he fell
Where he knelt, there he fell, despoiled (Niditch, 308)
“Between her legs” obviously symbolizes sex and birth, but Niditch also points out that the hands, legs or feet are often used as euphemisms for sexual organs in the Hebrew Bible. She provides textual support to argue that “he knelt, he fell” directly suggests “defeat and death of one’s enemies” (308) because of how the word is used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, and the word translated to “lay” is most often utilized “in a sexual context refer(ing) to illegitimate relations in rape, incest, ritual impurity, adultery, and so forth” (309). The word translated as “despoiled” is used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible to mean “dealt violently with, despoiled, devastated” (310). In other words, in this small section of verse, according to Niditch, Yael takes the tent peg, an obvious phallic symbol, stands over him in the sexual position, and utterly destroys him in a manner that, linguistically, connotes rape, subjugation and utter destruction; and Sisera becomes the woman.
As Niditch observes, “Double meanings of violent death and sexuality emerge in every line” (310). This is a beautifully complex understanding of only a few lines of verse, revealing important information about the author of the Song of Deborah. Most commentators do acknowledge the possibility that these lines grapple with a fear of rape by the enemy, an argument supported by the next lines of verse, in which Sisera’s mother waits for her son to return with the “spoils” of war, a word that implies “wombs.” Niditch explains, “It is of importance that an Israelite author of an early period imagines the ‘womanization’ of the enemy to be accomplished by a woman assassin….What the author fears most he turns outward against his enemy…she becomes an archetype or symbol for the marginal’s victory over the establishment” (312). So, according, to Niditch, the authors of Song embraced male insecurities and turned their fear of women into a hero who emasculated a powerful enemy.
Perhaps more than a century later, under the monarchy, the authors of Judges 4 reacted to this version of Yael, the woman who sexually subjugates and utterly destroys a powerful warrior. They significantly rewrote her character and her story, and placed the prose version before the Song in the book. As a result, as we have seen, commentary tends to focus on the prose version, because it is experienced first and because it offers more details. Niditch writes about the history of this commentary that often compares the Judges 4 Yael to the Greek sphinx and to seductive and violent Near Eastern goddesses (Niditch, 307). She seems frustrated with the male-dominated perception of Yael, because “the tale is rich in images of directed action, self-assertion, and consciousness on the part of the underdog” (313). She is referring, of course, to the Yael of Judges 5, who is obscured by Yael of Judges 4. In the Song, Yael is an established hero who subdues the potential rapist in a manner that connotes the same. In the prose, Yael violates the code of hospitality, seduces Sisera as a lover or nurturing mother, offering milk from a skin as if from a breast. She lulls him into a false sense of security and murders him in his sleep. The Yael of Judges 4 is, at best, the trickster and, at worst, the harlot. Yael of Judges 5, the true Yael, is a blessed woman who faces the enemy of Israel, emasculates him, and utterly destroys him as if razing a city. The writers of Judges 4 robbed Yael of much of her power, expressing the same sexual and psychological fears still present in modern commentary. The redactors pushed the true Yael to the end of the story, so the monarchical version overshadowed her heroism. And in that, Yael was given the last word.
Albright, W.F., “The Song of Deborah in the Light of Archaeology.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Reasearch, Vol 62 (April 1936), 26-31.
Coogan, Michael D., “A Structural and Literary Analysis of the Song of Deborah,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Vol 40 (1978), 143–166.
Hauser, Alan J. “Parataxis in Hebrew Poetry.” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol 99, No 1 (Mar, 1980). 23-41.
Halpern, Baruch. “The Resourceful Israelite Historian: The Song of Deborah and Israelite Historiography.” The Harvard Theological Review, Vol 76, No 4 (Oct 1983), 379-401.
Mazar, B. “The Sanctuary of Arad and the Family of Hobab the Kenite.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Jul., 1965), 297-303.
Niditch, Susan. “Eroticism and Death in the Tale of Jael.” Women in the Hebrew Bible: A Reader. Ed. Alice Bach. New York: Routledge. 1999, 305-316.
Wilkinson, Elizabeth. “The Hapax Legomenon of Judges IV 18.” Vetus Testamentum, Vol. 33, FASC. 4 (Oct. 1983), 512-513.