“Jael’s actions are not only deviant and violent but socially revolutionary…”
—Daniel Block, Judges (1999)
“I’ve got two guns in my hand—is it okay to shoot him if he comes in this door?” the young mother asked the 911 dispatcher. “I’m here by myself with my infant baby…”
—Sarah McKinley, cbs.news.com (2012)
Remember, Last Week…
The prophetess Deborah stirred up Barak to rally a poorly armed Israelite militia against the armies and chariots of the Canaanite king, Jabin. The odds against Barak and his men were horrendous, but God intervened and brought down torrents of rain upon the battlefield and the river that ran along it. The chariots were caught in the mud, and Barak’s men were able to disarm the terrified Canaanites and destroy them with their own swords.
And Now, the Rest of the Story
Sisera was Jabin’s field commander. And for Israel, He was the real threat. Barak began an immediate search for Sisera only to find he had fled the field of battle. Barak and his men set out in hot pursuit.
Sisera ran to the encampment of an ally, Heber the Kenite. The Kenites weren’t Israelites, although they were descended from Moses’ father-in-law and had accompanied Israel in her wanderings. Now they lived with Israel in the Promised Land, though mostly toward the south (Judges 1:16). But Heber had separated himself and his family from the rest of his tribe and settled in northern Israel.
As Sisera got closer to the Kenite tents, he saw a woman—Jael, Heber’s wife (Judges 4:17). She called to him and spoke reverently and with reassurance: “Turn in, my lord, turn in to me. Fear not.” It must have sounded good to Sisera, because he listened to her and went into her tent. He collapsed to the floor in exhaustion, and Jael covered him with a blanket. With unusual politeness, Sisera asked her for water; she brought him curdled milk (yogurt) in a lordly dish. He told her to stand guard at the door of the tent. He said, “If any man comes and asks, ‘Is there any man here?”, say, ‘No.’” With that, Sisera fell into a deep sleep. (I’m sure the tryptophan in the yogurt helped.)
Quickly and quietly, Jael collected her hammer and a large tent peg—setting up tents was women’s work in those days—and went to Sisera’s side. She positioned the nail over his temple and raised her hammer. With determined force she slammed the tent peg through his skull and into the ground. Sisera died without waking.
Barak arrived shortly afterwards, and Jael went out to meet him. “Come, “ she said, “I will show you the man you are seeking.” Barak entered the tent and found Sisera slain. And he remembered Deborah’s prophecy: “This journey won’t be for your own honor; Yahweh will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” So with this event, the Canaanite oppression was broken, and within a short time Barak was able to carry the battle directly to Jabin and destroy him. The land had rest forty years (Judges 5:31).
Jael at the Bar
The courageous Jael has had many historical accusers and detractors among Bible commentators. Keil and Delitzsch accuse her of “the sins of lying, treachery, and assassination”. Cundall speaks of “callous efficiency,” “treachery,” and murder “in cold blood.” Block describes Jael as a proto-feminist, whose actions challenged “the prevailing views of female roles in general and the relationship of husband and wife in particular” (210). Edersheim blames her for sacrificing “the sacred rights of hospitality to her dark purpose” (OT Bible History, 216). This last accusation occurs regularly throughout the commentators.
Other writers, while allowing some justification for her actions, still question her motives. Surely her actions were merely self-serving, they say. After all, Barak and his men were closing in. What better way to curry favor with the winning side than to eliminate the enemy commander?
Even some of Jael’s defenders present a weak case. Matthew Henry and John Gill, for example, both appeal to a divine impulse on her spirit. In other words, they say that Jael acted upon immediate divine revelation, not on the broad principles of God’s law and certainly not attempting to further the Kingdom. They can see no other justification for her actions and warn their readers not to follow Jael’s example.
In Jael’s defense are Deborah’s prophecy—“Yahweh will sell Sisera into the hand of the woman”—and Deborah’s song (ch. 5). In her celebration of Sisera’s defeat, Deborah mentions Jael once near the beginning of her song and then returns to tell Jael’s story at length near the end. First, Deborah describes her own era as “the days of Shamgar” and “the days of Jael.” Shamgar was a contemporary judge in the south, who had killed 300 Philistines (3:31). Interestingly, Deborah gives Jael the same honor she gives this godly warrior—the honor that could have gone to Barak had he not stumbled in faith. Second, in recounting Jael’s story, Deborah says this:
Blessed among women shall Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite be, blessed shall she be above women in the tent (5:24).
