Women of Valor: Revisiting Biblical Role Models

March 1, 2024Michele Braun

Deborah and Yael: two women whose names we know, but whose intertwining stories may not be familiar to us. Through Judaism's last 2,000 years of exile, our forebearers read, interpreted, reread, and reinterpreted biblical stories through the lens of their own times and experiences, a process that modern liberal Judaism invites us to continue.

Focusing this contemporary lens on Deborah and Yael reveals a story of women acting so outside of expected norms that I stand in awe and am compelled to magnify their adventures for our own times.

The book of Judges introduces Deborah by describing her in more detail than most biblical characters. Deborah was the only recorded female judge and the only military leader described as both a prophet and an adjudicator (Judges 4:4-5).

When the need arose to revolt against King Jabin of Canaan, Deborah mapped out an ambush strategy and directed the lead commander, Barak, to:

"March up to Mount Tabor and take with you 10,000 men of Naphtali and Zebulun. And I will draw Sisera, Jabin's army commander, with his chariots and his troops, toward you up to the Wadi Kishon; and I will deliver him into your hands." (Judges 4: 6-7)

Although the ambush succeeded, Jabin's general, Sisera, escaped on foot. As Sisera fled, Yael-defined only by her status as "wife of Heber the Kenite"-stepped out of her tent to invite him inside (Judges 4:17-18). The text recounts that Heber's family had been friendly to King Jaban, so Sisera could have reasonably assumed he'd be safe in this tent. Once the exhausted Sisera fell asleep, she "took a tent pin and grasped the mallet…and drove the pin through his temple till it went down to the ground" (Judges 4:21). By the time Barak and his troops arrived, Sisera was dead.

In Deborah, I see a woman whose intelligence and abilities, no doubt including political savvy, made her not only unique but impossible to ignore, even for a resolutely patriarchal society. She exercises significant, likely unprecedented, authority. Interestingly, she seems to know she's an anomaly - she warns Barak that following a woman into battle would dishonor him (Barak, to his credit, knows that defeating the enemy makes this risk to his honor worth taking).

Deborah's leadership strikes me as the voice of a woman in a historically masculine profession. I admire several strong women from the last hundred or so years who demonstrated extraordinary leadership in nontraditional roles, but I find only Deborah in the biblical cannon.

In contrast, Yael (pronounced ya'el) is described as the wife of a non-Israelite. She fulfills a woman's traditional role as hostess by offering Sisera the shelter and refreshments expected of the wife of a family friend. Indeed, Yael gives Sisera milk and covers him with a blanket, hauntingly similar to actions I have taken many times with my child. Yael, however, uses her unassuming position to lure him to his death.

The text tells us that Yael is married to a Kenite, but we don't know if she's an Israelite who married across tribal lines or a Kenite herself. Based on King Jabin's friendship, Yael could have been considered an enemy of Israel. But by killing Sisera, she demonstrated either loyalty to her Israelite family or sympathy for the oppressed Israelites.

Deborah, the wise woman and military leader, and Yael, the seemingly compliant housewife, demonstrate what women could accomplish in a heavily patriarchal biblical society. Their combined story is so striking that even the Bible's male editors were compelled to include it.

As I revisit their stories and study the TanachTanachתנ"ךAcronym for the Hebrew Bible, constructed from the first letters of its three sections: Torah, Neviim, and Ketuvim. , I bring my present-day education and experiences. I am heartened to rediscover Deborah and Yael and to learn that neither hesitated to do what needed to be done. Both stayed true to themselves while saving and serving Israel.

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