Kenneth Wishnia is the author of 23 Shades of Black, The Fifth Servant, and Red House, and is the editor of Jewish Noir. His short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Queens Noir, Long Island Noir, Send My Love and a Molotov Cocktail, and elsewhere. Here he discusses the inspiration behind his story “Bride of Torches” in the current issue of AHMM.
The biblical Book of Judges depicts a semilawless era before ancient Israel was united under a strong monarchy, an unstable period defined by vivid flashes of extreme violence, when rugged tribal chieftains were the principal source of strength and authority (think of Samson and his downfall).
The cycle of violence includes mass mutilations, an apparent human sacrifice, and an idolatrous warrior named Abimelech who commits mass fratricide, killing seventy of his brothers in a single day, in order to become king, then commits a horrific war crime—burning alive one thousand men and women who had sought refuge in a tunnel. But they are avenged when Abimelech besieges the town of Thebez and an unnamed woman drops a millstone from the ramparts onto his head and cracks open his skull. He orders his attendant to kill him with a dagger so that no one will say that a woman killed him. (Judges 9:53-55).
When I first set out to read the Bible in its entirety more than thirty years ago, I went with a traditional Hebrew Bible in English translation. No explanatory notes. Just the Hebrew text on the right-hand pages with a clunky King James Version-style translation on the facing pages.
The King James Bible (KJV) is a towering achievement, and countless terms and phrases in its majestic language have entered our language. But sometimes its poetic qualities can present an obstacle to understanding the plain meaning of the text. One of my favorite examples comes when Sarah tells Abraham to cast her handmaid Hagar, and Abraham’s firstborn son Ishmael, into the wilderness. Abraham is torn, and asks God for advice. In the KJV, God replies:
Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall thy seed be called. (Gen. 21:12)
Hearken unto her voice. Beautiful poetry, even Shakespearean in style. But what does it mean in today’s English? The Jewish Publication Society’s (JPS) modern translation is as follows:
Whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says.
Do as she says. A bit stronger than hearken unto her voice, isn’t it? And this is God speaking. Our media-savvy Bible-thumping moralists never seem to quote that one: Do what your wife says.
So the language of the KJV can obscure meaning, and I’m willing to admit that on my first read-through, my sometimes rudimentary following of an unfamiliar narrative meant that the sudden depictions of violence seemed to leap at me from out of nowhere.
Like the assassination of King Eglon of Moab, whom we are told is “very fat,” with its startlingly specific detail:
And Ehud took the sword from his right thigh and thrust it into the king’s belly; and the haft went in after the blade, and the fat closed upon the blade so that he could not draw the weapon out, and the filth came out. (Judges 3:21-22)
The Hebrew is unclear, but the filth came out most likely means the king, upon receiving a mortal wound, loses control of his bowels and craps himself. Yeah, that’s in the Bible.
Then there’s an especially disturbing scene where a mob of men rape and abuse an unnamed woman all night long, leaving her for dead. When her husband finds her unresponsive the next morning, he heads home and cuts her body up into twelve parts and sends a part to each of the twelve tribal territories of Israel as a sign that “an outrageous act of depravity has been committed in Israel” (JPS, Judges 20:6). This leads to a devastating intertribal war that brings more rape, death and destruction.
But the violent event that stood out the most to me was the story of Jael (Ya’el in Hebrew), who kills a powerful warrior named Sisera by nailing his head to the ground with a mallet and tent peg. Needless to say, I did not see that coming.
The whole incident is described in five short verses (Judges 4:17-21), then repeated with a bit more detail in the Song of Deborah (Judges 5). It’s worth noting that Bible scholars believe that The Song of Deborah and the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1-18) are among the oldest passages in the Bible, possibly dating from around 1000 BCE or even earlier.
So who was this Ya’el? The text identifies her as the wife of Hever the Kenite, not as an Israelite, and we’re told that there was friendship between her husband and Sisera’s commander, King Yabin of Hatzor. So why does she do what she does? The Bible offers no explanation. In short, she has no motive.
Until now . . .
From that day, more than thirty years ago, I was determined to flesh out the story of Ya’el, but it wasn’t until recently, after doing extensive biblical and archeological research for my current novel-in-progress, that I finally had the background knowledge to expand on this brief biblical vignette.
As part of my research for a novel based on the story of one of the strongest women in the Bible, I re-read the Hebrew Bible (a.k.a. the Old Testament) along with a shelf-load of books of commentary ranging from the ultra-Orthodox Artscroll Mesorah series to a collection of essays by group of feminist rabbis.
One particularly provocative observation I learned from all this research is that the stereotypical biblical descriptions of women as the source of all that is evil and dirty (see: the Whore of Babylon) are almost entirely in the (ahem) New Testament. Women may not have much of a voice in the Old Testament, but when they do speak up, their demands are heard.
Do as she says.
I’ve always been attracted to strong female characters, and there are some mighty strong women in the Bible. (Deborah is depicted as being a stronger leader than a warrior named Barak, who appears to be her husband, until he assumes command of an army of ten thousand and charges down Mount Tabor in Judges 4.) And I’m thrilled to have had the privilege of dramatizing this striking incident from a lawless era when there was no king over Israel and some kickass women had to take matters into their own hands.