Lessons from Jael the assassin
In chapter four of the great book of Judges, we meet Jael. She is not a harlot and doesn’t seem to have a scandalous past, but Bible commentators accuse her of other sins – “sacrificing the sacred rights of hospitality to her dark purpose”, “the sins of lying, treachery, and assassination”, “callous efficiency”, “treachery”, and “murder in cold blood”.
But who exactly was this Jael? The long and short of it is that she was a female assassin. Let’s start at the beginning.
God’s chosen people, the Israelites, were known for “continually choosing evil in the sight of the Lord”. God gave them into the hands of the Canaanites, who were led by King Jabin of Hazor. The king wanted to restore Canaan’s power by getting rid of the Israelite invaders. Jabin’s commander was Sisera and he oppressed Israel for 20 years.
Israel’s judge at that time was the prophetess named Deborah, and their commander was Barack. Deborah, on instruction from God, told Barack to rally the ill-equipped Israelite militia against the armies and chariots of King Jabin. In Judges 4:8, 9, Barack tells Deborah, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” “I will certainly go with you,” Deborah replied, “but the road you are taking will bring you no honour, because the LORD will be selling Sisera into the hand of a woman.”
Barak and his men faced immense odds, but the Bible states that God intervened and caused it to rain on the battlefield and also in the river that ran along it. The chariots were caught in the mud, and Barack’s men were able to conquer the Canaanites. Sisera, the enemy general, fled from the battlefield. He went towards the camp of a woman called Jael the Kenite “for there was peace between King Jabin and the Kenites”. Jael respectfully called to fleeing commander. “Turn in, my lord, turn in to me. Fear not.”
Sisera asked her for water; she brought him curdled milk (yoghurt) in a lordly dish. She fed him and wooed him to sleep. He told her to stand guard at the door of the tent and said, “If any man comes and asks, ‘Is there any man here?”, say, ‘No.’” With that, Sisera fell into a deep sleep.
Jael then committed an act that one writer says is rather shocking to our modern sensibilities. She took one of her tent pegs and with one blow hammered it through the side of Sisera’s head. As Barak pursued Sisera, Jael greeted him and offered to show him Sisera. “And when he came into her tent, behold, Sisera lay dead, and the nail was in his temples.”
Barak remembered Deborah’s prophecy: “This journey won’t be for your own honour; Yahweh will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.”
Incredibly, chapter five of Judges ‘bigs up’ Jael for this atrocious deed. “Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, of tent-dwelling women most blessed. He asked for water and she gave him milk; she brought him curds in a noble’s bowl. She sent her hand to the tent peg and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet; she struck Sisera; she crushed his head; she shattered and pierced his temple. Between her feet he sank, he fell, he lay still; between her feet he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell dead” (Judges 5:24-27).
Fr Sean C. Major-Campbell, Servant Priest, states that this celebration does not appeal to the modern mind. “There are images of betrayal, deceit, cold-blooded murder, and heartless resolve, all set against the background of care, food, rest, trust, and what should have been safety,” he says.
He proceeds to ask many questions. Who is the best judge of the other side in war? Should Jael have been celebrated with this song of Deborah (prophetess and judge)? Is murder sanitised by pre-emptive strike and religious celebration?
Fr Sean notes further, “This is a celebration of the murder of Sisera. However, King Jabin was not at war with the household of Heber, husband of Jael. How could she have a heart to murder someone who did not trouble her or her household?”
He points out the text in Judges that indicates that the Israelites were cruelly oppressed and they cried out to the Lord. But, he notes that this is where some challenging questions may meet the faith position that accords bias to God in war. However, the text declared the state of oppression that preceded this fateful reality for Sisera. It affirms the notion that God is on the side of the oppressed, and that God cares for the oppressed.
“In 2020, we must, however, include such questions as: Would we still celebrate such an approach? Would this be akin to jungle justice? Would the approach of Jael apply in ethically sound terms to gang warfare? What if a gang feels sufficiently wronged by the other side, and a woman finds the Don under her roof and lures him to eat, drink, and rest – after which she murders him? Would children be allowed to own a storybook whose plot presents a hammer-holding woman driving a tent peg into the head of a defenceless man?” Fr Sean quizzes.
While Jael’s actions saved the Israelites from the power and oppression of Sisera’s army, might the same result have been accomplished otherwise? Is it okay for us in 2020 to say that going forward, it would be better to treat him as a prisoner of war? Or should killing be the way to go for those whom we consider to be offenders?
“There is something about Jael’s deceit and action of murder that does not appeal to the contemporary mind and critical, ethical thinking. We may accept her actions since we have been socialised to accept biblical presentation of whatever affirms the interest of Israel. We will do well though seeking the path of fair play and justice, even as we work against the structures and systems of oppression,” Fr Sean advises.