Yossi Feintuch

General Sisra — defeated by two women

In her poem — found in this weekly Haftarah for Shabbat B’shalach — D’vorah, the top military commander of the Israelite tribal coalition that she and Barak, her fellow partner-in-command, assembled to bring about an uprising that would end a twenty-year-long Canaanite oppression — celebrates gleefully the slaying of Sisra, the army chief of staff of the Canaanite king, Yavin, who reigned from Hatzor.

D’vorah does not only describe derisively the humiliating circumstances of Sisra’s fall; she also allows her poem (where Sisra’s title is absent) — the prophetic counterpart of Moses’ Song of the Sea in Exodus 15 describing the demise of ”all the chariots of Egypt” in the Sea of Reed (and Miriam’s likely-abridged-by-a-redactor one-liner poem) — to poke fun at Sisra’s nameless mother. D’vorah imagined that woman to be desperately anguished over her son’s being missing in action (but, in reality dead, a fact which she was unaware of when D’vorah had already written about it).

As he hastened to encounter the military mutiny of Israelite ”reservist” warriors who had assembled against his mighty force of 900 ”iron chariots”, Sisra — judging by the attempts of his mother’s companions to uplift her sunken spirit as D’vorah muses — was expecting to enjoy the spoils of Israel, not the least of which was ”a womb, even two wombs” for every man in his army. D’vorah feels a need, likely because she is a woman warrior, to come clean in her poem with Sisra’s mother, who does not harbor any qualms about her son’s violent and abusive designs for Israelite captive wives or daughters — the highly prized booty to await him and his comrades in arms.

D’vorah’s is a cruel satire that highlights the hopeless and ironic attempt of the wisest ladies around Sisra’s mother whom she imagines to suggest to the worried mother — as though she was the only apprehensive mother of a trooper in the Canaanite staggered and disarrayed army — the logical reason for her son’s failure to return home in Hatzor.

Yet, rather than stay with his overwhelmed numerous soldiers, Sisra flees alone by foot from the treacherous battlefield, leaving behind his panicking army stuck in the heavily mudded Kishon River. Sisra whose army was knocked out ignominiously by D’vorah, the woman who led her troops into battle against him as an Israelite general, is now poised to be undone as a man by another (Kenite) woman, Yael, whom he had sought to conquer even in her tent after she had lured him in — a perfect double whammy.

Outsmarted and vanquished by D’vorah in battle, Sisra will shortly sink lifeless at Yael’s feet, the result of the hole that she pierced in his temple with a tent peg after he dozed off.

To appreciate the magnitude of such a humiliation fast-forward from chapters 4-5 to chapter 9 in the book of Judges to where a ”woman cast an upper millstone upon Abimelech’s head, and broke his skull”; nearing his imminent death he ordered his armor-bearer to kill him by the sword lest it will be said about him that ”a woman slew him.”

And it is ”D’vorah… a mother in Israel” and Yael the wife of Hever the Kenite, the ”most blessed of women”, who in reality did not even know each other personally, yet came together through their different roles in this eventful narrative to triumph over another enemy of the nation of Israel and her God.

Postscript: Though a divine commandment we find in the Rabbinic tradition an explanation for the 100 blasts of shofar on Rosh Hashanah — to symbolize the 100 moaning weeps of pain that Sisra’s mother sounded over her son’s failure to return home.

About the Author
Ordained a Rabbi by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1994; in 2019 this institution accorded me the degree of Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa. Following ordination I served congregations on the island of Curacao, in Columbia, MO. Currently serving a congregation in Bend, Or. I received academic degrees from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (B.A. in International Relations and History), New York University (M.A. in History), and Emory University (Ph.D. in U.S. History). I am the author of U.S. Policy on Jerusalem (Greenwood Press), and numerous articles on biblical themes in various print and digital publications. I have taught in several academic institutions, including Ben-Gurion University (Beersheba, Israel), and the University of Missouri (Columbia, MO). A native of Afula, Israel. A veteran of the IDF.
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