Every year on Mother’s Day I write a post honoring the mothers in Israel. Israelite mothers were women of faith who loved the Lord, their family, and their children. These mothers were highly influential in the lives of their children. They expressed sacrificial love in molding the character of their children to become the leaders of Israel, to become people who helped build their nation, and to become instruments in the hands of God to accomplish his work in the world.
On this Mother’s Day I want to write about a mother, a mother different from Sarah, Hannah, or the hundreds of mothers in Israel. Today I want to introduce you to a woman who was the mother of one of the greatest enemies of Israel.
Meet Sisera’s mother. But before you can meet this foreign mother and the pain and loss she experienced, you need to meet her son, Israel’s enemy, Sisera, the commander of the Canaanite army who fought against Israel.
Sisera was the commander of the army of Jabin, king of Hazor. Sisera and his army fought against Barak and the army of Israel in a battle that took place in the Valley of Jezreel. According to the book of Judges, Sisera lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim, “Harosheth of the gentiles” (Judges 4:2), a place whose location is unknown.
Sisera’s name is not a Hebrew name. It is possible that Sisera was a professional soldier associated with the Sea Peoples, probably with the Philistines. The Sea People arrived in Canaan as part of a group of people who migrated from the Eastern Mediterranean world at the beginning of Iron Age I, around 1200 BCE.
The story of Sisera is a story of oppression. Jabin, King of Hazor, oppressed the Israelites for twenty years (Judges 4:1–2). God raised Deborah and Barak to fight against Jabin and liberate Israel. In the war between Israel and the Canaanites, Sisera’s army was better equipped than the army of Israel. Sisera had nine hundred chariots of iron while the army of Israel was composed of ten thousand men who did not have chariots, horses, and weapons of iron.
With the help of the Lord, Israel was able to defeat Sisera and his army. The Lord sent a strong storm which made the chariots of the Canaanites useless in the battle, “The stars fought from heaven, from their courses they fought against Sisera” (Judges 5:20). The storm flooded the Wadi Kishon, the onrushing water swept away the chariots and Sisera and all his army were in disarray before Barak. Sisera got down from his chariot and fled away on foot “while Barak pursued the chariots and the army to Harosheth-ha-goiim. All the army of Sisera fell by the sword; no one was left” (Judges 4:15–16).
The Death of Sisera
After Sisera was forced to abandon his chariot, he fled on foot until he came to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. The Kenites and the Canaanite king were on peaceful terms, probably because Heber was working for Jabin. Sisera came into Jael’s tent looking for a place to hide and to rest. Sisera was thirsty, so Jael gave him a drink. Jael promised to hide Sisera. She covered him with a rug; but after “Sisera had fallen sound asleep from exhaustion, Jael, Heber’s wife, took a tent peg and walked quietly toward him with a hammer in her hand. She hammered the tent peg through his temples into the ground. So Sisera died” (Judges 4:21). To a great warrior such as Sisera, the fact that Jael was a woman serves to emphasize how humiliating Sisera’s death was. The proud commander of the Canaanite army met his death by the hands of a woman.
The proud commander of the Canaanite army was the son of a woman whose name is unknown. Like all mothers whose sons and daughters go to war, Sisera’s mother was worried about the fate of her son.
Nothing is known about Sisera’s mother. Judges 5:28-30 reflects what Deborah thought Sisera’s mother was doing while she waited for her son’s return. The readers of the book know that Sisera was defeated and that he had been killed by a woman.
But Sisera’s mother is unaware of what had happened to her son. She only knew that he was late in returning from battle, “Out of the window she peered, the mother of Sisera gazed through the lattice: ‘Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why tarry the hoofbeats of his chariots?’” (Judges 5:28 NRSV).
The NRSV does not do justice to the anguish in the heart of this mother. The NRSV says that Sisera’s mother “peered” and “gazed” through the window. The translation of the New Living Translation also fails to express the pain Sisera’s mother was experiencing because of the delay of her son, “From the window Sisera’s mother looked out. Through the window she watched for his return, saying, ‘Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why don’t we hear the sound of chariot wheels?’” (Judges 5:28 NLT).
But the Hebrew verb is stronger that what the NRSV says. The Hebrew verb should be translated “she cried out” (Judges 5:28 NIV); “she wailed” (Judges 5:28 NAB). Sisera’s mother knew her son, that he was a good soldier and that he was victorious in wars. But the delay of his arrival gave her the impression that something ominous had happened to her son. In the tears of Sisera’s mother, we see another perspective on the consequences of war. In the tears of a mother sitting at her window, anxiously waiting for the return of her son, we contemplate a broken heart, aware that she may never see her son again.
Her cry seems to indicate that Sisera’s mother was pacing up and down, anxious to know the fate of her son. In her heart she moans, knowing that, with a premonition that only a mother can have, that her son is dead and will not return home. Although she refuses to lose hope, her tears bring doubt to her heart, she fears the worst. Sisera’s mother weeps because her heart is telling her that her son is dead; he has been killed in battle. The death of Sisera is a fate the writer of the Song of Deborah desires for all the enemies of Israel, “So perish all your enemies, O LORD” (Judges 5:31).
