Shield-Maidens

 

The knightly code of chivalry never has been just for the boys.

Chivalric lore is full of examples of the “damsel in distress”, whose sole purpose is to provide someone for the knight to rescue. The phrase has come down to us to refer to a woman so incapable of effecting her own deliverance that the only hope for her was the chivalrous male rescuer.

The Mediæval reality was somewhat different. Blood was more important than gender, and a noblewoman was still noble; thus, expected to take a lead role in the absence of her husband. Up to and including the defence of his castle and holding off a besieging army. She would see to the provisioning of her men-at-arms, conduct the financial affairs of her demenses, sit in judgment over the affairs of the estate, and at need, be warrior enough to hold an army at bay. The damsel in distress is largely a creation of poets rather than history, and some, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, had quite a military reputation in their own right.

Examples of warrior women have been known throughout recorded history. Boudicca of the Iceni. Tomyris the Scythian. Semiramis of Babylon. While some of these women were from cultures that allowed women to fight alongside the men (the Scythians), others were from far more patriarchal societies, in which a warrior woman was an oxymoron. Indeed, the shock of the patriarchal Greeks at seeing Scythian women fight is part of what gave the Scythians such a bad reputation as unremittingly savage (and incidentally, probably gave rise to the legend of the Amazons).

The real Amazons: Scythian warrior women

“Amazon” is, in fact, how we often think of such women. The word in Greek is literally “Without Breasts”; acccording to one version of the legend they would cut off their own breasts so that the extra flesh would not get in the way of drawing a bow-string. Metaphorically, the word describes a masculine woman, a woman who sacrifices femininity for the field of battle and competence thereon. In this mould are both Eowyn’s disguising herself as the knight Dernhelm in The Return of the King, and Joan of Arc’s cutting of hair and abandonment of women’s clothing. To all intents and purposes she became manly in order to fight.

Perhaps also in this mould, though certainly less fully, is Queen Elizabeth I’s famous speech to her troops on the eve of the Spanish Armada. The whole thing is excellent, but only a single line at the beginning concerns us directly: “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a King, and a King of England, too!”

Given that she was the blood daughter of King Henry VIII, who could be accused of many things, though never gutlessness, this is a firm claim to the strength of her mighty sire. To paraphrase what Shakespeare’s French king Charles VI said of Henry V: “she is a stem of that victorious stock”.

“The heart and stomach of a King”

Her contrast of “a weak and feeble woman” with “the heart and stomach of a King” is rhetoric playing on the popular views of the age more than the taking on of a kind of inner masculinity; she is known to have delighted in jewellery and clothing and typically feminine arts as well as having the strength of character to put heart and fire in her subjects on the eve of what might have been an invasion.

She’s actually more of an example of the other kind of woman warrior: the kind that can fight alongside a man without losing any of her femininity. In modern parlance, perhaps the femme fatale: the woman who’s just as good as a man when it comes to fighting.

The Vikings called them “shieldmaidens”, and they are the female counterparts of the knights.

Actual attested shieldmaidens of the Viking era are very few, if any, but in legend their names live on: Guinevere, who in some Arthurian legends came riding out to rescue the young King Arthur in his first battle. Maid Marian in the Robin Hood tales was of that mould, too.

And perhaps Deborah the judge, from the Bible.

An artist’s impression of Deborah that manages to make her not look wimpy.

This may be something of a stretch, given that she doesn’t actually personally lead the troops, but she certainly functions in the military role of commander-in-chief. She could not do otherwise; the role of judge in those days combined civil-judicial authority with military leadership (and spiritual leadership: the judges were selected by direct Divine mandate, and besides, Deborah was a prophetess). She summons Barak, and, seasoned warrior that he is, he has enough sense of a chain of command to obey her summons. She even tells him when to attack.

Yet she does all of this without sacrificing femininity.

She’s described as “the wife of Lappidoth”, so she’s obviously, in an intensely patriarchal society, feminine enough that she could attract and keep a husband’s affections.

I often wonder about what sort of man was this Lappidoth. What sort of man does it take to refuse to bow to your own culture’s expectations and be the husband of the woman that God has chosen to lead the nation and command the army?

Was he a weak mama’s boy, as some have characterised Barak? Was he the über-strong manly man that Southern American culture seems to suggest a strong woman “needs” to keep her in line?

Or was he just not threatened by his wife’s power?

Most telling to me is the prophetic victory song penned by Deborah and Barak after the battle. Lauding both Deborah and Jael in strongly military terms as among the human architects of the Lord’s victory, it nevertheless contains the following line:

“Warriors ceased in Israel until I, Deborah, arose/ arose a mother in Israel” (Jdg 5:7 NIV footnote).

