Jael is the Bible character who sparks one-liners about “splitting headaches.” She’s the woman who jokesters like to refer to as “as expert at helping men ‘get things through their thick skulls!” But we are getting ahead of ourselves. A bit of context in needed.
Following the Israelites’ crossing of the Jordan River, Israel’s campaign to conquer and settle the promised land got off to a spectacular start. But over time, for multiple reasons, the effort sputtered and lost stem. Taking over a country is trying, not to mention tiring.
By Joshua’s final days, the people of God had pretty much given up attempting to squash the pockets of Canaanite resistance that were popping up left and right. After Joshua went to glory, the nation went off the rails.
It wasn’t long before the Angel of the Lord showed up and announced the dire consequences of Israel’s slide into sin: “I will not drive out these people before you. They will be thorns in your sides, and their gods will be a trap for you” (Judg 2:3).
These events ushered in an extremely dark period in Israel’s history. The chronicler of that era (likely the prophet Samuel), summed up this chaotic, lawless period with these chilling words: “In those days there was no king in Israel: everyone did whatever he wanted” (Judg 21:25).
Over 300 years, a grim cycle repeated itself time and again. The Israelites” collective idolatry would eventually become so grievous that God would allow an enemy nation to subjugate his people. This would inevitably result in the people of God crying out to God. In response. God would graciously provide deliverance through either a great warrior like Samson (see Judges 13-16), a timid leader like Gideon (see Judges 6-8), or an unlikely hero like Deborah (see Judges 4-5), These military delivers were known as the “Judges” (Judg 2:16).
Jael lived during the years when Debora, Israel’s only female judge, was leading a spirited effort to free her people from Jabin, an oppressive Canaanite king, Jael was married to a Kenite man named Heber.
The two were minding their own business, camping near Kedesh by the oak tree of Zaanannim (see Judg 4:11), when the Israelite-Canaanite conflict came to a bloody culmination nearby, Barak (the military commander of Israel) led 10,000 troops down Mount Tabor. They engaged the Canaanite army that was under the command of Sisera (Jabin’s top genral; see Judg 4:1-10). With God’s help, the Israelites overwhelmed the Canaanites, killing every single soldier and charioteer (see Judg 4:16).
All except for Sisera. He escaped somehow and fled, ending up at Jael’s front door. He assumed he would be safe there, and why not? His boss, King Jabin, and the Kenite people enjoyed a cordial relationship (see Judg 4:17). It was a terrible miscalculation on Sisera’s part.
Under the pretense of providing shelter and showing hospitality, Jael took Sisera into her tent. She hid the scared, exhausted commander, offered him milk to drink, and gave him a place to sleep. When he dozed off, she reached for her hammer. The last thing that ever went through Sisera’s mind was over very large tent peg (see Judg 4:17-21).
We don’t know what possessed Jael to violate all protocols of hospitality and commit such a treacherous act. Perhaps she regared the Kenites’ family connection to Israel (i.e., the Kenites were descendants of Hobab [aka Jethro], the father-in-law of Moses; Judg 4:11) as more binding than any newer political alliance. Or maybe she sensed in the stunning victory of the Israelites over the superior Canaanites proof that Yahweh was the one true God. Whatever the case, when Sisera began to snore, Jael struck.
Later, Deborah, the leader of Israel, commemorated Jael’s coldly courageous act in a song (Judg 5:24). Jael is never mentioned again in Scripture, though it’s not hard to imagine that after these events she was a frequent topic of conversation around dinner tables for quite some time.
JUDGEGS 5:24 – “Jael is most blessed of women, the wife of Heber the Kenite; she is most blessed among tent-dwelling women.”