The Woman of Flames

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Parashat Beshalach, Judges 4:4 – 5:31 

Monique Brumbach, UMJC Executive Director

This week’s haftarah portion brings us into the tumultuous period of Israeli life following the death of Joshua. The Book of Judges reads like an action movie or a comic book, replete with heroes and villains, vivid battle scenes, quirky protagonists, and gory death scenes. In the 4th chapter of Judges, we learn that Gal Gadot is not the original Jewish Wonder Woman. Instead, the honor goes to Deborah, who precedes her by several thousand years.

Deborah’s introduction is striking: “Now Deborah, a woman, a female prophet, a woman of flames, she herself, she was judging Israel at that time.” (Judges 4:4) This is no ordinary woman, not simply a female prophet like Miriam or Huldah, nor only a judge like Gidon. Instead, she bears the unique distinction of serving as both prophet and judge. The only other biblical figure to serve in both roles simultaneously is Samuel – the man who established the Jewish monarchy and anointed its first two kings.

To be a judge in the time of the judges was not a ceremonial role. The judges of Israel were warlords, first and foremost. They prodded the Jewish people to abandon religious syncretism, destroy the altars they had built to the gods of the pagans living among them, and return to serving the only god, the god of Israel. Only in a state of repentance and covenant faithfulness could the Jewish people succeed in battle and enjoy peace in the Land.  

Except that there hasn’t been peace. Since the last judge died (Ehud), everyone has returned to worshipping foreign gods, leading God to deliver the Jewish people into the hands of a Canaanite King, Yavin. The King’s general Sisera deploys 900 iron chariots, and succeeds in terrorizing the tribes of Naphtali and Zevulun living in the northern flatlands of Israel.

Deborah isn’t intimidated by Sisera. Her command post sits in the mountains between Ramah and Bethel, where his chariots cannot reach. She summons Barak, the commander named “Lightning” to hatch a battle plan and deliver marching orders from the master of the universe: “Gather 10,000 men and march to Mount Tavor. You’re going to fight that army of chariots in the muddy banks of the Kishon River, and God will deliver Sisera into your hands.”

Barak seems overwhelmed by these orders. Surely he has already skirmished with Sisera’s army, and taken heavy losses among his men. He responds: “If you go with me, I will go, but if you won’t go with me, I won’t go.” Deborah agrees. “Yes, I will gladly go with you, but you should know that there won’t be much glory for you, as God is going to deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” With the matter settled, The Woman of Flames and the Man of Lightning set off to make war.

Barak succeeds in mustering 10,000 Jewish men. Together, he and Deborah hike up the mountain to survey the area below. Dawn breaks, and Deborah can see that Sisera has gathered his chariots in the valley below, just as her prophecy had foretold. She gives the rousing speech that plays in every movie before the final charge: “Get going! This is the day when God will hand Sisera over to you! God has gone out ahead of you!” The men swarm down the mountain, chasing Sisera’s troops halfway to the Mediterranean Sea. Sisera’s chariots get stuck in the mud of the Kishon river, and every single Canaanite soldier is put to the sword, “not one man was left.” Sisera makes a mad dash on foot halfway across the countryside, a trip that would have taken 18 hours at minimum.

He arrives at the tents of Hever, where he’s invited inside by the brave Canaanite woman Yael. Any woman in her right mind would steer clear of a demoralized general fresh from battle – he is more likely to perpetrate rape than accept hospitality. But Yale shows great courage, agency, and cunning. He is likely shivering from adrenal fatigue. So she wraps him in blankets. Parched, he asks for water. She gives him warm milk, and covers him with more blankets. Moments later, he’s fast asleep. Then Yael drives a tent peg through his skull, and steps outside to greet Barak (who has been hot on Sisera’s heels) to show off her war trophy. The battle went exactly as Deborah prophesied – Sisera has died at the hands of a woman, and his entire army has been soundly defeated.

For centuries, commentators have lost their minds over the roles played by Deborah and Barak in this tale. Many interpret Barak’s dialogue with Deborah as a sign of cowardice, and Yael’s glory as a suitable “punishment.” Shaming Barak helps to explain how God could possibly use a woman to do something as masculine as making war or assassinating a sleeping general: “God only uses women when there are no good men around.”  

But if Barak is really such a mouse, why does the writer of Hebrews include him in the great hall of heroes, along with Gidon, Samson, and King David? (Hebrews 11:32) If there are no good men around, how does Barak find 10,000 of them to take up arms against the fearsome army of Sisera? Only a real mensch runs into a dangerous battle knowing there will be no glory in it for him. And where is the shame in asking a prophet who is also a successful warlord to come with you? She has a direct line to God, she is the architect of the grand plan, and she’s quite experienced in battle. It would make sense to want her there on the big day, to talk strategy in real-time, offer divine input, and boost the morale of the troops.

Barak insisted that Deborah come with him to make war, and has been belittled by civilian commentators ever since. What if his ultimatum is a sign of faith, rather than cowardice? We shouldn’t forget that Barak won the war. The text suggests that he won because he brought the Woman of Flames along, not in spite of her presence. And together they brought peace to the Land for 40 years. How much more could we accomplish as a community if our men of lightning and women of flames could work together for the sanctification of God’s holy name, without giving a thought to glory, honor, shame, or credit?

Monique Brumbach