Thursday, May 15, 2008

Women Get to Kill, Too: Judges 4-5

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

Ehud dies and without a proper father figure, the Israelites return to their evil-doing ways. The lord therefore permits them to be enslaved by a Canaanite king named Jabin, and his chief general, Sisera. Sisera's forces are numerically impressive - among other things, he has no less than 900 chariots - and they "cruelly oppress the Israelites" for 20 years.

God's next judge is a woman named Deborah - actually, she's the wife of a judge named Lappidoth, but in a truly bizarre twist, God doesn't talk about Lappidoth very much at all. Deborah "holds court" under a palm tree, of all places (we veered from Jewish into Buddhist mythology for a moment there). She summons Barak from the Naphtali and orders him to raise 10 000 soldiers and fight Sisera's forces for all Israel.

Eventually Barak does this and forces battle with Sisera, in which the Lord sides with Israel and gives them a resounding victory. (Actually, I think 10 000 men could hold their own against 900 chariots even without divine assistance, provided they were well trained with their spears, but that's another matter). Sisera loses his chariot in the battle and flees alone, eventually reaching the Kenites and seeking aid from Jael.

This section is also fascinating because, once again, it's another woman: Jael is the wife of Heber, who, like Lappidoth, doesn't feature in this story as more than a name on the page. Jael gives Sisera water and rest. In theory this was a pretty important social custom in the ancient Middle East, and it would be grossly immoral for Jael to let harm come to Sisera while under her roof. But this time goes quite differently: Jael waits until Sisera has fallen asleep, then takes a tent peg and hammers it through his skull. Deborah and Barak eventually track down Sisera's corpse and sing a celebratory song, after which Israel has 40 years of peace.

Once again we have a captivating story with some grisly elements, like the tent peg-through-the-head scene. And there are elements of the song that are rather disturbing as well. After cheering Sisera's death in cheerful poetic fashion:

At her feet he sank,
he fell; there he lay.
At her feet he sank, he fell;
where he sank, there he fell - dead.

Actually, it seems a trifle repetitive. But what follows seems stranger; the final verse is about Sisera's mother anxiously waiting for her son to return and deluding herself about his violent fate.

This story is interesting because it seems to thoroughly subvert Israel's gender order. Deborah, not her husband, delivers the word of the Lord. At one point, when Barak seems reluctant to go into battle, Deborah taunts him by saying that she will lead the forces herself, but because she does, God will let it be known that "the Lord will hand Sisera over to a woman." That the honour is being stolen by her specifically as a woman broadens the insult from Barak to all of the other male leaders under him. Eventually, the sole survivor - Sisera - is also murdered in bloody fashion by a woman acting without any guidance from her husband.

On the one hand, this implicates women in Israelite militarism. On the other, I have to wonder, given the underlying sexism of the Old Testament, what the real purpose of this passage is. I could easily interpret this as an isolated but emancipating story about women leading Israel. However, I have to wonder whether the symbolic purpose of the original authors was to emphasize just how far into sin the country had fallen. The priesthood has failed; the military generals have failed; the men in general have failed; and now, finally, it falls to the women to do the job all the others should have been doing. Fortunately for the future of Israel, the faith of marginalized women seems stronger than anyone else's. But there is no lasting social change here; it may be simply that Deborah performs a masculine role for a while in the absence of qualified men. Obviously the Israelites see no reason to respond to this episode by adjusting the way gender determines social relations in their society, because women fall out of the narrative again after chapter 5.

Still, the overarching theme of Judges is that the Israelites are utterly incapable of organizing or maintaining their society along morally righteous lines. The story is somewhat positive, even if the limit of its emancipation of Deborah and to some extent Jael is that in the absence of qualified men they are able to perform traditionally masculine roles as prophet of God and slayer of pagans. But there is still an underlying implication that Israelite women would be capable of religious leadership, but have only now been called on to fulfill that role.

This leads to some interesting implications for the treatment of women in churches today. God doesn't seem to mind that Israel is being led by a woman - indeed, he seems to approve. Should we take that as a model for today? The alternative, which presumably sexist churches would have to cling to, is that for some inexplicable reason only Deborah is qualified to play a traditionally masculine role and now that that sorry episode is done with, we can return to proper patriarchy. But the androcentric social order being returned to here in Judges is a demonstrable failure - indeed, that inevitable and dismal failure of the system is the entire point of the Book of Judges - and presumably this behooves us to consider alternative forms of social organization.