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Jael (2): Sexual and Maternal Imagery in Jael’s Story

« Part 1: “The LORD will hand over Sisera to a woman”

“Come in, my lord. Come in with me. Don’t be afraid.”
Judges 4:18 CSB.
Between her feet he bowed, he fell, he lay;
Between her feet he bowed, he fell;
Where he bowed, there he fell dead.
Judges 5:27 NASB

Sexual Innuendo in Jael’s Stories

The accounts of Jael’s actions in Judges 4 and in Judges 5 are slightly different. In Judges 4, Jael strikes Sisera while he is asleep and lying down. The scene is quiet (see Judg. 4:21) except for the cracking of Sisera’s skull. In Judges 5, Sisera appears to be awake, perhaps standing, when Jael seemingly catches him off guard and strikes.

Furthermore, while in Judges 4 there is sexual innuendo in Jael’s invitation into her tent (“come in my lord, come in with me”), as well as the fact that Sisera is in her tent, in the more dramatic version in Judges 5, this innuendo is more pronounced.[1] Jael and Sisera seem to be up close and personal.

Judges 5:27 is worded in a suggestive way. (Note that the Hebrew word רֶגֶל-regel can mean both “foot” and/or “leg.”)

Between her legs he collapsed, he went limp and was lifeless; between her legs he collapsed and went limp, in the spot where he collapsed, there he went limp—violently murdered.[2]

This verse may simply be describing the humiliation of Sisera’s death—his limp lifeless body collapsed at Jael’s feet. However, “feet” is sometimes used as a euphemism for genitals in the Hebrew Bible (cf. Deut. 28:57 NKJV; 1 Sam. 24:3 KJV). We see similar suggestive language in Ruth’s visit to the threshing floor where she uncovered Boaz’s “feet” (Ruth 3:4-8). There is no explicit statement that sexual intercourse took place between Jael and Sisera or between Ruth and Boaz; however, the authors of these two episodes may want readers to anticipate or wonder what might be happening.

Despite the vagueness of the allusions to sex in Jael’s story, some claim that sex did take place.[3] One rabbinic interpretation of Judges 5:27 is that Jael and Sisera had sex seven times. This idea is based on the number of occurrences of the words “bowed” (X3) “fell” (X3) and “lay” (X1) in this verse (see NASB 1995) which add up to seven. Other rabbis, however, say that Sisera did not touch her.[4]

Several scholars acknowledge that the language in Jael’s story is sexually charged. It’s possible that innuendo, or double-entendre, is being used as a literary device in Jael’s and Ruth’s stories simply for effect. And it adds to the irony that Sisera, the great warrior, is felled by a woman. It seems that ancient people, as with many people today, liked their songs and stories spiced up. The Israelites were more earthy than some of us like to think.[5]

Jael as “Mother”

As well as sexual innuendo, there is maternal imagery in Jael’s story. In Judges 4 we see Jael covering the tired and scared Sisera with a blanket and giving him milk as though he is a little boy. Ironically, Sisera tells Jael, “If a man comes and asks you, ‘Is there a man here?’ say, ‘No’” (Judg. 4:20).[6]

Tikva Frymer-Kensky sees Jael portrayed in terms of motherhood in Judges 4 and 5.

The stealthy heroine of the prose account and the fierce warrior of the poem are both dramatic inversions of motherhood. One offers maternal nurturing before she strikes, and the other stands with the slain foe between her legs in a grim parody of birth. When the greater world of national battles intrudes into her domestic space, this Kenite woman becomes one of the “mothers” of Israel.[7]

Jacob Wright notes that the biblical texts present “the battlefield and the bed as antithetically gendered spaces” and that Jael defied this spatial polarity when she turned her bedroom (her intimate domestic space) into a battlefield.[8]

Maternal and sexual imagery is used to enhance the storytelling, but Jael was not Sisera’s mother or lover. Instead, there is deadly determination in her actions. I’d love to know what was motivating her. Perhaps realising the Canaanites were losing, she simply switched her allegiance to the winning side, Israel, and killed Sisera to prove it.[9] Or is there more to it?

Sexual Violence and Warfare

After Deborah and Jael, Sisera’s mother is the third woman mentioned in Judges 5. The song presents her waiting for her son’s return home, and the audience is reminded of the fact that sexual violence against women is often part of warfare.

