How many times have we heard it? How many times have we said it ourselves? “Come with me!” “If you won’t come with me then I won’t go!” Not words we normally associate with military leaders. We live in a world where we want “to boldly go where no one has gone before” to be the norm, but few of us are willing to accept the challenge – especially alone.
וַתִשְלַח וַתִקְרָא לְבָרָק בֶן־אֲבִינֹעַם מִקֶדֶשׁ נַפְתָלִי וַתֹאמֶר אֵלָיו הֲלֹא צִוָה׀ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵֽי־יִשְרָאֵל לֵךְ וּמָֽשַכְתָ בְהַר תָבוֹר וְלָקַחְתָ עִמְךָ עֲשֶרֶת אֲלָפִים אִישׁ מִבְנֵי נַפְתָלִי וּמִבְנֵי זְבֻלֽוּן
(Devorah the prophet) sent out a call to Barak son of Abinoam, from Kadesh, in the territory of Naphtali, and said to him “Ad”nai, G”d of Israel commands you to draw up at* Mount Tabor and take with you 10,000 men from Naphtali and Zevulun. [Judges:4:6]
* – I think a fair modern colloquial translation of the sense of the word here might be “get up off your ass and head on over to…” I think there’s a bit of both haste and chastisement here, considering the many other verb roots that could have been used here. It’s like saying “WYF are you waiting for?”
וּמָשַכְתִי אֵלֶיךָ אֶל־נַחַל קִישׁוֹן אֶת־סִֽיסְרָא שַר־צְבָא יָבִין וְאֶת־רִכְבּוֹ וְאֶת־הֲמוֹנֹו וּנְתַתִיהוּ בְיָדֶֽךָ
Then I (i.e. Ad”nai) will draw* Sisera. commander of Jabon’s army, with his chariots and soldiers, to the Wadi Kishon, and I will place him in your hands. [Judges 4:7]
* – the word used here is from the same Hebrew used in the previous verse for “draw.” So, in truly modern slang, G”d is saying “you drag you ass up to Mt. Tabor, and I’ll drag Sisera’s ass and all his army up there, too, and hand ‘em over to y’all.”
So far so good. But what Barak says next is part of why I am convinced the words in v. 6 are a mild chastisement.
וַיֹאמֶר אֵלֶיהָ בָרָק אִם־תֵלְכִי עִמִי וְהָלָכְתִי וְאִם־לֹא תֵלְכִי עִמִי לֹא אֵלֵֽך
He (Barak) said to her (Devorah) “if you go with me, I will go; if you won’t go, I won’t either.” [Judges 4:8]
This is a great hero and soldier? Then Devorah plays the emasculation card.
וַתֹאמֶר הָלֹךְ אֵלֵךְ עִמָךְ אֶפֶס כִי לֹא תִֽהְיֶה תִֽפְאַרְתְךָ עַל־הַדֶרֶךְ אֲשֶר אַתָה הוֹלֵךְ כִי בְֽיַד־אִשָה יִמְכֹר יְהוָה אֶת־סִֽיסְרָא וַתָקָם דְבוֹרָה וַתֵלֶךְ עִם־בָרָק קֶֽדְשָה
“I’ll go alright,” she said, but no glory will you gain on the path you’re taking, for G”d will now turn Sisera over to a woman’s hands.
In others words, if you need a woman to back you up, then a woman is gonna get the credit. That’s exactly what happens. Sisera is killed by a woman. Not Devorah, as one might have suspected she meant, but by Yael, wife of Heber the Kenite. She did it using her womanly wiles, convincing him her tent was safe, and killing him in while he slept by driving a tent peg through his head. How pleasant.
Everything about this story sucks. Despite modern feminist attempts to reclaim it, it is, ultimately, a misogynistic story. Barak is emasculated, and Yael tricks and kills Sisera. The story subtly attempts to paint Barak as somehow lacking, and he pays for his failure to “man up” and go it alone. Though the text describes the song that follows the prose telling of the events as the song of Devorah and Barak, Devorah is listed first, and it has been known historically, and not just in today’s more feminist lens. as the song of Devorah. Barak is just kind of there.
Barak won his battle (through G”d’s support) but he didn’t get his prize – to kill Sisera. Lest we think too harshly upon Yael, she was a bit between a rock and a hard place. Her husband had allied himself with King Jabin (and thus Sisera) but it was surely obvious to her that the Israelites had defeated Jabin’s army and would come looking for Sisera. The tent of one allied with Jabin might be a good place to look for him, so she took the violent, but probably safest course, to placate the Israelites. I don’t think for one moment that Yael is a hero – she was a cruel trickster. However, I think we can at least understand her motivations, even as we disapprove of her actions.Yael nevertheless earn hero status in the song of Devorah.
A glint of hope comes at the end. The Israelites live in peace for the next 40 years.Credit, in the song, for that goes to Yael, Devorah, and Barak (though it really belongs to G”d, does it not? The prose that immediately precedes Devorah’s song makes that clear, but in the song itself, G”d’s role appears more incidental. The song, scholars say, is probably far older than the prose version of the story.
How might the story be different if Barak had asked G”d to come with him to Mt. tabor, rather than Devorah? That’s the question I leave you to ponder this Shabbat Shirah.
©2015 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings On This Parasha:
Beshalakh 5774 – A Lot Can Change in 13 Years – Or Not
Beshalakh 5773 – Moshe’s Musings (Revised from 5760)
Beshalakh 5772 – Thankful For the Worst
Beshalakh 5771 – Praying That Moshe Was Wrong
Beshalakh 5768 – Man Hu
Beshalakh 5767-March On
Beshalakh 5766-Manna Mania II
Beshalakh 5765-Gd’s War
Beshalach 5763-Mi Chamonu
Beshalach 5760-Moshe’s Musings
Beshalach 5762-Manna mania
Beshalach 5761-Warrior Gd