The words seem straight forward, and they come from the mouth of a prophetess. But some of the commentators still aren’t satisfied. Jamieson, for instance, insists that “the eulogy must be considered as pronounced not on the moral character of the woman and her deed, but on the public benefits which, in the overruling providence of God, would flow from it.” Edersheim says, “There is, as it seems to us, not a word in Scripture to express its approbation of so horrible a deed of deceit and violence—no, not even in the praise which Deborah in her song bestows upon Jael.” Perhaps he, like others, is assuming that the prophetess wasn’t prophesying. Yet few are the commentators who would think such a thing of David or Isaiah.
Sisera in the Dock
Now we place Sisera in the dock. Sisera comes stamped with God’s judgment. Sisera was God’s enemy and Israel’s. He was Jabin’s right-hand man and so responsible for all the violence and oppression that Israel had suffered at the hands of the Canaanites. Furthermore, Sisera was a misogynist and a rapist. He thought of women as things to use, an attitude he had learned from his mother (5:30). God had already pronounced a death sentence against Sisera and predicted his end at the hands of a woman.
Sisera’s character is played out for us in his dealings with Jael. Sisera willfully broke every rule that governed hospitality. He brought the battlefield to his ally’s encampment. He dealt with the wife rather than her husband. He entered the tent of a married woman. Worse, he did this when she was alone. He made requests of his hostess—bad manners for a guest. He ordered her to lie to protect his life. He remained in her tent though his presence there endangered everyone in the encampment.
As further evidence, we should notice the inspired writer’s take on Sisera. He picks his details deliberately. We see this domineering general flee to a woman’s tent and then surrender his command to her. He even says “please” when he asks for water. Jael gives him milk and covers him with a blanket, both motherly actions. There is divine mockery here. Even Sisera’s last words are laced with irony. He tells Jael to say, “There is no man here.” And in a few minutes his words are proved perfectly true: once he is dead, there is obviously no man in the tent.
Jael had every reason to be terrified of her guest. She could have run. She could have fainted or gone into hysterics. She could have submitted to his abuse and violence. The Bible says she chose instead to side with God. And she risked her life doing it.
Blessed Among Women
The words, “Blessed art thou among women,” are spoken in Scripture to only one other woman besides Jael. The angel Gabriel said them to the virgin Mary (Luke 1:28). Certainly Gabriel knew the original setting of the words, as did the evangelist Luke when he recorded them. Both wanted God’s people to see the similarity between Jael and Mary.
Both women acted in faith and with courage and so became agents of divine deliverance in a dark time. Both were seen as violating the protocol of the day, and both have been praised and slandered for doing so. (“That Mary! She’s pregnant with no husband!”) Both valued God’s kingdom more than their own lives. Both changed the course of the world.
Did Jael act in her own self-interest? Of course she did. Just like Rahab, or the deceitful Gibeonites, or the men of Nineveh who repented at the preaching of Jonah. Every soul who flees to Christ for refuge acts out of a sense of self-preservation. There is no conflict between defending one’s home or nation and seeking God’s kingdom.
We don’t need Jael’s personal testimony to recognize her faith. We have the New Testament record that deliberately puts her on the same footing as Mary, the mother of our Lord. Jael was a woman who, by faith, killed one of God’s enemies, a tyrant and oppressor. And she did it all without a shotgun. Amazing. Blessed above women, indeed!
For Further Reading:
James B. Jordan, Judges, God’s War Against Humanism (Tyler, TX: Geneva Ministries, 1985).
J. Clinton McCann, Judges: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KT: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002)
Peter Pett, “Commentary on the Book of Judges,” (2011) www.angelfire.com/ok/bibleteaching/judges.html
Craig Olson, “Jael: ‘Blessed Among Women’?”, Master’s Thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary (2011)