“Most blessed of women be Yael, wife of Heber the Kenite, most blessed of women in tents. He asked for water, she offered milk; in a princely bowl she brought him curds. Her left hand reached for the tent pin, her right for the workmen’s hammer. She struck Sisera, crushed his head, smashed and pierced his temple.” Judges 5:24-26.
Judges 4 and 5 comprise both a prose and poetic account of the Battle of Kishon wherein the judge Deborah led the Israelites to victory against their Canaanite oppressors. When the Canaanite general Sisera fled on foot he found himself at the tent of a lone woman, Yael (Jael) who then killed him a hammer and a tent peg.
In her song the judge Deborah praised Yael as “Blessed among women.” Only two other biblical women are hailed as “blessed among women”: Judith (Jdt 13:18) and Mary (Luke 1:42). Yael received these high accolades by murdering a man who sought a place of safety from a battle. Why did Yael violate all rules of hospitality by murdering in cold blood a man seeking refuge and then was glorified for this breach of protocol?
“[T]he initiative is Jael’s. It is she who offers hospitality to Sisera the fugitive. We know that hospitality toward strangers was, in the Mediterranean of antiquity, a fundamental rule. It was absolutely indispensable for the traveler’s safety, which was always menaced, and therefore it was sacred… In principal it was the traveler who asked for hospitality; in the case where the host offered it, safety was guaranteed along with the invitation. The transgression of this rule was considered as the utmost act of treachery” (Bal, Murder, p.60-61).
How do we reconcile Yael’s betrayal and the high honor paid to her? Let’s start with Yael’s name which could mean, “Yah is God” (Yah being a shortened version of Yahweh). Right away we are alerted to the prospect that she may worship the same God as the Israelites. Literally her name means, “ibex,” a wild goat with curving horns which is native to the land “in which case her identity as untamed and unpredictable would perhaps be emphasized” (Duran, p.18). Her name also connotes the sense of “ascent” for which she lives up to her name by rising up against Sisera and striking him down. In addition, her “name is a yiqtol third person masculine singular,” (Van Wolde, p.244). This may be a subtle foreshadowing of her action of taking a thing that pierces and driving it into the body of a man. “Patriarchal expectation is turned upside down as the warrior’s mouth [or head] is penetrated by an unmistakable phallic tent peg” (Fewell, p.394). The combination of all these elements of her name sets the reader up for the dramatic events to follow.
Now let’s examine her husband’s name, Heber. Some scholars emphasize that the name refers to the clan, not a husband. For example, Mazar states that “in the Mari Documents a group of households within the clan framework was called hibrum… the sort of association of households wandering together. In my opinion, the relation between this term and the name Heber should be closely noted” (Mazar, p.300). Bal also concludes that the name “Heber” is “dubious as a proper noun and is more likely to refer to a clan,” (Death, p.211). In other words, they find that Yael was a single woman within the Heber clan. However, along with most scholars I find the text quite explicate in depicting Heber as her husband.
What can we learn about Heber being a Kenite? It seems the members of the clan were metal smiths.
“[A]ccording to the Genesis legends, the Kenites are the most ancient of all the Near East’s various ethnic communities, as they are depicted in Gen 4:1-16 as being descended from Cain, the first son of Adam and Eve…the story seems to associate the Kenites with the profession of metallurgy, both through genealogy and etymology. Genealogically, Tubal-Cain… is identified in Gen 4:22 as ‘a worker of all tools of bronze and of iron.’ Etymologically, the root qyn that forms the basis for both the ancestral name Cain (qayin) and the clan appellation Kenites (qeni) means ‘to forge’ or ‘to work metal’…” (Ackerman, p. 100).
