Non-Israelite Chosen by God

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Women in the Bible


Why was Jael chosen to kill Sisera when she was not an Israelite? Who told her to kill Sisera?


The story of Jael is directly connected to Deborah's, as found in Judges 4-5. After Deborah commanded Barak to raise up an army to fight Sisera, commander of the King of Hazor, Barak agreed on the condition that she join him on the battlefield. Deborah agreed to go, but immediately told him that the final glory would not be his. Sisera would be killed by the hand of a woman. Since Deborah was the only woman mentioned up to that point in the story, he probably thought she was speaking about herself. This, however, was not the case.

On God's appointed day, Deborah instructed Barak to engage Sisera's army. Barak obeyed, and the Lord routed Sisera as promised. With the tide turning, Sisera ran off on foot. He soon arrived at the encampment of Heber, the Kennite, who had possibly been allied with the king. Heber wasn't around, but his wife, Jael, was in her tent. She immediately went out to greet Sisera and invited him inside. As soon as he was in the tent, he lay down on the floor. Jael immediately put a covering over him, both to help conceal him and to make him comfortable. This only added to his feelings of trust and safety. When he asked for water, she gave him some milk that had been kept cool. It was most refreshing and showed just how gracious a hostess she was. He ordered her to stand in the doorway, just in case someone might want to drop by. He was clearly exhausted and within a short time he fell fast asleep.

Convinced that he was in a deep sleep, Jael sprang into action. She grabbed a wooden tent peg and a hammer. With a firm grip, moving silently, Jael drove the tent peg through his head so hard that it went right into the floor. Death was almost instantaneous.

Within moments, Barak was at her tent looking for information about Sisera. She invited him into her tent and showed him Sisera pegged to the floor. As Barak stood over the dead body of Sisera, he, no doubt, remembered Deborah's words that the commander would be killed by a woman – a most dishonorable death.

Even though Jael was not an Israelite, most scholars see her as a heroine. While her actions violated the ancient rules of hospitality, Sisera's actions violated the rules of being a guest. That has led some scholars to think she was justified in killing him in order to restore honor to herself and to her household. Let us not forget that Sisera left the battlefield in defeat. He was already in a state of shame and, no doubt, sought refuge in the encampment of an ally. Still, he went to Jael's tent, not her husband's. In so doing, Sisera violated the rules of hospitality by robbing Heber of the opportunity to provide it. This would bring dishonor to Heber and additional shame to Sisera. Some think that Sisera deliberately approached Jael's tent because it would have been the one least likely to be searched. But by going to Jael's tent, Sisera also dishonored her. Approaching and entering a lone woman's tent would have led to possible adultery charges for both of them. This would not bode well for Jael. Once there, he started making requests. He asked for water. He also asked Jael to be on the lookout to make sure no one accidentally stopped by while he was there. Both of these requests impugn the integrity of the host; under the rules of hospitality, the guest cannot make any demands—even polite ones. His requests of Jael, then, could have been perceived by her as hostile threats made against her by a stranger. It might make her actions be considered more justifiable.

Perhaps it was the Spirit of God that drove her. Had she refused him, Sisera might have been able to escape. How would that have been part of God's plan? Jael defeated the man who had oppressed the Israelites for 20 years. For this, Deborah states that she was "blessed above women." (5:24) In Judges, then, Jael is lauded as a heroine, who did the very work of God, but, ultimately, credit for the deliverance was given to God.

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