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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
(Heb. Yael', יָעֵל, a wild goat or ibex, as in Psalms 104:18; Job 39:1; Sept. Ι᾿αήλ, Josephus Ι᾿άλη ), the wife of Heber the Kenite, and the slayer of the oppressor of the Israelites (Judges 4:17-22). B.C. 1409. Heber was the chief of a nomadic Arab clan who had separated from the rest of his tribe, and had pitched his tent under the oaks, which had, in consequence, received the name of "oaks of the wanderers" (A.V. plain of Zaanaim, Judges 4:11), in the neighborhood of. Kedesh Naphthali. (See HEBER). The tribe of Heber had maintained the quiet enjoyment of their pastures by adopting a neutral position in a troublous period. Their descent from Jethro secured them the favorable regard of the Israelites, and they were sufficiently important-to conclude a formal peace with Jabin, king of Hazor. (See KENITE).
In the headlong rout which followed the defeat of the Canaanites by Barak, Sisera, abandoning his chariot the more easily to avoid notice (comp. Homer, II. v, 20), fled unattended, and in an opposite direction from that taken b)y his army. On reaching the tents of the nomad chief, he remembered that there was peace, between his sovereign and the house of Heber, and therefore applied for the hospitality and protection to which he was thus entitled (Harmer, Obs. 1 460). "The tent of Jael" is expressly mentioned either because the harem of Heber was in a separate tent (Rosenmü ller, Morgenl. 3, 22), or because the Kenite himself was absent at the time. In the sacred seclusion of this almost inviolable sanctuary (Pococke, Easst, 2, 5) Sisera might well have felt himself absolutely secure from the incursions of the enemy (Calmet, Fragr. e. vo. 25); and although he intended to take refuge among the Keilites, he would not have ventured so openly to violate all idea of Oriental propriety by entering a woman's apartments (D'Herbelot, Bibliotheque Orientale, s.v. Haram) had he not received Jael's express, earnest, and respectful entreaty to do so. (See HAREM).
He accepted the invitation, and she flung the quilt (הִשְּׂמַכָה, A.V. "a mantle;" evidently some part of the regular furniture of the tent) over him as he lay wearily on the floor. When thirst prevented sleep, and he asked for water, she brought him buttermilk in her choicest vessel, thus ratifying with the semblance of officious zeal the sacred bond of Eastern hospitality. Wine would have been less suitable to quench his thirst, and may possibly have been eschewed by Heber's clan (Jeremiah 35:2). Curdled milk, according to the quotations in Harmer, is still a favorite Arab beverage, and that this is the drink intended we infer from Judges 5, 25, as well as from the direct statement of Josephus (γάλα διεφθορὸς ἤδη , Ant. 5, 5, 4), although there is no reason to suppose with Josephus and the Rabbis (D. Kimchi, Jarchi, etc.) that Jael purposely used it because of its soporific qualities (Bochart, Hieroz. 1 473). But anxiety still prevented Sisera from composing himself to rest until he had exacted a promise from his protectress that she would faithfully preserve the secret of his concealment; till at last, with a feeling of perfect security, the weary and unfortunate general resigned himself to the deep sleep of misery and fatigue. Then it was that Jaë l took in her left hand one of the great wooden pins (A.V. "nail") which fastened down the cords of the tent, ant( in her right hand the mallet (A.V. "a hammer") used to drive it into the ground, and, creeping up to her sleeping and confiding guest, with one terrible blow dashed it through Sisera's temples deep into the earth. With one spasm of fruitless agony, with one contortion of sudden pain, "at her feet he bowed, he fell; where he bowed, there he fell down dead" (Judges 5, 27). She then waited to meet the pursuing Barak, and led him into her tent, that she might in his presence claim the glory of the deed! (See BARAK).
