A woman contrives to get herself alone with a feared general. She mothers him, flirts with him, or both, and when his guard is down, she murders him.
This is the biblical trope of the woman-turned-warrior, and it is fertile ground for using queer theory to understand gender dynamics. The three fullest instances of this trope in the Bible and early Jewish literature are the story of Jael in Judges 4 and 5, the 2nd century B.C.E. apocryphal Book of Judith, and the reworked Jael story told by the 1st century C.E. Pseudo-Philo in the Biblical Antiquities. In each of these stories, a woman lures an enemy general into a compromising situation and assassinates him.
These woman-turned-warrior stories are so compelling, so well-told and violent and sexy, that they have commanded much scholarly attention. Feminist critics, especially, have written about sexuality, violence, deception, gender dynamics, and female agency in the tales. My recent book, Women in Drag: Gender and Performance in the Hebrew Bible and Early Jewish Literature (Gorgias, 2018), is the first queer-critical examination of these texts as a group. It is both seriously engaged with queer theory and deeply attentive to the text.
I read Judges 4 and 5, the Book of Judith, and the Biblical Antiquities 31 using queer-theoretical vocabularies of gender, sexuality, and reproduction. I use thorough textual analyses of the Hebrew of Judges, the Greek of Judith, and the Latin of the Biblical Antiquities; comparisons with other ancient Mediterranean female literary figures such as Athena, Anat, and Clytemnestra; and engagement with queer theory. Ultimately, I argue that Judith and both versions of Jael, as literary characters, have far more agency than some previous scholarship has credited them, and that their success relies on their ability to use the queer signs and signifiers of femininity to their advantage.
Generally, queer theory provides a framework for the scholar to examine how manhood or womanhood is constructed in a given biblical text, how characters embody or fail to embody these constructions, how and where the expected male/female or masculine/feminine binaries are disturbed—including those related to sex and sexuality—and how characters relate to reproductive imperatives. Feminist and queer biblical criticism share liberatory goals, an interest in gender and sexuality, and sometimes a postmodern sensibility, but they are not identical. In recent years, practitioners of the two have debated their nomenclature and overlap. One scholar, Deborah Sawyer, even published an essay called “Gender Criticism: A New Discipline in Biblical Studies or Feminism in Disguise?” where she concludes that gender criticism “broadens the lens” of feminism and focuses more heavily on deconstruction. Deryn Guest writes that queer criticism is not merely feminist criticism plus men (or “add men and mix,” as she puts it), but rather that it focuses on the construction of gender itself. I am a feminist biblical scholar who recognizes that queer criticism offers uniquely useful tools to advance the feminist project.
The proliferation and success of popular-press books that claim to offer guides to “biblical manhood” and especially “biblical womanhood” indicate much of the reading public takes for granted that gender is clear, stable, and binary in the Bible. Queer-critical work like that performed in Women in Drag reveals that gender in the Bible is far more complex. Such work can produce readings of the Bible that stand in opposition to the usual heteronormative ones, “Bibles that startle and surprise.”
When I started my book project, I thought my queer-theoretical reading of women warrior stories would be based solely on the work of Judith Butler. At the time, queer biblical criticism relied heavily on Butler, who in her books Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter performed a postmodern deconstruction of gender. To Butler, gender is not a neat one-to-one mapping of a set of characteristics onto a body that is sexed either male or female. Rather, gender is performed, continually constructed by actions, words, dress, manner, and more. Butler calls this system of highly consequential performances, which helps produce a gendered social order, “performativity.” She discusses how parodic gender performance, such as drag, troubles the gender binary by exposing all performance as artifice. I came to the project with the aim of showing how Jael and Judith, rather than acting like men as some scholars had argued, were acting like women. A Butlerian reading of these characters would show how their victories were only possible because of their use of the signs of femininity.
But as I began to read more queer theory, the picture became complicated. Especially compelling to me was the work of Lee Edelman. In his landmark book No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Edelman discusses the symbolic Child, an idealized and sanitized picture of childhood that drives policy debate. He rages against the rhetorical use of the Child to silence and persecute the queer community. He envisions queerness standing against the all-encompassing tyranny of what he labels “reproductive futurism,” or the obsessive concern for the future and the welfare of this mythical Child. For Edelman, the queer figure can strike back at the societal fixation on the future by living intentionally (and non-reproductively) in the present.
Reading Edelman’s descriptions of how contemporary American society fetishizes the Child, I thought about the obsession with childbearing and the continuity and expansion of the Israelite nation that runs through many biblical and extrabiblical ancient Jewish texts. I noted that the characters I was studying, Judith and both versions of Jael, are portrayed as childless, and, further, that their respective stories make nothing of this lack of children. This seemed unusual and important, given that women in most biblical texts are forever engaged either in reproduction or miserable barrenness.
