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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive The Big Sleep: Strategic Ambiguity in Judges 4-5 and in Classic "Film Noir"

The book of Judges makes demands of its readers. As Cheryl Exum puts it, the book "exhibits an enigmatic complexity." [1]Questions reach beyond the immediate narrative context to address issues of leadership, of access to the land, and, as I have argued elsewhere, of the complexity of morality and the merits of violent justice. [2]My argument here is that noir and the Jael narrative have a remarkably similarly structured rhetoric of ambiguity. More importantly, examination of noir's mis-en-scène and the very censorial context from which it emerged, and which it sought to address, helps us to bring fresh questions and insights to the Jael narrative and its implied social context.

In classic film noir (what the film industry itself termed the "psychological thrillers" of the early 1940s and 1950s), ambiguity appears in many forms: for example, its visual style (unusual and unexpected camera angles with unconventional frame composition), narratorial judgment (or rather lack of it), story gaps, and linguistic play. [3]In one of the first and most influential studies of noir, Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton concluded that "the moral ambivalence, the criminality, the complex contradictions in motives and events, all conspire to make the viewer co-experience the anguish and insecurity which are the true emotions of contemporary film noir." [4]Their study recognized ambiguity as the core factor of characterization across noir types: victims, protagonists, and femme fatales. [5]

The Jael narrative introduces uncertainty through the multiple perspectives of its form. In Judges 4 we are "with" Sisera as he flees on foot for his life (and to his death); as he approaches, he "sees" Jael's tent. In fact, he "sees" shelter in the form of the Kenite house who is "at peace" with his king. But as Johanna Bos points out, he "sees falsely, for he is looking in the direction of her clan and not of Yael herself." [6]We are "with" Jael as she murders Sisera, who is now asleep. And we "see" quite forcibly from Barak's perspective. Jael says to him, "'Come, I will make you see [weareeka] the man whom you seek,' and he came to her, and look [wehinneh], Sisera, fallen dead, with the tent peg in his temple (4:22)."

As the competing prose and poetic accounts stand, they function as prompts to question our grasp of the narrative. As Marc Brettler puts it, they make us "wonder such things as 'How was Sisera killed?'… 'Was Jabin involved or not?'" [7]Read in some sort of tandem, the two accounts have different foci. In chapter 5 the suggestive invitation of Jael from chapter 4 is gone. So too are its political complexities and suspenseful narrative, which in chapter 5 are reduced to two moments: the provision of milk and the "sinking" of Sisera. In light of the relatively realist narrative of chapter 4, chapter 5 is an unstable dream-like flashback that replays the narrative's most decisive moment in slow motion, lingering on its violence. [8] Here is Robert Alter's translation of 5:27:

Between her legs he kneeled, fell, laybetween her legs he kneeled and fellwhere he kneeled, he fell, destroyed. [9]

In its visual and narrative modes, noir reflects a shift from certainty to uncertainty with, as Andrew Spicer puts it, a newfound "pronounced interest in the characters' 'uncertain psychology.'" [10] Men in particular seem at odds about their place in the world. As such, noir can be characterized, as Richard Dyer suggests, "by a certain anxiety over the existence and definition of masculinity and normality." [11] In the noir world, Jael would raise the spectre of gender confusion in post-war America. As we shall see, the film critic's description of the femme fatale can in some sense apply equally to Jael. Take Spicer: "The femme fatale has been interpreted as a symptom of male anxieties about women, a creature who threatens to castrate and devour her male victim…. She represents an explicit challenge to the postwar consensus that women should be fulfilled by the roles of wife and mother." [12]

In connection with Jael's perceived threat to the male, as Gale Yee has shown, readers have been perennially (and, intriguingly, pretty much equally) divided in their response to Jael's gender codes:

As a warrior she acquires the status of the man in his domain, although she is female. She is thus ultimately dangerous and…she occupies a structurally anomalous position within the human domain and is thus potentially and actually disruptive. She takes on the attributes, roles, and accompanying prestige that are usually reserved for the male, but still remains female. [13]

Of course Sisera's trusting response to her deceptively maternal nurturing codes has deadly consequences. As Danna Fewell and David Gunn put it, "By playing upon his expectations, she sets him up—she sets him up to hammer him down." [14]