Sisera’s mother looked through the window; she peered through the lattice, crying out:
“Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why don’t I hear the hoofbeats of his horses?”
Her wisest princesses answer her; she even answers herself:
“Are they not finding and dividing the spoil—a girl or two for each warrior,
the spoil of colored garments for Sisera, the spoil of an embroidered garment or two for my neck?” Judges 5:28-30 CSB

Jennifer L. Koosed comments on this passage:

This poignant moment turns gruesome when one of her servants assures the anxious mother that he is late because he is busy dividing the spoil: a girl (literally a “womb”) or two for every man (Judg. 5:30). Her words remind us that rape has been a weapon and sexual slavery a consequence of war for millennia. Jael’s actions can be understood as a reverse rape—seducing and killing the aggressor before he had a chance to rape her (and others).[10]

One of the reasons Jael remains a popular figure is because she is controversial. She defies the feminine stereotypes of gentle mother and passive victim, and inverts them. Jael was treacherous and violent with Sisera, yet she is praised. More than that, God used her. The LORD did hand Sisera over to a woman, just as Deborah prophesied (Judg. 4:9 CEB).

In the Middle Ages, Jael and the violent blow she inflicted on Sisera was seen as a type of Mary the mother of Jesus crushing the head of Satan. I look at this in part 3.


[1] In Judges 4, there is little detail about the milk Jael served Sisera, and in part 1 I suggested the milk was given to make Sisera more sleepy. In Judges 5 we are given more detail and are told the milk, or curds, was served in a fancy bowl. The bowl is described in Hebrew as addir (אַדִּיר) an adjective that means powerful or majestic. This adjective may simply signify a large or ornate drinking vessel, but I wonder if it signified a special use. Was there something special about this vessel and its contents? Plant and animal products thought to have aphrodisiac qualities were sometimes mixed with milk.

[2] Quoted from Robert B. Chisolm Jr., A Commentary on Judges and Ruth (Kregel Exegetical Library; Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2012), 214-215. (Google Books)

[3] For example, George M. Schwab, Right in Their Own Eyes: The Gospel According to Judges (Philipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2011), 83-87. However, Sisera was probably in no shape to have sex. In a forthcoming book on female agency in the Bible, Murray Gow notes, “From the moment Sisera abandons his chariot and his men to their fate, having more concern for his own skin, he is no longer a hero but a disgraced coward. So, when he enters Jael’s tent, it is as a fugitive, not for sexual conquest.”

[4] Tamar Kadari discusses rabbinic interpretations of Jael’s story in the Jewish Women’s Archive. I reject the idea that the seven words in Judges 5:27 have anything to do with the number of times Jael and Sisera supposedly had sex.

[5] Some people also see sexual innuendo in Rahab’s story (and not just because she was a prostitute). This innuendo is not necessarily intended to sexualise women, but to add tension and intrigue to the stories.

[6] Murray Gow highlights this irony in his forthcoming book.

[7] Tikva Frymer-Kensky’s article is in the Jewish Women’s Archive.

[8] Jacob Wright, “Genderbending Performances in Wartime: From Judges to Judith,” Friends of Asor 9.2 (February 2021) (The Ancient Near East Today)

[9] There was an ancient friendship between Israel and the Kenites that stretched back to Moses and Jethro. Heber broke with this friendship when he sided with Jabin and the Canaanites. Perhaps Jael’s loyalty was with the older alliance and against her husband’s newer alliance. Her disloyalty to her husband raises even more questions about her behaviour.

[10] Koosed, “Deborah” (Bible Odyssey)

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Sex and Violence in the Days of Jael (Series)

« Part 1. “The LORD will hand over Sisera to a woman”
» Part 3: Jael, Mary, and Jesus’ Crucifixion

Explore more

Deborah and the “no-available-men” argument
What’s in a Name? Deborah, Woman of Lappidoth
25+ Biblical Roles for Biblical Women
Gender Roles and Gendered Activities in the Old Testament

artigos em portugues sobre igualdade entre homens e mulheres no lar e na igreja

11 thoughts on “Jael (2): Sexual and Maternal Imagery in Jael’s Story

  1. I am wondering if she gave him milk as a sedative, possibly with some calming, sedating herbs in it (chamomile? valerian?) to promote a deep, heavy sleep, so she could carry out her plan. Warm milk in itself is calming and sleep promoting.

    1. Hi Sue, Could be. 🙂

      I mention the sleepy effects of milk in part 1 where I focus more on Judges 4. In Judges 5, a bit more detail is given, including a brief description of the vessel the milk was served in. The fact that milk is mentioned in both accounts seems to highlight its significance, but what precisely its significance is, is unclear.

