A tale of two citizens

Exploring the land that Deborah and Yael traversed as they left their mark on the path of Jewish history

Meggido521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It was the worst of times. That statement cannot be qualified with optimism (as Dickens did). The Bible characterizes the period of the Judges as a time when “every man did that which was right in his own eyes.”
The operative words there are likely “man” and “his,” as Israelite society had devolved into macho self-centeredness and indulgence which undermined the national cohesion needed to combat a unified and well-equipped enemy.
In this egomaniacal context God appointed two women, the Bible recounts: Deborah, to call for tribal cooperation, and Yael, to kill Israel’s enemy, even though she was from another people. Such far-sightedness had been lacking in the impotent, maledominated leadership.
Canaanites occupied the coveted Jezreel Valley, like other plains in Israel (Judges 1:7), as they were supported by charioteers who dominated the flatlands.
The Israelites were relegated to the hill country.
The contested terrain, the alluvial plain between Megiddo and Mount Tabor, was worthy of the name “Jezreel” which means “God sows,” indicating the region’s fertility. Surrounded by the Carmel and Gilboa mountain ranges, as well as mounts Tabor, Moreh and the Nazareth ridge, the rich soil acts as a basin for cherished rainfall, thereby providing some of Israel’s finest farmland.
In the time of the Judges, the great international highway from Mesopotamia in the east and Egypt in the west ran through the valley, further enhancing the area’s strategic value as passing merchants could be taxed there.
Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, Turks, Mamelukes, Brits and Israelis all sought and fought for the area, giving rise to Jezreel Valley’s more foreboding name – Armageddon.
Sheila Gyllenberg, a tour guide and lecturer in historical geography at Israel College of the Bible, explains the situation Deborah confronted.
“Jabin, the king of Hazor had been ‘oppressing’ the Israelites for 20 years (Judges 4:2-3). This oppression was enforced by the commander of his army, Sisera, who had 900 iron chariots.
Chariots were the ‘tanks’ of their day, allowing the warrior to concentrate on attack and defense while his driver controlled the horses,” she said.
“Chariots were efficient for warfare in the plains, but less useful on narrow passes in the hill country where the Israelite tribes were concentrated.
“The poetic text suggests that the Canaanites had taken over Israelite villages (Judges 5:7), necessitating the Israelites to return to tent-dwelling pastoralism. In addition it seems that the Canaanites were pillaging merchants traveling through the plains, necessitating travel through less accessible hill-country routes (Judges 5:6).
“Deborah’s family – who were dwelling under the palm tree that was between Ramah and Beit El – were apparently tent-dwellers, as were Heber the Kenite and his wife, Yael, – who pitched their tent near Kadesh-Naphtali, under the Oaks of Za’ananim.”
Deborah, a judge and prophetess, (Judges 1:4) sat in the shade of a palm tree and helped her countrymen with disputes. Situated in Ephraim at a vital intersection on the north-south ridge road (also called the Patriarchal Highway) which connected Hebron, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Beit El and Shechem (today, Nablus), she would have daily heard of news throughout the tribes.
As “a mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7), she likely dispensed timeless homespun wisdom. As a gifted mediator, Deborah would counsel constantly with her countrymen from different tribes negotiating solutions. As such she was in a strong position to convey God’s message that Naphtali and Zebulun must join forces to overcome the Canaanites at Jezreel.
ABOUT A day’s walk from the Jezreel Valley, Deborah assumed leadership, an unusual event for a woman in the ancient Near East, but not unheard of.
Gyllenberg points out that “the scripture never makes an issue about King Josiah and his advisers (including Hilkiah the priest) seeking counsel from the prophetess Hulda.”
Deborah sent for Barak, a resident of Kedesh-Naphtali, nearer the point of contention, to command the Israelite forces. Still, unwilling to step up, Barak responded plainly, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.”
Exhibiting courage and insight, Deborah warns Barak because of his condition he would not receive the honor but that the Canaanite commander would be killed by a woman.
That commander, Sisera, and his men were camped out at Harosheth Hagoi’im, best translated as “plowed fields of the gentiles,” an additional testimony to the fertility of the region.
According to Gyllenberg’s sources, “...the term refers to the plain east of Megiddo, where troops have assembled for battle numerous times throughout history.”