Not “arose a commander”. Not “arose a warrior”. Not even “arose a prophet”. “Arose a mother”. Her characterisation of herself, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, is not in the culturally masculine roles of warrior and judge, but in the universally feminine role of mother.

This, however, is a mother who goes to war. Strong in both character and faith, she’s used of God as powerfully and definitely as Samuel in Saul’s fight against the Philistines.

Barak’s often been portrayed in our sermon illustrations as a weakling mama’s boy; a coward who wouldn’t go up to the fight unless Deborah was there to hold his hand.

Personally, I think this does a disservice both to Deborah and to the tribe of Naphtali’s only Biblical hero, and may be minimising the den of vipers that Deborah was asking him to stick his hand into.

This was the chariot age. Chariots had been around for at least a millennium, ever since the Sumerians loaded troops into donkey carts to give them a bit more battlefield mobility. During that time, the chariot had developed from a clunky, heavy, slow four-wheeled cart pulled by donkeys to a fast, manœuvrable battle platform on two wheels, pulled by larger and swifter horses. It would contain two or three people: a driver and one or two warriors, all wearing heavy armour and carrying bows or long spears as well as close-range weapons. Armies were ranked according to how many chariots you could muster. If you didn’t have any chariots, your army basically didn’t count.

By contrast, the foot soldier of the day was extremely lightly equipped. Maybe he’d have a helmet, if he was particularly wealthy. Possibly even a small circular bronze breast plate a bit bigger than a saucer. Armed with bronze-tipped spear, bow and arrows or sling and stones, only the wealthy would have swords. Bronze was expensive.

They wouldn’t even have had personal shields. The shields they had were massive free-standing figure-of-eight-shaped things taller than a man, toted by a muscular servant or retainer who walked in front. When the Bible later talks about Goliath advancing on David “with his armour-bearer in front”, it is undoubtedly referring to this guy.

They provided reasonable protection, but you had to stay behind them. A fast-moving force of chariots could slip around the ends of your shield wall and shoot arrows into your mass of men faster than you could reposition the shields to block them, and that’s without the intimidation factor of a mass of armoured charioteers bearing down on you at high speed.

It was no wonder that it was considered that sending any amount of infantry out into battle against chariots was an act of either desperation or suicide.

Barak obeys the prophetess’ summons, showing a willingness to obey the Lord’s leading. Even if that leading came through the culturally unlikely vessel of a woman; many men of his day in that part of the world would not have responded to a summons from a woman at all.

Deborah tells his to take 10,000 men from Zebulun and Naphtali and go and attack Sisera with this 900-chariot army. Even at better than 100:1 odds, this is still suicide, for the reasons listed above. In normal circumstances, the foot soldiers of the time simply could not hope to match chariots on the field; in that sense, chariots were rather like the nuclear weapons of their day. If you didn’t have them, you couldn’t hope to successfully fight a conventional war against anyone who did.

Barak isn’t resistant to obeying the voice of the Lord, but then as now, there were many who claimed to speak for God. Deborah offers no sign; Barak knows her only by reputation. How is he to know whether this is in fact the word of the Lord or merely the word of Deborah?

Asking Deborah to come with him seems pretty reasonable, under the circumstances. Less “come and hold my hand, I’m afraid” and more “Do you believe this is of God enough to put your own life on the line and come with me?”

Deborah, true to her Divinely-ordained leadership, rises to the challenge, leading with an example of faith that resonates triumphantly to this day. She comes with him. “But,” she says, “on this expedition the honour will not be yours, for the Lord will hand Sisera over to a woman.” (Jdg 4:9 NIV footnote). Many generals of the ancient world were all about military victory and their own glory therein. There’s no way one of these would be ok with sharing “his” glory with anyone, let alone a woman. Barak, by contrast, seems more about actually getting the job done. He knows it’s not his glory to begin with. Let God honour whom He will for the victory that He gives.

It seems clear from details supplied in Judges 5 that what happened was that God caused heavy rains that turned the low-lying plains, normally ground where chariots were so dominant, into a field of mud. The chariots’ wheels got stuck, and Barak was able to lead the Israelite army down from the heights to win the victory over the previously-invincible 900-chariot army.

Sisera, the commander, flees on foot to the tents of Heber the Kenite, one of Moses’ brother-in-law’s people. The Kenites were non-Israelites living for the most part among Israel, as they had done since the wilderness, but we are told that there were friendly relations between Heber and Sisera’s Canaanite king Jabin.

Apparently Heber is not at home, and Sisera is met by Jael, who is Heber’s wife and one of my favourite bit-part Bible characters. She’s been shamefully treated by many of our Bible commentaries, which wax lyrical about her “cruel assassination” of Jabin or her “heinous betrayal” of the sacred ancient customs of hospitality. Some day I may even write my own, so that there can be at least one voice in her defence.

