Jacopo AmigoniJael and Sisera, 1739

Jael or Yael ( יעל , ya‛ēl , “a wild or mountain goat,” as in Psalm 104:18) was a heroic woman mentioned in the Book of Judges Judges 4:17-225:2-31. She is known for killing Sisera, the general of Canaanite King Jabin’s army.

Jael was the wife of Heber the Kenite  ( Judges 4:11, 4:17 ). The Kenites were on friendly terms both with the Israelites ( Judges 1:16 ) and with the Canaanites, to whom Jabin and his general, Sisera, belonged. For years Jabin the king of Canaan had oppressed Israel. For twenty years the Israelites had been subject to him, and, in largest measure, the instrument of their subjugation had been Sisera, the king’s general, the “man of the iron chariots.”

Deborah, a prophetess of Israel, by her passion for freedom, had roused the tribes of Israel to do battle against Sisera. They defeated him at “Taanach by the waters of Megiddo,” but Sisera sought in flight to save himself. He came to the “oaks of the wanderers,” where the tribe of Heber lived. Here he sought, and was probably invited, to take shelter in the tent of Jael ( Judges 4:17-18 ).

Heber and his household were at peace with Jabin. Jael, however, sympathized with the Israelites because of the twenty-year period of harsh oppression inflicted on them by Jabin, his commander Sisera, and his nine hundred iron chariots. Jael welcomed Sisera into her tent and covered him with a blanket. Sisera asked Jael for a drink of water; she gave him milk instead. He commanded Jael to watch over the tent and tell any inquirers that no one was there. Quietly, Jael took a mallet and drove a tent peg through Sisera’s temple into the ground while he was sleeping, killing him instantly. Jael was then the woman with the honor of defeating Jabin’s army, as prophesied by Deborah, and she showed Barak Sisera’s dead body in her tent. (Judg. 4:19-22)

The “Song of Deborah” (Judg. 5:24–26) recounts:

Extolled above women be Jael,Extolled above women in the tent.He asked for water, she gave him milk;She brought him cream in a lordly dish.She stretched forth her hand to the nail,Her right hand to the workman’s hammer,And she smote Sisera; she crushed his head,She crashed through and transfixed his temples.

As to Deborah’s praise of Jael ( Judges 5:24 ), there is no call to think that in her hour of triumph she was either capable of or intending to appraise the moral quality of Jael’s deed. Her country’s enemy was dead and that too at the hand of a woman. The woman who would kill Sisera must be the friend of Israel. Deborah had no question of the propriety of meting out death to a defeated persecutor. Her times were not such as to raise this question. The method of his death mattered little to her, for all the laws of peace were abrogated in the times of war. Therefore Jael was blessed among women by all who loved Israel. Whether Deborah thought her also to be worthy of the blessing of God we may not tell. At any rate there is no need for us to try to justify the treachery of Jael in order to explain the words of Deborah.