The book of Judges is one of the most fascinating in the Bible. The “judges” are colorful characters, often rule-breakers, who ultimately seem to deliver the early Israelites from their enemies. Many of their names are familiar: Samson, Gideon, and Jephthah. Well, Jephthah may be a stretch for those who haven’t read the book lately. Anyway, among the most interesting facets of the book is the fact that there are female judges. The most prominent is Deborah. Although she doesn’t seem actually to fight in battle, she leads Barak and he is able to defeat the Canaanites, through the agency of God, of course. The story is told in great detail of how the Canaanite general Sisera gets his chariot bogged down in the mud, flees the field, and finds the tent of Jael, who invites him in. After she lulls him to sleep she drives a tent peg through his skull, killing him. Jael is celebrated for her part in the deliverance.
Gory images aside, I’ve been thinking of Sisera. I wonder what he looked like. I realize that he may not have been an historical person, but still. The Bible is generally shy about describing the outward appearance of people. We get a few people with details revealed, but Sisera is not one of them. The reason I’m wondering is that I’ve got an image lodged in my head. A childhood story that we were read about Deborah showed Sisera as a bald man with a beard. Totally bald. I know that complete baldness can and does occur, but the little iconography of Canaanites we have doesn’t show them as being particularly bald as a fashion statement. As I was reading about Sisera the other day I tried to picture him as a man with a headful of hair, and I just couldn’t do it. The image was too mentally jarring. Sisera was bald.
The images that we’re shown as children, especially for powerful stories, have a way of becoming canonical. It’s like learning to tie your shoes. The first way that leads to success is the right way. We never need to learn another. How many images of Sisera does one person need to have in his or her head anyway? So my Sisera is bald. Religions often provide us with images that impact us for the remainder of our lives. The impressions laid on young gray matter are not easily erased. Now that I know many of the stories in the Bible have no historical veracity, I still can’t help but think of the early images I learned. These are the canonical images and anything else is too difficult to contemplate. My Sisera will always be bald.