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Jael in the Bible: A Female Assassin

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Like many of the women in my series, Women in the Bible, The Untold Stories of Old Testament Heroes, Jael’s story rarely makes it into women conference discussions or Bible studies. Maybe because her story is too gory, too gruesome. It is a scene you might find in popular TV shows that we would never allow our kids to watch. But as we learned in the story of Tamar, God doesn’t shy away from the “ugly” stories so let’s get right to it. Yes, Jael in the Bible killed a general by driving a tent peg into his head and became a hero for it. Now, what can we learn from her account?

Who is Jael in the Bible?

Jael was married to Heber the Kenite, a descendant of Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law. She became an Israeli hero for killing the Canaanite general Sisera, the commander of King Jabin’s army from Hazor.

Barak, under the leadership of Deborah the Judge, defeated Sisera’s army. Sisera then fled the carnage and ended up in the Kenite camp where Jael lived. Jael’s husband was on peaceful terms with the King of Jabin and Sisera had reason to believe he would be in good hands among them.

Unfortunately for him, that was not the case. When he approached Jael’s tent, she invited him in, gave him some warm milk, covered him with a blanket, and then while he slept, she drove a tent peg through his skull. When Barak approached the camp in pursuit of Sisera, she delivered Sisera’s lifeless body to him.

In her assassination of Sisera, Jael fulfilled Deborah’s prophecy to Barak,

And she said, “I will surely go with you. Nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the LORD will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” Then Deborah arose and went with Barak to Kedesh.

Judges 4:9 (ESV)

You can find Jael’s story in Judges 4 and it is recounted in Judges 5 in the Song of Deborah.

Women in the Bible, Untold Stories of Female Heroes Image

How Do We Know Jael Was a Hero?

We can infer from Judges 4:23 that Jael was God’s instrument in achieving victory against the Canaanites as the verse appears directly after Jael’s account.

So on that day God subdued Jabin the king of Canaan before the people of Israel.

Judges 4:23

She was a hero for playing an important role in defeating Israel’s enemy, but the methods she employed have made readers and commentators uncomfortable. She deceived Sisera by breaking cultural and social customs and her deception just doesn’t sit well with modern Christian readers and some scholars have not considered her a hero at all.

However, the biblical text paints her in a positive light. In the next chapter, the Song of Deborah in Judges 5 praises Jael. (This is an ancient song, one of the oldest pieces of Biblical text if not the oldest).

Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, of tent-dwelling women most blessed.

Judges 5:24

The song memorializes Jael and her deeds and recounts in detail how it all transpired. If we go strictly by the biblical text—she was indeed a hero.

The Cultural Norms Broken by Jael

Christians often want their heroes to be virtuous, pious, righteous in every way. They want him or her to be like Steve Rogers (Captain America for those not familiar with the Marvel cinematic universe). There certainly are a few examples such as Joseph and Daniel who fit that mold, but more often than not, the people God chooses and the things they do wouldn’t pass the religious barometer of today. And Jael, especially, wouldn’t be exalted as a woman to be admired among mainstream Christian women.

Why? She broke several cultural protocols that would have been looked down upon by people of her time (and even some today). This is why some commentators treat Jael harshly in their analysis of her actions. So let’s look at what Jael did “wrong,” before we explore her achievement.

She Invited a Man Into Her Tent

In Judges 4:17-18), when Sisera arrived at her tent, Jael invited him in. I have read a few blogs and articles that try to suggest that he forced his way in, but there is nothing in the text to support that. Also, note that women pitched their tents separate from their husband’s so this was an invitation by Jael into her tent, not her and her husband’s home. (See Genesis 24:6731:33 for examples of women having their own tents)

What are the implications of this invitation? For the time and culture, it was inappropriate for a married woman to be alone with a man. We know this to be true for ancient Israeli culture, but maybe the Kenites had different standards?

Little is known about the Kenites, but I doubt it. Even the Canaanites who practiced cult prostitution looked down upon a married woman committing adultery (the husband, of course, was not held to the same standard). Her invitation would be have been out of place for a married woman.

Verse 18 very specifically states that Jael went out to meet Sisera. He didn’t force his way in. She took a deliberate action to go out of her tent and invite him in.

Jael in the Bible

She Broke the Cultural Rules of Hospitality

For Westerners, the kind of hospitality shown by people in the Ancient Near East is difficult to understand. However, because of the difficulty that travelers and strangers faced and their vulnerability to the elements, generous rules of hospitality developed. I addition to providing food and shelter, there was an understanding that the visitor would receive protection. This level of hospitality was especially true among nomadic tribes like the Kenites.