Heber then entered a treaty with King Jabin. The political power imbalance seems inexplicable. “Are we to assume that the mighty king of Hazor, the ‘head of all these states’ (Joshua 10), whose kingdom in the Amarna Age (ca. 1350) extended from the Hermon range in the north to the Sea of Galilee in the south, entered into formal political alliance or contracted a peace treaty, with a Bedouin family?” (Margalit, p.629). Margalit proposes that King Jabin hired Heber to guard one of the caravan routes to Hazor. As a blacksmith, it seems likely that he followed the king’s general, Sisera with his 900 chariots to be readily available for repairs on the battlefield. After pitching the tent, he is nowhere to be found, leaving Yael alone in the tent at the Oak-House of the Wanderers. There is something very odd about this. Nomadic peoples traveled as families and their encampments were filled with women and children who were carefully guarded by the men. Why is Yael all by herself?
We can also obtain some clues about the story from where Heber pitched his tent. Judges 4:11-17 asserts that Heber separated from the rest of the Kenites in the Negev desert and traveled quite a distance to resettle near Israel’s enemy, Jabin the king of Hazor. The text tells us that Heber encamped on or near the southwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee (Kinnereth), at Elon-bezaanannim, which literally means, “Oak-House (or Abode) of Wanderers.” This was known as a place of worship under an ancient sacred tree. “[I]n locating Jael’s tent under the oak in Zaananim, the redactor of Judges 4 means to suggest that she is encamped at a sanctified spot” (Ackerman, p.97).
I propose that Yael was a religious specialist in a sacrosanct place and therefore she could expect to remain unmolested even when alone. To harm her would be to invoke the fury of the gods. “It may be concluded that Sisera fled from the battle to the tent of Jael… because of the special exalted position of Jael, and because her dwelling place, Elon Bezaannaim, was recognized as a sanctified spot and a place of refuge where protection was given even to the enemy” (Mazar, p.302). The prestige of her position would explain why King Jabin held diplomatic ties with Heber.
To understand how I arrived at my conclusion, we need to explore Judges 4:11 further. This verse emphasizes the relation of Heber to the family of Hobab the Kenite and the close relationship between Hobab the father of Zipporah and her husband, Moses (Exod. 2:16-18). “Hobab entered into a family relationship with Moses, attached his clan to the Israelites, guided them through the wilderness, and finally, through his descendants, attained land inheritance within Judah in Negeb Arad” (Mazar, p.300). Note that there is another tradition which states that Zipporah’s father was Jethro or Reuel but further exploration of this matter will have to wait until another time. Despite the confusion regarding the name of Zipporah’s father, “the traditions regarding Moses’ father-in-law are practically unanimous concerning one item: that Moses’ father-in-law was a priest… Jethro offers sacrifices to Israel’s deity and then comes with Moses and Aaron… to eat bread ‘in the presence of God’…” (Ackerman, p.94). Combined with the emphasis Judges places on Heber’s ancestry back to Hobab [Jethro?], and that he pitches his tent in a sacred place, it seems likely that Heber’s family continued the religious practices of their forefather Hobab when they moved. Several commentators propose that by marrying into the priestly family, Yael may have been a religious official too. They base this deduction on the fact that in Exodus 4:24-26 Zipporah, the daughter of a Kenite/Midianite priest seems to perform a religious ritual. “This suggests that other women among the clan of Reuel/Jethro/Hobab might also serve as cultic functionaries…” (Ackerman, p.96; cf. Mazar).
This leads directly to the Kenite hypothesis first put forward by R. Ghillany in 1861 which states that Yahweh was the tribal God of the Kenites before the Israelites adopted the deity and that Moses developed his attachment to Yahweh through Jethro, his father-in-law. Much has been written on the Kenite hypothesis which I will not go into here but suffice it to say there is strong evidence to suggest that Heber and Yael worshiped Yawheh. And if Yael, as her name suggests, worships the same God, she may have been obligated to join the Israelites’ holy war, a far greater obligation than obeying the rules of hospitality.
