In the last installment of Career Women of the Bible, I looked at Deborah and how she had functioned as a prophet and judge. Now I will look at her counterpart in the story, and the woman who would destroy Israel’s enemy: Jael. Again I will look at Judges 5 first since it is the older tradition and text.
Jael is first mentioned in Deborah’s song in verse 24: “Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, of tent-dwelling women most blessed.” The only other woman in the Bible who is called “most blessed of woman” is Mary when she goes to visit Elizabeth after finding out she will be the mother of the Messiah (Luke 1:42). But Jael is being blessed for killing a man, and according to chapter four this man was the general of the king her husband had made an agreement with. She is being praised for killing an ally. Why would she kill Sisera in the first place?
In chapter five it is debatable if Jael is married. Ishshat heber is normally translated “wife of Heber.” But Abraham Malamat has given an alternate translation of 5:24. “Most blessed of women be Jael, A woman of the Kenite community, Of tent-dwelling women most blessed” (Qtd. in Susan Ackerman, Warrior, Dancer Seductress, Queen, 99). He explains that from other texts written during the time of the Bronze Age that a cognate of heber can mean “a community unit, a clan, a band, or a tribe.” There are places in the Old Testament where heber does mean to be part of a group. In Hosea 6:9 it is used to describe a company of priests, and in 2 Samuel 2:3 the phrase “cities of Hebron” could mean that “Hebron” itself originally meant a group of towns or communities that settled close to each other. Jael could have simply been part of the Kenite community and not necessarily married.
Judges has already established that the Kenites were descended from Moses’ father-in-law (1:16). Although there is variance in what his name was, all the traditions agree on one thing concerning Moses’ father-in-law: he was a priest. Judges 4:11 is the first time we have seen “Kenite” since chapter one, and the writer once again points out that the Kenites are descended from Moses’ father-in-law, it can be assumed that the writer wants us to connect Heber and Jael with their priestly ancestor. If this is the case by connecting Jael to the Kenite community the writer is giving her actions priestly authority. By inserting one word he is telling his readers that Jael is functioning in a cultic role parallel to Deborah’s prophetic role.
The later redactor of chapter four elaborates on the priestly theme. Now Jael is the wife of Heber, and there is peace between her husband and King Jabin of Hazor. This peace is probably the result of a work arrangement: Heber being a smith is needed to keep Jabin’s chariots in good working order.
We also find out in 4:11 that Heber has moved away from the Kenites and he and Jael have encamped at Elon-bezaanannim, near Kadesh. Probably to be closer to where good business would be. Continuing to follow Ackerman’s argument that Jael is functioning in a priestly role, she says another clue given is the name Elon-bezaanannim, which means “the oak of Zaanannim.” This is a clue the place where they encamped is sacred space, because oaks were often used to symbolize the holy. Oaks are used in other places in Scripture to denote a theophany, and they are also places where divine revelations and teaching occur (see Gen. 12:6; 13:18; 14;13; 35:8; and Jud. 9:6). Ackerman also notes the root that oak is derived from in the Hebrew is the same root that “God” or “gods” comes from, el. For Jael’s tent to be pitched by or under an oak tree is to signify that it is a sacred spot, holy ground.
This is further confirmed in the next place name given to show where Heber and Jael live; they live near Kadesh. In Joshua Kadesh had been designated as one of the cities of refuge where someone who unintentionally committed murder could flee to escape the revenge of the kinsman redeemer. It is also a city whose lands were given to the Levites, so they could graze their animals, so Kadesh was also identified with both a sanctuary and Israel’s cult. It is also the only city in Naphtali that has this dual claim.
The redactor of Judges 4 has given us three major markers that Jael is to be seen in a cultic role: she is a Kenite, descended from Moses’ father-in-law; her tent is under or near a sacred oak, and she lives near Kadesh. The poem of Judges 5 uses the single word “Kenite” to clue the reader to her cultic status. Whether or not Jael is married, her tent is seen as sacred ground, and this is the reason why Sisera enters it in both stories. In Judges 4 he is given the additional insurance that there is a peace between Heber and Jabin. Sisera believes himself to be safe for both reasons.
