Deborah and Jael

In the days of Shamgar son of Anath, in the days of Jael,
the main roads were deserted because travellers kept to the side roads.
Villages were deserted, they were deserted in Israel,
until I, Deborah, arose, a mother in Israel.
Judges 5:6-7

Introduction

Jael is a popular Bible figure, famous for her brutal act of violence. It seems she was popular in ancient times too, and her story is told twice in the Hebrew Bible. We have a version written in prose, as part of a history (Judg. 4:17-24), and an older version written in poetry, as part of a song (Judg. 5:24-27).[1] 

In this three-part series I look at Jael and her controversial actions. In part one, I look at her story, especially as recorded in Judges 4. In part two, I look at possible sexual and maternal allusions, especially in Judges 5. In part three, I look at Jael as a type of Mary the Mother of Jesus.

“The Lord will hand over Sisera to a woman”

Before her name appears in the text, Jael is alluded to in a conversation between Deborah and Barak concerning the Canaanites. The Canaanites were a powerful enemy who, for twenty years, had made life miserable for the Israelites. Sisera was the commander of the well-armed Canaanite army (Judg. 4:3).

Deborah is leading Israel at this time, and her first recorded action in the biblical text is to summon Barak and remind him of what God had already said.

“Hasn’t the LORD, the God of Israel, commanded you, ‘Go, deploy the troops on Mount Tabor, and take with you ten thousand men from the Naphtalites and Zebulunites? Then I will lure Sisera commander of Jabin’s army, his chariots, and his infantry at the Wadi Kishon to fight against you, and I will hand him over to you’” (Judg. 4:6-7 CSB).

Barak tells Deborah, “If you will go with me, I will go. But if you will not go with me, I will not go” (Judg. 4:8). No explanation is given about his response. Did it arise from fear or cowardice? Or did Barak simply want Deborah with him? To have a wise woman who heard from God would be a valuable asset in battle.

Deborah replies, “I’ll definitely go with you. However, the path you’re taking won’t bring honor to you, because the Lord will hand over Sisera to a woman” (Judg. 4:9 CEB). This woman is Jael.

Jael’s Hospitality

Barak and Deborah with 10,000 men go to battle. The LORD throws the Canaanites into a panic and they are defeated in a bloodbath (Judg. 4:15-16). Sisera, however, escapes with his life. He flees on foot to the camp of a man named Heber. The narrator of Judges 4 had previously, and briefly, mentioned Heber in anticipation of this moment in the story.

Now Heber the Kenite had moved away from the Kenites, the sons of Hobab, Moses’s father-in-law, and pitched his tent beside the oak tree of Zaanannim, which was near Kedesh (Judg. 4:11 CSB).

Sisera believes Heber is an ally and will protect him (Judg. 4:17). But he is not met by Heber; the man never appears in the story. Instead, a woman, Heber’s wife Jael, comes out of her tent to meet him. The pieces of the story are fitting into place.

Jael speaks reassuringly to Sisera who is exhausted from battle and from his escape, and who is probably in shock after witnessing the slaughter of his troops. She persuades him: “Come in, my lord. Come in with me. Don’t be afraid” (Judg. 4:18a CSB).

Sisera accepts Jael’s invitation and enters her tent. Married nomadic women had their own tents, and these female spaces were strictly off-limits to men except for their husbands (cf. Gen. 18:6 & 31:33). In fact, “in biblical literature, a man seldom enters a woman’s tent for purposes other than sexual intercourse.”[2]

Inviting a strange man into her tent was a scandalous and dangerous move for Jael. First-time listeners of the story may well have been concerned for her safety.[3]

Once inside the tent, Jael hides Sisera under a blanket. When he asks for water, she gives him milk. She appears to be behaving in a caring motherly manner, a manner that disguises her true feelings.

Jael Strikes

Jael was remarkably brave to invite a fierce warrior―a general, no less―into her tent. And she seems quick-witted by giving him soporific milk to drink instead of water. Her quick thinking and resourcefulness is also shown when she used what was at hand, a tent peg and hammer, to assassinate Israel’s enemy.

While he was sleeping from exhaustion, Heber’s wife, Jael, took a tent peg, grabbed a hammer, and went silently to Sisera. She hammered the peg into his temple and drove it into the ground, and he died (Judg. 4:22 CSB).

Jael shows composure, cunning, and courage in the way she executed Sisera. As Deborah had prophesied, the LORD handed over Sisera to a woman, a very capable woman.

Jael then shows off her handiwork to Barak:

When Barak arrived in pursuit of Sisera, Jael went out to greet him and said to him, “Come and I will show you the man you are looking for.” So he went in with her, and there was Sisera lying dead with a tent peg through his temple! (Judg. 4:22 CSB).

No reason is given for Jael’s apparent hatred of Sisera or for why she helped Israel by killing him. Did Jael and Sisera have a past history? Perhaps one that her husband Heber was unaware of?

What is also puzzling is that Jael is praised and commended in both Judges 4 and 5 even though she broke the ancient Near East codes of hospitality, considered as sacred, when she murdered her invited guest.[4] It seems “both story-teller and singer are concerned with Israel’s deliverance, not with abstract compliance to laws of hospitality.”[5] The focus is firmly on “Jael’s assassination of Israel’s oppressor [which] is the climax of the story of God’s deliverance of the people.”[6]

Sisera’s death marked a turning point in the fortunes of Israel. The Israelites now had the upper hand and, instead of being on the defensive, they were now on the offensive.

That day God subdued King Jabin of Canaan before the Israelites. The power of the Israelites continued to increase against King Jabin of Canaan until they destroyed him (Judg. 4:23-24 CSB).

In part 2 I look more at Jael’s questionable behaviour and in part 3 I look at the use of Jael in typology.


Footnotes

[1] Many biblical scholars believe the version in Judges 5 is the older account because it contains archaic Hebrew words and because victory songs are thought to have been more readily passed through oral tradition. Some scholars believe the victory song in Judges 5 is the oldest passage in the Hebrew Bible. See Colleen M. Conway, Sex and Slaughter in the Tent of Jael: A Cultural History of a Biblical Story (Oxford University Press, 2017), 12. (Google Books)
Judges 5:1, which prefaces the song, has both Deborah and Barak’s names, but the verb for “sing” is feminine and singular putting the spotlight on Deborah.

[2] Danna Nolan Fewell and David M. Gunn, “Controlling Perspectives: Women, Men, and the Authority of Violence in Judges 4 & 5,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 58.3 (Autumn, 1990): 389-411, 392.

[3] Sexual violence against women has often been a part of warfare. We are reminded of this at the end of Deborah’s song in Judges 5:30. More on this in part 2.

[4] Clinton McCann argues that it was Sisera, more so than Jael, who broke the customs of hospitality. He states that “the charges against Jael [for being inhospitable] need to be dropped” especially as “the immediate context of the book hails her as a hero.” See his discussion in J. Clinton McCann, Judges (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 53-54 (Google Books)

[5] Carolyn Pressler, Joshua, Judges, and Ruth (Westminster Bible Companion; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 165.

[6] Pressler, Joshua, Judges, and Ruth, 165.

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Image Credit

Photo (cropped) by Alvin Ng via Pexels.


Sex and Violence in the Days of Jael (series)

» Part 2: Sexual and Maternal Imagery in Jael’s Story
» Part 3: Jael, Mary, and Jesus’ Crucifixion

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