Humanizing the Enemy: Sisera’s Mother?

As part of the series comparing Homeric and Hebraic rage, there are some bright spots to consider: humanizing the enemy.

Frankly, there is difficulty in finding biblical texts that humanize the enemy rather than demonize them.  There is nothing much of the great pathos the Iliad gives for the fallen soldiers of Troy or perhaps even Aeschylus’s The Persians, which, despite stereotyping and caricaturization, at least humanizes Greece’s legendary and historical enemies.  Perhaps the fact that Job is considered the most righteous person of his time, and is not an Israelite would be one.  Perhaps the story of the good Samaritan – Samaritans and Jews really did not get along very well to the point that sometimes I retell the story as the “good Palestinian” to give my students some of the original impact of the story – would be another example.  Of course, Jesus commands in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 to “love your enemies,” but this is a prescription and not a story.

The example, however, that stands out to me that would be closest to Homeric pathos for the enemy is the end of the “Song of Deborah” (Judges 5).  The basic story is that a general from an opposing, Canaanite army named Sisera in a battle near Megiddo fled into the tent of Jael, a Kenite, to survive the joint tribes under the leadership of Deborah.  Jael, however, drives a tent peg through Sisera’s head and, thereby, defeats the enemy’s leader.  The entire Song, however, ends with Sisera’s mother:

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 hoofbeats of his chariots?’

Her wisest ladies make answer, / indeed, she answer the question herself:

‘Are they not finding and dividing the spoil? – / A girl or two for every man; / spoil of dyed stuffs for Sisera, / spoil of dyed stuffs embroidered, / two pieces of dyed work embroidered for my neck as spoil?’ (Judges 5:28-30; NRSV)

While one can – and people have – read the lines of Sisera’s selfish mother, who is hoping for some nice, expensive embroidery for herself, as well as some female slaves for her son – as a contrast for the selfless heroism of Jael or Deborah, it can also be read as a rare moment of pathos for the enemy in the Bible.  How so?

The reader or hearer of the tale knows that Sisera is dead, but then we get an image of his mother looking longingly out the window, awaiting her son’s return.  The hope for slaves and expensive embroidered dyed stuffs – or spoils in general – reads more like her special pleading, knowing he is taking a lot longer than expected to return home.  She hopes he is alive, but suspects something has gone wrong.  We – the reader or hearer – are reminded that Sisera isn’t just an enemy fighter, but a son whose mother worries about him.  Now that’s pathos.



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