A Woman Named Jael

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A Woman Named Jael

Who is the Deliverer?

 

One of the fabulous things about the Bible is the varied genres it contains. The story of Deborah and Barak, Jael and Sisera, is told twice: once in narrative prose (Judges 4), and again in poetry (Judges 5). Following the death of Ehud, Israel fell into the hands of Jabin, king of Hazor. Judges 4 emphasizes that it was Sisera, Jabin’s commander, who oppressed Israel, for Sisera had 900 chariots of iron. In response to Israel’s cries for help, God sent a message through Deborah. Note that the phrase present in Judges 3:9 and 15 “and the Lord raised up for them a deliverer”[1] is not included in this chapter, although it occurs in the stories of Othniel and Ehud. This is precisely the question of Judges 4 and 5: who is the deliverer?

 

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You know the story, Deborah summoned Barak from Kedesh-naphtali and commanded him to gather 10,000 men from Naphtali and Zebulun to fight against Sisera. Barak agreed under one condition: that Deborah go with him. Deborah promised to go with him, but revealed that he would not be the one to kill Sisera, that glory would go to a woman. The reader, or listener, at this point, naturally assumes that the woman will be Deborah. However, the author inserts a narratival aside about Heber the Kenite, which seems irrelevant at the time but provides pivotal information about the story’s heroine.

 

Sisera and Jael

 

Sisera learned that Barak has summoned an army and called out his own men to the river Kishon. From their position on Mount Tabor, Barak’s army has the geographical advantage. But the narrative importantly states that “the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and all his army before Barak.” The Lord routed Sisera, not Barak. The cosmic elements of the battle are highlighted in the Song of Deborah and Barak:

 

From heaven the stars fought, from their courses they fought against Sisera. The torrent Kishon swept them away, the ancient torrent, the torrent Kishon (Judges 4:20-21).

 

While the latter suggests that the river was at flood stage, the reference to the stars fighting indicates that Deborah and Barak believed that their fight was one of cosmic significance and that God and his angels were on their side in the battle.

 

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Sisera, however, escaped and fled on foot and here we discover the importance of Heber the Kenite. Heber was at peace with Jabin, king of Hazor, and Sisera must have felt that Heber’s encampment would be a place of refuge. His approach to Heber’s encampment was odd: he went directly to the tent of Jael, Heber’s wife. Jael met him and twice told him to “turn aside” into her tent. The sheltering of a stranger by a woman is not unique to this story. Rahab sheltered the spies in Joshua 2. But Rahab was a prostitute; Jael was a married woman. Additionally, Sisera made some odd requests. Instead of waiting for her to give him refreshments, which she would have done anyway, he directly asked for them. This seems to go against the norms of Middle Eastern hospitality.[2] Perhaps Jael’s substitution of milk for water was a subtle rebuke of his boldness. Then, he demanded that she stand at the tent to watch out for his enemies and to lie if they asked if he is present. Middle Eastern hospitality, as seen in the stories of Lot and the Levite and the Concubine, dictate that guests are under the protection of the host. That Sisera asked Jael to do this demonstrated a lack of trust and may have been interpreted as an affront to Jael and her family.[3]

 

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Whether it was Sisera’s bad manners or his oppression of Israel, Jael decided not to protect him. Additionally, instead of waiting for his enemies to arrive, she took matters into her own hands. The narrative states simply,

 

Jael the wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand. Then she went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple until it went down into the ground while he was lying fast asleep from weariness. So he died. (Judges 4:21).

 

The poetic account is more graphic:

 

She sent her hand to the tent peg/and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet;/she struck Sisera;/she crushed his head;/she shattered and pierced his temple./ Between her feet/he sank, he fell, he lay still/between her feet/he sank, he fell;/where he sank,/there he fell—dead (Judges 5:26-27).

 

The poetry uses four verbs to describe her actions: struck, crushed, shattered, pierced. His death is described in three verbs: sank, fell, lay still. In many ways, the death of Sisera functions as the death of the nation-state of Hazor.

 

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Jael then met a second man who entered the encampment: Barak, who was in pursuit of Sisera. Inviting him into her tent, she showed him the corpse of Sisera. The poetic account does not mention this interaction between Barak and Jael. Instead, Deborah and Barak imagine the scene in Harosheth-hagoyim, Sisera’s hometown.

 

Out of the window she peered,/ the mother of Sisera wailed through the lattice:/ ‘Why is his chariot so long in coming?/ Why tarry the hoofbeats of his chariots?/ Her wisest princesses answer,/ indeed, she answers herself,/ ‘Have they not found and divided the spoil?/—A womb or two for every man;/ . . . (Judges 5:28-30).

 

Interesting, isn’t it? Evidently this was Sisera’s style, as was common in the ancient Near East, to take as spoil “a womb or two for every man.” But not this time. This time, a woman had the last say.

 

God’s Fight Against Oppression

 

Like Rahab, Jael broke the mold. Although her husband was at peace with Jabin, her actions demonstrated sympathy toward, if not allegiance to, Israel and Israel’s God. In a refreshing twist, a woman has victory over a man who had likely taken women as plunder, objects of spoil. In a book like Judges, where women are subjected to some of the most terrible acts in the entire Bible, Jael’s story offers a correction, however brief, to the attitude that women are chattel.

 

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Jael’s actions take up more space in both the narrative and poetic accounts than the actions of either Barak or Deborah. But Jael is still outshined by another: God. The poetic account especially credits God with all the victory. Working through Deborah, the female judge of Israel, Barak, the hesitant commander, and Jael, an unlikely ally and warrioress, God again brought about the salvation of Israel.

 

God hates it when His people are oppressed. He condemns oppression in Israel and outside of Israel with vehemence; in fact, the curses against Israel for oppressing the widows, fatherless, and foreigners are stronger than those leveled against the surrounding nations. When Israel turned toward idols, their morality regressed into envy, lust, murder, and hatred. With God, their morality moved toward greater freedoms and rights for women, slaves, and foreigners. Even in a time in which “people did what was right in their own eyes,” God was able to move Israel, even for one generation, closer to the direction He wanted them to go. And he did it with the help of a woman named Jael.

___

Notes

[1] Bible references are in ESV.

[2] Matthews 1991, p. 16, 18.

[3] Matthews 1991, p. 18.

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About the author

Sarah Burton

Sarah Burton holds an MA in Religion from Andrews University. She currently works as a freelance writer and editor in Ooltewah, Tennessee where she lives with her husband Kevin, toddler, and dog. (Photo taken by Jennifer Shrestha)