“It may be suggested that Jael’s action reflects a deep-seated conflict between husband and wife of a political-ideological nature. The Kenites were old and trusted allies, as well as coreligionists of the Yahwist Israelites: The charismatic and legendary leader Moses was believed related by marriage (Judg 1:16, 4:10) and presumed to have adopted the religion of his father-in-law, the priest Jethro (alias Hobab?), which he then transmitted to his Israelite brethren. By allying himself with the king of Hazor as a mercenary, Heber was in effect betraying his own kin and coreligionists. He ‘sold out’ to the enemy, the sedentary population of Canaan. By acting as she did, Jael sought to restore the family honor sullied by her husband’s defection when he ‘separated from the Kenites’ (Judg 4:11)” (Margalit, p.640).
After the battle scene ended with Israel’s victory, King Hazor’s general, Sisera, fled on foot to Yael’s tent. The text states that “not a man was left,” meaning, the general was no longer considered a man because he abandoned his men on the battlefield. We learn that she came out of her tent to greet the fleeing Sisera. Ordinarily when seeking hospitality from a nomadic people, one would approach the tent of the chief or head of the household. Since Sisera asked Yael for asylum this suggests that Yael was considered the highest authority within the camp. As the representative of the divine, Sisera may have fled to her tent for the very purposes of throwing himself upon her mercy and the mercy of Yahweh.
So why did Yael coax Sisera into her tent? Some commentators suggest that for the sake of survival Yael switched from her husband’s alliance to become a champion of the Israelites’ cause.
“She was married to a Kenite, a relative of the Israelites, who was in league with the enemy. She could not turn Sisera away since she was a woman alone and unprotected. At the same time, when the Israelites came in pursuit, her life would be in jeopardy if she were found to be hiding the general of the enemy’s army. Thus, killing Sisera was her best, and possibly her only, course of action” (Prouser, p.24).
In their book, Social World of Ancient Israel, Matthews and Benjamin contend that based on certain words in the text, Yael acted to repel a potential rape (pp.89-95).
However I take issue with this conclusion for several reasons. First, her words, “Turn in, my lord, turn to me; fear not” are quite alluring. When used elsewhere in the Bible the phrase is used as a double entendre. Flirting with a man is not the best way to avoid rape. “Does she offer shelter, or, perhaps the promise of a sexual encounter?… Yael’s greeting and invitation parallel the call of a prostitute [sic] in the Book of Proverbs: ‘calling to those who pass by, who are going straight on their way, “You who are simple, turn in here!”‘ (Prov 9:15-16; see also Prov 7:5-23)…The sibilance of the invitation in the original Hebrew may be meant as well to underscore the sensuality contained in Yael’s voice… the fact that the whole scene takes place in Yael’s bed creates a sexual atmosphere” (Assis, Choice, p.84). The idea that Sisera intended to rape Yael is weakened by the fact that she insistently suggested that he enter her tent, a place men seldom enter for purposes other than sexual intercourse (Fewell, p. 392; cf. Duran, p.21).
Second, it appears that there is a pun on Sisera’s name in her words, “turn aside, turn aside” (van Wolde, p.244). The alliteration in Hebrew suggests that Yael knew who her guest was. It’s as if she expected his arrival. Perhaps she was warned either by Yahweh or this is an indication of a pre-existing guerrilla war plan between Yael and Deborah.
That she feared for her life is also questionable since the rules of ancient hospitality dictated that those who sought sanctuary must relinquish all claims of authority.
“[T]he fugitive imposes himself as such by adopting an attitude of submission and by claiming protection in exchange for the honour which his submission conveys. By entering the women’s quarters he tacitly renounces his power to affront. To enter them other than as a supplicant would be the offence and a desecration of female purity, but a supplicant cannot affront for he throws himself upon the mercy of his host, and thereby forfeits all claim to the kind of honour by which he might impugn another man’s… he cannot then challenge anybody until he resumes his liberty and with it his vulnerability” (Pitt-Rivers, p.116).
Within her tent, Yael was expected, by tradition, to be in charge. Whether Sisera reveared her tent as a holy sanctuary or if he adheared to the widely-held rules of hospitality, she had every expectation that he would respect her.
