Some thoughts on Midrash and the women of Judges

So I set out, as a writing assignment, to create poems about the characters Deborah, Yael, Sisera, and Sisera’s mother from the stories in chapters four and five of Judges. Chapter 4 tells their story in prose – Deborah was a “judge”, which was a kind of charismatic leader/seer. She pushed the general Barak to take on King Jabin, who was oppressing the Israelites. Jabin’s army was wiped out, except for the general Sisera, who ran off to the tent of Yael the Kenite, who killed him. The story then shifts to Sisera’s mother, who is waiting for her son to come home triumphant. Chapter 5 tells the same story, but in a war poem which is one of the most ancient texts incorporated into what became the Bible/Tanakh, so clearly comes from a much earlier tradition.

I wanted to write about these women, but I just couldn’t. I started reading Judges, and writing about Judges, and was just totally stopped. Like a lot of Jews, I never actually read all that stuff that’s in the Tanakh but not in the 5 books of Torah. And while a lot of Feminist midrash has been created about women in Torah, the women from the rest of the Bible are rarely mentioned. Reading Judges was astounding and awful, as it has a subtext that is completely about the continued transfer of power from women to men, and the ongoing decay of women’s status as the Israelites moved from tribes toward a central government with a central temple and priesthood. The story is all told from the point of view of these central powers, of course, who in the book are explaining why life had become so morally decayed that they HAD to take over, with the repeated refrain “there was no king in Israel/every man did as he pleased.” Which became the justification for the ultimate imposition of patrilocal, patrilineal rule, headed by male king, male priests, and their male god.

Now I know that this book, in part, is wish fulfillment on behalf of the cult of the single male war god, since women continued to have power in home and society, and continued to have goddesses in the Temple until it was destroyed. Judges is a fantasy of class, caste, and gender, pretending that if they tell the story it will mean only what they said it means.

Yet even so, the steady decline of women in the book is awful. At the beginning is Deborah, clearly the story of a culturally vital woman, incorporated into this story with only a few additions of text linking her to this god. Oh, and thousands of years of intentionally obtuse translation which insists that both she and Yael are identified by their husbands, when the Hebrew probably identifies them by where they are from. Next, an unnamed woman kills off the evil Abimelech by dropping a millstone on his head from a tower in which the people had taken refuge. Also an earlier story, I think, incorporated here with another odd twist – Abimelech asks his attendant to stab him, so that they will not say of him “he was killed by a woman.” Yeah, gotta get rid of THAT story.

Next up is Jepthah, son of a tribal leader but whose mother was a “prostitute.” Nonetheless he comes to power, after his tribe begs him, vowing that, if he wins, he’ll sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house when he returns home. This is his daughter, unnamed, who gladly gives herself up to sacrifice, asking only that she and the other maidens have two months in the mountains to bewail her maidenhood. Granted, sure, then she was killed. Fun, huh? Leaves me wondering if Jepthah’s mother was in fact a priestess who conceived him in a power/fertility rite with a locally powerful man, conferring on Jepthah special powers. If this was the original story, then the priestly class that shaped these stories into Judges needed to delegitimatize Jepthah and end his line, so why not invent this story of the vow and child sacrifice? I’m not a Hebrew scholar, but I have read a lot, and the whole set up does make me wonder.

Next up in Judges is Samson, which is really interesting to read. Also clearly a much older story, probably a cycle of stories and legends about a local hero, his story is full of puns, riddles, humor, vows and reversals. The woman here is Delilah, who betrays her husband three times and ultimately was killed along with all her people. She had no power of her own, a far cry from Deborah and Yael, but at least she had a name.

Next, and this is my favorite, a Levite from Ephraim takes a concubine, who runs away from him. He tracks her to her father’s house, who welcomes him warmly and gives her back to him (with her consent, it seems, but we know who wrote the story). They travel to the town of Gibeah, where, in a re-telling of the also disturbing Sodom story, the men of the town storm the door and demand the man be turned over to them “to be intimate.” His host instead offers the concubine and his own “virgin daughter, “ saying “have your pleasure with them, do what you like with them; but don’t do that outrageous thing to this man.” So the man shoves his concubine out the door, and, in the morning, seems surprised that she has been raped to death. So, to get revenge, he cuts her into twelve pieces and sends her to 12 tribes as evidence of the crimes of the men of the town. Some of the tribes come to his aid, war breaks out, the Benjamites are defeated.

Big problem ensues – everyone realizes they are not allowed to wipe out one of the 12 tribes, but they’ve also vowed to not let their daughters marry the Benjamites. But the B’s need women to continue! What to do? They decide the men of Jabesh-gilead weren’t sufficiently loyal, so everyone goes there, kills everyone except girls of marriageable age who are still virgins, and “marry off” all 400 of these girls to the B’s. But they need more women! What to do? Everyone treks off to Shiloh, to the annual Feast o’ The Lord, where the men of B are invited to kidnap every girl who comes out of town for the festival.

Gotta love it, yes? Women go from Deborah, of such power that her story could not be simply suppressed, to woman-as-temptress, to unnamed girl willingly sacrificed to keep a single man’s vow, to single unnamed woman raped and dismembered, and ends with hundreds of unnamed women kidnapped and raped to keep men’s vows.

What in the hell can a feminist say? I couldn’t write about any of these women, at least not the kind of midrash that exists to give them a name, tell the story from their point of view, because this would give some legitimacy to the original story. That’s my critique now of so much of what has evolved as “women’s” religious practice in Judaism – the stories are treated as stand-alone stories, and writers work to fill in the gaps. But Judges isn’t just a story, it’s a piece of political propaganda, created by someone for a specific reason, and that reason needs to be explored and questioned. As a feminist, I’m more interested in an analysis that understands personal relationships as the epicenter of social power, gendered power, yes, and also race, class, ethnicity, nationality, citizenship, and more. I need more than just finding the women – I want to find the power, and reveal it, and then reimagine and reshape. I want to re-understand history and so change the future. I’m just no longer interested in midrash whose goals is to elevate imahot to the same height as avot. I want to knock those damn fathers off their throne and figure out where we are all together, starting from new ground.

I want not just the why or the how, but the why.

And the why of the stories woven into Judges is a need to justify kingship to a people whose religious/cultural tradition had been as a people who lived under God and didn’t need kings. Power had to justify itself, had to explain why it was now legitimate, and the power stripped away from women was part of this process. The dead that pile up in these stories – and there are thousands upon thousands – aren’t supposed to matter, and we aren’t supposed to count them. The point of these stories is to enforce a peculiarly Jewish way of telling history, set in theology, in which the Jews sin against God so are handed over to their enemies until a leader rises to take them back to God’s law. Then they live “rightly” for some time, until they sin and the whole cycle starts over again. The sacrificed women, all those slaughtered, are only ways to advance the plot. We aren’t supposed to count them as people, we aren’t supposed to mourn them. They don’t matter—only we matter, the “we” who live to tell the story. This is how the survivors go on surviving, where genocide is such a given that it gives one no moral rise.

Which is exactly why I’m a Reconstructionist Jew and reject this doctrine of being “the chosen people.” History, oppression, war – these haven’t happened only because the Jews have pissed off their big daddy war god. That’s the storyline I’ve walked out of, to demand an end to that understanding of history. I want Jews, Jewish culture, and Judaism to enter shared history, where God is not the only cause, and where the dead count.

And when I count the dead in Judges, I find women’s lives, women’s truth, the story of women’s power and meaning all buried under the rubble of the record of Samson’s destruction. When I count the dead, I count the women of Judges: Deborah, Yael, the woman who defended her people by killing a king, Delilah the trickster, the daughter sacrificed, the woman killed and dismembered, all the women kidnapped and raped. I count them all.

To find out more:

I ended up writing two pieces: “________ bat Jepthah” and “Israel Beiteinu.” You can find them both here on my blog.

Alicia Ostriker, The Nakedness of the Fathers, “Judges, or Disasters of War”

Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible, “Warriors by Weapon and Word”

Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Bible, “May My Lord King David Live Forever: Royal Ideology in Samuel and Judges”

Rabbi Jill Hammer, Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women “The Song of Devorah and Yael”

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6 thoughts on “Some thoughts on Midrash and the women of Judges

  1. Dear This Frenzy,

    I completely understand how you may come away with an understanding that Judges and the other books of TANACH trace a shift of power from women to men, but it is not necessarily correct. That is the reason I’ve been writing “Secrets of Women in the Jewish Bible Revealed” for the past 6 years. It is a book of Midrashim that explain the true status of women in ancient Jewish culture, before the exile washed our culture with anti-female bias. That status is above men.

    I cannot here explain all the Midrashim about the women in Judges, however, once you read them, you will see that what appears on the surface is not the complete story.

    For instance, let’s look at the story of Sampson. Did you know that Midrash tells us the name of Sampson’s mother, Z’llpunith, and that she was spiritually superior to his father?

    An angel twice appears to Z’llpunith, when she is alone, to herald Sampson’s birth. Manoah only gets to see the angel when Z’llpunith allows him to go with her to where the angel appears. Compare this to the story of the angel that comes to herald the birth of Isaac, which is centuries earlier in the Torah. He and the other two angels appear to Abraham, and Sarah hides in the tent.

    The Midrash explains that Manoah is a man from the tribe of Dan, which, in the future, will have the silver idol of Micah, which the tribe will use as a method to worship HaShem, a forbidden practice.

