(This imaginary account is based on Judges 4 & 5.)
Ah, I have lived too long. Better that I would sleep the long sleep beside my Heber. Because now again comes war and rumors of worse. Now again these descendants of one ancestor, all children of earth’s first man, fight over their father’s earth. And my daughter, my gentle daughter, weeps and prepares her household for war. They gather their flocks, their children, their servants close. The men sharpen their swords.
They encourage each other with stories of past Israelite victories. Joshua at Jericho and Ai, the sun standing still, southern and northern kingdoms conquered. They chant the names of 31 defeated kings. They tell of taking Jerusalem, of putting the city to the sword and setting it on fire. They tell of Shamgar, son of Anath, who struck down six hundred Philistines with an oxgoad and saved Israel. And they tell of me, they call me most blessed among women.
My mother called me headstrong. My father worried that no dowry would be large enough to entice a man to put up with my outspoken opinions, my brash ways. But my Heber wanted me, just as I was. He laughed and told me that he loved my strength, my intelligence, my courage and energy. How I loved him, my strong and gentle Heber. Our youngest daughter takes after him.
We lived for a time among my husband’s kin, descendants of Cain, whom the Israelites call a murderer. Among my husband’s kin Cain is not known as a murderer but as a wanderer, one who could not settle to raise crops or tend flocks. My Heber, he was the gentlest of men, but a true descendant of Cain. We laughed a lot, we worked a lot, we made a lot of children – and we moved a lot. Sometimes for better pasture for our flock, sometimes for cooler air, sometimes for better water sources.
Once, once we moved just to spend some time near a beautiful tree – a terebinth, grown tall and wide over time. There was a good stream nearby, flowing into the Kishon River, there were pastures for grazing, shade from the sun, and lots of room for our tents and our children.
But the land was restless again, with talk of a new war between Jaban, who called himself king of Canaan, and the Israelites, who wanted Canaan all for their own. These Israelites worship a strange god, a jealous god who wants only his own people in Canaan. So the Israelites don’t just conquer others, they slaughter them and drive them out. Still, they are not bad people, they can be generous, sharing what they have with widows, orphans, beggars and strangers. But their god is a jealous god, easily angered.
One strange thing I remember from that strange time: the Israelites had no king. They had a strong general named Barak but their real leader was a woman named Deborah. She settled all their disputes and their god talked to her. My Heber would laugh and tell me that I would make a good Deborah.
I remember Sisera’s nine hundred chariots fitted with iron. Sisera was Jaban’s general, as Barak was Deborah’s. Sisera was a proud, cruel man, used to taking what he wanted, used to fighting, used to winning. Barak and Deborah came with 10,000 men to challenge him. Heber said they were crazy, driven on by their crazy god. They had 10,000 men but Sisera had Jaban’s army and those nine hundred chariots fitted with iron. That is what everyone talked of, those chariots. Who can win, they asked, against nine hundred chariots fitted with iron.
Ha! Nine hundred chariots fitted with iron became nine hundred deathtraps when the Kishon overflowed its banks and flooded the battleground. Forty years later, the Israelites still sing of that day: the day that Barak and Deborah’s army killed every one of Sisera’s men. (I’m not sure that part is true, but it makes a good song.)
But we knew nothing of that at the time, although the battle was not far off. We were watchful. We kept the children and livestock close to the camp. We readied everything in case we had to flee quickly. But all we saw was one man, one filthy man, running, stumbling into our camp. He named himself Sisera, proud general still, and demanded that we care for him and hide him until his men rallied and came for him.
You don’t refuse a general who has nine hundred chariots fitted with iron. Our servants bathed him and cleaned his clothes. We prepared a meal for him and Heber and our sons. My daughters and I served the men, of course.
I watched Sisera watching our Hurriya. She was only 8 years old but his eyes were hungry as he watched her. He asked her name, he told her how pretty she was, he told her what a fine life she could have in Jaban’s court. Then he asked Heber about her dowry. I could see my Heber, I knew my Heber, he was ready to explode.
We were not poor but we were not rich either. We came from fine, respectable people, but we were not a noble family. If Hurriya went to Jaban’s court, it would be as a concubine, not as a wife. She would soon become little better than a slave. Maybe offered to favored soldiers. This is not what we wanted for any of our daughters, but especially not for Hurriya, our youngest.
But what of Sisera’s men? What of those nine hundred chariots fitted with iron? I imagined those chariots storming up just as my husband and sons challenged Sisera. My men would all be slaughtered and then my daughters and I would be worse than concubines.
I caught Heber’s eye and slowly, with just the smallest movement, shook my head. And I smiled. And Heber knew. He knew he could leave it to me.
The rest you know, the rest they still sing of. The invitation for Sisera to hide in my tent while I stood guard. The spiced – and drugged – drink. The hammer. The tent peg I pounded into his temple as he slept his drugged sleep in my bed.
I was ready, the next morning, ready to take the blame. To be the only one to take the blame. Better leave my family without a mother than without a father.
But those fabled iron-clad chariots never came. Mud, it turns out, defeats iron-clad chariots rather easily. Sisera’s men never came. Barak came. And Deborah. When they saw what I had done, they honored me. And Barak said with wonder, “It is as you foretold, Deborah. Sisera met his fate at the hands of a woman.”
We have lived among them for forty years now. My daughters married their sons. My grandchildren worship their jealous god. I myself am still honored, though I was just a mother, protecting her child.
And now I will face this new war with that child and her family. When they ask I will tell my story, or at least I will tell the only part that they want to hear: the drugged spice drink, the hammer, the tent peg, the blood. I will listen to their songs. I will listen to the song that tells of my part; the song that ends, “So may all your enemies perish, YAHWEH! But may all who love you be like the sun when it rises in its strength.” I am Jael, and I remember.