Haftarat Beshallach—Judges: A Humble Commander

January 12, 2022 at 8:51 pm | Posted in Beshallach, Judges | Leave a comment

Red Sea in Golden Haggadah, c. 1320, Spain

Pharaoh lets the Israelites leave without conditions in last week’s Torah portion, Bo. But God hardens Pharaoh’s heart one last time in this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, in order to have an excuse to create another miracle.1 When the Israelites are trapped between Pharaoh’s charioteers and the Reed Sea, they complain that Moses rescued them from servitude in Egypt only to so they would die in the wilderness.2 Moses raises his staff, God splits the Reed Sea, the Israelites cross over, and the water surges back and drowns the Egyptian army.

Moses, as usual, is the mediator between God and the Israelites. For the rest of his life he doggedly continues speaking to both sides and doing whatever it takes to keep the people moving toward Canaan.

He never wanted this role. Four times at the burning bush Moses tried to persuade God to send someone else.3 Finally God talked him into it—or perhaps the deciding factor was Moses’ compassion for the oppressed, which had already moved him to kill an Egyptian beating a Hebrew man, and defend seven shepherdesses from a gang of men who drove them away from a well.4

I admire Moses’ humility, as well as his courage and cleverness when he talks God out of killing all the Israelites after the golden calf fiasco.5 Most of all, I admire his unselfish dedication to others. He makes a few ethical mistakes, but overall he consistently labors for the welfare of the Israelites in his charge, ignoring his own interests.

*

This week’s haftarah reading from the book of Judges includes three admirable characters. Devorah and Ya-eil both act with courage and intelligence, like the women at the beginning of the book of Exodus: the two chief midwives, Shifrah and Puah,6 Moses’ mother, Yocheved,7 and Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopts the infant Moses and hires Yocheved to nurse him.8

But the character I admire most in this week’s haftarah is a man.

Just before the haftarah, the book of Judges says that the Israelites are once again oppressed, this time by a Canaanite king who has a large chariot regiment. God let it happen because the Israelites were straying after other gods again.

Assyrian war chariot

Then God handed them over into the power of Yavin, a king of Canaan who reigned in Chatzor. And the commander of his army was Sisera, who headquartered at Charoshet Hagoyim. And the Israelites cried out to God, because he had nine hundred iron chariots, and he had oppressed the Israelites violently for twenty years. (Judges/Shoftim 4:2-3)

The Israelite tribes have only foot soldiers, and no king to unite them. But they do have a prophetess named Devorah.

Devorah was a prophet-woman, wife of Lapidot. She was the judge of Israel at that time … and the Israelites went to her for legal decisions. (Judges 4:4-5)

This woman has the same role as Samuel in the first book of Samuel: she both interprets the word of God and makes rulings in disputes, including disputes between tribes. Devorah has the most authority among the Israelites, as Samuel did later, before the first Israelite king.

And she sent and summoned Barak, son of Avinoam, from Kedesh of Naftali, and she said to him: “Is it not [that] God, the God of Israel, commanded: Go umashakhta on Mount Tabor! And you shall take with you ten thousand men from Naftali and from Zevulun. Umashakhti toward you the stream of Kishon; Sisera, the commander of the army of Yavin; and his chariots and his force. And I will put them in your power.” (Judges 4:6-7)

umashakhta (וּמָשַׁכְתָּ) = and you shall pull together, draw to yourself, rally.

umashakhti (וּמָשַׁכְתִּי) = and I will pull, draw.

When Barak hears this command from God, he is hesitant. He does not doubt God’s power, but he doubts his own. Maybe he wonders if he could muster enough fighting men, or maybe he wonders if the men would obey his orders. He knows Devorah has the real authority.

