The Triumph of Deborah
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(NOTE: We recognize that reading is a personal experience, and we hope that the author interview and questions below will provide a springboard to provoke a lively discussion.)
Tensions between the Israelites and the Canaanites have been mounting for years, but finally Deborah—the wise and revered judge of the Israelites—decides it is time to strike out against the enemy before the enemy strikes in full force against them. She calls on Barak, an equally revered warrior, to lead the call to war. Under his leadership, the Israelites destroy the Canaanite army, and Barak takes as his prisoners the daughters of the late Canaanite king.
Deborah’s decision to rely on Barak, however, costs her dearly. Her husband Lapidoth divorces her, knowing Barak’s reputation as a womanizer and suspecting the warrior of ulterior motives in his dealings with her. Deborah, cast off and lonely, begins to develop an attraction for Barak—all the more complex because Barak has begun to develop feelings for his royal prisoners.
While Deborah, Barak, and the Canaanite princesses Asherah and Nogah struggle with their loyalties to their pasts and their present desires, the nation of Israel struggles to maintain its tenuous peace in the wake of a victory over its neighbor and enemy.
A romantic, masterfully written piece of fiction, The Triumph of Deborah celebrates the wisdom and the superior guidance of one of the Bible’s most powerful and wise women, while also exploring the complex nature of loyalty: to one’s nation, to one’s family, and to one’s own sense of self.
Eva Etzioni-Halevy is professor emeritus of political sociology at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. She has published fourteen academic books and numerous articles, as well as two previous biblical novels. Born in Vienna, she spent World War II as a child in Italy, then moved to Palestine in 1945. She has also lived in the United States and spent time in Australia before taking up her position at Bar-Ilan. Eva lives in Tel Aviv with her husband; she has three grown children.
Q. This is your third novel written about biblical heroines. What about Deborah’s particular story did you find compelling?
A. I found Deborah’s personal tale, as described in the Bible, particularly intriguing. The scripture tells us that when Deborah instructed warrior Barak to go out to war against the Canaanites, who threatened Israel with destruction, he demanded that Deborah accompany him to the battlefield. It further recounts that she ended up going with him to his hometown as well. Yet she was a married woman and a mother, and the text does not indicate that the husband, Lapidoth, accompanied her, and certainly her children would not have gone out into the battlefield.
Long before deciding to write the novel, as I read the story, I began asking myself: what did her husband have to say about that? What would any husband say if his wife went off to distant parts with another man? It makes good sense that this created marital problems between them. Would they be able to overcome those problems? Further, I asked myself, what transpired between Deborah and Barak when they were together with no husband in sight? These were the aspects of Deborah’s story that I found most compelling, and they prompted me to write the novel, in which I used my imagination to answer these questions.
Q. You’ve had to do a significant amount of research in the past to write about the ancient Israelites. Did this new book require new research?
A. In addition to the research I used for my previous novels, I visited the major sites in which the action of The Triumph of Deborah takes place, not once, but twice. These sites include the River Kishon, Mount Tabor, Hazor, where there are excavations of King Jabin’s castle (although you need to use a bit of imagination to visualize how it looked then, in contrast to what it looks like now), and a nearby museum that displays artifacts from the castle.
By the way, as a teenage girl, I lived for three years in a town, which is close to both the River Kishon and Mount Tabor, so I have been familiar with the sites since my youth.
Q. One of the subjects of the novel is judgment. There’s Deborah’s revered judgment atop the Mountains of Efraim; the Canaanites’ judgment of the Israelites, and vice versa; and then individual characters judging one another (with or without enough information to make a sound judgment). Did you have a particular theme in mind when you began writing the novel? Did it ever change? What would you consider the most powerful message of the book?
A. The theme of judgment is certainly prominent in the novel. But, importantly, The Triumph of Deborah brings to life one of the most beloved biblical figures, Deborah, who was not “merely” what we might call today the Chief Justice of the land. In addition, she was also a prophetess, that is, the highest religious authority and an adored political leader, something in the nature of a contemporary president. Arguably, Deborah was the most eminent woman in the Bible (Old Testament.)
To my mind, the most powerful message of the novel, directly based on that of the Scripture, is that Deborah succeeded in attaining this outstanding position, despite the fact that the circumstances for women—their legal position and status in the family—were most limiting at the time.
Further, the novel shows that in her own life Deborah was very much a woman, and that her femininity did not detract from her stature as national leader. Thereby it pays tribute to Deborah’s feminine strength and independence, from which present-day women, seeking to build lives of their own and assert themselves in whatever they choose to do, may derive inspiration. The lesson that women today can learn from Deborah is: “I can do it. No matter how difficult the circumstances, I can overcome them.”
As with Deborah, so also with women attaining high-ranking positions today: There is no evidence to show that they are less feminine (attractive, gentle, showing empathy to others, motherly) than stay-at-home moms.
Finally, The Triumph of Deborah describes a prominent woman leader who led her people to war but also to peace. Hence it should be of special relevance in an American presidential election year in which a female candidate is a frontrunner, a year in which the topic of female leadership in time of war and peace will be most prominent on the agenda.
The message that emerges between the lines of the novel is that a woman leader is capable of leading her nation to war whenever necessary, and to peace whenever possible.
Q. Do you see yourself continuing to explore your roots through these stories about biblical heroines? What do you find most rewarding about creating historical fiction that is also based in your faith?
