Women and War 3

Although rarely discussed, the story of Jael in the Book of Judges presents an extraordinary moment: A solitary woman commits murder in her own tent —and puts an exclamation point on a battle full of intrigue and daring.

Jael is inexorably linked with Deborah, Israel’s infamous judge, prophet, and warrior who lived about 1250 BCE. On that fateful day of battle between the Israelites and the Canaanites, Jael finds herself at home, alone. Deborah and Barack have led 10,000 men into battle to protect Israel and save its soul, and God’s mighty flood has swept away the Canaanites. The battle is over…or is it?

From the doorway of her tent, she sees a massive, bruised figure struggling up the hillside. It is Sisera, the Canaanite general, and only survivor of the bloody war. Making a decision on the spot, the Book of Judges records her as saying:“Turn in here, my lord. Have no fear.” (For full story, see Judges 4:18-22; Judges 5.)

Exhausted from battle, he staggers inside, asking for water. Jael gives him goat’s milk and cheese and covers him. No one would think to look for him in an enemy tent. At his request, she guards the door of the tent.

Once he falls asleep, she creeps up behind him, grasping both a tent peg and its companion, a mallet. Quietly she eyes her target: Sisera’s skull. Two-fisted, she slams the tent peg deep into his brain. His head is nailed to the ground. She has killed him where he lay.

Consider this

Women both start this fight and finish it.

Perhaps Jael and Sisera knew each other, for her husband, Heber, was likely an iron maker, and Sisera may have hired him to forge chariot wheels for battle. In his post-battle escape, Sisera may have headed to the only house he know. Three possibilities: 1) Jael invited Sisera in to rest because she felt sorry for him; 2) she lured him in, planning to kill him; or 3) he ordered her in, intending to rape and possibly kill her.

A clue: In those days, women did not stand outside their tents and blithely invite strange warriors to step inside. Only husbands, brothers and sons would have been allowed. Chances are that Sisera was looking to sexually exploit Jael (this is also the conclusion drawn by various Jewish women throughout history).

An interesting side note on this story is Sisera’s mother, who waits by her window, eagerly anticipates the return of her son.

“Out of the window she peered,

    the mother of Sisera gazed through the lattice:

‘Why is his chariot so long in coming?

    Why tarry the hoofbeats of his chariots?’

Her wisest ladies make answer,

    indeed, she answers the question herself:

‘Are they not finding and dividing the spoil?—

    A girl or two for every man;

spoil of dyed stuffs for Sisera,

    spoil of dyed stuffs embroidered,

    two pieces of dyed work embroidered for my neck as spoil?’

Judges 5:28-30

Yikes! “Dividing the spoil” in this mother’s eyes apparently includes a stolen girl or two for every soldier, including, of course, her son.

Terrible times, indeed.

What might we learn from Jael?

  • Be aware of tools in your surroundings that you could use for self defense.
  • Defend yourself and your family.
  • Know where God is in your life.
  • Be aware of those who may have an evil intent.
  • Know there are times when you might have to do something horrible for the good of your people.
  • Keep your tent pegs sharp.

For reflection

Rabbinical studies tend to proclaim the innocence of Jael, and lean toward her either protecting herself before sexual violence or taking revenge after it. What do you think might have happened inside the tent?

Would you be able to kill someone in self defense? In other conditions? Describe.

Jael used a tent peg as the murder weapon because, most likely, it was nearby. What ways do you have to protect yourself should you be in a similar situation? Have you ever had to defend yourself?

Sisera’s mother plays a small but haunting role in this story (review in Judges 5:28-30). To what extent are her actions and thoughts typical or atypical of most mothers?

Photo by Noël Bailey