A Killer Goes to Jael

A Killer Goes to Jael October 8, 2016

Hemant Mehta posted an SMBC comic in which someone asks God about the story of Jael in the Book of Judges.

The story about Jael (and Deborah) is not at all hard to understand. It is about two women who rise to the challenge of defeating an enemy of their people, in a patriarchal context in which men were expected to play these roles. It even involves a striking inversion of the expected: in the climactic scene in which Sisera inappropriately enters Jael’s tent, instead of Sisera raping her, she pierces him with a tent peg in a scene laden with sexual innuendo in addition to the graphic violence.

The problem in the cartoon is not the story, but the confusion of Zach Weinersmith who created it. That confusion may be very widespread. But in an era when there are so many good scholarly resources online, that confusion is self-inflicted and thus inexcusable.

To begin with, the cartoon is called “Exegesis.” And yet there is no effort on the part of the interpreter to set the text in its historical context, to study it carefully, or do anything else that exegesis requires. Instead, the interpreter (who is understandably confused, not having done any exegesis) prays to an anthropomorphic God, who seems to be understood as the author and authoritative interpreter of the text’s meaning and significance.

If you approach the story as though it is written by God, not written by ancient humans, with an intended meaning and significance for people today, you are bound to be confused!

For more on the story of Jael, see for instance Bible Odyssey entries by Tamara Cohn Eskanazi and Hilary LipkaTikva Frymer-Kensky’s entry in the Jewish Women’s Archive Encyclopedia, Colleen M. Conway’s book Sex and Slaughter in the Tent of JaelEric Christianson’s essay on the SBL website, and the blog posts by Shawna Atteberry and Claude Mariottini.

Here is the cartoon in question, for those who want to see it:

SMBC Jael

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  • Yes the cartoonist would have been better served by titling the comic:

    “What the fundamentalist God looks like:”

    Then having the character call something more obviously violent and unjust into question, such as the flood genocide in Genesis, the killing of Egypt’s first-born in Exodus, the decimation of nearly 15,000 Israelite complainers in Numbers, the decimation of “men and women, young and old” of Jericho in Joshua, the Deuteronomy slaughters of men, women, and children in Heshbon and Bashan, etc.

    So much to choose from – the Jael story was just a bad choice.

    • Dan Ortiz

      indeed the fundamentalist’s God… which consequently it is the version of the atheists….. well, most of them.

      • What an odd thing to say. I think you may have missed the definition of “atheist”:

        atheist – a person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods.

        • Dan Ortiz

          apologies for the late reply… i didnt say atheists believe in God… I say it is THEIR version of it…. the one they use to define God … thus wahy they are atheists… was that not clear?
          Basically it is a strawman version of God

          • Well, that’s plainly false. Atheists are quite well aware that there are innumerable versions of God, even if you limited yourself to Christianity.

    • histrogeek

      Technically Jael wasn’t even an Israelite so the logic would be a safe foreigner (a woman from a neutral tribe) kills a dangerous foreigner (a general of an enemy king, albeit a general who was recently defeated). Of course there is rejoicing. And peace? Well why would God be judging Israelites for the action of someone else.
      Meanwhile there are plenty of genocidal incidents that the Israelites were involved in and plenty of horrors that God is explicitly involved in.
      Yeah Jael is just the wrong story.

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    Yeah, I’m not sure how the comic is supposed to work unless the idea is that “don’t be mean” is some universal biblical tenet or something.

    Israel’s oppressor was killed by a Canaanite ally through deception, and Israel was happy about it. Seems like a pretty standard OT story to me.

    But I don’t know. I guess it’s unfair to expect people poking fun at the Bible to be very familiar with it when vast swaths of people who maintain its infallibility and authority are equally unfamiliar with it.

  • bobyount

    Written by humans with a bent toward nationalism it is given that only Deborah honored Jael. She killed an enemy of the state. This is what can happen when nationalism overtakes Biblical morality. Clearly the cartoonist didn’t dig very deep in the the situation. Faith and devotion to truth often are overtaken and ignored by xenophobic nationalism.

  • John MacDonald

    I think these are the kinds of bible stories that need to be emphasized, ones with strong female leads, especially in the area of sexuality. I think one thing that needs to be re-examined before we get closer to equality is sexuality. After all, most men in our culture aren’t even attracted to the grown up female body (hairy arm pits, hairy legs, and bushy vaginal area). Also, our “harem mentality” culture encourages lesbian behavior among women as being erotic to heterosexual men, but does not encourage male homosexual behavior as being erotic to heterosexual women. Part of the problem is that sexual behavior and preference is so closely linked to culture, it is difficult to say how it would determine itself apart from that. For instance, sexuality can be powerfully influenced by societal norms – E.g. institutionalized same sex pederastry (mentor based man/boy sex) and thiasos (mentor based woman/girl sex, such as in the case of Sappho) in ancient Greece. And as French Philosopher Gilles Deleuze and French psychoanalyst Felix Guattari pointed out in “Anti Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia,” their monumental work on Freud and Marx, society prescribes the oedipal norms of the “holy family” as divine writ, so we are forbidden from the outset from being attracted to or marrying our father, mother, sister, brother, cousin, etc. It may be, in the future, sexuality will become very fluid. For instance, even today, there are women with object fetishes who fell in love with, and married, objects like the Eiffel Tower. Freud called “Polymorphous Perversity” the ability to gain sexual gratification to basically anything, even things outside socially normative sexual behaviors (Bestiality comes to mind). Sigmund Freud used this term, “Polymorphous Perversity,” to describe the sexual disposition from infancy to about age five. It may turn out this is actually the natural state of things, even in adults.

    • John MacDonald

      An interesting Philosophy topic to chat about is how to make the leap from something being “taboo (like incest),” to it being “morally wrong.” After all, the Jerry Springer show seems to have guests on almost every week who are practising incest.