The Triumph of Deborah
Two women were standing on high places, shielding their eyes from the blazing sun with their hands, peering into the distance in search of messengers from the battlefield. Each knew that her life depended on the outcome of the battle; but their lives depended on opposite results.
* * *
On the rooftop of the royal castle in Hazor, in the north of the land of Canaan, stood the youngest daughter of King Jabin, the mightiest of all the kings of Canaan. Asherah, an arrestingly beautiful young woman seventeen years of age, had long straight hair the color of ripe wheat. Her large eyes, slightly tilted at the corners, were a blue-green color and endowed with the sparkle of precious stones. The skin of her face and body was the shade of pure white milk, with pink roses of Sharon gracing her cheeks.
She had inherited these features from her father, whose mother had been brought by his own father, the previous king, from the Land of the Hittites. In this land, far to the north and west of Canaan, people’s skin was as white as the snow that covered the face of the earth in the winter, and their eyes were almost as light. Because of Asherah’s rare colors, her delicate small nose and her finely chiseled mouth, she was renowned for her beauty in her father’s kingdom.
The princess was the new wife of the chief commander of the army, Sisra. Their marriage had barely been consummated when he had been compelled to interrupt their brief spell of love and passion and lead her father’s army into war against the Israelites.
Now, four days later, she was anxiously awaiting news of him. Yesterday a torrential rain had battered the castle, but now the sky had cleared. She stood with her windblown hair swirling about her like a cloud, braving the relentless autumn sun that was scorching her light skin.
The imposing structure on whose rooftop she stood was built on a high hill. From this lofty vantage point she had a clear view of the rolling hills beyond, carpeted with lush green meadows, and of the plain below dotted by cultivated fields, vineyards and fruit trees. Among those, she saw several men on horseback riding towards her. Her eyes were moist with the strain of her effort to ascertain whether these riders, still at a fair distance from the castle, were those she had been waiting for. Her heart was thudding as wildly as the approaching horses’ hoof beats, in anticipation and fear.
Before climbing up onto the rooftop she had bowed down to the goddess Asherah, the goddess of passion and fertility, for whom she had been named. Her mother, the queen, had called her by that name, because even as a newborn infant she had been as fair as a goddess. She had always felt close to the deity whose name she bore, and kept a beautifully crafted golden statue of her on a sideboard in her room. Weeping in agitation before this image, she had prayed that Asherah would send her beloved husband back safely to her arms, and save her family from destruction.
Yet the prayer had not laid to rest her fear of defeat, which could spell death not only for Sisra, but for herself and her family. For if the Canaanite army had been destroyed, and was no longer able to protect them the Israelites would soon conquer the town of Hazor and overrun the castle. It was well known that they were a brutal, murderous lot. They would show no mercy toward their enemies, not even toward women, no matter how delicately nurtured they were. If they came charging in, her fate would be sealed. It would be death by the sword; or even worse: rape, capture and slavery.
* * *
Some way to the south, on the top of Mount Tabor in the heart of the land of Israel, another woman stood: the Israelite prophetess and judge, Deborah. Unlike the Canaanite king’s daughter, she was not a young bride, but a mature thirty-five-year-old woman. One who had been married to her husband, Lapidoth, for sixteen years before, disregarding their many years of happiness together, he had sent her away.
Unlike Asherah, she was not beautiful, but overpoweringly magnificent: unusually tall, her face expressive, her body voluptuous, her raven-black eyes compelling. Her hair burst forth from her head in riotous black curls, with just a hint of reddish highlights in them. Because her curls were wild and easily tangled, she wore her hair shorter than Asherah. Yet, at this moment, there were marked similarities between her and the Canaanite beauty. Deborah’s hair, too, was blown by the wind, and her eyes were strained from staring into the distance.
