“Thus, Jael, the wife of Heber, went and seized a wooden stake for the tent and she took a mallet in her hand and went to him stealthily and drove the wooden stake into his temple and it went down into the earth. He was stunned, lost consciousness, and died.”
Nearly a decade ago, when I first taught the book of Judges to a group of High School students, one of the girls in the class, upon reading this account for the first time, exclaimed, “She is hard-core!” Yes, Jael is. But in another sense, aren’t we all supposed to be hard core — at least with our faith and not necessarily with mallets and tent pegs? Are we not to trust in God, do the right thing because it is the right thing to do while also having the faith that he will work the outcome to his glory?
And so, in the tent of Jael, wife of Heber, the man who was an ally of Jabin, Sisera, the wicked commander of Jabin’s hordes, was struck down. There indeed is irony in the retelling. Further, as Deborah foretold, the victory went into the hand of a woman — a woman who would otherwise have been utterly obscure, but whom God used to his glory. Even those who are obscure in the eyes of men, when used by the hand of God, move mountains.
The final sentence to this verse is worded somewhat differently than is found in many of our English Bibles. After the athnak (a Hebrew accent mark that divides the sentence conceptually), there are basically 3 verbal ideas expressed: He was in a deep sleep or otherwise incapacitated, he was unconscious, and he was dead. Our English Bibles tend to translate this clause as having to do with the way Sisera was while Jael snuck up on him under the coverings (he was exhausted from fleeing so fell asleep right away. Yet the LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament made about 300 years before the birth of Christ) renders this as a description of the way in which Sisera died. As the LXX is an early Hebrew interpretation of the text, I have favored a translation closer to their rendering than to the rendering of our modern English Bibles, though either conception can be sustained by the text.
One might argue that the translation above lends more drama to the text as it implies that Sisera might still have been awake when she drove the tent stake through his temple. He just was unaware as he was hiding under the coverings. Either way, Sisera, the enemy of God’s people, lay dead by the deliberate hand of Jael. She is indeed, “hard-core.”
“And Jael went out to call to Sisera, and she said to him, ‘Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me! Do not be afraid.’ And he turned aside toward her tent and she covered him with a curtain.”
It is clear from the context that Jael is seeking Sisera out. God has ordained his defeat at the hands of a woman and here we begin to see it unfold. One may be tempted to ask, how is she justified in murdering Sisera in cold blood? Doesn’t the Sixth Commandment prohibit such action? Indeed, the Sixth Commandment does prohibit murder, but here we are in a time of war and Jael is simply acting as a combatant, bringing the escaped enemy commander to justice.
Sisera, of course, assumes that Jael’s invitation is friendly…his master does indeed have a pact with her husband…yet, Jael lives up to her name (which means, “Yahweh is On High” — note that “jael” can also refer to an ibex or a mountain goat, which may seem odd at first, but when you recognize the stubborn determination of a mountain goat, again, you see how significant her name is to what she has been called to do) and what follows is her plan to put this wicked man to death.
There is some discussion as to exactly what the term, hDkyImVv (semiykah), means. Some suggest that it refers to a mat or a carpet that might have covered the floor of the tent, others refer to it as a curtain that would have separated the male and female quarters in the tent, which indeed, would be an ironic use of the curtain, which would then have maintained the separation between Jael and Sisera. In modern Hebrew, the term refers to a blanket, which again fits the context, we just do not know for sure. What we do know is that Jael covered him up in a way that would not have been overtly obvious to a casual passerby and went forward with her plan to capture and kill this evil man.
The notion of covering, in the Old Testament, is also often tied to that of atonement. This, I believe, becomes more prominent in Deborah’s song in the next chapter, so we will leave it for then, apart from stating that there is symbolism in recognizing that atonement comes through the shedding of blood (Hebrews 9:22). The problem is that none of us can atone for our own sins as we are wicked and rebellious to the core (Romans 3:10; Micah 6:7; Isaiah 47:11). The wicked do not understand that, but we to whom the revelation of God has come not only know, but know the one who can and did make atonement for the sins of his people: Jesus Christ.