A. It so happened that rather late in life, as part of searching for my Jewish roots, I began reading the Bible on my own, and I was fascinated by it.
What enthralled me was that the people described in it, although they lived thousands of years ago, were so strikingly similar to us in their hopes and fears and anxieties. That so much has changed, yet human nature has not. I took an amazing journey thousands of years back in time, yet when I arrived, I felt myself back at home.
I was also enchanted by the fact that the people in the Bible, even the most exalted heroes and heroines, are described not as angels, but as true human beings, with strengths but also with weaknesses, many of which stemmed from their sexuality, and also by the fact that the women in particular are presented as intensely sexual persons.
I began to identify in particular with the women, whose feelings and impulses I could visualize as if they were my own. So I began to write about them, stories of love and betrayal and redemption through more love and friendship, written for reading pleasure, yet meticulously faithful to the Bible—a divine yet also a very human collection of books.
What I find particularly rewarding is that I was attracted to those heroines as part of searching for my roots in my faith, and the more I wrote, the more my faith was strengthened. Certainly I hope to continue in this vein.
Q. Are you writing anything new right now? What can we expect to see from you next?
A. I am now working on my fourth novel about women in the Bible, tentatively named The Ruse of Tamar. It concerns the second Tamar in the Bible, the daughter of King David, she who was the victim of incestuous rape by her brother Amnon. Based on the biblical text, the novel depicts the trauma that the abuse caused the young girl to suffer, and then goes on to show how in time she succeeds in rebuilding her life through her feminine strength and her love for a mysterious young man, whose true identity is revealed only toward the end of the novel. All this takes place against the backdrop of various intrigues in King David’s court, which are described in the Bible and elaborated on in the novel.
However, the novel is still at an initial and rudimentary state, and I can only hope that my readers will bear with me for a while, until I bring it to its conclusion.
- This book begins with two women looking out from “high places”—Deborah, from the mountain where the battle between the Israelites and the Canaanites had begun, and Asherah, the beautiful young daughter of Deborah’s enemy, the Canaanite king, from the roof of her father’s castle. The book also follows a third young woman, Nogah, the product of King Jabin’s affair with an Israelite slave woman. Whose story did you personally find most compelling? Which woman did you sympathize with the most, and who did you sympathize with the least?
- At the start of the novel we learn about Deborah’s problems with her own husband of sixteen years, Lapidoth, and his jealousy of her relationship with Barak (which, up to that point, is a professional one). Was Lapidoth’s divorcement of Deborah as surprising to the reader as it was to Deborah?
- When Deborah not only agrees to consider Barak’s terms, but willingly fulfills those terms upon his return from battling the Canaanites, how does her character change? Is she wiser or more foolish for her affair with Barak? Consider how this particular experience affected her ability to judge people fair and objectively.
- Discuss Sisra’s death. Did Jael deserve to be ostracized for her actions, or were they actually heroic? Consider the difference between Deborah’s approval of Jael’s actions, and Barak’s reaction. How very different would the story have been if Sisra had died in a more expected manner?
- Nogah goes from being a slave in the royal Canaanite palace to becoming one of its noble members almost overnight. This transition allows her to appreciate both aspects of her heritage—that of her Canaanite father and her Israelite mother. Discuss how Nogah’s knowledge and respect for both people make her a key player in the conflict between the two nations.
- While the book follows primarily the thoughts and actions of its female characters, it also allows brief glimpses into the psyche of Barak, the courageous and cunning warrior who stops the Canaanite threat to Israel. How do we see Barak change over the course of the novel? How would you describe him at the onset of the conflict with the Canaanites, and what qualities does he take on (or shrug off) by the novel’s end? Is he a likeable character? Is he as compelling to the reader as he is to Deborah and Nogah?
- While Asherah has had a far more privileged background than any other character in the book, she proves to be intelligent and resourceful as she plots to kill her new husband as revenge for the death of her first husband, and as she tries to diminish Nogah’s place in Barak’s household, and in his heart. Discuss how her own allegiance to her Canaanite background is both her saving grace and her undoing. Compare her devotion to her homeland to Nogah’s devotion to Israel and its people.
- Nogah’s trip to see Deborah, and then to leave the scroll she has created with Gilad in the house of the Lord in Shiloh, marks a transformation in the young woman’s life. Discuss the extent of her accomplishment: obtaining Deborah’s version of the tale, plus the Song of Deborah, and gaining Deborah’s approval; then traveling to Shiloh and convincing the elders to house the scroll there. What does this do for Nogah’s sense of self, and for how others view her? How does she change as a result of the trip?
- Describe the trajectory of the relationship between Nogah and Barak, and how both characters became better people for their interaction with one another. What was Barak forced to realize and accept? What did Nogah teach him? What did Nogah learn about the desires of the human heart—similar to what Deborah learned through her separation from Lapidoth?
- When Lapidoth fathers another child with a servant, what parallel emerges between the Israelites and the Canaanites? Consider the way Deborah dealt with the news of the servant girl’s pregnancy, and how it affected her relationship with Lapidoth. What good came out of this situation?
- Consider the final meeting of the Canaanites and the Israelites under Mishma’s roof. What does this scene tell us about what has been gained and what has been lost by both nations?
- How realistic is Etzioni-Halevy’s portrayal of ancient Israel? Does this story feel true to its biblical roots? What makes these characters from an ancient time relevant to twenty-first-century readers? What common struggles do we share?