  2. Thanks for your insights, they resulted in my getting a possible further insight. I think Jael’s story is a role reversal story, as people act out of character as you wrote. I have read that the root of a word for man in Hebrew is piercer and for the woman is pierced, referring to the sex act. But in this story, Jael is the piercer and Sisera is the pierced (Jud 5:26). Thus I see it as a story promoting equality, even if the circumstances in the story are extreme. Thoughts?

    1. Jael’s story does show a kind of role-reversal. At the very least, some aspects of her behaviour are the opposite of stereotypical feminine behaviour. I doubt that Jael experienced any kind of gender equality. I think she just had had enough of the likes of Sisera. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

  3. “feet” is sometimes used as a euphemism for genitals in the Hebrew Bible (cf. Deut. 28:57 NKJV).

    I don’t think Dt 28:57 supports “feet” as a euphemism for genitals: in ancient times women gave birth standing,squatting, on all fours, or on a birthing stool. In all cases, the afterbirth would end up between the woman’s (literal) feet.

    Ruth uncovering Boaz’s “feet” does not help either: are we to understand that Ruth uncovered Boaz’s genitals, lay down next to his genitals (somehow), that Boaz didn’t wake up until he was startled and turned over, and there, lying at his genitals was a woman, who ended up lying at his genitals all night? If Ruth was able to lie at his genitals, then Boaz must have been lying on one side. In which case, when he turned over she would be lying at his back, and no longer lying at his genitals!

    1. Thanks, Martin. I don’t have a strong opinion on this one way or the other. I’m keeping my mind open and listening to smarter people than me.

      However, there are also a few other verses that may indicate regel (רגל), often in the dual plural raglayim (רגליים/רגלים) meaning “feet/legs”, is sometimes used euphemistically. If it is a euphemism, it puts a slightly different spin on Zipporah’s actions too (Exod. 4:25).

      I can’t see the logistics of feet = genitals in Ruth 3:8 either. My point, however, isn’t that Ruth uncovered Boaz’s genitals, which I imagine is totally inappropriate behaviour in all cultures; the point is that there is a potential sexual allusion, a double entendre, used by the story-teller.

      I’ll just add that while the placenta may end up at a mother’s feet, it doesn’t come out (yatsa, יָצָא) of her feet.

  4. Jael killed Sisera out of self-defence to stop him from raping her. The misogynistic translators were trying to hide it and make Jael out to be a bad girl and make Sisera somehow a good guy.

    1. Dear Bible Guy, I don’t know where you’re getting your ideas from, but no one who has read and understood Judges 4-5, either in Hebrew or in translations, makes Sisera out to be a good guy.

      Also, Jael invited Sisera into her tent. She knew what she was doing. She’s calling the shots. She had it under control.

      1. Than why is she blessed among women and women in the tents?

        1. Jael is blessed by Deborah and Barak in their song because Jael killed Israel’s enemy (Judges 5:24-27).

          We read in the biblical account that Jael’s husband and his family were allies of the Canaanites (Judges 4:17ff). Sisera trusted Jael as an ally and accepted her invitation to go into her tent. Sisera was expecting that he could hide safely there.

          There are plenty of stories in the Hebrew Bible of people killing Israel’s enemies without it, strictly speaking, being self-defence, and these people are not accused of murder.

          If you want to think Jael acted in self-defence, that’s up to you. I read Judges 4-5 differently; I see no mention of Sisera assaulting, or trying to assault, Jael in Judges 4-5.

          I think my friend Murray Gow has it right when he says, “From the moment Sisera abandons his chariot and his men to their fate, having more concern for his own skin, he is no longer a hero but a disgraced coward. So, when he enters Jael’s tent, it is as a fugitive, not for sexual conquest.”

          We’ve exhausted this conversation, Bible Guy.

      2. She must of been in danger, because Our Heavenly Father would’ve not have blessed her if she had murders him. Because one of the commandmends says “Thou shalt not murder.” The Heavenly Father is not a liar, killing in self-defence is okay! Look a few chapters later and you will see a woman that was trapped in a tower with her people, and a evil and weakling mad man named Abimelech the son of Jerubbaal (Gideon) was trying to murder them all by attempting to set the tower on fire, and a woman in the tower dropped a piece of a millstone upon his head in order to stop him from murdering her and her people. You can clearly see that she was defending herself and her family and the rest of her people as well, if some guy was trying to violate or harm you, you would do whatever, it took to made sure that you were the one to walk away. There is also this story outside of the Bible about a women named Susan Walters, who killed a man in self-defense, because her weakling husband hired him to murder her just so that he could make money off of their house. Real men do not try to harm women, unless the women are trying to harm them! It is the truth of Our Heavenly Father that everyone has a right to defend themselves!

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