A Reading of Ehud and Jael through the Lens 
of Affect Theory


In: Biblical Interpretation
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  • 1 Birmingham-Southern College, USA


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This paper uses affect theory as a tool to interpret the violent images of two stories found in Judges 3–5, those of Ehud and Eglon and that of Jael and Sisera. Affect theory affords biblical exegetes a means to examine the role of the reader’s embodiment as a tool for textual interpretation. I use the work of affect theorists to discuss the way violent images work on readers and create the emotional, physical, and sensory context in which later violent images will be received and interpreted. The sensation created by exposure to violence is embodied in readers before the readers judge the images according to their moral, ideological, and ethical value. In fact, the embodied affect of exposure to violence is the context in which that judgment occurs. In Judges, the violated body anchors an experience of vulnerability and fear in the reader. The visceral affect of anxiety and the intensity of bodily violence position the reader to feel the need for security and relief in the figure of the king. This paper focuses on Ehud and Jael as two of the significant early exposures to the violated body in the book of Judges and explores their different contributions to the theme of physical violence. The physical experiences of modern readers may give us valuable insight into how the physical experiences of readers contribute to the persuasiveness of textual arguments. Affect theory brings into focus the body in the text and the body of the reader as part of meaning-making.


  • 2

    David Lowenthal, The Past Is a Foreign Country (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

  • 7

    Benedict de Spinoza, Ethics: On the Correction of Understanding (trans. Andrew Boyle; London: Everyman’s Library, 1959), p. 87.

  • 8

    Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, (New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 3.

  • 9

    Gregg and Seigworth, “An Inventory of Shimmers,” p. 2.

  • 10

    George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1999), p. 3. Lakoff and Johnson do not describe themselves as affect theorists, but their observations about the embodied nature of reason and thought are highly relevant to affect theory.

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  • 11

    Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh, p. 5.

  • 14

    See also Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh, p. 4.

  • 15

    See Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004), p. 7.

  • 16

    Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh, p. 5.

  • 17

    See Brennan, The Transmission of Affect, p. 7.

  • 18

    Seigworth and Gregg, “An Inventory of Shimmers,” p. 3.

  • 19

    See also Janet Trisk, “Embodied Subjects,” JTSA 117 (November 2003), pp. 40–51 (40).

  • 21

    Denise Riley, Impersonal Passion: Language as Affect (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), pp. 3–4.

  • 22

    Riley, Impersonal Passion, p. 1.

  • 23

    Riley, Impersonal Passion, p. 3. Riley’s reference is to philosopher J. L. Austin, How to do Things with Words: The William James Lectures Delivered at Harvard University in 1955 (ed. J. O. Urmson; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962).

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  • 25

    Abel, Violent Affect, p. 10.

  • 26

    Abel, Violent Affect, p. 14.

  • 27

    Abel, Violent Affect, p. xiii.

  • 28

    Abel, Violent Affect, p. 10.

  • 29

    Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Minnea­polis: Fortress Press, 1984); Gale Yee (ed.), Judges and Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2nd edn, 2007); Jo Ann Hackett, “Violence and Women’s Lives in the Book of Judges,” Interp 58(2004), pp. 356–64; Alice Bach, “Rereading the Body Politic: Women and Violence in Judges 21,” BibInt 6 (1998), pp. 1–19; Mieke Bal, Murder and Difference: Genre, Gender, and Scholarship on Sisera’s Death (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988); Richard G. Bowman and Richard W. Swanson, “Samson and the Son of God or Dead Heroes and Dead Goats: Ethical Readings of Narrative Violence in Judges and Matthew,” in Danna Nolan Fewell and Gary A. Phillips (eds.), Bible and Ethics of Reading (Semeia 77; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1997), pp. 59–73; Daniel J. Terry, “With the Jawbone of a Donkey: Shame, Violence and Punishment in the Samson Narrative,” in Dereck Daschke and Andrew D. Kille (eds.), A Cry Instead of Justice: The Bible and Cultures of Violence in Psychological Perspective (New York: T & T Clark, 2010), pp. 42–54; Mikael Sjöberg, Wrestling with Textual Violence: The Jephthah Narrative in Antiquity and Modernity (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2006); Andrew Hock-Soon Ng, “Revisiting Judges 19: A Gothic Perspective,” JSOT 32 (2007), pp. 199–215.

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  • 30

    See also Eric S. Christianson, “The Big Sleep: Strategic Ambiguity in Judges 4–5 and in Classic Film Noir,” BibInt 15 (2007), pp. 519–48 (526).

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  • 33

    Riley, Impersonal Passion, p. 7.

  • 35

    See also Bailey, “Incestuous Bastards,” pp. 128–33.

  • 38

    See Marc Brettler, “Never the Twain Shall Meet? The Ehud Story as History and Literature,” HUCA 62 (1991), pp. 285–304 (301–302); and Handy, “Uneasy Laughter,” pp. 233–46.

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  • 39

    Handy, “Uneasy Laughter,” pp. 233–46; Marc Zvi Brettler, The Book of Judges (New York, Routledge, 2002), pp. 29–33; Eric Christianson, “A Fistful of Shekels: Scrutinizing Ehud’s Entertaining Violence (Judges 3:12–30),” BibInt 11 (2003), pp. 53–78; Deist, “Murder in the Toilet,” pp. 263–72.

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  • 40

    See Brettler, The Book of Judges, pp. 29–33; and Christianson, “A Fistful of Shekels,” pp. 53–78.

  • 41

    Jull, “MQRH in Judges 3,” p. 64.

  • 42

    Barry Webb, The Book of Judges: An Integrated Reading (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1987), p. 131.

  • 44

    See also Jull, “MQRH in Judges 3,” p. 73.

  • 48

    Fewell and Gunn, “Controlling Perspectives,” p. 407.

  • 51

    Michael Kowalewski, Deadly Musings: Violence and Verbal Form in American Fiction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 11, as cited in Novikov, “Angry Women’s Voices,” p. 277.

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  • 52

    Riley, Impersonal Passion, p. 6.

  • 53

    Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, p. 71.

  • 54

    Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, p. 72.

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