disclaimer: I wrote this as a “reaction paper” for my theology 300 class, Women and the Hebrew Bible– the class was an eye opener and a pleasure, in that I was able to sit with a group of women (and a few select men) 3 times a week and talk gender issues as they make themselves apparent in biblical text. Interestingly, we were able to take these texts and shed light on current issues, including but not limited to the most recent Steubenville rape case (more to be discussed on that later.) Anyway, here is my “reaction” to Jael in the book of Judges, interwoven with some personal touches, because as Dr. Lawrence was so wise to point out, with discussing such issues as gender ones, personal stories matter. My professor’s personal praise for this encouraged me to put it out into the world, so here’s me, age 21 and preparing to graduate university, take it or leave it
In reading the Book of Judges and henceforth synthesizing my thoughts regarding the text, Jael occupies a sizeable portion of my personal attention. While I don’t find Jael to be in herself a negative character (she has a whole whopping paragraph to her name in Judges 4, plus a positive affirmation in a song that is Judges 5) perhaps her story has resulted in some negative connotations regarding human culture generally and femininity specifically. For the most part, Judges 4-5 came as a pleasant surprise– finally, we were given a woman in a legitimate position of power. Finally, we read about a woman who was literally more significant than her husband. I’m referring to Deborah, who is introduced as being “wife of Lappidoth” before the mention of her “judging Israel.” To her credit, Lappidoth is not once mentioned again while Deborah’s being a judge does play an integral part in this story. That said, Deborah in herself is certainly a fascinating female figure, but as I’ve hinted, my interest lies primarily with Jael.
The film exercise we did in class was not only creatively stimulating (and catering to our multiple perspectives like such courses should be doing) but it was also painfully revealing. I mean, it was I who suggested that someone like Scarlett Johanson be cast as the character of Jael. Why did I suggest this? An answer to that question involves some unpacking, so let me now consider the source text. Long story short, Deborah tells Barak (what happened to Lappidoth?) that “the Lord commands you, ‘Go, take position at Mount Tabor…” His task is to “draw out” Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army and enemy to the holy people of Israel. Almost comically, she forewarns him, this “will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” This brings us to Jael. After Sisera’s army is plundered “by the sword,” Sisera ends up at Jael’s tent since there was “peace between King Jabin of Hazor and the clan of [Jael’s husband] Haber the Kenite.” Literally speaking, Jael comes “out to meet Sisera” and says to him, “Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; and have no fear.” He then “turns aside to her into the tent” and asks her for some water. She gives him water, and “covers” him. He asks her to stand at the entrance (of her own tent!) and instead, she takes “a tent peg, and [takes] a hammer in her hand, and [goes] softly to him and [drives] the peg into his temple, until it [goes] down into the ground.”
While juicy, violent, and graphic, this is hardly the best part of the story. It takes another humorous turn when Barak comes “in pursuit of Sisera” and Jael goes “out to meet him,” saying, “Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.” He goes [into her tent; and there [is] Sisera lying dead, with the tent peg in his temple.” True to Deborah’s word, Barak is not honored, for Sisera falls at the hands of the woman Jael. The Bible does not give us Barak’s reaction, but I wish I could have been a fly on the wall for that moment! I digress– while this part is funny, I’m mainly concerned with Jael’s encounter with Sisera. Maybe I’m misreading this, but where exactly does it say that Jael “coaxes” Sisera in? Either I missed that, or it simply isn’t there. According to my reading, Sisera goes to her tent of his own accord because he is at peace with her husband. Jael happens to be there, and she happens to invite him in, offering him shelter and comforts. Since she ends up giving him shelter but not comforts, I suppose it could be argued that her intentions are ill. I mean, clearly, her intentions are ill. Still, he comes to her and the guy is not a prince.
Setting this briefly aside to consider Judges 5, the victory song proclaims, “Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite…” This is interesting, because as Bellis covers in her book, the Hebrews seem concerned with collective results as opposed to individual motivations. Sometimes, collective results do happen to trump individual motivations; but often, intent at the micro level matters. In Jael’s instance, things are more complicated, because she kills a known rapist and murderer, and an enemy to the Jews to boot. If you ask me, her tactics are for the most part irrelevant. She has the audacity to murder a rapist. Speaking in utilitarian terms, her actions are of course good, and in this instance, audacity is a virtue. Things get a little trickier when we project assumptions upon her demeanor and/or physical appearance. I’m talking about the projections that lump her specifically and ultimately, young women in power generally into the category of seductive “tricksters.” While we actually have no idea what this woman Jael might have looked like (or even her ballpark age-range) she was clearly appealing enough for the likes of Sisera’s company. Not that that is saying much, coming from a rapist, and/or from a man who was on good terms with her husband. But let’s humor this thought for a moment, and assume that she was an attractive woman. Is there anything wrong with being a gorgeous woman permeating sex appeal? Not necessarily. Is there something wrong with the over-fetishizing of such appeal in our mainstream media, and of exploiting such character traits in literary figures like the “femme fatale,” or her counterpart, the “manic pixie dream girl”? Absolutely, there is.
