by Carl Wetzstein
The Book of Judges, Chapter 4 in the Hebrew Bible, tells the story of Yael (aka Jael) killing Sisera. The prophetess Deborah had ordered the Israelite commander, Barak, to fight the Canaanite army led by Army Commander Sisera, saying that God would see to the victory. After his defeat, Sisera left the battlefield and went to the house of Heber and Yael, assuming that they would protect him since Heber was a friend of the Canaanite king. Yael met him, fed him, lulled him to sleep, and then drove a pin through his temple killing him. The Bible clearly thinks that Yael is a hero: “Most blessed of women be Yael…” says Judges 5.24.
Alex Geiger’s play is a comic spoof, depicting a trial that is rigged. Here are some bits that give the tone of the play:
The defense lawyer addresses the jury: “How ya’ll doin’? Ya’ll know me, and more importantly, ya’ll know our friend and neighbor, Yael.” The judge, Deborah, clearly favors the defense in her opening remarks to the jury: “Oh yes, I almost forgot to tell you, the charge against this fine woman, Yael, is murder.” Deborah also responds sarcastically after the prosecutor’s opening, “Well, that was very nice, I’m sure the defense will want to respond.”
In response to an objection by the prosecution, Deborah says: “I can’t believe that you’re talking again. Sit down and shut up! Proceed, my dear” (to the defense attorney); and to Barak when he appears as a witness: “Well hello there, young man. It’s nice to see you. How is it going?” and at the end of Barak’s testimony: “How about it, Mr. Prosecutor. Do you wish to tangle with our victorious commander?”
Heber, Yael’s husband, has been away on a business trip during the event and appears as a prosecution witness. He is appalled at the state of his house and suspects that Yael has seduced Sisera. When the defense attorney asks him if he would take Yael back if she is acquitted, he answers: “Let’s just say that I bought her fair and square from her father, and what I do with her is none of your business.”
The final witness for the prosecution is Sisera’s mother, who testifies: “He was our sunshine.”
So, is Yael guilty of murder or a hero?
Yael: “Well, he was the commander of those bastards that had been oppressing us ruthlessly for the past twenty years. My husband may be a Kenite, but I’m still an Israelite. When he showed up at our tent, all I could think was that he still had the blood of my brothers on his hands, and arms, and tunic. And he looked like a wild man. How did I know whom he would kill next. All I could think about was how to protect my children from this wild-eyed murderer. Those were pretty much my only reasons.”
Defense Lawyer: “Sure she killed Sisera. But how many of your brothers and sons had he killed earlier that day, before he showed up at her tent that evening? If she had simply fed him and let him rest, what was going to stop him from murdering her after he had regained his strength? Let’s just remember one thing: This was war. Sisera and his soldiers were trying to kill us, and we were trying to kill them.”
Prosecutor: ““Sisera is a murderer himself,” they say. “He killed our soldiers.” Isn’t there a difference between fighting on the battlefield and killing someone asleep in your bed? And even assuming that Sisera was a murderer himself, which was not the case, would that justify Yael in taking the law into her own hands? Who appointed her judge, jury, and executioner? The next time she decides that one of you has harmed her, will we let her sneak into your tent at night and kill one of you, because she’s feeling aggrieved?”
What do you think? Should we judge Yael by today’s standards or say she lived in a different society (circa 1200 BCE)?
To read Alex Geiger’s original play, click here.