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
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.