To be frank, I don’t see anything wrong with Jael’s actions even if she did use her “feminine beauty” to lure Sisera in. The ability to use such “powers” is, after all, a two-way street. Power games only work so long as someone is giving, and feeding off, said power. Why should Jael shoulder the blame for the way Sisera handles (or fails to handle) his sex drive? Bellis’s descriptions of Yee’s “shame” and “voracity syndromes” were fascinating. I’ve always had this theory that men, despite their “physical strength” and “rational-thinking minds” feel absolutely powerless to their instincts by the mere sight of, let alone pervading presence, of women. In tandem with that theory is my theory that men cannot stand to lose in any competitive situation, including situations regarding other men but especially with regard to situations involving women. As a mini digression, I recall a time just last week when I was skeeballing with a (male) friend. I totally out skeeed him in the first two games and I swear, I thought he was going to cry. The last game ended up being a close call, but I came out on top, and no exaggerations, he could hardly look at me for the rest of the evening. All he spoke about henceforth was how he “needed to get back into the gym” and how “he had never played skeeball before!”
Anyway, I’m aware these theories may be sexist, and I know they are generalizations, but what other explanation is there for men having had, for thousands and thousands of years, subjugated women as objects for them to control? If they can’t control the root source (the way they handle their own biological instincts) surely the next best thing is to control the external sources that trigger said instincts? If most stories (especially earlier stories) were written by men, and most men feel slaves to their sexual desires, it makes perfect sense that women are often portrayed as hypersexual demons luring men into their own destructions. This is a complicated topic on which I could probably write a book, but it’s one that gets under my skin, and women like Jael appear to be root sources for subsequent figures of femininity, figures like the femme fatale and/or the manic pixie dream girl.
Moving in a different direction entirely, I encountered the most shocking piece of writing to this day in the Bellis chapter on Jael– Katharine Sakenfeld’s concluding story about the group of Korean woman. From an audacious woman at the “far end” of the table, Sakenfeld is told, “If you American women would just realize that your place in this story is with Sisera’s mother, waiting to collect the spoil of your interventions across the world….” She “didn’t want to hear that,” and being an American woman, this is probably rightfully so. I, for one, would not want to hear that at a table of women! Not to be redundant, but deciphering motives and discerning moralities in the Hebrew Bible is no simple task. For every possible answer, multiple complications are bred. Jael is revered in Hebrew thought because she helped in the defeat of the Phillistines. Compare this with the story of Samson and Delilah, and I say we’ve got some problems. Samson is revered despite being a brute and peevish warrior, yet Delilah is shunned for aiding the Phillistines, probably her own people. That is another story in and of itself, but it’s certainly food for thought.
In trying to discern some viable conclusions, to condone Jael’s actions, I believe, is correct. Need I say it again? She had the audacity to murder a rapist. Inversely, to condone her tactics might be stretching it. She appears to have maybe used deception and maybe taken advantage of the voracious appetite that is male sexuality. At the very least, I consider her to be an amoral character who did her duty in lieu of the situation and with the resources readily available to her. I’ve always been appalled by how obtrusive the male sexuality can be. Even more appalling is the fact that I have to be appalled by this. Not to say that all men are like this, but honestly, I have yet to encounter a man whose actions weren’t on some level dictated by the juicy carrot dipping in front of them that they know to be sexual gratification. Again, and of course, there are exceptions, but I’ve known plenty of men, smart, creative, and idea-oriented men who cave and gawk at the mere presence of an attractive woman. While Jael is not in herself a negative character, perhaps her story connotes some negative things about humanity. I say humanity, but I mean predominantly one half of humanity, the half of humanity that are men. The story implies that men are so animalistically ruled by their sexuality that they actually are prey to women– potential prey. This assumption hurts, it hurts both sexes and it needs to stop. God only knows how that might happen (or doesn’t know, since he isn’t actually omniscient) but I guess classes like this keep us moving in the right direction.