The Bee and the Mountain Goat: The Tale of Two Women

TODAY’S reading Judges 3:28-Judges 15:12

Sometimes, we women wonder where we fit into scripture. If you’re feeling small or insignificant today, take a look at the powerful women of Judges 4 and 5.

The action takes place around the year 1000 BC. The people of Israel had been living in their new homeland (following the exodus from Egypt) for more than a generation or two, and already they’d managed to totally tick off the Lord. Promises to follow God’s commandments not to intermarry with the Canaanites or to worship their gods had been forgotten, and most if not all had turned from their deliverer, Yahweh. With Joshua and Moses both dead, God raises up a string of ‘judges’ who perform the double duty of prophet and steward.

Deborah (Hebrew name meaning ‘bee’) is the only female in a line of 15 ‘judges’. We don’t know much about Deborah, but she was probably childless or  the mother of grown children, for only her husband (Lapidoth) is mentioned. Deborah held court underneath a tree on top of  Mt. Ephraim.

At this time, Israel had been living under the bondage of King Jabin of Canaan for 20 years. Deborah, the prophetess, calls Barak to chide him for not heeding the Lord’s commandment to attack Jabin using the forces of Naphtali and Zebulun. The Lord, she tells Barak, has promised to deliver Jabin into their hands, so why hasn’t Barak obeyed?

Barak’s answer is interesting: he says he will go only if Deborah accompanies them. Now, it could be that Barak was testing Deborah; assuming that, as a woman, she would be afraid to go, and her refusal would give Barak ‘an out’. However, it’s more likely that Barak felt more comfortable having a tangible connection to God–like a living talisman of sorts. Scripture doesn’t give us his specific reason, but Deborah answers that she will go, which means Barak must follow through with his promise. Either way, Deborah makes it clear that Barak’s reluctance has displeased the Lord: “I will surely go with thee: notwithstanding the journey that thou takest shall not be for thine honour; for the LORD shall sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.”  A woman? How embarrassing!  Barak may have thought the woman would be Deborah. He had a big surprise coming.

In the King James, we are given an odd choice of words in Judges 4:15:

And the LORD discomfited Sisera, and all [his] chariots, and all [his] host, with the edge of the sword before Barak; so that Sisera lighted down off [his] chariot, and fled away on his feet.

The Hebrew word translated ‘discomfited’ is hamam, which means to move noisily, confuse, make a noise, discomfit, break, consume, crush, destroy, trouble, vex. Discomfit is an old word not in use today, but crush, destroy, and move noisily provide a vivid picture of what must have happened to Captain Sisera and his chariots of iron! What a victory for the Lord!

Captain Sisera, however, has no desire to join his soldiers and fellow officers in defeat, so he high-tails it out of there!  Rather than die by the sword, Sisera runs away and finds his way to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber.

Jael is a Kenite, a tribe descended from the brother-in-law of Moses. Kenite also means ‘metalworker’, so it’s possible that Heber (whose name means ‘ally’) worked on the very chariots of iron driven by the Sisera’s now dead men.

Captain Sisera enters the woman’s tent and asks for water, but she gives him milk. Could it be that she did this, knowing the milk (tryptophan) would make Sisera more likely to sleep? As the cowardly captain becomes drowsy, Jael covers him with a blanket, promising to keep him safe.

Sisera would never wake from his sleep, for Jael–seeing the captain out like a light and probably snoring–drove a sharp tent peg (nail) into the man’s brains. So it is, that the Lord delivered the ultimate victory over Israel’s enemy not through Barak’s leadership or bravery, but through the insistence of a female judge and the unexpected alliance of a lowly housewife. Talk about the power of women in the Bible! Go girls!