Jael appears to be the perfect hostess at first, offering him luxuries to drink and eat. In Judges 5 there is no mention of Sisera lying down to sleep. Jael gives him food and drink, and while he is still on his feet strikes him with the tent peg and mallet. He falls at her feet with imagery of sex and death being intertwined (see Susan Niditch, “Eroticism and Death in the Tale of Jael”). In Judges 4 after feeding him Jael covers him with a rug and waits until he falls asleep before silently creeping to him to kill him.
There has been much debate over Jael’s flagrant disregard for her husband’s treaty and for the laws of Near Eastern hospitality (see Bellis, Helpmates, Harlots, Heroes, 119-123 for an overview). The question is why would she do this? Why would she kill her husband’s ally? Why would she break the laws that governed hospitality? There has been much work done on the danger she was in if Barak did find Sisera in her tent. She would then be seen as Israel’s enemy. The verses that follow Jael’s murder of Sisera have Sisera’s mother saying that he delays because there is a woman (literally “womb”) or two for each man to rape, and she did not want to have the same fate befall her. It is also worth noting that if Sisera’s intentions were honorable, he would have gone into her husband’s tent and not hers. In my “Judges” class in seminary, we learned that the tradition of the time was for the husband and wife or wives to have their own separate tents. There was no reason for Sisera to be in her tent. If her husband came home, she would have been accused of adultery. She was protecting herself from possible rape as well as the possibility of being killed.
Ackerman presents another way to interpret Jael’s actions. In staying with the possibility that she is functioning in a cultic role then she acts because she is doing what Yahweh has told her to do. She knows that this is a holy war Yahweh is waging against the Canaanites to deliver his people from their oppression. This suspends the rules of sanctuary she could provide for Sisera. Jael is acting as Moses, Phineas, and the leaders of Israel acted when the men of Israel had sexual relations with women of Moab and yoked themselves to Baal of Peor by worshipping him (Numbers 25). Phineas’ zeal for upholding the covenant by killing an Israelite man, and Midianite women he brought into camp, is commended by God, and he and his family receive a blessing (verses 10-13). As Moses and Phineas protected Israel’s heritage as the people of Yahweh, so Jael does. She knows the deeds of this man: his arrogance, brutality, and what he would do if she were a woman of a tribe he defeated. She would finish the battle Deborah had started and help to insure 40 years of peace in Israel. With Deborah she would bring shalom to God’s people by obeying what she knew to be the will of God.
In the end I think Jael was a woman caught in a very tough position. She knew of Sisera and his reputation. She also knew of the battle, and that the Israelites would be right behind him. She did what she had to in order to protect herself and her family. Danna Nolan Fewell says this in conclusion of her interpretation of the Jael story:
The relationships depicted in this story may also reflect the evolving relationship between Yahweh and Israel. Yahweh’s authority, like that of Deborah, is questioned (4:1: “The Israelites again did evil in the sight of Yahweh”; 5:8: “new gods were chosen”). When people find themselves in dire straits, they appeal to Yahweh, just as Jael appeals to violence. And like Jael, perhaps Yahweh too does what must be done in order to save the family of Israel and is lauded, like Jael, not for who he is but for what he has done to benefit Israel (Fewell, “Judges,” 76).
As a priest it was Jael’s duty to stand between God and the people–to intercede. In order to save her family and possibly her people, Sisera had to be turned over to the Israelites. He became her sacrifice. Jael reminds us that standing between God and the people can be a very dangerous place. Hard decisions must be made, and in the end, there are times we wonder if what we did is what God wanted.
Susan Ackerman, Warrior, Dancer, Seductress, Queen: Women in Judges and Biblical Israel (New York: Doubleday, 1998), “Most Blessed of Women” 89-127.
Alice Ogden Bellis, Helpmates, Harlots, Heroes: Women’s Stories in the Hebrew Bible (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994).
Shawna Renee Bound, Your Daughters Shall Prophesy: A Biblical Theology of Single Women in Ministry, unpublished thesis, (© by Shawna Renee Bound 2002), “Of the Cult and Priests,” 35-46.
Danna Nolan Fewell, “Judges” in Women’s Bible Commentary, eds. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992, 1998), 75-6.
E. John Hamlin, Judges: At Risk in the Promised Land (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990).
Susan Niditch, “Eroticism and Death in the Tale of Jael,” in Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel, ed. Peggy L. Day (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989) 43-57.
All biblical quotations are taken from the Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.