The exhausted Sisera asked for water and in a motherly way Yael brought him milk instead and a yogurt-like dairy product to provide him with nourishment.
“The man who was once so powerful in the superiority of his chariots must now ask for water, the minimal element of survival, from a woman. He gets more than he asks for: he is nourished. What Jael offers him are the basic attributes of maternity: protection, rest, and milk. These attributes, which have the power to restore, mark the bottom line to which Sisera has descended… The roles are reversed: here, it is the woman who controls, who gives-and who kills. She gives life and then she take it back.” (Bal, Murder, p.121)
Moreover, the curds were brought to Sisera in a “lordly” bowl implying that Yael was making a special occasion of the warrior’s visit. Is it just an accident that milk is soporific?
“The provision of milk also has sexual connotations, particularly in the intimate ‘opening’ of the skin from which Jael pours (v.19). As Fewell and Gunn note, the same word is used not only of opening a woman’s womb in childbirth, but also of opening a woman’s body to receive her lover” (Duran, p.24).
The text states that she twice covered Sisera with a blanket or rug, tucked him in so to speak. The repetition reinforces for the reader the sense that they had intercourse and then afterwards she straightened the blankets again. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that she planned on putting him to sleep in one way or another before assassinating him.
After asking politely for a drink and getting his request, his tone turned sharp and demanding. Sisera made one last attempt to be in control of the situation. “[H]e tries to return to the moment before the reversal of power roles. He gives an order to the woman who has over him the absolute power that a mother has over her infant” (Bal, Murder, p.121; cf. Duran, p.32). However, Sisera is not in a position to give an order and he inadvertently betrayed his helplessness by telling Yael that if anyone comes and asks if there was a man present, she was to say, “no, there is no man here.”
“For Sisera, the answer ‘No, there is no man here’ is intended to be a lie, but for the reader attentive to irony, the answer ‘no’ reflects the truth. The mighty man has become a vulnerable child; the virile man lies impotent” (Fewell, p.393).
Instead of watching out for the “enemy” Yael took a tent peg and a hammer, “went in to him” and drove the peg through his temple, the tender part of the head. The text uses the very sexual phrase of “coming into,” highlighting the gender role reversal of a woman taking a man. The Song of Deborah emphasizes that Sisera sank to his knees and fell between her legs using sexually laced language (see Niditch). This is entwined with birth imagery as well. The expression ben ragleyah, “between her feet,” is rare and its only other occurrence in the Bible is Deut. 28:57 where it refers to afterbirth coming out between a woman’s feet (Bal, Murder, p.106).
Thereafter, Barak, the general of the Israelite army happens to arrive at Yael’s tent, further evidence that there existed a pre-existing plan between Yael and Deborah. Yael’s words to Barak, “Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking” (v.22) indicates that she knew who Barak was and so we are suspicious that Yael has performed tasks planned in advance with the Israelites.
“[T]he concurrence of all the events in the story at one point, in accordance with the prophecy previously pronounced, produces the impression that Jael is operating or is activated according to a previously established plan. The arrival of Heber the Kenite from the south precisely to the area of withdrawal in the north, the supposedly chance arrival of both Barak and Sisera at the vicinity of Jael’s tent, the absence of obvious motives for Jael’s actions, and that she is a woman-as Deborah’s prophecy required-all these reinforce the impression that Jael is activated by whomever controls by the entire set of happenings” (Amit, pp. 97-8).
Once again sexual language is employed by the text to describe Barak’s entrance into Yael’s tent: “he came into her.” The connotation is that when Barak entered Yael’s tent he was “screwed” because she beat him to his assignment to kill the enemy. Despite his best efforts, he finds that Deborah’s prophecy has been fulfilled: “‘there will be no glory for you in the course you are taking, for then the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman'” (Judges 4:9).
