Posted by: mattcolvin | July 2, 2012

Schadenfreude in the Song of Deborah and Barak

Jael and Sisera by Jan de Bray (1627-1697)

Monday of the 4th week after Trinity: Judges 5.

Deborah and Barak’s celebration of Sisera’s demise trades upon sexual conquest as a symbol of military conquest. It is a significant influence on later Biblical stories about women. For instance, the opening line is:

“Most blessed among women is Jael,
the wife of Heber the Kenite;”

The words of Elizabeth to Mary echo this benediction.

“Blessed is she among women in tents.”

The Rabbis say that “women in tents” are the matriarchs Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah, each of which is mentioned in connection with tents. But this is unnecessary. Jael is qualified by “in tents” to highlight the scene of her deed.

25 “He asked for water, she gave milk;

She brought out cream in a lordly bowl.”

She goes one better than Sisera’s request. Where he is a fugitive seeking means to slake his thirst, she offers comfort and delight. Milk is also soporific, part of Jael’s plan to get Sisera to sleep.

26 “She stretched her hand to the tent peg,
Her right hand to the workmen’s hammer;
She pounded Sisera, she pierced his head,
She split and struck through his temple.”

The gory details of the deed are cast in terms of a laborer’s work, and there is wordplay in the verbs of action: wehalmah…machaqah…umachazah…wechalphah – “And she pounded, she pierced, she split, she struck.” Really, there was probably only one or at most two strokes of the hammer, but we get four verbs to create the same effect as a “repeated cut” of an action scene in a movie.

27 Between her legs ( בֵּ֣ין רַגְלֶ֔יהָ ) he sank, he fell, he lay still; between her legs he sank, he fell; Where he sank, there he fell dead.”

Here, we must correct the NKJV translation, which renders בֵּ֣ין רַגְלֶ֔יהָ as “at her feet,” thereby effacing all sexual overtones. But the poem before us wants us to notice this double entendre: Sisera’s goal was to get “between her legs”, and he got there, but only dead. (Some of the Rabbis believe that Jael actually did allow Sisera to have intercourse with her, as part of her plan to lull him to sleep. See this. Perhaps these are some of the same Rabbis who held that in Esther 1 Darius ordered Vashti to appear wearing nothing but the “crown royal.”)

28 “The mother of Sisera looked through the window,
And cried out through the lattice,
‘Why is his chariot so long in coming?
Why tarries the clatter of his chariots?’

This is pure schadenfreude, of the same sort as the depiction of Atossa the wife of Darius in Aeschylus’ Persians, where she and the other Persian women wait anxiously for Xerxes’ return from Greece.

“29 Her wisest ladies answered her,
Yes, she answered herself,
30 ‘Are they not finding and dividing the spoil:
To every man a girl or two;
For Sisera, plunder of dyed garments,
Plunder of garments embroidered and dyed,
Two pieces of dyed embroidery for the neck of the looter?'”

These lines express the poet’s delight at the disappointment of Sisera’s rapacious expectations, in two ways: First, Sisera and his men intended to conquer the Israelites sexually: “to every man a girl or two”. This expectation has now been dashed, since Sisera is now “between Jael’s legs” as a dead man.

Second, the plunder of garments has gone deliciously wrong as well, since Sisera’s garments are indeed “dyed” with his own blood, and especially around “the neck”.


  1. […] 14. Matt Colvin on schadenfreude in the song of Deborah and Barak. […]

  2. “at her feet” is an expression that can, in Hebrew, have a sexual reference. There are many “displaced references” by which euphemisms can be used, through evoking neighbouring body parts. However, in this case, the Hebrew may be mistranslated. Women in the Hebrew Bible: A Reader, edited by Alice Bach (Routledge; New York; 1999; ISBN 0415915619) has an essay on the sexuality in the story of Jael and Sisera. I would like to see an analysis of the mytheme of the tent peg, or horn, as it is used in the Book of Judges and in folklore around horned beasts, mythical (such as the yali in Hindu tradition) or real (as in the mountain goat which shares the name with Jael), and the strong parallels between these different strands of thought.

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