Blessed Be Jael

Previously, we heard how Jabin king of Hazor had arisen, as if from the dead. A certain Jabin king of Hazor had suffered defeat about 180 years ago at the hands of Joshua, and now a man by the same name stands in the same place; but instead of suffering defeat, he is making Israel suffer. The commander of his army, Sisera, is afflicting the people of Israel with 900 chariots of iron. Israel has cried out to the Lord, and through Deborah the prophetess the Lord has told Barak son of Abinoam to go to war against Jabin’s army. Barak had hesitated, telling Deborah he would only go if she went with him. She said she would accompany him, but the fame of battle would not belong to Barak. Instead, Sisera would die at the hand of a woman.

And Deborah arose and went with Barak to Kedesh. 10 And Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh. And ten thousand men went up at his feet; and Deborah went up with him.

Barak marched to Kedesh, the town from which he hails, and then presumably marched to Mount Tabor according to the Word of the Lord (Judg. 4:6).

11 Now Heber the Kenite had separated from the Kenites, from the sons of Hobab, father-in-law of Moses, and he stretched out his tent unto the oak in Zaanannim, which is by Kedesh. 12 When they had declared to Sisera that Barak son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor, 13 Sisera summoned all his chariotry – nine hundred chariots of iron – and all the people who were with him from Harosheth Haggoyim to the stream Kishon.

Back in Judges 1:16 we learned that the Kenite (Hobab), Moses’ father-in-law, settled in the wilderness of Judah. A descendant of Hobab, named Heber, separated from the Kenites, moved far north into Naphtali, and had apparently become friendly with Jabin and Sisera (see Judg. 4:17). We don’t know who exactly informed Sisera about Barak’s movements, but Heber’s proximity to the mustered troops, his mention at this particular point in the history, and his traitorous relationship with the Canaanites make him a likely candidate.

Upon hearing of Barak’s muster, Sisera gathered his full iron chariotry to the forge along the stream Kishon.

14 And Deborah said to Barak, “Arise, for this is the day on which Yahweh has given Sisera into your hand. Has not Yahweh gone out before you?” And Barak went down from Mount Tabor, and ten thousand men after him. 15 And Yahweh confused Sisera and all his chariotry and all the camp with the mouth of the sword before Barak, and Sisera got down from the war-chariot and fled on foot. 16 And Barak pursued after the chariotry and after the camp unto Harosheth Haggoyim. And the whole camp of Sisera fell by the mouth of the sword; not even one was left.

Barak stands on Mount Tabor with his army. Sisera stands at Harosheth Haggoyim with his chariotry. And then Deborah gives the word: “Arise!” Barak and his troops descend from the mount, while presumably, Deborah watched the battle from the height. In the account, we have a general note about Sisera’s confusion and defeat. Deborah’s song in Judges 5 gives us some more detail.

In order to grasp the importance of certain lines in Deborah’s song, we must understand that the Kishon is a stream, which is not the same word in Hebrew for “river.” The Hebrew word for the Kishon more specifically means “torrent-valley,” referring to a flow of water that can change drastically in size depending on season and rainfall. Some torrents dried up entirely during some times of the year; others flowed perennially. The Kishon was a perennial stream, yet could become quite swollen with water, and quite suddenly at that.

Deborah sings in Judges 5:4-5, “the earth shook, yea, the heavens dripped, and the clouds dropped water. The mountains flowed before Yahweh…” And later in the song, “The stream Kishon swept them away, the ancient stream, the stream Kishon” (Judges 5:21).

This is what happened: Barak and his troops came down from Mount Tabor toward the Kishon while Sisera maneuvered his chariotry into the open plains around the stream. The Lord opened the heavens and rained torrents down the mountains. Sisera rode on in the name of the supposedly-deathless king, and his iron chariotry in which he placed his trust became his downfall.

