If you’ve ever wished that the Bible could be jazzed up a little — sort of the equivalent of putting on a killer pair of earrings with a simple black dress — wish no longer. The Triumph of Deborah by Eva Etzioni-Halevy (Plume, $14) is here to add sparkle to an ancient story.
Etzioni-Halevy, a professor emeritus of political sociology at Israel’s Bar- Ilan University, has kicked the Bible up a notch before. Her book The Song of Hannah focuses on Hannah’s married and maternal life and her conflicts with Elkanah’s other wife, Pninah. Next, The Garden of Ruth is an historical re-imagining of the Book of Ruth, told through the voices of Ruth and Osnath, niece of the prophet Samuel.
The Triumph of Deborah is a similarly imaginative retelling of the story of Deborah, the prophetess and judge. Deborah is the motivating force behind General Barak’s incursion into Canaan. Barak wins the battle, bringing back many Canaanites as slaves, including Oshrah (née Asherah), a daughter of the dethroned Canaanite king Jabin, along with Nogah, the illegitimate and secret Jewish daughter of Jabin who’d lived as a well-treated slave in the palace.
In this retelling, Barak is pretty busy. Not only is he conqueror of the Canaanites on the battlefield, but he is also the fulcrum of a love triangle between Oshrah and Nogah. Plus he’s the object of lust for Jael, the woman who killed Canaanite general Sisera. Even Deborah herself, recently cast off by her husband, yearns for him. Call the guy an alephmale, if you will.
So, perhaps unsurprisingly, the story is not just battle scenes, clay pots and strategic meetings in tents. The tale has plenty of juicy, Harlequin-esque moments. “In bed with him, she would stroke his body, feeling his powerful muscles bulging under her roving fingers,” one such passage reads. “One evening she overcame her shyness and began kissing the length and breadth of him, adoring each part with her lips, begging for his invasion, which was not long delayed.”
These moments are more frequent than not, but it is clear, when the reader considers the big picture, that they are not written into the story to create a new genre of Bibl-erotica. Instead, they illustrate the pervasiveness of sexual politics and barter in a world bereft of even the semblance of political and sexual equality. In this world, Deborah is the ultimate incongruity, and the exploration of her sexuality (she teaches Barak, in a hands-on lesson, how to prolong female orgasm) makes sense. In the author’s historical note, she writes as much, and her words resonate with immediate relevance: “I tried to show that apart from her unique public standing, [Deborah] also had a rich and complex private life. In this aspect of her existence, she was very much a woman, in both her strengths and weaknesses, and this did not detract from her stature as a national leader. This is also something from which women harboring political ambitions may derive inspiration: from antiquity to the present, power and femininity have not stood in contradiction to each other.”
Jordana Horn is a writer and lawyer at work on her first novel.