I argue that the women in these tales perform femininity—seductiveness, motherliness, or a mixture of the two, depending on what the circumstances called for—as a deliberate battle strategy. Their chief weapons are not tent pegs and swords but feminine performance, and their ability to engage in this performance is intimately tied to their childlessness.
Jael in Judges 4 and 5 finds herself in a war zone, with a Canaanite general fleeing the battlefield in the direction of her husband’s tent. Jael’s husband—and perhaps Jael herself—is a Kenite, and he is allied with Canaan. Jael wisely figures out what a fleeing general will want—a comforting mother and a flirtatious seducer—and performs an over-the-top version of both. The seduction comes, for example, from Jael’s sibilant, suggestive words to Sisera as she lures him into her tent—sûrâ ădōnî sûrâ ʾēlay, “turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me” (Jdg 4:18)—her forced penetration of him with a tent peg, and the juxtaposition of this penetration with Sisera’s mother’s supposition that her son will soon return home with “a womb or two for each man.” The mothering can be seen in Jael’s reassurance to Sisera that he should not be afraid in her custody, her decision to bring Sisera milk rather than the water he requests, her tucking him in and urging him to sleep, and the implicit connection drawn in Judges 5 between Sisera’s surrogate mother, Jael, and his real mother, waiting in vain for his chariot that will never return.
That Jael is not described as having children is important to this performance; it is difficult to imagine her undertaking this mission with a knee-high, wide-eyed audience. She cannot “mother” Sisera to death and mother children at the same time. Jael’s childlessness is especially striking because it is combined with an over-the-top parody of motherhood: she tucks in a general as if he were a little boy! In the unmooring of performed motherhood from biological childbearing, Jael’s story throws doubt on the “naturalness” of ideas about women and maternity.
Jael’s convincingness as a mother and a lover is crucial to her survival. Here I am guided by queer-theoretical ideas of passing and realness, treated in Paris Is Burning and elsewhere. The film is about drag and ball culture among black and Latinx LGBTQ people in 1980s New York. Ball contestants competed for titles, some of which focused on “realness,” convincingly performing as, for example, a business executive or a tough guy. The film’s guiding voice, an older drag queen named Dorian Corey, tells the camera, “When they’re undetectable, when they can walk out of that ballroom, into the sunlight and onto the subway and get home and still have all their clothes and no blood running off their bodies, those are the femme realness queens.” Were Jael not to “pass” before Sisera, her plan would fail, and she would be in danger of sexual violence or death.
In the Book of Judith, when the titular character appears halfway through the book, she is doing an impeccable performance of an ascetic widow. Though her husband has been dead more than three years, Judith continues to mourn intensely: she wears only widows’ garments, including draped over her very loins; she lives on a tent on the roof of her house instead of inside; and she fasts more days than not. (One wonders how she would have had the strength to lift that sword.) Judith is in widow drag. Even her speech at this point in the story is loaded with references to her widowhood.
When Judith hears that the male leaders of her Israelite town are ready to surrender to the attacking Assyrians if God does not deliver them within five days, she concocts a plan. Judith effects a complete transformation from widow drag to sexpot drag. She bathes, dresses in the pretty clothes she wore when her husband was alive, perfumes herself, and puts on every piece of jewelry she owns—even a tiara. She takes her maidservant and sashays into the Assyrian camp. Using language calculated to make the general Holofernes believe she is sexually available, she convinces him to let her stay in the camp and help him defeat the Israelites. Her speech to him is loaded with flattery and sexual innuendo.
I argue that Judith’s performance as a sexually available and seductive woman is so over-the-top that it constitutes parody. By parodying societal expectations of women and femininity, Judith holds them up to ridicule. Just as drag disturbs the gender binary, Judith’s performance shows that ideas of gender and sexuality in ancient literature are more fragile than they may appear. Judith is a celibate widow who clearly intends to stay that way—at the end of the story, she refuses marriage offers from many eager suitors—and in so successfully performing as a sexy and sexual woman, she manages to disconnect a seductive persona from actual sex with men. These conclusions are influenced by the work of Sue-Ellen Case on the deconstructive power of the lesbian butch-femme pair and Judith (Jack) Halberstam on lack of sexual stimulation as a sexual orientation of its own.
Like Jael’s interactions with Sisera in her tent, Judith’s performance in the Assyrian camp is high stakes. Gender performance can be a matter of survival, as it is in Judith’s story. Were any part of her act unconvincing to the Assyrians, she would be in mortal danger.
Judith’s childlessness is crucial to her performance: she can play the roles she does because she does not have children at home. Further, unlike the male town leaders, who constantly urge surrender for the sake of the children, Judith invokes children seldom and usually only metaphorically; they are God’s children, the children of Israel, not actual children. She discourages the male leaders from giving up the present, represented by Israel’s independence, for the future, represented by security for later generations. Judith’s lack of attention to motherhood and children offer quite a different version of the heroic biblical woman than we are used to, a version that resonates strongly with Edelman’s resistance to reproductive futurism.
