Rejecting erosion
The year winds down

Three poems from the book of Judges

The book of Judges contains some powerful stories. Some years ago I wrote a trio of poems exploring three of those stories and the women who feature in them: the judge and prophet Devorah, Yael who slew the general Sisera, and the nameless daughter of Yiftach (in English, his name is usually rendered Jephthah.)

Tekufat tevet, the winter solstice, is regarded as the date when Yiftach's daughter was killed. These are dark stories, but powerful ones. Today's the solstice, so I thought I'd share my trio of poems arising out of the book of Judges. If this interests you, don't miss Alicia Ostriker's long poem / ritual script Jephthah's Daughter: A Lament, available at Tel Shemesh.


1. Devorah

Beneath her palm tree, Devorah
    (the honey bee, her sting intact)
        judged the acts of the Israelites

the people came with gifts
     of oil and flour and yearling lambs
         and she answered them with justice

she sent for Barak in his leathers
    words fell from her mouth like honey
        and he yearned to taste her sweetness

come with me, he pleaded
    I will relinquish my own glory
        if I can have you by my side

nine hundred iron chariots thundered
    the Infinite cast panic like a spell
        and all Sisera's army was slain

and Devorah slept, and dreamed
     Sisera stumbles into a woman's tent
         Jael's doors open wide to let him in

he drinks milk fermented in goatskin
    he slides into sleep: her tent pin rests
        at his sweaty temple: she drives it home

2. Jael

My husband is a Kenite
Kenites don't take sides
so when God told me what to do
I kept it to myself

someday the sages
will credit me with pluck
and righteousness, even if
my methods were obscure

but Sisera's mother
wrapped in happy fantasies
of her precious son's return
will never be the same

the rabbis say
Sisera demanded my body
the rabbis say
we slept together seven times

but you don't get to know
you can claim me
as a righteous convert
but my story is my own

3. Yiftach's Daughter

Israel whored with foreign gods
    until Yiftach, prostitute's son, rose up
        wearing holy spirit like a cloak, saying

deliver the Ammonites into my hands
    and whatever exits my house to meet me
        will be sacrificed to You in holy fire

and out came his only daughter
    bare feet flying to greet him, Daddy!
        with her tambourine beneath her arm

he rent his garments in grief
    she bent her head in submission
        to her father and his God's demands

two months with her friends in the hills
    (curve of soft hips beneath her hands,
        stretch of skin salted with hot tears)

and she returned home, pale
    but resolute, and bared her neck
        her father steeled himself to raise his knife

the sun went down early, turning away
    from the war hero with bloodied hands
        the mothers wept like the opened skies

when he burned her bones
    no prophet spoke God's anger
        and the maidens mourned alone