Many have supposed that by this act she fulfilled the saying of Deborah, that God would sell Sisera into the hand of a woman (Judges 4:9; Josephus, Ant. 5, 5, 4), and hence they have supposed that Jaë l was actuated by some divine and hidden influence. But the Bible gives no hint of such an inspiration, and it is at least equally probable that Deborah' merely intended to intimate the share of the honor which would be assigned by posterity to her own exertions. If, therefore, we eliminate the still more monstrous supposition of the Rabbis that Sisera was slain by Jaë l because he attempted to offer her violence-the murder will appear in all its hideous atrocity. A fugitive had asked and received dakhil (or protection) at her hands-he was miserable, defeated, weary-he was the ally of her husband-he was her invited and honored guest-he was in the sanctuary of the harem-above all, he was confiding, defenseless, and asleep; yet she broke her pledged faith, violated her solemn hospitality, and murdered a trustful and unprotected slumberer. Surely we require the clearest and most positive statement that Jaë l was instigated to such a murder by divine suggestion. Smith. (See HOSPITALITY).
It does not seem difficult to understand, on merely human grounds, the object of Jaë l in this painful transaction. Her motives seem to have been entirely prudential; and on prudential ‘ grounds the very circumstance which renders her act the more odious-the peace subsisting between the nomad chief and the king of Hazor-must to her have seemed to make it the more expedient. She saw that the Israelites had now the upper hand, and was aware that, as being in alliance with the oppressors of Israel, the camp might expect very rough treatment from the pursuing force, which would be greatly aggravated if Sisera were found sheltered within it. This calamity she sought to avert, and to place the house of Heber in a favorable position with the victorious party. She probably justified the act to herself by the consideration that, as Sisera would certainly be taken and slain, she might as well make a benefit out of his inevitable doom as incur utter ruin in the attempt to protect him. It is probable, however, that at first the woman was sincere in her proffers of Arab friendship; but the quiet sleep of the warrior gave her time to reflect how easily even her arm might rid her kindred people of the oppressor, and she was thus induced to plot against the life of her victim. It does not appear that she committed the falsehood, which she was requested by him to do, of denying the presence of any stranger if asked by a passer-by. See Kitto's Daily Bible Illustrations, ad loc.
It is much easier to explain the conduct of Jaë l than to account for the apparently eulogistic notice which it receives in the triumphal ode of Deborah and Barak; but the following remarks will go far to remove the difficulty: There is no doubt that Sisera would have been put to death if he had been taken alive by the Israelites. The war-usages of the time warranted such treatment, and there are numerous examples of it. They had, therefore, no regard to her private motives,' or to the particular relations between Heber and Jabin, but beheld her only as the instrument of accomplishing what was usually regarded as the final and crowning act of a great victory. The unusual circumstance that this act was performed by a woman's hand was, according to the notions of the time, so great a humiliation that it could hardly fail to be dwelt upon in contrasting the result with the proud confidence of victory which had at the outset been entertained (Judges 5:30). Without stopping to ask when and where Deborah claims for herself any infallibility, or whether, in the passionate moment of patriotic triumph, she was likely to pause in such wild times to scrutinize the moral bearings of an act which had been so splendid a benefit to herself and her people, we may question whether any moral commendation is directly intended. What Deborah stated was a fact, viz. that the wives of the nomad Arabs would undoubtedly regard Jaë l as a public benefactress, and praise her as a popular heroine. "She certainly- was not ‘ blessed' as a pious and upright person is blessed when performing a deed which embodies the noblest principles, and which goes up as a memorial before God, but merely as one who acted a part that accomplished an important purpose of heaven. In the same sense, though in the opposite direction. Job and Jeremiah cursed the day of their birth; not that they meant to make it the proper subject of blame, but that they wished to mark ‘ their deep sense of the evil into which it had ushered them-mark it as the commencement of a life-heritage of sorrow and gloom.
