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From the January/February, 2010 issue of Touchstone


Unfair Warfare by Patrick Henry Reardon

Unfair Warfare

Although the history of art does not show this to be the case, ancient legend claimed that the Amazon warriors—the easier to bend the bow and fling the spear—had their right breasts amputated. Indeed, popular Greek etymology explained the name “Amazon” as derived from amazos, “without breast.”

I wonder, however, if that physical mutilation did not also insinuate in the Amazons some deeper and more significant impairment, a hint, as it were, of diminished femininity. The willful loss of that breast suggests—to me, at least—that the Amazons, as women, were not quite up to the mark. I confess to a basic, inherited, and irremediable bias against women warriors. I don’t like girls getting into fights. It ain’t proper.

I especially do not approve of women fighting the way men do, which is how classical literature describes the Amazons. Indeed, they are called antianeira—“a match for a man” (Iliad 3.189; 6.186). Ugh!

“Inventive” Women

No, on those occasions when women are obliged to fight, I do not expect them to fight like men. On the contrary, I expect them to cheat. Indeed, if they have to fight, I heartily approve of their cheating. If a woman is forced into combat, she should cheat. If I am wrong on this point, then I have seriously misunderstood Holy Scripture.

Leave fighting aside for the moment, and just think of biblical women in tough situations. They were expected to bend the rules a bit. Even without actual fighting, the Bible is hardly offended that women now and then employed intrigue, chicanery, legerdemain, and a flexible approach to facts in order to attain their goals. I think of Rebecca, Abigail, Esther, Tamar in Genesis 38, Rahab of Jericho, Naomi and Ruth, Michal in 1 Samuel 19, Joab’s “actress” in 2 Samuel 14, and perhaps Bathsheba in 1 Kings 2. All of these women are portrayed as “inventive,” when the going got rough.

Nor does the Bible appear to be shocked that the “inventiveness” of some women occasionally took an aggressive turn. For instance, there was the blood-warming (and perhaps blood-curdling) enthusiasm of Miriam and Deborah, giving themselves to hearty, full-throated song over the dead bodies of their enemies. One likewise recalls the steady eye and strong arm of that millstone-tossing Shechemite lady who dispatched Abimelech with a severe headache in Judges 9. We may also mention the “wise counsel” of the anonymous female citizen of Abel Beth-Maachah who supervised an appropriate beheading in 2 Samuel 20.

Judith & Jael

The Bible offers even better examples. One is particularly struck by the similarities between the actions of the heroine of the Book of Judith and those of Jael in Judges 4. The villains in both cases, Holofernes and Sisera, were first lulled to sleep—one by warm milk, the other by wine—and then quickly dispatched with each lady’s weapon of choice.

Jael took a hammer and drove a tent peg into the sleeping head of Sisera. She slammed him so hard that the point of the peg came out the other side and went into the ground. Jael did all this after deceiving the man as someone who would protect him.

As for Judith, she did not wait for Holofernes to come to her. She went to him, and for the apparent purpose of showing him a good time. One is at a loss to explain this respectable widow, this almost monastic devotee of prayer and fasting, who plied her victim with alcohol, and then came walking home the next morning with a man’s head tucked in her purse. Goodness!

Not only are the exploits of Jael and Judith praised in song (Judges 5:24–27; Judith 15:12–13), but also both songs are full of raw mockery, elaborated in gory and relished detail (Judges 5:28–30; Judith 16:4–9).

Sisera and Holofernes were utter scoundrels, of course, but they were also first-rate suckers, to whose dim wits it had not occurred that females, when they fight, follow a completely different set of rules. No man would have been praised for doing such things: The Bible considered it very bad form for a fellow to slice up his sleeping enemy (1 Samuel 26:5–11; 2 Samuel 4:5–12). But such a procedure was perfectly acceptable for women like Jael and Judith. That is to say, among gentlemen it was understood that girls do not fight fair. And if some fool did not know that, he got exactly what he deserved.

Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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