Jael and Sisera
Jael was the Kenite woman who slew Sisera the Canaanite chieftain after inviting him into the sanctity of her tent, and in so doing gave cause for a controversy over the ethics of her action. The story bears all the marks of an act of treachery but the whole-hearted endorsement of the affair by Deborah the Israelite prophetess has often been taken as indicating Divine approval.
The narrative is found in Judges 4 and 5. The time, the troubled period, a century or so after Israel had entered the promised land, when the 'Judges' ruled, and "every man did that which was right in his own eyes" (Judges 21. 25). The scene, the fertile valley of Esdraelon in the north and mount Tabor, near which Nazareth was afterwards to stand. Some of the northern tribes, Naphtali, Zebulun. and Issachar, had become tributary to a Canaanite king, Jabin, and they groaned under his oppression. The acknowledged leader of Israel at the time was a woman, Deborah the prophetess. Israel "cried to the Lord" for deliverance, indicating contrition and a return to God (Judges 4. 3). Deborah roused herself to action. Summoning Barak of the tribe of Naphtali, apparently the best military leader the nation possessed, she encouraged him to raise a force of ten thousand men to challenge the oppressor. Descending from the slopes of mount Tabor upon the Canaanite host assembled in the valley, Barak gained a decisive victory and put the enemy to precipitate flight. Sisera, the Canaanite commander, became separated from his men and chariots, and fled in another direction on foot to find sanctuary with a friendly community. The battle had been fierce and long. The Canaanites apparently considerably outnumbered their opponents and had in addition the advantage of nine hundred war chariots. Israel was armed only with bows and spears. Barak, however, was evidently a strategist. He chose to launch his attack from the flank of Mount Tabor, two thousand feet high, whence he could descend upon the enemy arrayed along the river Kishon in the plain at Megiddo, down a relatively narrow valley protected from any out-flanking tactics by the high ground on either side. Thus the Canaanite host met the full force of a closely-knit solid body of men striking at the very centre of their rather long drawn out defences. From Deborah's song of triumph after the event it seems the impact of Barak's attack demoralised the Canaanite army and that many were drowned in attempting to get across the river to safety. The survivors finally took to headlong flight through the plain towards their principal fortress town of Harosheth twenty miles away, with the jubilant Israelites in hot pursuit. By the end of the day the chariots were all in the possession of Israel and the whole of Sisera's vast host had been put to the sword. The victory was complete. Sisera plodded wearily across country the four or five miles that separated him from the encampment of Heber the Kenite, where he hoped to find refuge. And this is where Jael comes into the story. Jael was Heber's wife. She was not an Israelite. The Kenites were the people of Jethro the father-in-law of Moses and had thrown in their lot with Israel when Moses led that nation to the Promised Land. Of Midianite extraction, they retained the fierce Bedouin instincts of their ancestors. This fact has to be borne in mind when assessing the later developments in the story. Judges 4.17-22 is a straightforward narrative of what actually happened, relating sober facts, and this is history. Judges 5.24-27 is part of Deborah's later song of triumph exulting over the incident, and this is poetry. This also has to be borne in mind, for poetry should not be viewed so literally as history. So Sisera approached Heber's little settlement. It seems that Heber himself and all his men folk were away, for it was Jael who went out to greet the fugitive. It could be that they were out in the fields with their flocks; it is not likely that they were in the battle with the Israelites, for ch.4.17 says that "there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite". "And Jael went out to meet Sisera, and said unto him, Turn in, my lord, turn in to me; fear not. And when he had turned in unto her into the tent, she covered him with a mantle" (ch. 4.18). Now this was a very risky proceeding for the Canaanite captain; a man discovered inside a woman's tent in that Bedouin society would meet instant death at the hands of the outraged husband and his relatives. If the woman was found there in his company she would share his fate. It is evident that Sisera took the risk in order to find a place of concealment from his pursuers, but why did Jael put herself in such jeopardy? It has been suggested that he forced his way in but this is neither likely to have served his purpose nor does it agree with Jael's apparent invitation. Verse 18 can hardly be construed as other than a direct free-will invitation. Dr. Thomson in 'The Land and the Book' suggests that the 'peace' between Jabin and Heber need only mean that no state of war existed. The Canaanites almost certainly oppressed this little Semitic colony in their midst and Heber had no cause to espouse Jabin's side. Jael seeing Sisera approaching in the distance and in the knowledge that her own men folk were away, faced the alternatives of giving shelter to Sisera and risking the vengeance of the pursuing Israelites if they discovered him or rejecting his plea for shelter and risking death at his hands.