The retelling of Jael’s story in the Biblical Antiquities makes the sexual and maternal elements in Judges even more explicit. Here, we learn that Jael, like Judith, is very beautiful, that she adorns herself before going out to lure Sisera into her tent, that she scatters rose petals on her bed for him, and that Sisera resolves to take Jael home with him. The motherhood connections in this version of the story include more frequent and detailed references to Sisera’s real mother, here given the name Themech, Jael’s firm control of Sisera’s actions in her tent, and Jael’s procurement of Sisera’s milk directly from the ewe. Jael’s use of the tropes of motherhood and sexuality is powerful drag performance.
This iteration of Jael exposes the artifice of expectations for women that privilege mothers. As a non-mother who performs maternity to get Sisera where she needs him, she challenges the reproductive futurism that dominates ancient Jewish literature. Jael uses the signs and signifiers of maternity and sexuality in her interactions with Sisera, but divorced from actual motherhood or sex, these aspects of her performance become parody and, consequently, a space of resistance.
Women in Drag gives agency back to female characters. Of course, Jael and Judith were the product of human (likely male) authors whose goals for their stories probably did not include women’s empowerment. But postmodern literary criticism has liberated biblical scholars from the tyranny of authorial intention and allowed us to focus on the world of the text. Within their textual worlds, Jael and Judith play with notions of gender and sexuality deliberately. These characters understand how to get what they need by dealing in the signs of motherhood and sexual availability. Jael and Judith are not mere puppets of the patriarchy; they are clever and wily women who strategize carefully—and win.
Early feminist biblical scholars engaged in a recuperative project, trying to show how male interpreters had twisted the text into something patriarchal and sexist. Even some feminists today pursue a similar project. I do not see myself as continuing this goal. I feel no need to save the Bible from itself. I am unafraid to say of and to a biblical text, “No. There is nothing good here for women. I refuse to pretend there is.” Further, I do not argue that the woman-turned-warrior texts are an all-around win for women. Certainly, the way they have been used to perpetuate ideas about women as deceptive femmes fatales has been destructive to real women’s lives.
However, I do argue that we can wrest something interesting, surprising, and perhaps even liberating from the ancient stories of Jael and Judith by using unorthodox dialogue partners from queer theory. My readings aim to trouble what we think we know about women, gender and sexuality in the Bible and ancient Jewish writings.
Caryn Tamber-Rosenau is instructional assistant professor of Jewish Studies and Religious Studies at the University of Houston. She is the author of Women in Drag: Gender and Performance in the Hebrew Bible and Early Jewish Literature (Gorgias, 2018).
 Lots of artistic attention as well. Renaissance depictions of Jael and Judith saw a resurgence in popularity last year when Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh won confirmation despite allegations of sexual assault, with women posting images of women killing predatory men. Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes was especially popular for its legend that the Judith figure is a self-portrait of the artist, while Holofernes strongly resembles a man who raped her. Ray Drainville, “Outraged by Kavanaugh Confirmation, Social Media Users Cite the Vengeful Women of Art History,” Hyperallergic, 11 October 2018, https://hyperallergic.com/465337/outraged-by-kavanaugh-confirmation-social-media-users-cite-the-vengeful-women-of-art-history/. Jillian Steinhauer, “Female Artists Delete Rape’s ‘Heroic’ Underpinnings,” The New York Times (New York, 16 October 2018).
 The first three of these questions are adapted from Ken Stone, “Gender Criticism: The Un-Manning of Abimelech,” in Judges & Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies, ed. Gale A. Yee, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 2007), 183–201. Some who use queer theory to read the Bible call their work “queer criticism,” some “gender criticism,” and some “genderqueer criticism.” While some scholars may distinguish “queer”- from “gender”-critical work, I do not see much, if any, daylight between the two.
 Deborah F. Sawyer, “Gender Criticism: A New Discipline in Biblical Studies or Feminism in Disguise?,” in A Question of Sex? Gender and Difference in the Hebrew Bible and Beyond, ed. Deborah W. Rooke (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Phoenix, 2007), 15.
 Deryn Guest, Beyond Feminist Biblical Studies (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2012), 19–20.
 Ken Stone, “Bibles That Matter: Biblical Theology and Queer Performativity,” BTB 38 (2008): 21.
 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990); Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993).
 Sue-Ellen Case, “Toward a Butch-Femme Aesthetic,” in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (New York: Routledge, 1993), 294–206; Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinity (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998).
 Judges 19 comes to mind immediately, but there are other texts. To these, I am tempted to echo a student of mine who, when I asked, “what do we do with this text?” about the story of Lot and his daughters, replied, “burn it with fire?”