Jael and Sisera 2 by Marcelle Hanselaar

Marcelle Hanselaar

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

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Hospitality in Reverse

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Sam Wells

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.

 

References

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