The outcome of the situation was the solution she found to her problem, and this may well explain her apparent later treachery. At any rate, Sisera laid himself down in her tent and suffered himself to be covered with a "mantle" or more properly, a rough skin blanket. He asked for a drink of water, "for" said he "I am thirsty". He had been fighting a losing battle all day and had lost his army. He had been pursued at least twelve or fifteen miles over rough country, and he was exhausted. Jael gave him, not water, but milk, and thus refreshed, he settled down again under his blanket. Before so doing, however, he gave Jael an instruction. "Stand in the door of the tent, and it shall be, when any man doth come and enquire of thee and say, is there any man here, that thou shalt say, No" (ch. 4. 20). The words as they stand would seem to indicate that the men folk of Jael's own tribe were included in the prohibition. It could well be that Sisera was not prepared to trust any of them ‑ but in any case his request put the woman in a very difficult position. By the code under which she lived she could expect no mercy from her own folk if after such an answer her word was found to be false. Jael might well have felt at this point that Sisera had betrayed her hospitality and forfeited any claim to protection and that the preservation of her own reputation might now only be secured by the death of her visitor. Jael's response was immediate. "Then Jael, Heber's wife took a nail of the tent, and took an hammer in her hand and went softly unto him, and smote the nail into his temples, and fastened it into the ground, for he was fast asleep, and weary. So he died" (4.21). The Kenites were nomadic tent-dwellers; the "nail" was a sharp-pointed hardwood tent peg and the 'hammer' the wooden mallet used for driving the tent pegs into the ground. It was a cruel and terrible act, and by modern standards a deed of treachery. The man was her invited guest and had gone to sleep in trust that she would protect him and she betrayed that trust.
Sisera had come in worn out and exhausted from the battle and subsequent pursuit, desiring nothing more than a place in which to sleep in safety. The account says "he was fast asleep, and weary". If the dispassionate, matter of fact narrative in ch. 4 is given preference over the poetic licence of ch. 5 the details of the incident are plain. Jael went in to him "softly", ascertained that he was fast asleep, crouched down over him perhaps with her knees on either side of his recumbent form, the tent peg and mallet in her hands and the gruesome deed was done. It would seem then, that Jael's treachery was inspired by one of two factors. Either she was in fear for her own life as suggested by Dr. Thomson, or perhaps more likely, she regarded Sisera, probably with good reason, as an enemy of her own people. His destruction would justify her violation of the laws of hospitality. Something of her animosity is revealed in her words when, a little later on, Barak arrived at the settlement searching for Sisera; "Come, and I will show thee the man whom thou seekest". It might well have been that there was some unavenged wrong Sisera had done Jael or her people, not hinted at in the story, and that she took advantage of this opportunity for revenge. If so, the entire story is consistent with what could be expected of a fierce Bedouin woman. What value then is to be placed upon Deborah's impassioned praise "Blessed above women shall Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite be; blessed shall she be above women in the tent" (ch.5.24). The obvious answer is none at all. Deborah was a prophetess and obviously a woman stalwart in her allegiance to God but this did not impart infallibility to her utterances and neither was God bound to endorse all her sentiments. She was a woman of her times and from her point of view Jael had done a fine thing and was worthy of all commendation; but Deborah could hardly be considered completely unbiased in the matter. After all, in much later and more enlightened times plenty of quite earnest Christian people with much less excuse than Deborah have claimed the Divine blessing upon victories won in warfare involving acts no less nauseating than that for which Jael was responsible. Deborah's song was exultant, colourful poetry, conceived in the emotion of the moment, and her bestowal of blessing upon Jael need be taken no more seriously that her words a few verses earlier. "the stars in their courses fought against Sisera." In literal fact the stars had nothing to do with the battle; it was the irresistible ferocity of the Israelite warriors which brought about the Canaanite defeat. The victory of Israel was a good thing. It helped to replace Canaanite degradation by a better and purer form of communal life in the land, and it can be agreed that in a general way the Divine purpose was being served; but this does not necessarily set the stamp of Divine approval upon everything that was done. This is one of many Biblical stories which stress the truth that the image men make of God is oft-times far removed from the reality. "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways, saith the Lord, for as the heavens are higher than the earth,, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts."