Spoiler Alert: This post contains spoilers for the story “She Dishonors Her House”. I recommend that you read the full story before proceeding.
Growing up in the evangelical church, you learn pretty quickly that most of the good stories in the Bible come from the book of Judges. Murder, grisly violence, rape, betrayal, eye-gouging, prostitutes—it’s pulpy stuff, just what kids like. It’s actually kind of surprising that they let you read it when you’re only a child, but once something becomes commonplace to adults they tend to forget about its true nature.
Of course, one of the best stories is the one where Yael (Jael, as most modern English translations of the Bible name her) drives the stake through the head of the fleeing commander of Israel’s enemies. Even children can recognize the subversion inherent in a story about a woman defeating a man, and the graphic imagery doesn’t hurt. Yael, for me, tops the list of badass women of the Bible, a perfect match for the character of the Unnamed Heroine.
Even though I have read the story of Yael and Sisera countless times, I owe several of the ideas that formed the basis for this story to Robin Cohn’s fascinating post, “Yael: Most Blessed Assassin”. For example, I had no idea that the place of Yael’s encampment held any particular significance:
The text tells us that Heber encamped on or near the southwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee (Kinnereth), at Elon-bezaanannim, which literally means, “Oak-House (or Abode) of Wanderers.” This was known as a place of worship under an ancient sacred tree. “[I]n locating Jael’s tent under the oak in Zaananim, the redactor of Judges 4 means to suggest that she is encamped at a sanctified spot” (Ackerman, p.97).
Since I had already been exploring how the Unnamed Heroine’s origins would create a strong bond with the planet itself, this led almost directly to the idea of The Oak-House of Wanderers as a source of focus and inspiration for her. Adapting Cohn’s suggestion that “Yael was a religious specialist in a sacrosanct place”, I re-imagined her neither as a sort of ritualistic priestess nor as simply a tough, iron-willed clan chieftain’s wife but as a person whose mystical connection with the earth gives her occasional insight into world events.
Cohn also suggested several interpretations of sexual overtones in the text of the story that I, lacking linguistic knowledge and framing my interpretation with a prudish evangelicalism, had entirely failed to notice.
Yael’s greeting and invitation parallel the call of a prostitute [sic] in the Book of Proverbs: ‘calling to those who pass by, who are going straight on their way, “You who are simple, turn in here!”’ (Prov 9:15–16; see also Prov 7:5–23)… The sibilance of the invitation in the original Hebrew may be meant as well to underscore the sensuality contained in Yael’s voice… the fact that the whole scene takes place in Yael’s bed creates a sexual atmosphere" (Assis, Choice, p.84).
Finally, Cohn’s exploration of clan dynamics and Yael’s shift of allegiance from Hazor to Israel provided much of the backbone for the fundamental dramatic tension of the story. In many ways, “She Dishonors Her House” is more an adaptation of Yael as depicted by Robin Cohn than it is of Yael as depicted in the Bible. I recommend reading her entire post.
Disclaimer: I am only a writer, not a historian, even an amateur one. If any of my readers can tell that I have mangled the facts and wish to point me toward better research, I encourage you to contact me.