And Barak said to her: “If you go with me then I will go, but if you do not go with me I will not go.” And she said: “I will certainly go with you. Only honor will not be yours on the road that you are following, because through the power of a woman God will hand over Sisera.” And Devorah got up and went with Barak to Kedesh. And Barak mustered Zevulun and Naftali at Kedesh, and ten thousand men went up on his heels, and Devorah went up with him. (Judges 4:8-10)

I admire Barak for his humility. He is more interested in freeing the Israelites from the oppressive rule of King Yavin than he is in his own honor. He accepts his loss of status if the men see him taking orders from a woman.

Barak and Devorah lead the Israelite troops to the top of Mount Tavor. Sisera orders all his chariots and troops to move to the almost dry Kishon River. Then Devorah tells Barak:

“Get up! Because this is the day when God will give Sisera into your power. Is it not God who goes before you?” (Judges 4:14)

Barak leads his foot soldiers in a charge down the slope of Mount Tavor.

And God threw into confusion Sisera and every chariot and every warrior [so they fell] to the edge of the sword before Barak. And Sisera descended from his chariot and fled on foot. And Barak pursued the chariots and the warriors as far as Charoshet Hagoyim, and every warrior of Sisera fell to the edge of the sword; not one remained. (Judges 4:15-16)

The poem following the narrative of Sisera’s defeat explains that God turns the Kishon into a raging torrent that sweeps away Sisera’s army9.

Barak rallies the troops, but in Devorah’s name. He leads the charge, but only when Devorah says it was time. Then God drowns Sisera’s army at the Kidron, just as God drowned Pharaoh’s army at the Reed Sea.10

Sisera, the commander of King Yavin’s army, flees on foot to the nearby campsite of Chever the Kenite. He assumes he can find shelter there, because that Chever’s family is one of King Yavin’s allies. Chever’s wife, Ya-eil (Jael), is alone inside her tent when Sisera arrives. Maybe Sisera chooses her tent because everyone else is gone, or maybe it is the first tent he reaches.

Study of Jael, by Carlo Maratta ca. 1700

When he asks Ya-eil for water she gives him milk. When he falls asleep she hammers a tent pin through his head.11

Ya-eil, like Devorah, is both courageous and clever. But is she ethical? The book of Judges does not say why Ya-eil kills Sisera. Does she empathize with the Israelite tribes? Is she feuding with her husband or her husband’s family, Sisera’s allies? Or does she have some private reason that did not make it into the book? Without knowing her motive for killing Sisera, we cannot judge Ya-eil’s moral character.

And hey! Barak was pursuing Sisera, and Ya-eil went out to greet him. And she said to him: “Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.” (Judges 4:22)

Barak is prepared to kill Sisera, but he finds out that a woman beat him to it. Devorah’s prophecy that “through the power of a woman God will hand over Sisera” is fulfilled twice: Sisera’s army is defeated with the help of Devorah, and Sisera himself is killed by Ya-eil.

*

Yes, the two women are admirable for their courage, their quick thinking, and their refusal to play the role of submissive wife. But I think Barak is even more admirable. He does not lack courage; after all, he leads the charge down to the enemy forces with their dangerous iron chariots, and then he pursues Sisera single-handedly. But like Moses, Barak is also humble. Her publicly admits that Devorah, a woman, is more powerful and respected than he.

And Barak follows Devorah’s directions for an ethical reason: to rescue the Israelites from oppression.

  1. Exodus 14:4, 14:8-9.
  2. And they said to Moses: “Was it because there are no graves in Egypt that you took us out to die in the wilderness?” (Exodus 14:11)
  3. Exodus 3:10-12, 4:1, 4:10-13.
  4. Exodus 2:11-17.
  5. Exodus 32:7-14.
  6. Exodus 1:15-22. See my post Shemot: Disobedient Midwives.
  7. Exodus 2:1-4. See my post Shemot & Psalm 137: Cry Like a Baby.
  8. Exodus 2:5-10.
  9. Judges 5:20-21. The poem also adds troops from three other Israelite tribes (Efrayim, Benyamin, and Issachar) to Barak’s army. (Judges 5:14-15).
  10. Exodus 14:10-30.
  11. Judges 4:17-21.

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