Judges 4

Jael and Sisera

Commentaries by Sam Wells

Works of art by Marcelle Hanselaar, Shirin Neshat and Unknown, Northwestern Germany

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Marcelle Hanselaar

Jael and Sisera 2, 2007, Etching, edition 30, 212 x 281 mm, Collection of the artist; © Marcelle Hanselaar

Hospitality in Reverse

Commentary by Sam Wells

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Jael and Sisera have both been criticized for breaking customs of hospitality (Conway 2016: 26).

Jael invites Sisera into her tent and then kills him (Judges 4:11 suggests her husband Heber may even have been Sisera’s ally). But is Sisera the greater transgressor by entering Jael’s tent, rather than her husband’s? His actions insult both Jael and Heber. Sisera should not have allowed himself to be persuaded by Jael; and it was not customary for guests to make requests, as he does in asking for a drink (4:19), telling Jael to stand at the entrance, and requiring her to lie by denying there was a man inside (4:20).

Dutch artist Marcelle Hanselaar sets the tale in a contemporary context. The sparse bedroom, with its compact dressing table and quizzically observant cat, suggest that Jael is an ordinary woman, in her own private space. Yet, the dressing table seems to have a second peg on it, alongside its hairbrush, comb, and cosmetics. It hints that a woman with a once conventional life has finally broken under relentless oppression, if not by Sisera, perhaps by others. Or perhaps Jael is acting on behalf of other women who have known worse than herself.

This man is truly caught with his trousers down. The portrayal is of the moment just before Sisera’s head is pierced (4:21).

Just off-centre in the picture (perhaps to suggest something out of kilter) is Jael’s face with its furrowed brows conveying concentrated energy—a picture of premeditated violence. Meanwhile the tilted mirror on the angled dressing table suggests everyday reality being thrown into reverse.

By contrast with Jael’s face, Sisera’s is almost obscured by his flailing hand. Not just he, but perhaps his whole sex, is getting its comeuppance. Men are not the centre of the story; they are about to be obscured almost altogether. In the image, Jael’s knee pins Sisera to the bed, but in a second, it will be a tent peg that does the pinning, rendering him as immobile as the tent in which he lies.



Conway, Colleen M. 2016. Sex and Slaughter in the Tent of Jael: A Cultural History of a Biblical Story (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Shirin Neshat

Speechless, 1996, Gelatin silver print and ink, 167.64 x 133.35 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Purchased with funds provided by Jamie McCourt through the 2012 Collectors Committee, M.2012.60, © Shirin Neshat, courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

Louder than Words

Commentary by Sam Wells

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There is lively public discourse in the West about the rights or appropriateness of Muslim women wearing veils, including the hijab, chador, niqab, and burka. The pretext of this debate is sometimes the liberation of women (though some Muslim women argue veils are liberating), or the fear of something hidden underneath; in reality, the reasons are harder to pin down, and may include the feeling that one’s own values or culture are under threat or attack.

This photograph by Iranian artist Shirin Neshat is part of a series of black-and-white images of chador-clad women (full body cloak revealing eyes or face) called ‘Women of Allah’ (1993–97). In many either a model or the artist herself poses with a gun. Each photograph is covered with handwritten text, here the words of Iranian poet Tahereh Saffarzadeh in which she addresses her brothers in the Revolution, asking if she can participate:

O, you martyr

hold my hands …

I am your poet …

I have come to be with you

and on the promised day

we shall rise again.

The woman portrayed here, though serious, perhaps melancholic, appears in no way disempowered. Where we expect an earring, we see a weapon, toying with the relationship between beauty and power. Meanwhile she is not preparing for martyrdom—not readying herself to die. She is ready to kill, or at least to protect herself.

Might we imagine this woman as a kind of modern-day Deborah? Readings of Judges 4–5 often downplay Deborah’s military role and assign it to Barak (even though he refuses to go alone, and she explicitly agrees to accompany him; 4:8–9).

Likewise, Jael is cast as a wily seductress or a plucky underdog. Interpreters can struggle to see Jael as a protagonist, who in her own way, (with parallels to Ehud as assassin in Judges 3 and Deborah as judge in Judges 4–5), is advancing righteousness and justice.

This photograph encourages us to ask, why is this woman’s potential violence more troubling than Jabin oppressing Israel for twenty years and victorious soldiers exploiting women from time immemorial? If we see sadness in her face, perhaps it reflects her conclusion that there will never be a satisfactory answer.



Komaroff, Linda. 2015. ‘Intentionality and Interpretations: Shirin Neshat’s Speechless, 2 November 2015’, www.unframed.lacma.org, available at https://unframed.lacma.org/2015/11/02/intentionality-and-interpretations-shirin-neshat%E2%80%99s-speechless [accessed 29 January 2019]

Unknown, Northwestern Germany

Jael, from Speculum humanae salvationis, c.1360, Illuminated manuscript, 350 x 200 mm, Universitäts-und Landesbibliothek Darmstadt, Germany; Hs 2505, fol. 56v and 57r, www.tudigit.ulb.tu-darmstadt.de/show/Hs-2505 and www.tudigit.ulb.tu-darmstadt.de/show/Hs-2505/0112

A Temple Destroyed

Commentary by Sam Wells

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Speculum humanae salvationis is an anonymous typological work that was popular from the fourteenth century. A figure from the New Testament is compared with three figures from the Old Testament or apocryphal literature.

In this illumination, Mary’s conquest of Satan (top left) is accompanied by depictions of Jael (top right), Judith (lower left), and Tomyris (lower right).

In the eponymous book in the Apocrypha, Judith is a beautiful widow who makes herself subject to the advances of the Assyrian general Holofernes, who is about to destroy Bethulia, where Judith lives (Judith 7). Judith then enters the tent of the drunken Holofernes and cuts off his head (Judith 13).

Meanwhile Queen Tomyris is a non-biblical figure from east of the Caspian Sea who, according to the Greek historian Herodotus, defeated Cyrus the Great of Persia and his army in 530 BCE; she found Cyrus’s body, decapitated him, and dropped his head into a wineskin filled with human blood, saying ‘I warned you that I would quench your thirst for blood, and so I shall’ (Histories 1: 214).

Mary is depicted piercing the head of Satan, while bearing a cross on her shoulders whose nails resemble Jael’s tent peg. Revelation 13:1–3 announces that the beast from the sea (later interpreted as the antichrist) also receives a mortal head wound. Meanwhile in Genesis 3:15, the serpent is told, ‘I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel’ (NRSV).

Thus Satan appears snake-like at the feet of Mary, and the particular adversary of each of the other three female protagonists is shown in similar posture: at her heel. Each of them is reversing the sin of Eve and contributing to Mary’s conquest of evil.

Interesting by her absence from this sequence is Esther. Combatting Haman—a worthy companion to Holofernes and Sisera—Esther achieves her goals not via head-wounds but through wile, political nous, and physical beauty. She appears in the Speculum praying to King Ahasuerus for her people, alongside Mary who is petitioning Christ for humankind. Petitionary prayer is depicted alongside purgative violence as a way to share in the work of Mary.

Marcelle Hanselaar :

Jael and Sisera 2, 2007 , Etching, edition 30

Shirin Neshat :

Speechless, 1996 , Gelatin silver print and ink

Unknown, Northwestern Germany :

Jael, from Speculum humanae salvationis, c.1360 , Illuminated manuscript

‘Most Blessed of Women’

Comparative commentary by Sam Wells

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The victory of Deborah and Barak over King Jabin of Canaan and his commander Sisera of Harosheth-ha-goiim is told in prose in Judges 4 and poetry in Judges 5. This momentous event brings to an end twenty years of oppression of the Israelites. God is the principal agent in the story, who acts not simply to uphold Israel but to defend righteousness and justice. Thereafter peace reigns in Israel for 40 years.

God acts through three people. First Deborah, who ‘at that time … was judging Israel’ (4:4). She devises the plan by which Sisera and his army are to be defeated. Second, Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali plays a complementary role alongside Deborah in winning the day, with their 10,000 warriors defeating Sisera and his 900 chariots of iron. Intriguingly Deborah remarks to Barak that the glory of the victory will go to a woman. We assume this woman must be Deborah until, third, Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite, emerges to take the decisive role. Jael invites the fleeing Sisera into her tent, offers him hospitality, and then, when he is sleeping, drives a tent peg through his temple so hard that it pins his head to the ground.

As a Kenite, Jael is not an Israelite. But God chooses her nonetheless. Her own motives are not related—creating much room for artistic speculation. The story comes hot on the heels of the tale of Ehud (Judges 3:12–30). Ehud, ‘a left-handed man’ (v.15), brings tribute to the oppressor King Eglon of Moab. Promising Eglon a secret message, Ehud draws out a half-metre sword that he has hidden on his right thigh and thrusts the sword deep into Eglon's belly, so far that the skin closes over the hilt. Ehud escapes to safety by locking the door behind him, so the slaves think the king must be ‘relieving himself’ and don’t go in (v.24).

Ehud’s and Jael’s stories each rejoice in code-transgression, humour, earthy detail, and sexual innuendo. But Jael has been particularly controversial.

The controversy is brought out in Marcelle Hanselaar’s 2007 print. Here the sexual dimension is brought out in full measure, perhaps following the briefer poetic Judges 5 version more than the Judges 4 prose account (Fewell and Gunn 1990). The key verse is 5:27: ‘He sank, he fell, he lay still at her feet [or, ‘between her legs’]; at her feet [between her legs] he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell dead’. In Hanselaar’s portrayal a half-naked Jael bestraddles an apparently fully naked Sisera on a bed whose sheets are tousled. It looks like they have just had sex together, and the words ‘sank … fell … sank … fell … sank … fell’ suggest a double entendre in which his energies become limp before he sleeps and then finds not just his strength but his life itself is taken from him. The tables have been turned: the potential rapist has been seduced and murdered. It is exactly the opposite of what is typical of the spoils of war.

By contrast Shirin Neshat’s 1996 photograph Speechless depicts a woman whose accessories make clear she has no need to be judged by the standards of customary hospitality. The culture of Iran post-1979 creates an expectation that a woman will be a mother, a believer, a source of perhaps ‘forbidden allure’; but here she is a person capable of violence, of killing.

In the illuminations of the Speculum humanae salvationis (Mirror of Human Salvation), we see a typological reading of the story, as is typical of a speculum. Taking the lead from Judges 5:24, ‘most blessed of women be Jael,’ the scene is taken to prefigure the defeat of Satan through the nails of Christ’s cross. Though on a literal reading it is Christ’s body that receives these nails, what is destroyed as they are driven home is the power of sin. And this is an event that takes place, notably, at the Place of the Skull (Golgotha), so again our attention is directed to Sisera’s temples.

In this light the violence of the noble Jael is no problem. Jael takes her place alongside the other warrior women depicted with her in this manuscript, Judith and Tomyris, as together they anticipate the glorious triumph of Mary. And the blood she spills proclaims that redemptive blood which will issue from Christ’s dying body on the cross.



Fewell, Danna Nolan and David M. Gunn. 1990. ‘Controlling Perspectives: Women, Men, and the Authority of Violence in Judges 4 & 5’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 58(3): 389–411

To look at and compare further images from the Speculum Humanae Salvationis: http://tudigit.ulb.tu-darmstadt.de/show/Hs-2505

Next exhibition: Judges 5

Judges 4

Revised Standard Version

4 And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died. 2And the Lord sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisʹera, who dwelt in Haroʹsheth-ha-goiim. 3Then the people of Israel cried to the Lord for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and oppressed the people of Israel cruelly for twenty years.

4 Now Debʹorah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapʹpidoth, was judging Israel at that time. 5She used to sit under the palm of Debʹorah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Eʹphraim; and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment. 6She sent and summoned Barak the son of Abinʹo-am from Kedesh in Naphʹtali, and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, ‘Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking ten thousand from the tribe of Naphʹtali and the tribe of Zebʹulun. 7And I will draw out Sisʹera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the river Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.’ ” 8Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” 9And 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 Sisʹera into the hand of a woman.” Then Debʹorah arose, and went with Barak to Kedesh. 10And Barak summoned Zebʹulun and Naphʹtali to Kedesh; and ten thousand men went up at his heels; and Debʹorah went up with him.

11 Now Heber the Kenʹite had separated from the Kenʹites, the descendants of Hobab the father-in-law of Moses, and had pitched his tent as far away as the oak in Za-ananʹnim, which is near Kedesh.

12 When Sisʹera was told that Barak the son of Abinʹo-am had gone up to Mount Tabor, 13Sisʹera called out all his chariots, nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the men who were with him, from Haroʹsheth-ha-goiim to the river Kishon. 14And Debʹorah said to Barak, “Up! For this is the day in which the Lord has given Sisʹera into your hand. Does not the Lord go out before you?” So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with ten thousand men following him. 15And the Lord routed Sisʹera and all his chariots and all his army before Barak at the edge of the sword; and Sisʹera alighted from his chariot and fled away on foot. 16And Barak pursued the chariots and the army to Haroʹsheth-ha-goiim, and all the army of Sisʹera fell by the edge of the sword; not a man was left.

17 But Sisʹera fled away on foot to the tent of Jaʹel, the wife of Heber the Kenʹite; for there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenʹite. 18And Jaʹel came out to meet Sisʹera, and said to him, “Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; have no fear.” So he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. 19And he said to her, “Pray, give me a little water to drink; for I am thirsty.” So she opened a skin of milk and gave him a drink and covered him. 20And he said to her, “Stand at the door of the tent, and if any man comes and asks you, ‘Is any one here?’ say, No.” 21But Jaʹel the wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, till it went down into the ground, as he was lying fast asleep from weariness. So he died. 22And behold, as Barak pursued Sisʹera, Jaʹel went out to meet him, and said to him, “Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.” So he went in to her tent; and there lay Sisʹera dead, with the tent peg in his temple.

23 So on that day God subdued Jabin the king of Canaan before the people of Israel. 24And the hand of the people of Israel bore harder and harder on Jabin the king of Canaan, until they destroyed Jabin king of Canaan.