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.
In 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.
Her actions are not explained. Does she act, like Rahab, out of loyalty to God and Israel, or does she react to the general’s imperious behavior? When Yael’s hospitality induces him to feel secure, he issues commands to her. Did this make Yael wonder what would happen to her when he awoke? Whatever her motives, the story considers her action the will of God. At the same time, it conveys the notion that being killed by a woman shames both the dead general and the live Israelite general, who had not slain him himself.
The poetic account in Judges 5 shows none of this unease about women warriors. Near the opening of the poem, Yael is linked with Shamgar, son of Anath, another fighter hero of early Israel (4:7; compare 3:31). In the account of her slaying of Sisera, the poet calls for her to be blessed by women in tents (5:24). Her deed is clearly heroic: she is a ferocious woman warrior, offering milk in a princely bowl, taking a tent pin and hammer in her hands, and crushing Sisera’s head (5:25-27). Nothing is said about blankets or sleep. This Sisera is standing when he is fatally struck by Yael; he then sinks to the ground “between” her feet, a fallen warrior.
The stealthy heroine of the prose account and the fierce warrior of the poem are both dramatic inversions of motherhood. One offers maternal nurturing before she strikes, and the other stands with the slain foe between her legs in a grim parody of birth. When the greater world of national battles intrudes into her domestic space, this Kenite woman becomes one of the “mothers” of Israel.