Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Beshallach (Exodus 13:17-17:16), and the haftarah is Judges 4:4-5:31.
The underdog triumphs in many biblical stories. Jacob, the beardless weakling, outsmarts his strong, hairy brother Esau. Joseph rules over the older brothers who once enslaved him. The boy David kills the giant Goliath.
In this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach (“when he sent out”), the Israelite slaves leave Egypt as free people while Pharaoh’s army drowns behind them. In the haftarah from the book of Judges, two Israelite women triumph over the Canaanite general Sisera and his army.
How do you defeat an enemy stronger than you? In the Hebrew Bible, two effective ways are by receiving and using inside information from God, like Moses; and by taking action on your own initiative with intelligence, courage, and guile, like Jacob and Joseph.
The haftarah from Judges tells the story of two women, the ultimate underdogs in the patriarchal society of the ancient Israelites, triumphing over Israel’s enemies through both methods. Devorah the prophet gets her people to act on God’s promise to help them defeat the army of their Canaanite overlord, and Jael/Yael the Kenite acts on her own initiative and kills the enemy’s general.
When this week’s haftarah begins, the Israelites are scattered tribes who have been ruled by the chief king of Canaan, Yavin, for twenty years. They are oppressed by King Yavin’s general, Sisera, who commands a force that includes 900 chariots, the most fearsome war technology of the time.
Still, instead of relying on the Canaanite king’s dubious justice, the Israelites go to their own judges, including one outstanding judge.
Devorah was a woman, a prophet, a woman of lapidot; she was a shoftah of Israel at that time. (Judges/Shoftim 4:4)
Devorah (דְבוֹרָה) = “Deborah” in English; honey bee. (From the same root as doveir = speaker, and divrah = legal case.)
lapidot (לַפִּידוֹת) = a feminine plural form of the masculine noun lapid = torchlight, torch, flash of light. (Some translations consider lapidot a place-name or the name of Devorah’s husband.)
shoftah (שֹׁפְטָה) = the feminine form of shofet = judge; a man who decides legal cases and resolves disputes.
The bible emphasizes that Devorah is a woman; all the other judges in the bible were men. Moreover, she is a prophet, a woman of flashes of light. Even her name is significant: she is a speaker, both for justice and for God.
And she was the one who sat under the Date-Palm of Devorah, between Ramah and Bethel in the hills of Efrayim. And the children of Israel went up to her for the law. (Judges 4:5)
Unlike the judges of villages, Devorah serves as the authority for a wider area, and holds her own law court in a sacred place. In ancient Israel, many holy places were indicated by trees or groves with names, such as the Oak of Weeping (Genesis 35:8), the Grove of Teaching (Genesis 12:6), or the Grove of Mamre (Genesis 13:18). Devorah’s own presence is what makes this particular palm tree the marker of a holy site.
And she sent and summoned Barak, son of Avinoam, from Kedesh in Naftali. And she said to him: Did not God, the god of Israel, command: “Go!—and draw up your position on Mount Tabor, and you shall take with you ten thousand men from Naftali and Zevulun. Then I will draw up to you, to the wadi of Kishon, the commander of the army of Yavin, Sisera, and his charioteers, and his infantry; and I will give them into your hand.” (Judges 4:6-7)
If Barak musters troops from the two Israelite tribes of Naftali and Zevulun and marches them up Mount Tabor, God will arrange for the defeat of the enemy’s army. But Barak is afraid.
And Barak said to her: If you go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go. (Judges 4:8)
Devorah agrees to go with him, but prophesies that Barak will get no glory from the battle, because
… into the hand of a woman God will deliver Sisera. (Judges 4:9)
Devorah walks with Barak both to Kedesh to inspire the men to volunteer for the ad hoc army, and to the top of Mount Tabor to announce when the men should charge down. God panics Sisera’s army (through a flash flood in the wadi, according to the accompanying poem) and the Israelite foot soldiers kill every enemy soldier except General Sisera.
Devorah is supremely successful as the instigator of the battle because she is God’s prophet. Receiving divine communication and cooperating with God both inspires people to trust her and results in a successful campaign—even though she is a woman, who would normally be powerless.
Sisera gets down from his chariot in the middle of the battle and flees on foot. Where can he find refuge? He heads for the nearby camp of Chever the Kenite, a vassal of King Yavin.
Sisera fled on foot to the tent of Yael, wife of Chever the Kenite … (Judges 4:17)
Yael (יָעֵל) = a variant of ya-al (יָעַל) = he will ascend, he will climb, he will mount for mating.
Normally, a fugitive would go to the tent of the man who heads the household or encampment, the only person who can take the role of host and decide to shelter the unexpected guest. In that culture, a woman’s tent was her private domain that no man outside her immediate family would dare to enter. Why does Sisera enter Yael’s tent instead of heading straight for her husband’s tent?
One line of commentary claims that Sisera’s motivation was to rape Yael, and then claim Chever’s household as his own. By taking ownership of a chieftain’s women, a man signaled that he was the new chieftain. Later in the Bible, King David’s son Absalom shows Israel that he is the new king by having sexual intercourse with the concubines King David leaves behind in Jerusalem. Sisera might plausibly decide he would rather be the head of a camp of Kenites than a disgraced ex-general.
But I think Sisera is on his way to Chever’s tent when Yael appears and suggests a different plan.
And Yael went out to meet Sisera, and she said to him: Surah, my lord, surah eilai, do not fear. Vayasar to her, to her tent, and she concealed him with the curtain. (Judges 4:18)
surah (סוּרָה) = turn aside, go away, desert, avoid.
eilai (אֵלַי) = to me.
vayasar (וַיָּסַר) = and he turned aside, went away, deserted, avoided.
Normally a woman would warn an intruder who slipped past the sentries around her husband’s camp to get away from her. But since Yael says surah eilai, she must be saying either “turn aside to me” or “desert to me” (knowing that Sisera has already deserted his own army).
Yael is a quick thinker with a cool head. She may view Sisera as an enemy; the Kenites are usually allies with the Israelites in the Bible, and Chever might have sworn vassalage to King Yavin because he had no alternative. But now Yavin’s army no longer exists, and the time is ripe for change. Sizing up the situation, Yael steps out of her tent and tempts Sisera with an ambiguous sentence.
And he falls for it. Suddenly he imagines he can take Chever’s wife, and then take over his whole household. He steps inside her tent, and she lets the curtain fall behind him. He asks for water, and she brings him a yogurt drink and puts covers over him. He orders her to stand at the entrance of the tent and tell anyone who comes that there is no one inside. Then, secure in his belief that she is his and they will eventually seal the deal with sex, Sisera falls asleep.
Then Yael, wife of Chever, took a tent peg and took the hammer in her hand, and she came to him quietly, and she drove the peg into his temple, and she hammered it into the ground. And he was fast asleep, exhausted, and he died. (Judges 4:21)
Deborah’s prophesy is fulfilled; Sisera dies by the hand of a woman.
Yael acts on her own initiative, taking advantage of the situation and employing her sharp wits and her ability to deceive without actually lying. The text does not say whether Sisera carries a weapon on his body, but he is a career soldier, and under ordinary circumstances could overpower (and rape) any woman in his path. Yael courageously uses guile, the weapon of the underdog, to overpower and “rape” him with her tent peg.
Never assume you can take advantage of an underdog who has always held a rank beneath your own. People who have been slaves for hundreds of years might turn out to have God on their side, and defeat you, as in this week’s Torah portion from Exodus. And women who have been ordered around by men for hundreds of years might turn out to be prophets and judges, like Devorah, or extraordinary executioners, like Yael.
Never overlook the underdog.