If there is a marked man in Judges, it is Sisera. He is marked from the initial pronouncement of Deborah to Barak that "the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman (4:9)." As Victor Matthews suggests, "Sisera was unknowingly a dead man from the moment he entered the area of Jael's tent….His death was not only inevitable, but expected. All that was required to complete the narrative was to develop the means of his deception and demise." [15]His doomed state is ironically further anticipated by his own command to Jael that if anyone asks if there is a man here, say "there is no [man] (4:20)." Sisera's fate can be seen from another angle: he is caught up in a web of betrayal and "selling out"' with a complexity worthy of a fine noir. Jael's husband, Heber, may have "sold out" his kin and neighbors by becoming a "policing presence" for King Jabin. [16] This may have provided enough resentment on Jael's part (regarding the discordant fracturing [prd] of her family from the Kenites [4:11]) to sell out her husband by killing Sisera. And of course, Yahweh, the Boss, "sold out" Israel into the hand of King Jabin (4:2) and will "sell" Sisera into the hand of a woman.

Finally, Sisera's fleeing on foot is a remarkably noir moment, evoking the metaphor of the road as place of imminent danger, usually death. [17]Where will Sisera go? Bereft of the protection of his exorbitant technology ("900 chariots of iron" [4:13]), his flight (nws [4:15, 17]) emits not only uncertainty, but also the sense of mortal fear associated with other instances of the root nûs: Pharaoh and his armies flee before the closing sea to meet their death; Saul flees the sharp end of David's spear; Joab flees from Solomon's wrath to the altar to meet his death. Deborah has also scripted the inexorable death and inglorious end of the road when she says to Barak, "the road [haderek] on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman (4:9)." The road on which Barak discovers his pilfered glory is of course the same as that on which Sisera met his doom.

Jael shares other tropological features with the femme fatale; namely, deception and an arguably perverse pleasure in exotic, ritualized, and sexualized violence. Again, the poetic account eroticizes the slow murder. To use the language of film noir criticism, it is a "richly elaborated ceremony of killing." [18]Examples of ritualized violence in noir are legion. They range from austere professional execution (The Killers is a locus classicus) to sadistic ritual (e.g., The High Wall, Brute Force, Kiss of Death, Border Incident). As Susan Niditch says of Judges 5:27, it "has the intoning repetitive quality of sacrificial or ritual death…. Double meanings of violent death and sexuality emerge in every line." [19]

In his absorbing study, The Flight from Ambiguity, Donald Levine suggests that ambiguity offers a positive model for reflection: "The toleration of ambiguity can be productive if it is taken not as a warrant for sloppy thinking but as an invitation to deal responsibly with issues of great complexity." [20]Helpfully, in relation to noir, Levine identifies "[an] American aversion toward ambiguity" (31) and traces its particularly extreme forms to Puritanism, which "discouraged aesthetic pleasures, including the enjoyment of ambiguous figures in repartee….Puritanism stressed the moral imperative of honesty…that came to be cherished to a remarkable degree in American society" (37). Ambiguity answers "the need for expressivity under a regime of…formal rationalities, and the need to protect privacy in a world of extended central controls" (40, my italics).

The provocative stories of noir and of Jael are both exceptionally valuable, even brave, prompts for reflection. To "read" them closely is to engage with ambiguity borne not of "sloppy thinking," but of rigor, tolerance of multivocality, and willingness to question conventions and norms. They stand as invitations to deal responsibly with issues of great complexity, such as gender, violence, censorship, and human fate. These stories will of course remain enticingly obtuse. And as Mieke Bal comments in relation to the Jael story, their ambiguity ought to be embraced: "It seems…fruitful to leave the ambiguity intact, to adopt it, to let coexisting meanings raise the problem that it is the interpreter's duty to cultivate—since this is his/her's garden." [21]

Instructively, in relation to understanding the social context of Judges, it is clear that phenomena like the ambiguous film noirs cannot be manufactured. As is widely recognized, the makers of noir had no cognizance of a "genre" or the term "film noir" (as Robert Mitchum put it, "Hell, we didn't know what film noir was in those days. Cary Grant and all the big stars got all the lights. We lit our sets with cigarette butts"). [22]Yet within the discourse of film viewing and study, film noir has become a critical idea greater than the sum of its parts. It was a luminous and influential moment of cinematic defiance (and sadly, for those who fell victim to McCarthyism, one coupled with resignation and personal loss). I hope I have shown that film noir, as is clearly the case with other cultural expressions that resonate with biblical narratives, can stimulate useful questions in our reading.

Eric S. Christianson,University College Chester,


1. "The Centre Cannot Hold: Thematic and Textual Instabilities in Judges," CBQ 52.3, 1990, pp. 410-31 (410).

