The story of the deliverance of Israel from Canaanite oppression (Judges 4-5) is focused on two women, with a third playing a supporting role. Although Barak commanded the Israelite army in battle, it was Deborah and Jael who played a major role in Sisera’s defeat. A third woman, Sisera’s mother, makes an appearance at the end of the story. Her role in the story is small, however, very significant in the context of the story.
In previous posts, I have dealt with the role of Deborah as a judge, as a prophetess, and as a mother in Israel (see below). In the present post I will address Jael’s role in Sisera’s death. In an upcoming post, I will address the role of Sisera’s mother in the Song of Deborah (Judges 5:28-30).
When Deborah commanded Barak to fight against Sisera, commander of Jabin’s army, Barak was reluctant to go to battle without Deborah’s presence. Deborah, was a prophetess, a woman called by God to urge Israel to fight for its liberation. She represented God’s presence with the army and the assurance that God would fight for Israel.
Deborah’s words to Barak serve both as an affirmation and an admonition. She said: “I will surely go with you. Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the LORD will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (Judges 4:9). Although some commentators believe that the woman mentioned in v. 9 is a reference to Deborah, it is probable that Deborah’s words anticipated Sisera’s defeat by the hands of Jael.
Jael was the wife of Heber, the Kenite. A form of her name appears in Psalm 104:18 and Job 39:1 and it means “a mountain goat” or “a wild goat.” In the Ancient Near East, women were often named after animals.
Heber was the leader of a nomadic clan who lived among the Israelites. According to Judges 4:11, Heber separated himself from the other Kenites to live among the Israelites. He pitched his tent at Elon-bezaanannim (“Oak of the Wanderer”), a place near Kedesh.
Since Heber’s clan was not Israelite, Heber had maintained a neutral position in the conflict between the Israelites and the Canaanites. Because Heber was a descendant from Hobab, Moses’ father-in-law (Judges 4:11), he lived among the Israelites. Since Heber was not hostile to the Canaanites, he established some kind of peace treaty with Jabin, King of Hazor and the Canaanites.
After the struggle between the Canaanites and the Israelites, Sisera was defeated by Barak. As a result of the flooding of the Kishon River which hindered the movement of the chariots of the Canaanite army (Judges 5:21), Sisera got down from his chariot and fled on foot, abandoning his army. In his attempt to escape Israel’s army, Sisera fled to the area where Heber lived. When he reached Heber’s tent, he took advantage of the peace that existed between Jabin and the Kenites and asked for the hospitality and protection to which he was entitled under the conditions of their relationship.
According to Judges 4:17, Sisera fled to the tent of Jael. The reason for taking refuge in Jael’s tent was probably because Heber’s tent was separated from Jael or because Heber was not present when Sisera came to Jael’s tent. According to the traditions of hospitality that existed in the Ancient Near East, Sisera believed that he was safe from Barak and his army because of the inviolability of the protection offered by his host.
However, although Sisera sought refuge among the Kenites, it was improper for a man to enter a woman’s tent. He did so because he received Jael’s invitation to enter her tent (v. 18). Because he was invited to enter her tent, Sisera accepted Jael’s invitation.
However, Sisera’s action was a violation of Ancient Near Eastern traditions. Sisera’s action was a violation of Heber’s family and dishonored Jael by entering her tent. As a man, Sisera should had approached Heber and not his wife.
Sisera asked Jael to keep watch as the entrance of the tent and asked her to lie on his behalf in order to protect his life. Such a request would endanger the alliance that existed between the Kenites and the Israelites and would put the life of Heber and his clan in danger.
Sisera told Jael: “Stand at the entrance to the tent. If a man comes and asks you, ‘Is there a man here?’ say, ‘No.’” (Judges 4:20). By asking Jael to lie and say there was no “man” in her tent, Sisera was undermining his own masculinity by saying that a warrior who seeks refuge in the tent of a woman is not a man. And since Sisera was the commander of the Canaanite army and since he sought the protection of a woman in a woman’s tent, it is clear that the writer is making an effort to womanize Sisera.
Jael offered her hospitality. After he entered and sat down exhausted on the floor, Jael covered Sisera with a mantle, some kind of blanket. Sisera asked for water but, as a good hostess, she gave him milk. She did not give him wine because the Kenites did not drink wine (Jeremiah 35:6; cf. 1 Chronicles 2:55). It is possible that the drink she gave him induced him to sleep and thus enabled her to take action against her visitor.
Confronted with Sisera’s request for asylum and her pro-Israelite sentiments, Jael made a political decision to take the side of Israel in this conflict. While Sisera was asleep from exhaustion, Jael took a tent peg and walked quietly toward him with a hammer in her hand. She hammered the tent peg through his temples into the ground and thus Sisera died, died between Jael’s feet (Judges 5:27). From the perspective of the writer of Judges, Jael’s action was justified. Since Sisera had already violated Jael’s honor, Jael’s act could be seen as a vindication of her honor. The killing of Sisera was one way by which she eliminated the threat to her clan and avenged the violation of her tent.
In his pursuit of Sisera, Barak came by the place where Jael lived. She led him into her tent, then showed him where the body of the dead warrior lay dead. The death of Sisera by the hands of Jael fulfilled the prophecy of Deborah, that God would deliver Sisera into the hand of a woman (Judges 4:9).
Jael has been criticized by many commentators because she violated the ancient Near East tradition of hospitality. Jael has been accused of being treacherous, inhospitable, and of having broken her pledge of sanctuary by killing her guest.
She is also accused of violating the peace treaty that existed between the Kenites and the king of Hazor. Jael is presented as an opportunist who, when she saw that the Israelites were defeating the Canaanites, was afraid of being accused of supporting the oppressors of Israel by hiding Sisera in her tent.
However, these interpretations are contradicted by the eulogistic reference Jael received in the Song of Deborah:
“In the days of Jael, caravans ceased and travelers kept to the byways” (Judges 5:6).
“Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, most blessed of tent-dwelling women” (Judges 5:24).
Israel saw Jael as an instrument used by God to strike the last blow against the Canaanites, an act that sealed Israel’s victory against Jabin and his army.
The death of Sisera was unusual because the general of the Canaanite army lost his life by the hands of a woman, which in the culture of the Ancient Near East, was considered to be the greatest humiliation a soldier could ever experience (see Judges 9:54).
The words about Jael in the Song of Deborah, “Most blessed of women be Jael, of tent-dwelling women most blessed” (Judges 5:24), indicate that Jael was regarded as a popular heroine in Israel, a woman who courageously accomplished what the army of Israel had not been able to accomplish. These words intimate Jael was doing the work of God in bringing judgment upon the Canaanites (Judges 4:23).
Jael’s action is celebrated as an act of God because Jael defeated the oppressor of God’s people. What Jael, Deborah, and Barak accomplished was part of the righteous acts of the LORD (Judges 5:11). The death of Sisera by the hands of Jael is then part of the work of God in liberating the oppressed and defeating the oppressor.
Jael is called “most blessed of women.” These words seem to anticipate Elizabeth’s words to Mary: “Blessed are you among the women” (Luke 1:42). In response, Mary sang a song, the Magnificat, a song that evokes God’s victory against Sisera:
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away. He has helped his servant Israel (Luke 1:51-54).
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Other Studies on Deborah: