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Why is Jael praised for murdering Sisera, the commander of the army of Jabin, king of Canaan, especially when it was a gross violation of Middle Eastern customs of protecting one's guest? Was she not being deceptive in the way she at first extended lavish hospitality and then tricked him into sleeping while she carried out her gruesome murder? And how, then, can she be praised and eulogized as being the "most blessed of women"?
Once again Israel had been sold into the hands of an oppressor--this time it was Jabin, the king of Canaan, who ruled from the city of Hazor (Judg 4:2). Deborah, the prophetess and judge that God had raised up at that time to deliver Israel, summoned Barak to rid the country of this new oppressor, but Barak insisted that he would go into battle only if Deborah went with him. Deborah's prophecy was that God would therefore hand Sisera, the commander of Jabin's army, over into the hands of a woman (Judg 4:9). Here may be one of the most important hints that the forthcoming action of Jael was divinely initiated.
In the meantime a Kenite (related to Moses through his wife Zipporah) named Heber had taken up residence among the people of Israel, apparently signaling something important about what his beliefs were, for residence in that day had more attached to it than mere location. After the battle on Mount Tabor in which Sisera and his troops were routed, Sisera abandoned his chariot and fled on foot, while Barak finished off the entire chariot division of Sisera. Because Jabin and the clan of Heber had a history of friendly relations, Sisera entered the tent of Heber's wife, Jael (Judg 4:17-18), a most unusual act in itself, for no one went into a woman's quarters when her husband was not around. After she had refreshed him with a skin of milk and was instructed to stand watch while he slept, she took a tent peg and hammer and drove the peg through his temple while he slept.
Jael is usually charged with six faults: (1) disobedience to her husband, who had friendly relations with Jabin; (2) breaking a treaty (Judg 4:17); (3) deception in entertaining Sisera, giving no hint of her hostile intentions as she assuaged his thirst by giving him a kind of buttermilk or yogurt when all he asked for was water; (4) lying, saying, "Fear not," when Sisera had much to fear; (5) violating the conventions of hospitality by murdering one that she had agreed to accept as a guest; (6) murder (Judg 4:21).
How many of these charges are true? Jael should not have lied, no matter how grave her circumstances. But, as for the other charges, remember that this was a time of war. Some had already shirked their potential for assisting Israel during a desperate time of need, namely the city of Meroz (Judg 5:23). But here was Jael, related only through marriage to Moses and Israel, who had chosen to dwell in the midst of the people of God. When involuntarily thrust into the vicinity of the war by virtue of the location of her tent, she did not hesitate to act by killing the man who stood against the people of God with whom she had come to identify herself. It is for this that she is so lavishly praised.
Some have argued that Sisera's entering Jael's tent also had sexual overtones. The first phrase in Judges 5:27 may be a graphic description of a rape: "At her feet he sank, he fell; there he lay." Not only may the word "feet" be a euphemism for one's sexual parts, as it is in other parts of Scripture at times, but especially significant are the verbs "lay" (Hebrew sakab), meaning "to sleep" or "to have sexual intercourse" (for example, Gen 19:32; Deut 22:23, 25, 28; 2 Sam 13:14), and "to bow" (Hebrew kara`), meaning "to bend the knee," "kneel," or in Job 31:10 to "crouch" over a woman. If this understanding of the delicately put poetry is correct, then Jael is more than justified in her actions of self-defense of her person as well. For years Canaanite men had been raping Hebrew women in just this fashion.
There is no clear evidence that Jael disobeyed her husband. Nor is there clear evidence that there actually was a treaty in force. But even if there were, it is doubtful that it could be legitimately enforced during wartime, which very act was a violation of the peace, since Heber had the same relations with Israel and Jabin.
Jael did violate the conventions of hospitality, but this is at the level of custom and social mores and not at the level of ethics. After all, this was a war zone, and a war was going on.
What is clear is that Jael lied to Sisera and she killed him. Is her lying justifiable? No! To say, as one commentator did, that "deception and lying are authorized in Scripture any time God's kingdom is under attack" is unsupported by the Bible. This same writer went on to affirm that "since Satan made his initial assault on the woman by means of a lie (Gen 3:1-5), it is fitting that the woman defeat him by means of a lie, . . . lie for lie."
I would agree with the conclusions reached over a century ago by Edward L. Curtis:
But from a moral standpoint, . . . at first glance it appears like the condemnation of a base assassination, especially when one reads Judges 4:18-21. [Shall we suppose] that in good faith she received Sisera and pledged him protection, but afterwards, while she saw him sleeping, God moved her to break her word and slay him? . . . The numerous manifestations of God, his frequent communications at that time to his agents, might suggest that Jael received [just such] a divine communication, but to consider her act otherwise morally wrong and to use this as a ground for its justification, is impossible. Right and wrong are as fixed and eternal as God, for they are of God, and for him to make moral wrong right is to deny himself.
Jael's loyalty to Yahweh and his people is her justification. It was part of the old command to exterminate the Canaanite (Deut 20:16). Jael came to the assistance of the people of God, and for this she is declared blessed.
James B. Jordan, Judges: God's War Against Humanism (Tyler, Tex.: Geneva Ministries, 1985), p. 89. Jordan's whole discussion of this problem (to which I am indebted at many points in this discussion) is, however, one of the most extensive and suggestive that I found anywhere.
Edward L. Curtis, "The Blessing of Jael," The Old Testament Student 4 (1884-1885): 12-14.
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