"Our women don't negotiate," he retorted in a cutting tone. "They are true women. They are delicate and soft like fluttering sparrows, not coarse and presumptuous and domineering, like hawks, as you are."
Sisra had spoken to Deborah as no man had ever dared speak to her before and his words struck her like a slap in the face. Her anger flared up, and this time she retaliated with sharp words of her own. "I have no wish to learn your opinion of me. I want only to attain peace with your king and your people." (from The Triumph of Deborah, page 23)
The Triumph of Deborah by Eva Etzioni-Halevy is my first foray into biblical fiction. Deborah is a judge respected by the Israelites, and the book is based on Judges in the Old Testament. According to the historical note at the end of the book, the events that take place within its pages occurred from the 12th to mid-11th centuries BCE.
The Canaanites have long been attacking the Israelite villages, stealing livestock and raping and enslaving the women. Deborah, also a prophetess, recognizes the need for the Israelites to go to war, as the Canaanites already are preparing to battle. Against her husband's wishes, Deborah chooses Barak, a young wild-child warrior to lead the Israelites into battle. Barak, however, is known for his sexual antics (particularly with his maids), and he says he will lead the army only if Deborah agrees to share his bed as his reward.
From the start of the book, Etzioni-Halevy shows how difficult it was to be a woman during this period in history. Though well respected by her people, Deborah is unable to negotiate peace with Sisra, the Canaanite warrior, because she is a woman. Her husband, Lapidoth, doesn't think the battlefield is a suitable place for a woman, and when Deborah makes it known that she plans to accompany Barak and has no intention of putting an old commander in charge (Lapidoth's first choice), he gives her a book of divorcement. She is forced to leave the home she has shared for years with Lapidoth and their five young sons and take up residence in the tent on the hill where she acts as judge.
But the main focus of The Triumph of Deborah isn't just Deborah's story. After conquering the Canaanites at the beginning of the book, Barak captures Asherah, King Jabin's daughter and wife of Sisra, to be his wife after the 30-day period of mourning ends. Asherah has no choice but to become Barak's wife, as he plans to take her against her will if he must. Meanwhile, Nogah, Asherah's sister who grew up as a slave in the castle, serves as Barak's maid and develops deep feelings for him. Throw in Deborah, who also has feelings for Barak, and there's not a love triange but a love square. Barak is an interesting character, given that he uses women to fulfill his sexual needs without a thought to their feelings, but he also has a compassionate, tender side and a genuine desire to care for people's needs.
I'm glad Etzioni-Halevy chose to tell the story from various points of view. Each of these characters has a chance to display their feelings and motives, and even with their flaws laid out on the table, it was easy to feel sympathetic toward them all. Her writing is beautiful, easily shifting from one point of view to another. Some readers might be put off by the numerous sex scenes, especially when dealing with biblical themes (though one must understand that there is sex in the Bible), but they were well written and not graphic. Given the nature of Barak's character, I don't think they were overdone.
There is a lot going on in The Triumph of Deborah, from personal relationships, war and political dealings, slavery and social customs, religion, and the oppression of women, but Etizoni-Halevy expertly weaves these themes together and creates a story that was difficult for me to put down. I am not well versed in the story of Deborah and Barak and cannot separate the history from the fiction, but it didn't affect my enjoyment whatsoever. I highly recommend this book, especially for readers who love historical or biblical fiction, and I hope to read Etizoni-Halevy's other novels at some point.
Visit Eva Etzioni-Halevy's website for an excerpt from The Triumph of Deborah and a reading group guide.
The Triumph of Deborah also was reviewed by:
In Spring it is the Dawn
A Novel Menagerie
Books and Cooks
The Literate Housewife Review
Peeking Between the Pages
Jo-Jo Loves to Read
If I missed your review, let me know in the comments, and I'll add your link!
Disclosure: I received a free copy of The Triumph of Deborah from the author for review purposes.