This is my last post on Deborah (at least for a while). To read all my posts on Deborah, see below.
The story of Deborah is a story probably written by a woman, a story that is focused on four different women, each with a specific role in the development of the story.
The first woman and the main character of the story is Deborah. She was a judge, a prophetess, and a mother in Israel. Deborah received a special call from God to deliver the Israelites from the oppression of the Canaanites. The people respected Deborah because of her official role as a judge in Israel. They also respected her as a person capable of settling disputes since the people of Israel came to her at Ramah. Deborah was well respected in Israel as a person of integrity, courage, and wisdom.
The second woman was Jael, the wife of Heber, a Kenite who was a descendant of the family of Hobab. When Sisera’s army was defeated by Israel’s army under the command of Barak, Sisera sought refuge in Jael’s private tent, believing he would be safe because Jabin, king of Hazor, had a peace treaty with Heber’s family. However, in the conflict between the Israelites and the Canaanites, Jael took Israel’s side and killed Sisera with a tent peg.
The third woman, the subject of this post, was Sisera’s mother. In the story, Sisera’s mother is introduced as a woman waiting for her son to return from the battle with the spoils of war. She looks out of the window with impatience, worried about her son’s delay, with foreboding that something bad has happened to him, with a cry of anguish that expressed the anxiety and alarm of a desperate mother.
The fourth woman, or a group of women, are the ladies who were at the service of Sisera’s mother. The ladies of the palace tried to console Sisera’s mother by saying that Sisera would soon return, bringing with him an abundance of booty, and that his return was delayed because there was so much spoil to divide among the soldiers.
The text dealing with Sisera’s mother is found in Judges 5:28-30:
28 “Out of the window she peered, the mother of Sisera wailed through the lattice: ‘Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why tarry the hoofbeats of his chariots?’ 29 Her wisest princesses answer, indeed, she answers herself, 30 ‘Have they not found and divided the spoil?- A womb or two for every man; spoil of dyed materials for Sisera, spoil of dyed materials embroidered, two pieces of dyed work embroidered for the neck as spoil?’” (ESV)
The words of the text above are spoken by a woman who does not know that her son was killed by another woman. In ancient societies, it was a shame and an act of disgrace for a warrior to be killed by a woman. Thus, when Abimelech was gravely wounded by a woman, he called quickly the young man who was his armor-bearer and said to him, “Draw your sword and kill me, lest they say of me, ‘A woman killed him’” (Judges 9:54).
The beginning of the story of Sisera’s mother finds this unnamed mother looking out of the window of her house, worried about the delay of her son from the field of battle. The Hebrew word translated “wailed” appears only here in the Bible and it is difficult to render it into English. Some versions translate the word as “cried” (NIV), “gazed” (NRSV), “whined” (TNK), and “wailed” (ESV). However the word is translated, Sisera’s mother suspects that something bad has happened to her son, unaware that her warrior son and the commander of the Canaanite army was killed by a woman.
The apprehension of Sisera’s mother grows as she wonders why she does not hear the “hoofbeats of his chariots” or rather, the clatter made by the wheel of his chariots (NIV). In response to the anxious premonitions of Sisera’s mother, her attendants assure her that Sisera is late because he is dividing the spoils of war among his soldiers. The list of the spoils includes colorful and ornate garments, jewelry, and a womb or two for every man
The expression “a womb or two for every man” reflects the reality and the brutality of war. The translation of the NIV and the NRSV, “a girl or two for each man” does not reflect the real intent behind this expression. Women captured in war were abused, raped, and generally used to become the mothers of potential slaves.
The story of Sisera’s mother is filled with irony. Initially the reader feels compassion for an anxious mother who worries about her son and who never even realized that she was mourning his death. The irony of the story is that in her apprehension and dread about her son, she is asking a question which she cannot answer, but a question to which the reader of the story already knows the answer.
The foreboding of Sisera’s mother is beautifully expressed in this poem by J. O’Callaghan:
The mother of Sisera looks out on high,
From the halls of her palace, for evening is nigh:
And the wine-cup is brimmed, and the bright torches burn—
And the banquet is piled, for the chieftain’s return.She cries to her maidens—
“Why comes not my son?
Is the combat not over, and the battle not won?
The steeds of Canaan are many and strong,
Why tarry the wheels of his chariot so long?”
She says in her heart—yea, her wise maidens say—
“He takes the spoil—he divides the prey—
He seizes the garment of glittering dyes,
And makes the daughters of beauty his prize!”
But Sisera’s mother shall view him no more;
With the warriors of Hazor he sleeps in his gore—
And the bear and the lion his coursers consume—
And the beak of the eagle is digging his tomb.
And the owl and the raven are flapping their wings—
And their death-song is heard in the chambers of kings:
For the sword of the Lord and of Israel lowers
Over Sisera’s palace, and Jabin’s proud towers.
Other Studies on Deborah:
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary