Yael

When national battles intrude into her domestic space, this woman becomes one of the few female prophets.

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Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.

The wife of Heber the Kenite, Yael plays an important role in the story of Israel’s wars with the Canaanites, described in the Book of Judges. In the narrative about the military heroine Deborah, Yael kills Sisera, the Canaanite general of King Yabin, after he escapes from the battle with Deborah’s general, Barak. Yael’s deeds are recounted in Judges 4 and in the poetic Song of Deborah in Judges 5. The song is old, most probably dating to the late 12th century B.C.E., and may be the earliest poem in the Hebrew Bible.

Lazzarini's Jael & SiseraIn the prose account, Deborah first sends Barak to fight the Canaanites and then she agrees to accompany him. She prophesies that the victory would not be a glory for him, for Sisera would fall “by the hand of a woman” (Judges 4:9), and that woman will be Yael. Sisera flees the battle and goes to Yael’s tent, for there was “peace” between King Yabin and the Kenites (4:17). This peace might mean that, since the Kenites may have been metal smiths, Heber was nearby in order to repair Canaanite weapons.

When Sisera approaches her tent, Yael greets him, invites him in, covers him with a blanket, and, at his request for a little water, gives him milk. He then tells her to stand at the entrance to her tent and respond negatively to whoever asks whether anyone is inside (4:18-20). As he lies asleep, exhausted from the battle, Yael takes a tent peg and drives it through his forehead into the ground and then shows his dead body to Barak, who has come in pursuit of the enemy general (4:21-22).

Yael thus fulfills Deborah’s prophecy, but she confounds other expectations. The reader or the listener to the tale, seeing a general at war come into a woman’s tent, fears for the woman, not for the man. Yet when the outside world of national battles comes into her domestic space, Yael takes up a domestic “weapon of opportunity” and becomes a heroine.

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Tikva Frymer-Kensky (1943-2006) was a professor of Hebrew Bible at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. She was the author of many works of biblical scholarship and spirituality. She was a foremost assyriologist, biblical scholar, and feminist.

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