In like manner, and with a closer resemblance to the case before us, the psalmist pronounces happy or blessed those who should dash the little ones of Babylon against the stones (Psalms 137:9), which no one who understands the spirit of Hebrew poetry would ever dream of construing into a proper benediction upon the ruthless murderers of Babylon's children. as true heroes of righteousness. It merely announces, under a strong individualizing trait, the coming recompense on Babylon for ‘ the cruelties she had inflicted on Israel; her own measure should be meted back to her: and they who should be instruments of effecting it would execute a purpose of God, whether they might themselves intend it or not. Let the poetical exaltation of Jaë l be viewed in the light of these cognate passages, and it will be found to contain nothing at variance with the verdict which every impartial mind must be disposed to pronounce upon her conduct. It is, in reality, the work of God's judgment, through her instrumentality, that is celebrated, not her mode of carrying it into execution; and it might be as just to regard the heathen Medes and Persians as a truly pious people because they are called God's ‘ sanctified ones' to do his work of vengeance on Babylon (Isaiah 13:3), as, from what is said in Deborah's song, to consider Jaë l an example of righteousness" (See DEBORAH).
As to the morality of the act of Jaë l for which she is thus applauded, although it can not fairly be justified by the usages of any time or people, yet the considerations urged by Dr. Robinson (Biblical Repos. 1831, p. 607) are of some force: "We must judge of it by the feelings of those among whom the right of avenging the blood of a relative was so strongly rooted that even Moses could not take it away. Jaë l was an ally by blood of the Israelitish nation; [Sisera, the general of] their chief oppressor, who had mightily oppressed them for the space of twenty years, now lay defenseless before her; and he was, moreover, one of those whom Israel was bound by the command of Jehovah to extirpate. Perhaps, too, she felt called to be the instrument of God in working out for that nation a great deliverance by thus exterminating the chieftain of their heathen oppressor. At least Israel viewed it in this light; and, in this view, we can not reproach the heroine with that as a crime which both she and Israel felt to be a deed performed in accordance with the mandate of heaven." We must, moreover, not forget the halo with which military success gilds every act in the popular eye, and that, in times of war, many things are held allowable and even commendable which would be reprobated in peace. Dr. Thomson, indeed (Land and Book, 2, 146 sq.), justifies Jaë l's course by the following considerations:
1. Jabin, although nominally at peace with the Kenites, had doubtless inflicted much injury upon them in common with their neighbors the Israelites, and may have been — probably was — especially obnoxious to Jaë l herself.
2. We are not to assume that Bedouin laws were of strict force among the settled Kenites.
3. Jaë l must have known her act would be applauded, or she would not have ventured upon it.
4. There is every reason to believe she was in full sympathy with the Israelites, not only from friendly, but also religious grounds; and the neutrality of the Kenites seems to be mentioned merely to account for Sisera's seeking her tent, although he appears to have felt himself insecure.
Nor did her promise of protection contain any warrant against violence at her hands, but only of secretion from the hostile army. (See SISERA).
The Jaë l mentioned in Deborah's song (Judges 5:6)" In the days of Shamgar the son of Anath, in the days of Jaë l, the highways were unoccupied, and the travelers walked through byways"-has been supposed by some (e.g. Gesenius, Lex. s.v.; Dr. Robinson, ut supra; Furst, and others) to have been a local judge of the Israelites in the interval of anarchy between Shamgar and Jabin. It is not necessary, for this supposition, to make Jaë l the name of a man, for the case of Deborah shows that the place of judge might be occupied by a female. The reasons for this supposition are,
1. That the state of things described in Judges 5:6 as existing in Jaë l's days, is not the state of things existing in the days of Jaë l. the wife of Heber, whose time was famous for the restoration of the nation to a better.
2. That the wife of a stranger would hardly have been named as marking an epoch in the history of Israel. (See Bertheau in the Exeyet. Ifandbuch, ad loc.) But there is no evidence either of such an interval or of such a judgeship; and it is, therefore, more natural to refer the name to the wife of Heber as the most prominent character of the period referred to, the recollection of her late act giving her a distinction that did not previously attach to her. The circumstance that the name Jaë l is masculine in the Hebrew is of no force, as it is freely used (literally) of the female deer (Proverbs 5:19, "roe"). (See JUDGES).
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Jael'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/j/jael.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.