2. Eric S. Christianson, "A Fistful of Shekels: Scrutinizing Ehud's Entertaining Violence (Judges 3:12-30)," Biblical Interpretation 11.1, 2003, pp. 53-78.

3. It is worth noting here that noir films do not generally exhibit a radical ambiguity or nihilism. They are stable texts. But they make use of fixed meanings and conventions in order to disorient and to question. Noir's ambiguity as I am discussing it cannot (did not) function outside of a mainstream and conventional sign system. Compare Robert Porfirio: "What keeps the film noir alive for us today is something more than a spurious nostalgia. It is the underlying mood of pessimism which undercuts any attempted happy endings and prevents the films from being the typical Hollywood escapist fare many were originally intended to be" ("No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir," in A. Silver and J. Ursini [eds], Film Noir Reader, New York: Limelight Editions, 1996, pp. 77-93 [80]).

4. "Towards a Definition of Film Noir," in Silver and Ursini (eds.), Film Noir Reader, pp. 17-25 (25).

5. "Towards a Definition of Film Noir," p. 22.

6. Johanna W.H. Bos, "Out of the Shadows: Genesis 38; Judges 4:17-22; Ruth 3," Semeia 42, 1988, pp. 37-67 (56).

7. Marc Brettler, The Book of Judges, Old Testament Readings; London: Routledge, 2002, pp. 61-79 (78).

8. After arriving at this view, I was delighted to find virtually the same conclusion reached by David M. Gunn and Danna Nolan Fewell: "Sisera falls and dies in slow motion—in deadly orgasm, in aborted birth. The song magnifies Jael's courageous violence as well as Sisera's helpless agony. It lingers over the violence, the injury, the convulsive last moments of the man" ("Controlling Perspectives: Women, Men, and the Authority of Violence in Judges 4 & 5," JAAR 58.3, 1990, pp. 389-411 [405]; cf. Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987, p. 282).

9. Robert Alter, "From Line to Story in Biblical Verse," Poetics Today 4, 1983, pp. 615-37 (630).
10. Andrew Spicer, Film Noir, Inside Film; Longman, 2002, Spicer, p. 2.

11. Richard Dyer, "Resistance through Charisma: Rita Hayworth and Gilda," in E. Ann Kaplan (ed.), Women in Film Noir, new ed.; London: BFI, 1998, pp. 115-29 (115).

12. Spicer, Film Noir, pp. 90-91.

13. Gale Yee, "By the Hand of a Woman: The Metaphor of the Woman Warrior in Judges 4," Semeia 61, 1993, pp. 99-132 (105). For Susan Niditch, Jael is "a warrior and seducer, alluring and dangerous, nurturing and bloodthirsty" ("Eroticism and Death in the Tale of Jael," in Peggy L. Day [ed.], Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1989, pp. 43-57 [45]).

14. "Controlling Perspectives," p. 404.

15. Victor H. Matthews, "Hospitality and Hostility in Judges 4," BTB 21, 1991, pp. 13-21 (19). For Matthews, his demise is brought about by the violation of hospitality codes, signaling Sisera's flagrant disdain for honor and indeed the person of Jael.

16. So B. Margalit, "Observations on the Jael-Sisera Story (Judges 4-5)," in David P. Wright, David Noel Freedman and Avi Hurvitz (eds.), Pomegranates and Golden Bells, Eisenbrauns, 1995, pp. 629-41 (640).

17. The road is a significant visual metaphor in noir. Several key noirs open with our point of view fixed on its ominous boundaries as an unforgiving destination; e.g., The Killers, Out of the Past, Sunset Boulevard. In other noirs it is a nearly overbearing image; e.g., Detour, Gun Crazy, The Hitch-Hiker. These films especially explore the road as a place of imminent flight from danger and/or as death (see, for example, Kiss Me Deadly's opening in which extreme violence is inflicted on a woman fleeing on a road).

18. James Naremore, More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998, p. 20 (with reference to Borde and Chaumeton).

19. Niditch, "Eroticism and Death," p. 50.

20. Donald N. Levine, The Flight from Ambiguity: Essays in Social and Cultural Theory, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985, p. 17 (my italics).

21. Mieke Bal, Murder and Difference: Gender, Genre, and Scholarship on Sisera's Death, trans. M. Gumpert; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992, p. 105.

22. Cited in Arthur Lyons, Death on the Cheap: The Lost B Movies of Film Noir, Da Capo Press, 2000, p. 2.

Citation: Eric S. Christianson, " The Big Sleep: Strategic Ambiguity in Judges 4-5 and in Classic "Film Noir"," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited April 2005]. Online:


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