During the times of The Hebrew Scriptures, the tents were women’s work. Women spun the goat hair, wove it, and made the tents. They pulled down and packed the tents when the household left for another place. When the day’s journey was done they would unpack the tents and set them back up. This means that Jael knew her way around a tent peg and a hammer.
We first hear about Jael’s husband in a verse that comes out of nowhere in the middle of the Deborah and Barak story. Deborah has called Barak and told him that God want’s him to attack the Canaanite army that has been oppressing Israel for 40 years. Barak will not go into battle without Deborah, God’s envoy. Deborah tells Barak she will go, but that Sisera will die by the hand of a woman. Deborah, Barak and the Israelite army march out. In Judges 4:11 we read, “Now Heber the Kenite had separated from the other Kenites, that is, the descendants of Hobab the father-in-law of Moses, and had encamped as far away as Elon-bezaanannim, which is near Kedesh.” In the next verses Sisera, the Canaanite general, hears that Barak is gathering an army at Mt. Tabor, and he and the Canaanite army march to meet them. Who is Heber, and why is he mentioned now?
We find out in the next few verses. Deborah gives the command for Barak and the army to attack, and God sends the Canaanite army into a panic. The Israelites rout the Canaanites, and Sisera abandons his post and runs away. Now we find out why the reference to Heber appears earlier: “Now Sisera had fled away on foot to the tent of Jael wife of Heber the Kenite; for there was peace between King Jabin of Hazor and the clan of Heber the Kenite” (v. 17).
Jael welcomes Sisera into the tent, gives him milk, and then covers him as he lays down to sleep. He commands her to tell anyone to come by that she has not seen him. Jael waits until he falls asleep, and then she graps a tent peg and her hammer and quietly goes to Sisera. She pounds the tent peg through his temple, and then goes out of her tent to wait for Barak. When he and the army arrives, she tells him that Sisera is in her tent.
Why would Jael kill Sisera when there was peace between her husband and Sisera’s king? And why would Deborah sing in Judges 5:24 that Jael is “the most blessed of women” (the only other woman called “most blessed of women” is Mary). In her book, Warrior, Dancer, Seductress, Queen: Women in Judges and Biblical Israel, Susan Ackerman outlines the clues that suggest Jael was acting in a cultic role. Earlier in Judges we are told that the Kenites were descended from Moses’ father-in-law (1:16). The biblical traditions don’t agree on what his name was, but they all 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. The writer wants us to connect Heber and Jael with their priestly ancestor. 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 second clue we are given is that Heber has moved away from the Kenites, and he and Jael have encamped at Elon-bezaanannim, near Kadesh (4:11). 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. In other places in Scripture oaks are 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 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 Kedesh. In Joshua Kedesh 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. Kadesh was identified with both a sanctuary and Israel’s cult. It is also the only city in Naphtali that has this dual claim.
The writer 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. Jael’s tent is seen as sacred ground, and this is the reason why Sisera enters. Sisera believes himself to be safe.
But that leaves the question: why did she kill him? Sisera is on sacred ground, and the rules of hospitality are that you will fight, and if necessary, die in your guest’s place, not kill them. First she was in danger if Barak did find Sisera in her tent. She would then be seen as Israel’s enemy. The second reason is possible rape. In Deborah’s song 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 (5:38-40). 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.
There is a third reason for why Jael killed Sisera. Staying with Ackerman’s argument that Jael is functioning in a cultic role, she acts because she is doing what God has told her to do. She knows that this is a holy war God is waging against the Canaanites to deliver Israel 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 the women of Moab and worshiped Baal of Peor (Numbers 25). Phineas’ zeal for upholding the covenant by killing an Israelite man and the Midianite woman 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 God, 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.
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.