Richard Elliott Friedman, in “The Hidden Book in the Bible,” does not attribute Jgs 4 to the J Source. He is mistaken. Jgs 4 has J stamped all over it not only in its language and in its allusions to other J documents, but in its religious ideology. Not all of Jgs 4, however, belongs to the J Source. The recalling of the tale of Ehud, who disemboweled Eglon, the king of Moab, is not a J document because in J, where sexual innuendos abound, juvenile scatological jokes are non-existent. It is unlikely that 4.2-3 is part of the J document either because “mightly oppressed” is not idiomatic of J. Jgs 4.11-12 does not belong to J because in another J work Hobab, the son of Moses’ father-in-law, not the father-in-law himself, parted ways with the Israelites (Nm 10.29-30). Jgs 4.23-24 is not part of the J story because the J scribes tell their jokes with deadpan delivery. When they deliver a punchline, they drive the joke with a swift blow and get out. We might say Jael is the personification of the perfect joke, but J’s hidden jokes have been lost for the conflation of the story between patriarchal filler material. Extract just the Deborah through Jael portion and the story communicates its lampoon of Deborah that opens with Deborah and ends with Jael to juxtapose the two women: one begins the story and one finishes it; one embodies the comic foolishness of overstatement; one epitomizes the comedic genius of understatement. Deborah’s excessive self-admiration reflects God’s: she who boasts–like he who boasts–is a fool who, in the end, does not deliver.
The key to interpreting the J document in Jgs 4 is Leitwort, as termed by Martin Buber, to describe the biblical literary device of word repetition that reflects forwards or backwards to reveal or clarify a text [Martin Buber, “Style in Pentateuchal Narrative,” in Buber and F. Rosenzweig, Scripture and Translation (trans. Lawrence Rosenwald; Bloomington: Indiana UniversityPress, 1994; German original, 1936) 114.]. In other words, to interpret one J document, we must reflect upon J’s use of words in other J documents. And so we will begin.
Deborah judged, shâpat, Israel. In J Abraham adjured God to shâpat between the evil and the good (Gn 18.25); Lot, the little foolish man, considered himself a shâpat (Gn 19.9) in Sodom; Moses, who murdered an Egyptian, was accused by Hebrew witnesses to his crime of hypocrisy for imposing himself upon them as their shâpat (Ex 2.14). In J shâpat is nuanced with irony. Deborah was no more a judge than God, who could not distinguish between the evil and the good; was no more a judge than the foolish Lot who offered his daughters to be raped; was no more a judge than Moses who murdered a man and then fled Egypt to escape prosecution.
The children of Israel came to Deborah for judgement, mishpât. In J Abraham appealed to God: should not the judge of the earth do right, mishpât? No, in answer to that question, he would not, for he destroyed all of Sodom, saving alive only the foolish Lot and his two daughters. By associating Deborah with questionable mishpât the J scribes impugned her judgment.
Deborah dwelled under a palm tree, tômor. Because in J Tamar, a personal name from tamar, a word for palm tree, represents the goddess Asherah, one of whose epiphanies is the palm tree, the J scribes chose a different word for palm tree to disassociate Deborah with Asherah and yet at the same time to allude to Asherah to juxtapose the so-called judge with Jael, whose name means “mountain goat,” one of Asherah’s attribute animals.
Deborah dwelled, yâshab, under the not-Asherah tree like the foolish Lot yâshab at the gate of Sodom where he posed as a judge (Gn 19.1). Deborah and Lot are alike in their self-importance and lack of judgment.
Deborah told Barak God commanded him to lead an army of men from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun into battle against Sisera, captain of King Jabin’s army. Barak answered in tongue wagging mockery, “yâlak, hâlak, yâlak, hâlak.” Say it aloud. Feel your tongue flapping to appreciate the physical comedy of the verbal word play that translates into English, “If you go, I’ll go; but if you don’t go, I won’t go.” Barak mocked Deborah; but at the same time Barak appeared to be the one mocked. Good satire works like this, and it was for its equivocal reading that the J scribes’ hidden satire was admitted into the religious canon.
Deborah responded, “I’ll go, but the glory will go to a woman, not you.” The phrase is ambivalent. Will the glory go to Deborah, or to another woman? The answer is, the glory will go to Jael, but Deborah will claim the honor as her own.
And so the battle ensued and Israel defeated Sisera’s army by the sword, which departs from Jgs 5 that describes the battle as one in which God drowned Sisera’s men. Sisera fled on foot. Jael went out, yâtsâ’, of her tent to meet, qîr’âh, Sisera like Leah yâtsâ’ into the field to meet, qîr’âh, Jacob to inform him he would be sedated by mandrake to allow Leah, the wife whom he loathed, to harvest his seed against his will—in other words, to subject him to rape (Gn 30.16). Like Leah, Yael reverses gender-normative roles and becomes the predator rather than prey.
Jael said to Sisera, “Turn in,” cûwr, like Lot told the angels to cûwr (Gn 19.2) because he intended to seduce them, but since he could not seduce them, he got them drunk to take them by force, which he would have done had not the men of Sodom interrupted him with their demand that they have their turn at them. By allusion to Lot Yael’s act represents rape. As members of Israel’s rape culture, the scribes enjoyed turning rape on men’s heads, as it were, and in this case literally on a man’s head.
Sisera asked for a little drink of water, and Jael, the mother-personified, poured him milk from a bottle, after which she covered him with a blanket. The juxtaposition of Jael’s maternal acts with Jgs 5 in which Deborah calls herself a mother of Israel underscores the difference between the two women: one claims to be a mother and another acts as one without calling attention to herself. Jael serves as a mother under the tent’s cover, the domain of the mother and wife.
With irony the J scribes foretell of Sisera’s fate through Sisera’s own words: “If anyone asks if there is a man here, tell him no.” Indeed, there soon would be no man.
Jael nailed him to the ground by driving a peg between his brows, which we might say is the v-spot, or where the two hairy labia meet. Because he was fast asleep he never knew what pegged him dead. In J there are two other instances in which a man is in a deep sleep: Adam is in deep sleep when God takes from him a rib (Gn 2.21); Abram is in deep sleep when God takes from him his foreskin (Gn 15.12). That the J scribes did not use the same verb—râdam for Sisera, tardêmâh for Adam and Abram is telling: by distinguishing one deep sleep from the other we are to know that Jael’s act was not by God; the victory was Jael’s alone. Jael, whose name means “mountain goat,” one of Asherah’s primary attribute animals, represents Asherah. Asherah, the great mother, saved Israel—not Deborah, not God.
Repeating Jael’s coming out to meet Sisera, Jael came out to meet Barak, which is shorthand that communicates Jael’s killing two birds with one stone, if you will: in Jael’s coming out one man met his death; another man met his disgrace. “Come, I will show you the man you are seeking,” Yael said to Barak nonchalantly. Barak saw the nail fatally driven between Sisera’s temples. And therein is the punchline: Deborah boasted she was a mother of Israel, but Jael, the great mother Asherah, delivered. Deborah, like God, promoted herself to the heavens, but in the end it was the doer of the deed that saved Israel–she who spoke the softest and tread the lightest—the goddess, the mother of Israel and no other.