In Judges 4-5, we find Jael, picking up where we left Deborah. Jael, a Kenite woman, is met by Sisera, the general of the Canaanite army that had just been defeated, swept away by a storm. He flees to Jael’s tent. Now, Jael was possibly the wife of a man named Heber, however “heber” can also mean group, so it is also thought she may not have been married, and simply part of a group of Kenites. Regardless, this group is said to have had a treaty with the Canaanites, explaining why Sisera may have felt that he would find sanctuary and loyalty by seeking refuge with Jael.
As Jael offers hospitality to Sisera, he is lulled into a deeper sense of security, ultimately leading to his demise. Jael takes the tools she has near her, a tent peg and mallet, and pierces and smashes his skull.
The story is told twice, once in story and once in song. The song of Deborah (ch 5) is an incredibly ancient poem, thought to have been written soon after the events, and perhaps by Deborah herself.
Interestingly, the details of how Jael murders Sisera is varied within the two accounts. One portrays a sleeping Sisera, while Deborah’s account depicts him standing as he is said to have fallen at her feet.
The imagery that is striking is that, when thinking of a warrior approaching a tent in wartime, we would typically fear for the women dwelling inside. This account, however, flips the script entirely. Jael is not a victim but a heroine, who fulfills the prophecy spoken by Deborah, that God would deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.
Perhaps one of the most notable details is found when Sisera’s mother, in considering what may be delaying the return of her son, states that it must be because they are currently “dividing the spoil, a girl or two for every man…” (5:30) and, although not as she imagines, the true reason for his delay is, in fact, two women.
Deborah who declared the war and prophesied the victory, and Jael who would take his life and claim final victory.
Sisera’s death brought the end of the Canaanite oppression and peace for 40 years. In Jg 5:6 Deborah marks the date by declaring “in the days of Shamgar ben Anat, in the days of Jael.” This statement placed Jael in association with an earlier warrior who had killed 600 Philistines (3:31).
We are not told of her motives, or really, very much about her at all! What we are told of, is her strength, courage, and stealth. She was an unlikely warrior, likely assumed to be powerless and weak, who did not have to be present in the battlefield to save Israel.
The story of Jael points us to God by displaying that even those who are seen as powerless in the eyes of humanity can be used by God to bring deliverance and victory. And that ultimately, it is God who gives strength to the powerless and brings deliverance to the oppressed.
God brings deliverance
Main Source: Frymer-Kensky, “Reading the Women of the Bible”