Sisera, culturally, had every reason to feel safe with Jael. When Jael offered him milk and extended her hand of hospitality, Sisera felt secure in his protection. In the offering and receipt of food and drink, a kind of covenantal commitment was made. It is why he was able to comfortably fall asleep in her tent and not find the need to look over his shoulder as he tried to rest. Jael betrayed those cultural expectations by assassinating him shortly after.

She Undermined Her Husband

According to verse 4:17, Jael’s husband Heber had made peace with Jabin, the King of Hazor. Because the Kenites were metalworkers, under this alliance the Kenites most likely provided the necessary service for making and repairing weapons. Metalworkers were scarce so it would make sense for the Canaanites to take advantage of this Kenite skill. And it is probably why Sisera, as a general, knew their camp so well.

At no point in the text do we see that Jael consulted with her husband before killing Sisera. Alliances between tribes were just as important then as alliances are today between nations. To betray that alliance is no small matter and her husband, Heber would have been the one to negotiate it since he was the head of his household. It would behoove Jael to discuss a matter such as an assassination with her husband before taking such drastic actions on her own. From the biblical text, there is no evidence that ever happened.

Jael’s Heroic Act: The Assassination of Sisera

Sisera was the general of Israel’s enemy. Barak, under Deborah’s direction, defeated King Jabin’s army but Sisera had fled on foot. His death at the hands of Jael would deal the final blow to Israel’s enemy.

Why Was Jael Able to Kill Sisera So Effectively?

The simple answer is that Jael was strong and skilled. In biblical times, women were responsible for all the elements of repairing and pitching tents. That required skillful use of a mallet and tent peg. In short, Jael wasn’t going to miss.

The text in Judges 5 is very explicit with Jael’s efficiency in killing Sisera. It was effective, but it was also violent and gory.

24 “Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, of tent-dwelling women most blessed. 25 He asked for water and she gave him milk; she brought him curds in a noble’s bowl. 26 She sent her hand to the tent peg and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet; she struck Sisera; she crushed his head; she shattered and pierced his temple. 27 Between her feet he sank, he fell, he lay still; between her feet he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell–dead.

Judges 5:24-27

What Were Jael’s Motives?

In Bible commentary and blogs there are a lot of theories of why Jael did what she did. Some claim that Sisera tried to rape her, but there is no textual evidence to support that. Others feel that when Sisera asked her to lie on his behalf in Judges 4:20, it convicted her of his evil intentions and drove her to assassinate him.

I don’t think so primarily because she was already breaking cultural norms by inviting a man into her tent. If her intentions had been of pure hospitality she would had dealt with the initial encounter differently.

From the moment Jael recognized Sisera, I believe she had every intention of killing him. The question, of course, is why?

Woman of valor wall art

She Was Faithful to God and Friendly to the Israelites

Remember, Heber was a descendant of Moses’ father-in-law (4:11). His tribe, the Kenites, are considered to be the same as the Midianites by some scholars. Others believe they are not the same, but just closely related.

The Midianites had at times peacefully dwelt among the Israelites (See Judges 1:16) and they worshipped the same God. Therefore, even if the Kenites were only closely related to the Midianites, some stories, history, and culture would have been passed between these two peoples. The Kenites would have been familiar with Israeli culture, religious practices, and worship of the God of Abraham. They must have also been astutely aware of King Jabin’s oppression of the Israelites.

Could it be then, that when Jael saw Sisera, she saw it as an opportunity to help the Israelites? Could it be possible that she considered King Jabin and his people to be in opposition to God? I absolutely think so. This was the action of a woman who did what she thought she needed to do to help God’s people.

If Jael had been a man, she would have faced Sisera in the field of battle and would have been hailed as a hero. There would have been no negative commentary nor questioning of her methods or motives by modern readers. But Jael was not a man. As a woman of her time, it would not have dawned on her to face an experienced military general in hand-to-hand combat.

Instead, Jael had to employ different tactics. To be successful, she had to hide her true intentions and get him to a place where he was vulnerable and his guard was down. So she feigned hospitality and when he was finally asleep, she took actions into her own hands.

Do The Ends Justify the Means?

Honestly, I believe that is the wrong way to look at the story of Jael. If we answer yes, we will want to justify our own sinful actions in that light. We will come up with excuses of why we did what we did and pat ourselves on the back by saying, “Well, the ends justified the means.”

On the other hand, if the answer is no, we will take a very religious and condemning view of people’s actions and give little weight to the circumstances around them. We may even fail to forgive ourselves for the actions we took during difficult and uncertain times.

Take a father who steals a carton of milk for his starving son from a filthy rich retailer. Now compare him to a man that steals an old woman’s purse because he doesn’t want to work long hours. Same sin. Both stole, both are thieves, but would any compassionate judge deal with both individuals the same? Probably not. A good judge would try to look at the heart.

In the same way, Jael’s story is complex, nuanced, and cannot be easily be picked apart by evaluating her actions in a vacuum. We must consider her heart and her circumstances.

God Looks at the Heart

The same God that called David, “a man after God’s own heart,” is the same God that inspired Deborah to write a song that would praise Jael. David was an adulterer, murder, and bad father — but God looked at David’s heart. Jael’s methods were not clean-cut, but God looked at her heart and her extraordinary moment of bravery.

We already saw how Deborah called her “most blessed of women,” but there is another phrase in her song that alludes to Jael’s heroism. Jael is compared to Shamgar the son of Anath.

In the days of Shamgar, son of Anath, in the days of Jael, the highways were abandoned, and travelers kept to the byways.

Judges 5:6

Shamgar and Jael are mentioned side by side to highlight the parallels between the two. Shamgar killed 600 Philistines in Judges 3:31 with a farming instrument, an ox goad to be exact. Jael kills the Canaanite general, with a tent peg. Both are mentioned because both are heroes using limited means to accomplish something great for Israel.

But there is another parallel. Neither belonged to the tribes of Israel. Judges 3:31 describes Shamgar as the son of Anath. For starters, Shamgar is not a Hebrew name. In addition, Anath is the name of a Canaanite war goddess. Archeological evidence suggests that “Shamgar son of Anath,” was a way of designating Shamgar as part of a Canaanite warrior gang. Bottom line: he was a Gentile who accomplished God’s will and did something great for Israel–just like Jael.

Both are praised. Both are treated as heroes in the text, but neither had the right pedigree nor fit the mold nor the norm. But I believe, both had the heart to help Israel and God honored that and exalted them through Deborah’s song.

Stepping out of Comfort Zone Quote

What Can We Take Away From the Story of Jael?

The biggest takeaway is that God uses whom God uses. His choices do not always have the perfect pedigree, they do not always fit cultural or societal norms, and they do not have to be the epitome of virtue or righteousness. That is an important lesson for two reasons:

Reason 1: Many times we feel that our past sins or our current short-comings disqualify us from the calling God has placed on our lives. Nothing could be further from the truth. Don’t let man-made qualifications and standards keep you from following your calling!!!! God not only uses broken people all the time, but people that may not have the right degrees, education, nor experience, and even people that will flounder along the way.

Reason 2: Jael’s story reminds us that it is possible to praise someone’s accomplishments despite their shortcomings or even methods. If God only picked perfect people who did things perfectly, well there would be no churches, no non-profits, and no ministries. A ministry leader may seem rude, but maybe he or she has a very particular skilled set that allows him or her to propel that ministry forward in a way no one else has been able to do. We can criticize Jael all day long about whether using deception was right or wrong–but when it mattered she did what she was convicted to do.

Does that mean that we stop seeking to be a better Christian? Does it mean we don’t hold leaders accountable? Does it mean we throw reproof and correction out the window? Absolutely not!! It does mean we stop nit picking every mistake in ourselves and others and focus on the heart.

The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.

Luke 6:45

It might be a bumpy and less than glamorous ride — but God would rather have a woman that steps out in faith, makes mistakes along the way, and brings thousands to salvation, than one who is perfectly righteous in the eyes of people, never steps outside the comfort of her safe zone, and accomplishes little for the Kingdom.

God would rather have a woman that steps out in faith, makes mistakes along the way, and brings thousands to salvation, than one who is perfectly righteous in the eyes of people, never steps outside the comfort of her safe zone, and… Click To Tweet

I leave you with one final lesson. Sometimes we must be willing to do the dirty work. Esther’s story of fasting, praying, and courage to face the King on behalf of her people all while in royal attire (very much erroneously romanticized) appeals to many of us. We want to be Esthers. Yes, God sometimes needs Esthers but sometimes he needs Jael’s—women who are fierce, willing to do the dirty work for the sake of the Gospel.

Be willing to be the woman that God has called you to be and he will exalt you in due time (and help you with the bumps and bruises along the way)!

Other articles of extraordinary women in the bible that might interest you:

Shiphrah and Puah: The Women Who Defied a Pharaoh

Jehosheba: The Bible’s Princess Hero

The Wise Woman of Abel: Skillful Negotiator and Strategist

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