Beginning with Deborah prophesizing that Israel will be saved by the hand of a woman, the story takes every opportunity to alert the reader to issues of gender and power relations; the narrative challenges us to consider who is inside and who is outside the community.
“By her murder of Sisera, Ya’el breaks away both from this peaceful relationship and from her husband. She is now really quite alone. And it is this loner, this woman, this outsider, who ‘rises’ and obtains Israel’s liberation…The story is therefore not only about a reversal of male and female roles, but also about a reversal of the roles of outcasts and Israelites” (Van Wolde, p.245).
A system of images, both linguistic and conceptual weaken the presumption that the Bible is uniformly patriarchal. Time and time again, it is not the politically powerful of a biblical story who holds the moral high ground but it is the one who seems most vulnerable who is triumphant.
For Further Reading
Amit, Yairah – “Judges 4: Its Contents and Form” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 39 (1987): 89-111.
Assis, Elie – “The Hand of a Woman: Deborah and Yael” Journal of Hebrew Scriptures, Vol. 5, article 19 (2005); http://www.jhsonline.org/Articles/article_49.pdf
Assis, Elie – “The Choice to Serve God and Assist His People: Rahab and Yael” Biblica 85 (2004) 82-90.
Bal, Mieke – Death and Dissymmetry: The Politics of Coherence in the Book of Judges (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988)
Bal, Mieke – Murder and Difference: Gender, Genre and Scholarship on Sisera’s Death, Matthew Gumpert, trans. Indiana Studies in Biblical Literature. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988)
Fewell, Danna Nolan and David M. Gunn – “Controlling Perspectives: Women, Men, and the Authority of Violence in Judges 4 and 5” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 58 (1990) 389-411.
Duran, Nicole – Having Men for Dinner: Biblical Women’s Deadly Banquets (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2006)
Hackett, J.A. – “In the Days of Jael; Reclaiming the History of Women in Ancient Israel” in Immaculate and Powerful: The Female in Sared Imagery and Social Reality, Clarissa W. Atkinson, Constance H. Buchanan, and Margaret Ruth Miles, eds., (Boston: Beacon, 1985) 18-29.
Klein, Lillian R. – The Triumph of Irony in the Book of Judges. Journal for the Study of the Old TestamentSup, 68; Bible and Literature, 14. (Sheffield, Eng.: Almond, 1988)
Klein, Lillian R. – From Deborah to Esther: Sexual Politics in the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003)
Margalit, Baruch – “Observations on the Jael-Sisera Story (Judges 4-5),” in David P. Wright, David Noel Freedman and Avi Hurvirtz (eds.) Pomegranates and Golden Bells: Studies in Biblical, Jewish, and Near Eastern Ritual, Law, and Literature in Honor of Jacob Milgrom (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1995) 629-41.
Matthews, Victor H. and Don C. Benjamin – Social World of Ancient Israel 1250-587 BCE (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1993)
Mazar, Benjamin – “The Sanctuary of Arad and the Family of Hobab the Kenite” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 24 (1965): 297-303
Niditch, Susan – “Eroticism and Death in the Tale of Jael” in Gender and Difference, Peggy L. Day, ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989) 43-57.
Patton, Corrine L. – “From Heroic Individual to Nameless Victim: Women in the Social World of the Judges” in Biblical and Humane. A Festschrift for John F. Priest. Linda Bennett Elder, ed., Scholars Press Homage Series. (Scholars Press, 1996)
Pitt-Rivers, J. – “Women and sanctuary in the Mediterranean” in The Fate of Shechem or the Politics of Sex: Essays in the Anthropology of the Mediterranean (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977)
Prouser, O. Horn – “The Truth about Women and Lying,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 61 (1994) 15-28.
van Wolde, Ellen – “Ya’el in Judges 4” Zeitschrift fur die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 107 (1995) 240-246.
Yee, Gale A. – “By the Hand of a Woman: The Metaphor of the Woman Warrior in Judith” Semeia 61 (1993) 99-132.