Her servants tried to reassure her that all was well and that he would return soon, victorious in battle, with the spoils of war. Sisera’s mother agreed with their explanation for her son’s delay. She tried to reassure herself by saying that he had defeated the enemy and that he was late because there was much spoil to be divided among his soldiers.
In her desire to allay her anxiety, she says to herself and to her companions, “Are they not finding and dividing the spoil?— A girl or two for every man; spoil of dyed stuffs for Sisera, spoil of dyed stuffs embroidered, two pieces of dyed work embroidered for my neck as spoil?” (Judges 5:30).
The words of Sisera’s mother reflect the tragedy of wars. The expression “A girl or two for every man” (Judges 5:30 NRSV) does not do justice to what Sisera’s men were doing with the conquered women. The ESV makes it clear, “A womb or two for every man” (Judges 5:30 ESV). This is language of rape. Her words offer another view of Sisera, he is “a plunderer of Israelite women” (Cottrill 2020:151). The fact that the raping of women and the looting of cities serve to comfort Sisera’s mother is appalling because it wishes Israelite mothers the pain she is now suffering. Athalya Brenner says that Sisera’s mother “is foreign, cruel, and unsympathetic to other mothers or to women in general: she and her ladies expect Sisera and his men to overcome sexually at least a couple of Israelite maidens each and bring them back as war spoil” (Brenner 1990:133).
The Humanization of the Enemy
The Song of Deborah presents another view of Sisera and his mother. The touching statement about Sisera’s mother and her feelings of anxiety present a humane side of Sisera and his mother. The enemy of Israel is a human being who has a caring mother, a mother who is anxious for her son’s safe return to his home and to his family,
In her study of the humanization of the enemy in Judges 5, Amy Cottrill writes that “Sisera is not just an enemy warrior, but is someone with a mother who loves him and awaits his return” (Cottrill 2020:151). The image of a mother who is worried about her son, anxious for his return offers sympathy for the mother of Israel’s enemy.
Sisera’s mother was not part of Israel, but like any other mother, she loved her son and cared for his well-being. Like any mother, she knew the consequences of war and feared for her son’s safety. Violence in war does not guarantee the survival of a loved son. Israelite soldiers had mothers too. Sons died on both sides of the conflict and, as a result, mothers lost sons and they had to cry and mourn for the fruit of their wombs.
Tamara Dixon points out that one of the consequences of war is that war “leaves a vulnerable world alone, grieving and unprotected—mothers without sons, wives without husbands, children without fathers” (Dixon 2006:10).
According to Jewish tradition, because Sisera’s mother cried 100 cries when her son did not return home, Jews blow 100 blasts on the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. According to the Talmud, the sound of the shofar is that of a weeping mother (TB Rosh Hashanah 33b), that its sound is the sound of Sisera’s mother crying.
Mordechai Gafni, in his article “Shofar of Tears,” says that the sounding of the shophar on Rosh Hashanah “is the sound of a thousand mothers’ cries. It is the sound of mothers all over the world crying over the loss of their children to war. To hate. To disregard for human dignity. To injustice.” Gafni concludes, “so great is the grief of any parent for the loss of a child, that we all are left completely bereft. The universality and commonality of suffering over the loss of a child transcends names and identities.”
The story of Sisera’s mother is the story of a nameless woman who loved her son, a woman who wept because she knew in her heart that her son was dead. The Song of Deborah humanizes Sisera, the enemy of Israel, because it portrays him as a human being, as a son of a loving mother, a mother with a broken heart because of the death of her son.
On this Mother’s Day, Sisera’s mother sheds tears for all the mothers who have lost sons and daughters. The death of a child is painful because it disrupts the life-cycle expectations, children should survive their parents. Children should live to adulthood and old age. The hopes and dreams Sisera’s mother had for her son died with his death.
May each bereaving mother find comfort on this Mother’s Day.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Brenner, Athalya. “A Triangle and a Rhombus in Narrative Structure: A Proposed Integrative Reading of Judges IV and V.” Vetus Testamentum 40 no 2 (1990): 129-138.
Cottrill, Amy C. “Moral Injury and Humanizing the Enemy in Judges 5.” In Moral Injury: A Guidebook for Understanding and Engagement. Edited by Brad E. Kelle (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2020), 149-160.
Dixon, Tamara. “Most Blessed of Women”: An Exegetical Study of the Roles of Women Under Patriarchy in Judges 5:24-31.” The Review: A Journal of Undergraduate Student Research 8 no 4 (2006): 1-12.
Gafni, Mordechai. “Shofar of Tears.” Tikkun Magazine, September/October 2000.
Wikipedia, “Sisera’s Mother.”