From the crest of the mountain, which rose in solitary splendor in the Valley of Jezreel, she had a commanding view of the vale below, laid out at her feet like a richly patterned rug. She spotted neatly tended fields, on which the wheat had been sown already. Orchards of plentiful olive trees spread to the distant hills beyond, on whose gentle green slopes woolly fleeced sheep and goats grazed contentedly, and their occasional bleating could be heard at a distance. Like Asherah, Deborah was wondering whether the men she saw riding toward her were the bearers of tidings from the battlefield.
Deborah, too, was torn between hope and fear. She had long been blessed with an unfathomable closeness to the Lord, the God of Israel. She had never been privy to visions of herself bowing before his golden throne amidst angels and stars. Nonetheless, at times she had felt her soul soar high to touch his infinity. But during the last few days she had sensed that his very holiness had put him out of reach of her prayers, and that the gates of heaven had been shut to it. Although she would never have admitted this to anyone, her heart, too, was pounding at a mad pace in a hell of uncertainty.
She was the one who had dispatched the Israelite sword bearers to war against King Jabin’s army. She was responsible for the lives of the young men she had sent out, and for the life of the young commander Barak, who was leading them at her behest.
An Israelite defeat would spell death for them and for her. Leaving their chariots at the foot of the mountain, the enemy’s soldiers would soon overrun her hastily pitched tent at its summit. Their commander, Sisra, who had seen her before and hated her on sight, would easily recognize her. She expected no mercy at his hands. She could flee, but it would be dishonorable for her to abandon her warriors. She would remain where she was to meet her fate. After that, Sisra would follow up his feat by devastating the entire land of Israel and destroying its people, and so also her own sons and family.
As she faced this harrowing possibility, Deborah tried to banish her doubts about sending Barak to confront the Canaanites. She had not done so lightly; she had been convinced that there was no other choice.
The people of Israel had been facing increasing hardship at the hand of Jabin and Sisra. Their soldiers raided peaceful Israelite villages. They killed men and children and captured other men and women, and turned them into slaves for themselves and the priests and noblemen of Canaan. They plundered the farmers’ flocks and cattle and the produce that was stocked up in their storerooms, and burned down their houses and fields.
This persecution had been going on unceasingly for twenty years, worsening by the day. Over time, matters had become so dire that most people were afraid to travel on the roads or live in the countryside, or in villages. Many deserted their properties and farms to seek protection in fortified towns, surrounded by walls. These were often far removed from their fields, so that they were cut off from their sources of livelihood and suffered the pangs of hunger. But at least they could sleep peacefully, without fear of being slaughtered in their sleep.
During this time, Deborah had become renowned for her divine gift of prophecy, and had also established herself as the most widely acclaimed leader and judge in Israel. She had never been anointed. But she was endowed with that intangible spark, which, by the grace of God, sets leaders apart from ordinary men and women. So she had gradually drifted into her position, and no one had ever disputed her leadership.
She judged the people in the mountains of Efraim, and litigants from all parts of the land of Israel flocked to her for judgment there. Those who were troubled in their souls also came to seek her advice, and she was able to lift even the most downcast of spirits. Thus, when the yoke of the Canaanites was heavy upon the Israelites' necks, they turned to her with their complaints. As they groaned under the heel of oppression, they expected her to bring them relief.
Deborah was quick to perceive that their patience had run short. More and more men were willing to bear swords and come out in defense of their people. Yet they required a leader who could steer them to victory. The battle that had raged the day before had been the result of her reluctant willingness to assume this wartime leadership.
The favorable outcome she fervently prayed for would compel her to confront Barak, who would expect the reward he had insisted on in return for carrying out her orders to become commander of the army. She had always been unfailingly faithful to the man who had been her husband for so many years. Even now that he had divorced her on an unfathomable whim, she was still bound to him with the bonds of a love that had not waned. But in the days that had passed since then, she had relegated it to the nether regions of her soul, as she gradually came to harbor a lust for Barak that was as unexpected as it was compelling. Now, if he returned safely and victoriously, it would be difficult for her to turn him back from his design. Nor did she any longer wish to do so.