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