BiND: Day 18
Today we encounter some of the most famous women in the Bible. Remember the children’s musical from last spring? “Deborah, prophetess of God….” they sang, with Emma Koenig dancing. “Barak, Barak, it rhymes with attack!” they shouted. So fun.
Deborah is the only named woman judge of Israel during the pre-monarchical period. In Judges 4.4 she is named first, then called a prophetess, and only then named as “wife of Lappidoth.” Lappidoth never makes an appearance in this story, which is surprising in such a patriarchal culture. There’s no mention of Deborah having children, and yet she is held up as one of the heroes of the people.
Then we have Jael, the woman who strikes the final blow against the opposing army by literally nailing the commander’s head to the floor of her tent. She is the one who gets the “glory” that was taken from Barak in this battle. She was resourceful and enterprising and brave, inviting a strange man into her tent while her husband is apparently away.
Contrast that with the portrayal of Jephthah’s daugher, who is unnamed and is sacrificed to her father’s careless (and faithless) vow. In fact, he ends up blaming her for her own death (at his hand) because she came out to give him the traditional victor’s welcome with tambourine and dancing. She ends up dead, with her father grieving for himself, when perhaps she was about to sing a song like that of Deborah or Miriam, extolling his virtues as a warrior.
The song Deborah sings in Judges 5 is one of the oldest texts in the Old Testament. Often poetry is older than prose, and in this case the poem dates from around 500 years before the surrounding prose was written down. This victory hymn (a genre common in the ancient world…and still today) was inserted into the story to give us both another perspective and to give us a sense of the feeling after battle. Deborah here is playing two roles: role of prophet/carrier of God’s blessing for military endeavor and also the traditional woman-singing-for-the-victory-celebration role.
We also started in on the story of Samson today—the two women he loves (besides the prostitutes) are both portrayed as sneaky, deceptive, and unfaithful. The one we read about today is unnamed, and she wheedles him into telling the answer to a riddle, which she proceeds to tell her family, which loses Samson (and therefore her!) a lot of money and ends up costing her and her family’s lives. The second is a woman we likely know well—Delilah. She nags and nags until Samson tells her why he’s so strong (he’s been committed to a vow his mother made to God, he’s been faithful to the Lord). She then uses this information against him and he ends up blind…and then, as “retribution” for his two eyes, he brings down the roof of a temple, killing “more than those he had killed during his life”—which is to say, a lot of people! I’m not sure how that fits with the eye-for-an-eye thing, which was designed to guard against just such punishments that were excessive compared to the crime, but in any case Samson goes down with the people as well…all because of a crafty woman who is portrayed entirely in a negative light.
At the same time we can trace the portrayal of women in Judges from positive down to purely negative, we can also trace the decline of Israelite society and faithfulness to God. While I won’t argue there is an explicit correlation between the decline of the society/religion and the treatment/portrayal of women, I do think it’s interesting to note. As the situation deteriorates (by Friday we’ll be headed for monarchy), so too does the situation for women and their rights and independence and value.
photo is of a mosaic of Jael (one among several biblical women in the mosaic) in a domed ceiling above an effigy of the Virgin Mary at the Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem (site where some believe that Mary went to sleep and then was taken into heaven). Neither Jephthah’s daughter nor Deborah make an appearance in the mosaic. photo taken by TCP.