Barak mustered his forces opposite at Mount Tabor (575 meters), the tallest of the peaks around the valley, securing the mountainous terrain now familiar to the Israelites. The heights featured a view of their enemies’ movements and an elevation from which to rush the flatlanders.
On a level playing field, the match would have been no contest, with the charioteers’ superior speed and protection working to their advantage.
But on this day the chariots became a hindrance to the Canaanites.
Judges 5 indicates the Lord sent Barak (whose name means “lightning”) a thunderstorm to flood the valley.
Encompassed by mountains and ridges, the Kishon River, the only drain in the valley, quickly overflowed.
According to Judges 5, “Kings came, they fought, the kings of Canaan fought.
At Taanach, by the waters of Megiddo, they took no plunder of silver. From the heavens the stars fought, from their courses they fought against Sisera. The river Kishon swept them away, the ageold river, the river Kishon. March on, my soul; be strong!” Flooding in the Jezreel Valley is a wellknown phenomenon as aptly described by British archeologist and adventurer Gertrude Bell, who crossed the valley in the rainy season of 1905.
“The mud was incredible,” she wrote.
“We traveled almost hours at a time knee-deep in clinging mud. The mules fell down; the donkey almost disappeared.
You could see nothing but his ears.”
The hill warriors descended from Mount Tabor and rushed the boggeddown Canaanites, subduing them with the superior hand-to-hand combat skills they had perfected in the mountains.
THE CANAANITE chariots nullified, the Israelites beat them back toward their home base near the hill of Megiddo. Sisera, a seasoned soldier, anticipated the disaster and fled in the opposite direction, toward Barak’s hometown.
Exhausted, he passed a tent and sought Yael’s protection.
“As a tent-dweller, Yael would have been from a tribe of pastoralists, identified in the Bible as Kenites, descendants of the father-in-law of Moses,” Gyllenberg said. “In addition to caring for their flocks, they could have engaged in some marginal agricultural activities. Pastoralists often lived in a symbiotic relation with nearby towns and villages (whether Israelite or Canaanite), selling them meat and dairy products, and buying things they could not easily produce themselves.”
Since there was no man at home, Sisera should have continued on his flight, as nomadic culture prohibits a man from approaching a woman alone.
His approach could certainly be considered a threat to Yael and is consistent with the thoughts of Sisera’s mother (Judges 5:30) who assumed he would collect booty, including women along the way.
“Are they not finding and dividing the spoils: a woman or two for each man...” she asks.
However, another nomadic value, that of providing refuge for guests, was also compelling. Sisera violated the first.
Yael’s need to adhere to the second is a matter of debate.
Assessing the situation, Yael invited Sisera into the tent and served him milk.
As a pastoralist, goat milk would have been easily available, and it had the desired effect on the exhausted soldier.
Sisera fell asleep.
As a “woman of the tent” (Judges 5:24), Yael would not have been proficient with the use of swords and other military hardware. However she would be adept at all matters related to securing the tent; this included use of tent peg and hammer. Seizing the right equipment and timing she struck lethally through the commander’s temple.
Barak, the Israelite commander, arrived and found that, as prophesied, Sisera had been killed by a woman, leaving both men looking hesitant and cowardly. For the sake of the people of Israel, Yael had taken initiative at great personal risk to herself and her family since her clan had friendly relations with both the Canaanites and Israelites.
According to Gyllenberg, “Her action could have brought retribution on her family and her tribe, slaughter and expulsion at the hands of the much stronger Canaanites.”
Yael was honored in the song of Deborah, Judges 5.
“Most blessed of women be Yael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, most blessed of tent-dwelling women.”
In her song, Deborah affirmed several of the tribesmen, including the two tribes the Lord ordered Barak to assemble.
“The people of Zebulun risked their very lives; so did Naphtali on the terraced fields.”
However she chastised others for refusing to fight for their brothers.
“Gilead stayed beyond the Jordan. And Dan, why did he linger by the ships? Asher remained on the coast and stayed in his coves.”
But the outcome of Yael’s unselfish action was praised as the desired end for all that oppose the Lord.
“So may all your enemies perish, Lord!” her song concludes. “But may all who love you be like the sun when it rises in its strength.” •