She evidently recognises who Sisera is; apparently the “friendly relations” between her husband and Jabin are close enough that she can recognise Jabin’s army commander on sight. Sisera is a non-Semitic name; perhaps even in Jabin’s service he was still recogniseably not a Canaanite. She can see that he’s on foot and alone. Evidently something has gone disastrously wrong for the Canaanite forces.

Jael is faced with a choice. If she tried to hide, she would have to hide all of her people – children and servants – as well, otherwise their lives would be in danger. Anyway, she’s the wife; they are her responsibility in the absence of her husband. If she or any of her people were discovered, as they undoubtedly would be as Sisera searched the camp, their lives would probably be forfeit. Sisera is a Bronze Age general; such men were not selected for their gentleness.

If the Israelites were to come along and discover Sisera, as they undoubtedly would unless he hid specifically in Jael’s tent – searching his wife’s tent would be a mortal insult to Heber – then she would probably lose her life along with all of her people. Victorious armies don’t tend to take kindly to people harbouring fugitive enemy commanders.

On the other hand, if her husband were to return and find Sisera alive, and in her tent, He would naturally assume that she was being unfaithful to him and according to the culture of the day would kill her himself.

Under the circumstances, she does what is in her power to do in order to save her people. And it seems she does not share her husband’s compromising position toward the Canaanite king. The Bible never makes the mistake that most ancient patriarchies made in assuming that women had no opinions of their own. Culturally, they may have been expected to follow their husband’s lead and keep their mouth shut, but time and again we see women in Scripture being portrayed as having their own ideas and opinions: Sarah, Miriam and Abigail are just a few of the others; Jael fits right into this mould.

She invites him in to her tent. Sisera would have to be an idiot not to realise that this was her tent, nor the corollary that this was undoubtedly his safest refuge. In he goes. But rather than being a good guest, he starts asking for water.

I’ve been in a culture with enough similarities in its approach to hospitality to recognise what an insult this is. The Central Asian people I worked among for several years had a saying that “a guest is more humble than a sheep”: you go where your host directs, you eat and drink what they set before you. Another proverb states “it is better to hit than to ask”. The thought is not that smacking your host around is a good thing, but that your host will be automatically bringing out the best of everything to serve you. That’s what hosts do. To ask for something is to suggest that they aren’t doing their job as host, and they take hospitality very seriously.

She gives him, not water but cream, in an ornate bowl as befits his rank, and Sisera tells her to lie for him (again, this is a dreadful insult to the honour of your host) and falls asleep.

Is anyone else noticing what’s going on here? The whole picture is reminiscent of a little boy with his mother. She tells him to come inside, and in he comes. She even gives him milk to drink. Sisera tells her, in effect, “if anyone comes looking for me, I’m not here”. Then she tucks him into bed and he falls asleep.

Then she does the deed she’s famous for, the one that has so many Christian commentators howling for her blood. She picks up the mallet and tent peg and nails him to the ground through the skull.

Yes, it’s pretty bloodthirsty. This was the Bronze Age. People regularly killed their own food. Let’s not read onto it our modern squeamishness.

Yes, it’s a deed of stealth, an assassination. So was Ehud’s killing of the enormously fat King Eglon of Moab.

Yes, she seems to lie to him. But both Ehud and the Hebrew midwives appear to be just as economical with the truth, and to do so with God’s apparent blessing.

This is a thorny issue and one we don’t like as Christians. It doesn’t fit neatly into our black and white categories. I could take a whole blog post just looking at the Biblical evidence, but there does appear to be room in the Biblical accounts for a sort of “necessary deceptiveness” when people’s lives are at stake.

But a lot of the Christian commentators seem to hate her for it.

And the Bible’s verdict?

“Most blessed of women be Jael! Most blessed of those who live in tents!” (Jdg 5:24)

Incidentally, there’s only one other woman to whom the “most blessed of women” accolade is given: Mary the mother of Christ.

Popular Protestant portrayal of Mary is as anything but a shieldmaiden. She’s a woman of faith, yes, but we tend to paint her as a good little submissive: demure and gentle and barely having a will of her own. I’d like to suggest that maybe this might not be quite right.

It may be an unreasonable step to re-image her in the mould of Jael, tentpeg and all, but we might do well to hear “let it be to me according to Your word” not as the saying of a weak-willed submissive but as the gutsy faith of one determined to obey the Lord, no matter the cost.

Perhaps she’s not a shieldmaiden precisely (though in the armour of God passage in Ephesians 6 faith is pictured as a shield), but she’s certainly a woman of valour.

 

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