The story is told twice
For a short version of the story of Deborah and Jael, see Bible People: Deborah
Never Say Die!
The story of Deborah and Jael contains four main sections:
2 The battle, then Sisera fled
(Judges 4:12-16, 5:
(Judges 4:1-11, 5:1-8)
Deborah is the only woman judge mentioned in the Book of Judges. The people of her time had no difficulty in accepting her as a judge. This suggests that judges were seen as ‘God’s people’, and their gender was unimportant.
‘At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment.'
Deborah is introduced as a ‘prophetess’, but a prophet was not someone who foretold the future. They ‘heard’ a message from God in some way and passed it on. Often the message was about staying apart from the surrounding cultures and maintaining the unique identity and beliefs of Israel.
Deborah also acted as an oracle when, sitting under a special palm tree in the hill country of Ephraim, she gave judgment on particular matters. This palm tree was the ancient equivalent of a judge's courthouse, a place where people went when they needed a dispute settled.
Oracles were common in the ancient world. People believed they had special wisdom given by God. Oracles could give advice on difficult problems.
oracle listened, considered the problem or question, then spoke words of
advice. These words might be in the form of a riddle, which the listener
had to interpret, or they might be more direct.
It has to be said that the Israelite settlers in the hill-country of Canaan were largely to blame for these problems.
They continually raided the Canaanite farms and villages on the prosperous
plains below their hill settlements, and of course the powerful city-states retaliated and ‘oppressed’ the Israelites.
Now threatened with the might of King Jabin's army, the Israelites turned to Deborah. She summoned Barak, an able military leader and spoke very direct words to him. He must go to Mount Tabor with as many fighting men as he could assemble, and so draw King Jabin out. She in turn would draw out Jabin's fearsome general, Sisera, and taunt him into fighting at the Wadi Kishon.
At first, Barak was reluctant to enter into battle against Sisera, the military commander of the substantial troops of King Jabin of Hazor. His hesitation is hardly surprising, since the Canaanites possessed vastly superior military technology. Sisera had a disciplined, professional army, and his troops were armed to the teeth with iron weapons and chariots in large numbers.
Barak had citizen militia from most of the twelve tribes of Israel (though some of the tribes ignored the situation and stayed at home; see 'No Show at Deborah's Battle' for the story).
Barak knew that his own forces were fewer in number, comparatively untrained, and with inferior weapons. Against such odds, it was unlikely that he could succeed. To an onlooker his reluctance must have seemed common sense rather than fear. He did not wish to enter into a battle he could not win.
There are, however, rare figures in human history who inspire such loyalty in the people around them that they can achieve what seems impossible. Sometimes they are military leaders, sometimes leaders in government, sometimes cult figures. Deborah seems to have been such a person. She had the charisma needed to convince people they could take extraordinary risks and succeed. The force of her personality and her complete faith in God gave Barak the courage to face odds that he knew to be overwhelming.
Battle is fought, and Sisera flees
(Judges 4:12-16 and 5:19-23)
The Canaanites had the technology to build this sort of military equipment; the Israelites did not.
All they had were poorly equipped foot soldiers now pitted against the magnificent chariots of the Canaanites, and their complete faith in God.
For warfare in ancient
Israel, see Bible
The Canaanites ought to have won the battle easily. They did not. There was a tremendous downpour and the 900 chariots, meant for quick maneuvering on firm ground, became bogged in the mud. See a diagram of the battlefield below.
Just before the battle, a flash flood swelled the nearby Wadi Kishon and turned the battleground into deep mud, giving the Israelite foot soldiers the advantage over the Canaanite chariots.
There was a wonderful irony in this. Baal, the main god of the Canaanite forces, was god of storms and weather. He was worshipped by the Canaanites, with Anat, a fierce goddess who fought vigorously to protect her family. Yet the Canaanites lost the battle because of a storm!
The Israelites could hardly believe their luck. Yahweh, their god, was clearly superior to the god of the Canaanites.
Abandoning his army, Sisera fled on foot away from the battlefield, towards the encampment of Jael, the Kenite woman (Judges 4:12-16).
‘Most blessed of women be Jael,
The wife of Heber the Kenite,
Of tent-dwelling women most blessed.’
Jael was a tent-dweller. Her family were tinsmiths who made farming utensils, domestic items, and weapons. They
traveled whenever they
could find work.
Her campsite must have been close to the battlefield because her family was making and
supplying weapons for the army.
Jael had her own tent, separate from her husband’s tent (for an image of the sort of tent she would have lived in, see Bible Architecture: Housing). At this period in Israelite history it was still common for several women to be married to one man. In such a case, each wife had her tent which she made, pitched and maintained herself. When she had children, they lived with her in this tent.
‘So he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. Then he said to her, “Please give me a little water to drink; for I am thirsty”. She opened a skin of milk and gave him a drink and covered him. He said to her “Stand at the entrance of the tent, and if anybody comes and asks you “Is anyone here?” say “No”. Read Judges 4:17-20 and 5:24-25.
When Sisera arrived at the encampment in the last stages of exhaustion and terror, Jael
saw him and called him to her tent.
Jael offered help to a fleeing enemy general, but not ritual hospitality.
Sisera went into Jael’s tent. She covered him with a rug, which suggests that he
afraid and wanted to hide. He asked for water. She gave him a drink of goat’s milk. Exhausted from the battle and his flight, he
Faced with a man who was far superior to her in physical strength, Jael
used her wits and courage. She took the wooden hammer used to put up her tent and one of the pegs that held the tent ropes, then with one expert blow she
drove the peg deep into the side of Sisera’s head.
The story does not tell us Jael’s motive for killing Sisera. Whatever her reasons, the Israelites celebrated her as a national heroine, who together with Deborah had saved them from their mortal enemies. They also relished the irony of the situation: Sisera the mighty general fell not into Barak's hands, but Jael's.
There are extraordinary similarities between the stories of Jael and the young boy David, when he killed the giant Goliath. Both of them
‘Out of the window she peered
Sisera’a mother stood at a window, watching the road and waiting anxiously for her son to return with the spoils of battle. As the reader knows, he will never return. Jael has killed him.
The image of a woman watching at a window had special significance for the
people who listened to this story. It was a common image of the goddess in
Clay statues dug up at the archaeological site of
Ugarit show a woman's face looking out from a lattice window, and showing
Sisera’s mother at a latticed window linked her with the Canaanite
Read about more women in the Old and New Testament
Bible Study Resource for Women in the Bible: Deborah and Jael,
Sisera and Barak