    Z’llpunith, on the other hand, is from another tribe, that will not harbor an idol as an aid to reach HaShem.

    You mention how bad Deliah is treated. Perhaps you will understand her treatment when you learn that she is the mother of Micah and that the idol of silver he builds is constructed from the silver she received as her reward for betraying her husband, Sampson!

    Deliah is treated so poorly not only for betraying a husband, not only for betraying a Judge of Israel to pagans, but also for compounding her sin by using her reward to pollute the religious practices of an entire tribe of Israel!

    As to Yepthah, are you aware that his daughter, who Midrash tells us is named Seila, may not have been ‘sacrificed’ in the way an animal was sacrificed, but ‘dedicated to HaShem’ in the same way that Channah dedicated her son, Shmuel, (Samuel, in English) to HaShem.

    Midrash tells us that the purpose of her 2 month trip to the mountains “to mourn my virginity” was to pick a place for her father to build a building in which she would stay the rest of her life, serving HaShem. Being dedicated to the service of HaShem, she would not be permitted to have sexual relationships, even with a husband. Otherwise, she would have gone to mourn her life, not virginity. Being a superior spiritual being, she accepts the call to the service of HaShem, even though she is not bound by her father’s void oath.

    For the basis of this, see HaShem’s command to the entire assembly coming out of Egypt to abstain from sex for days prior to the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai and Mariam’s protest to Aaron against Moses abstaining from having sex with Tzpora, his wife, which is why HaShem struck her with t’zariah, often called leprosy in English. Aaron and Mariam could have sexual relationships with their spouses, because HaShem would warn them prior to communicating with them, so they could purify themselves, but Moses was subject to being contacted by HaShem at all times, without notice, which is why he had to always be pure.

    This story is a warning about being pious without Torah learning, and being overly prideful. Yepthah was pious, but did not study Torah. Had he done so, he would have known that such an oath is not valid in Jewish law.

    The Midrash tells us that Yepthah, also, was too full of pride. He was the leader of the entire Israelite nation. He could have gone to the Sandhedrin and have the vow annulled, but he thought they should come to him, as he was higher in society. He could have gone to the high priest, Phineas, and have the vow annulled, but, again, being higher in social order, he thought Phineas should come to him. So, he didn’t.

    The Midrash also tells us that Phineas was too full of pride. When he heard of the horrible vow, he should have gone to Yepthah and told him that it was invalid, but being the high priest, a prophet, and a great Torah scholar, he thought he was above such journey to an ignorant civil leader.

    So, both men were punished, according to the Midrash. Phineas immediately lost his power of prophecy for 42 years. Yepthah developed a form of real leprosy that caused each of his limbs to rot and fall off and be buried in different locations.

    Seila, on the other hand, according to the text, had her friends “mourn” for her on 4 days, each year. The Midrash tells us that the Hebrew word in the text is the same used in the story of Deborah, but that there it is translated as “recount.” So, mourn is a mistranslation. They went to the mountains each year and recounted to Seila what was happening outside of the confines of her holy habitation.

    There is so much more that you will have to wait to read, once I finish my book.

    In the meantime, if this has peaked you interest in Midrash, I invite you to read my blog “Midrash Maven,” at worldpress.com.

  2. I happen to agree with your interpretation on the historical case for patriarchy in these books of the Hebrew Bible. I also agree that there are clues there to women’s power and that both stories are worth telling. The hard thing about feminist midrash, I think, is that it has to face the awful realities of the stories truly from the woman’s perspective and that is painful. I am not sure if Jepthah’s daughter was sent to a hideaway — I never even thought of that. I do know that Isaac was saved by God and she was not. The story from her perspective needs to be told even though, finally, it ends in an ending. One possible midrash is an expansion on her wisdom and her passivity — why would she willingly return for her death? Is the price of obedience, for women, death? It’s a terrible but honest reality. perhaps she is an terrible warning of the price of obedience — both to the periodically blood hungry God and to her father. So if I wrote a midrash it would include their interior struggles about this sacrifice, her anger, her beauty, youth, intelligence, strength, and ultimately, her silence.

  3. Oh, I’m really loving the juxtaposition of Isaac being saved and Jepthah’s daughter being sacrificed. Umm, yeah.

  4. I found my way here because I am working now on a series of poems about several Biblical women — and the poem I’m working on right now is a tryptich which looks at Devorah, at Yael, and at the unnamed daughter of Jephthah. I’d love to see the poems you wrote on these themes.

  5. Velveteen Rabbi! I love your blog! I only had a draft of one poem out of this, but would be happy to share it. I’ll forward it via email. I’m completely fascinated by Deborah and Yael, the way the language and literary structure is so much older in that song than in the text around it, the great “I arose a Mother in Israel” – what a line! I’d love to see what you’re working on, too.

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