The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Sisera’s mother

Posted by Ron George on August 2, 2014

Sisera's mother By Albert Joseph Moore

Sisera’s mother
By Albert Joseph Moore

Sisera’s mother surely must have known that it might end this way, someday.

Her son was of the Canaanite warrior class, a leader among the armies of his day. In a largely agricultural society, he was among its full-time defenders, one whose chariot, sword and spear were dedicated to defending the kingdom against its enemies; for example, the Israelites, heroes of Jewish and Christian biblical tradition.

Canaan was a kingdom fed by fields of alluvial soil. Its economy was primarily agricultural and its gods were those of nature: El the sky god, lord of all; and Baal and Anat, deities of the earth whose rhythmic cycles of life and death brought forth the fruits of the earth to feed those who worshipped them.  There were many others, of course, for Canaanites were polytheists who worshipped them in temples throughout the land that became Palestine and, today, Israel. These were the shrines and deities hated by Israelites and their god, Yahweh. These were the people and their gods that Israelites came from Egypt to destroy almost 1,300 years before the birth of Jesus.

Sisera’s mother comes to us through the Song of Deborah (Judges 5), which tells of Israel’s astonishing victory over Sisera’s army of chariots in the Valley of Jezreel along Wadi Kishon near Megiddo. (See, Battle of Mount Tabor.) Deborah was an Israelite prophet who foretold the victory to King Barak of Hazor. Among other things, Deborah’s song tells of Sisera’s death at the hands of Jael, who was not an Israelite much to the shame of Israelites who did not take up arms against Sisera.

Most blessed of women be Jael,
the wife of Heber the Kenite,
of tent-dwelling women most blessed.
He asked water and she gave him milk,
she brought him curds in a lordly bowl.
She put her hand to the tent-peg
and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet;
she struck Sisera a blow,
she crushed his head,
she shattered and pierced his temple.
He sank, he fell,
he lay still at her feet;
at her feet he sank, he fell;
where he sank, there he fell dead. (Judges 5.24-27)

The scene shifts instantly to ancient Hazor, Sisera’s likely home as it was the seat of King Jabin, whom Sisera served. Sisera’s mother, whose name we do not know, is longing for the return of her son.

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 hoof-beats of his chariots?”

The Death of Sisera at the Hands of Jael By Kevin Rolly

The Death of Sisera at the Hands of Jael
By Kevin Rolly

She and her entourage hope it’s because Sisera and his charioteers are despoiling the Israelites and having their way with Israelite women; and, oh yes, she wonders whether Sisera will return with spoil for her, perhaps a fine bit of embroidery. Deborah’s song casts Sisera’s mother in the most unflattering way; indeed, this passage is cruel in its ridicule of the woman whose son has died ignominiously, in retreat, not in battle but in a Kenite woman’s tent as he hid from Barak’s army.

The image, however, of Sisera’s mother gazing through the lattice of what may have been an upper-story window is strikingly poignant. She is, after all, a mother, and her first concern was for her son’s safety; after all, he may be late because he didn’t survive the battle. Her anxiety rises the longer he’s gone. Eventually, her grief will be inconsolably sad and not for lack of embroidery.

I envision her as a strong woman, proud, erect and fierce. Perhaps she and her ilk had been for generations of the warrior class of Canaan, loyal to the royal house, honored but also feared. I wonder whether it was her habit to look through the lattice when her son went to battle much as the prodigal’s father must have looked every day down the road for his lost son. Or did she have a premonition, this time, that her son might not return? Her appearance in Judges resonates with a classic figure in Greek mythology, Hecuba, who pleaded with her son, Hector, not to fight Achilles on the plain of Troy and then begged the gods to allow his body to be returned for proper burial.

Hecuba in her turn took up the strains of woe. “Hector,” she cried, “dearest to me of all my children. So long as you were alive the gods loved you well, and even in death they have not been utterly unmindful of you; for when Achilles took any other of my sons, he would sell him beyond the seas … and when he had slain you too with his sword, many a time did he drag you round the sepulcher of his comrade – though this could not give him life – yet here you lie all fresh as dew, and comely as one whom Apollo has slain with his painless shafts.” (Iliad, 24.748-59)

I’m sensing Sisera’s mother in the same cast as those Spartan women said to have sent their sons to war with the admonition to return with their shields or upon them. The message: Don’t dishonor your home and/or your family by being a coward. Let there be no retreat, no surrender. Victory or death. And yet did not these strong women long for their sons’ safe return? Did they not fear that their sons would die in battle? Did they not scan the horizon in hope that those Spartan soldiers would return, all of them, whole as well as victorious?

I see Sisera’s mother participating in an archetype of human existence, that of women and their sons who must be the warriors of a nation and, nowadays, of course, their daughters, too, who offer themselves as fighters on behalf of a nation or a cause far greater than themselves. And was Mary, too, a mother who longed for Jesus’ safe return from his journey into the world as a prophet, rabbi and healer? Do not all women participate in the still larger archetype of all who bear children and who live in the hope that they will not die before their time? And do not all men, too, hope to outlive their daughters and sons?

The biblical account of Sisera’s mother began as ridicule for a defeated enemy but now comes to us as a poignant reminder that for all the nobility we attach to warfare and its role in human history, nothing but love, compassion and forgiveness heals the pain we inflict upon ourselves in the name of God, nation and ideology. The pain of warfare is inflicted most enduringly not upon nations but upon individual human souls – mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, family, friends and neighbors. Regardless of which side they’re on, the pain is excruciating; and, quite frankly, it ought to unite us to find solutions other than warfare but is more often than not an occasion for revenge and the kind of unseemly biblical gloating that brought us the image of Sisera’s mother in the first place.

The good news in all of this is that we have preserved in the biblical tradition a story that has been transformed in a way to which we’re called by Christian faith – an enemy worthy of our scorn in Judges is made worthy of our compassion by the love of God in Christ Jesus.

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One Response to “Sisera’s mother”

  1. Jim Abbott said

    Hi Ron, Thought of you a lot this past week. Now I know why – you were writing. This has been a time when it was hard for me to see God at work. We are all turned inward, huddled in the cage of fear, where the only way out seems to be an even greater sin. Keep writing!

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