ja'-el (ya`el, "a wild or mountain goat," as in Ps 104:18; Iael): The wife of Heber the Kenite and the slayer of Sisera (Jg 4:17-22; 5:2-31). Jael emerges from obscurity by this single deed, and by the kindest construction can hardly be said to have reached an enviable fame. The history of this event is clear. 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 (Jg 4:17-18). There are two accounts of the subsequent events--one a prose narrative (Jg 4:19-22), the other a poetic one, found in Deborah's song of triumph (Jg 5:24-27). The two accounts are as nearly in agreement as could be expected, considering their difference in form.
It is evident that the tribe of Heber was regarded by both parties to the struggle as being neutral. They were descendants of Jethro, and hence, had the confidence of the Israelites. Though they had suffered somewhat at the hands of the Canaanites they had made a formal contract of peace with Jabin. Naturally Sisera could turn to the tents of Heber in Kedesh-naphtali with some confidence. The current laws of hospitality gave an added element of safety. Whether Jael met Sisera and urged him to enter her tent and rest (Jg 4:18), or only invited him after his appeal for refuge, the fact remains that he was her guest, was in the sanctuary of her home, and protected by the laws of hospitality: She gave him milk to drink, a mantle for covering, and apparently acquiesced in his request that she should stand guard at the tent and deny his presence to any pursuers. When sleep came to the wearied fugitive she took a "tent-pin, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly unto him, and smote the pin into his temples" (Jg 4:21), and having murdered him, goes forth to meet Barak the Israelite general and claims the credit for her deed. Some critics suggest that Sisera was not asleep when murdered, and thus try to convert Jael's treachery into strategy. But to kill your guest while he is drinking the milk of hospitality is little less culpable than to murder him while asleep. There is no evidence that Sisera offered Jael any insult or violence, and but little probability that she acted under any spiritual or Divine suggestion. It is really impossible to justify Jael's act, though it is not impossible to understand it or properly to appreciate Deborah's approval of the act as found in Jg 5:24. The motive of Jael may have been a mixed one. She may have been a sympathizer with Israel and with the religion of Israel. But the narrative scarcely warrants the interpretation that she felt herself as one called to render "stern justice on an enemy of God" (Expositor's Bible). Jael was unquestionably prudential. Sisera was in flight and Barak in pursuit. Probably her sympathy was with Barak, but certainly reflection would show her that it would not be wisdom to permit Barak to find Sisera in her tent. She knew, too, that death would be Sisera's portion should he be captured--therefore she would kill him and thus cement a friendship with the conqueror.
As to Deborah's praise of Jael (Jg 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.
C. E. Schenk