The wheels of his chariots became clogged, as happened to Pharaoh’s chariots in ancient days when the Lord saved his people and brought them out of the land of Egypt. The enemy has been stripped of his power, like a beaten devil who has lost his weapons of Sin and Death. Paul Gerhardt captures this image wonderfully in the hymn “Awake, My Heart, with Gladness”: “Upon the grave is standing / The Hero, looking round; / The Foe, no more withstanding, / His weapons on the ground / Throws down, his hellish power / To Christ he must give o’er / And to the Victor’s bands / Must yield his feet and hands” (Evangelical Lutheran Hymn-book of 1918, 218:3).

Barak pursued Sisera’s troops, some apparently still struggling along in their chariots, back to the forge. Barak utterly defeated Sisera’s army, thereby fulfilling his role as the savior of Israel in this cycle. Yet the glory goes to the one who defeats the commander. While Sisera’s army died at the hand of Barak, Sisera himself survived and fled.

17 But Sisera fled on foot to the tent of Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite, for there was peace between Jabin king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite. 18 And Jael went out to call Sisera, and she said to him, “Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; do not fear.” And he turned aside to her, to the tent, and she covered him with the rug. 19 And he said to her, “Please give me a little water to drink, for I am thirsty.” And she opened a skin of milk, and gave him to drink, and covered him. 20 And he said to her, “Stand at the opening of the tent, and it shall be if a man comes and asks you and says, ‘Is there a man here?’ you shall say, ‘There is not.’” 21 But Jael, wife of Heber, took a tent peg and set the hammer in her hand, and she came to him with stealth. And she drove the peg into his temple, and it struck into the ground, while he was fast asleep and weary. And he died.

Heber had settled near Kedesh Naphtali, which is approximately 40 miles north of the stream Kishon: no short distance for a man fleeing on foot. Sisera likely headed north because he saw Barak’s troops pursuing the Canaanite army west in the direction of Harosheth Haggoyim. Why Sisera fled to Heber’s tent by Kesesh instead of going to Jabin the king at Hazor (which was a few miles closer to the Kishon), I have no idea.

Sisera’s lengthy flight has greatly wearied him by the time he reaches the tent of Jael. Jael clearly recognizes Sisera and invites him into the tent. It’s likely that she knew a battle had taken place, given that Barak had not long before mustered his troops at nearby Kedesh before marching to Mount Tabor. She was even likely able to deduce from Sisera’s flight on foot and apparent fear that he had lost the battle.

Jael appeared to be no threat, which was also true of Ehud right before he killed Eglon, and of Christ himself right before he bruised the devil’s head. In meekness, Jael submits herself to the commands of one whom she regards as an enemy, as Jesus submitted himself to the raging of men as he went to his death. Jael seems to do even better than Sisera asked, giving him milk instead of water; yet the milk aided his weariness and helped his sleep. She fueled him on toward his own destruction. Sisera charges her not to disclose his whereabouts, and then falls asleep under the rug. And when the enemy least suspects his demise, Jael takes a hammer and a tent peg and nails Sisera’s head to the earth.

While Barak and his troops made a great slaughter of the Canaanite army, the victory and glory come from this one-on-one battle (which did not on its surface even seem to be a battle) between the renowned dominator and a meek woman. While Barak is a figure of Christ in the cycle of Judges, Jael is even more so. Jesus battled the devil one-on-one in a battle that seemed nothing more than the strong dominating and the meek suffering. Yet with hammer and nails, Jesus conquered the unsuspecting devil and fulfilled the ancient prophecy, which promised that the seed of the woman would bruise the devil’s head.

22 And behold, Barak pursuing Sisera! And Jael went out to call him, and she said to him, “Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.” And he came to her, and behold: Sisera fallen dead, and the peg in his temple! 23 Thus God humbled Jabin king of Canaan on that day before the sons of Israel. 24 And the hand of the sons of Israel went forth mightily, and was hard upon Jabin king of Canaan until they cut off Jabin king of Canaan.

The account flashes to Barak, who has returned from the slaughter at Harosheth Haggoyim and is hot on the trail of Sisera. And there stands Jael, who has survived her brush with the enemy, and proclaims and displays his defeat. There lies Sisera – the mighty! the valiant! the unconquerable! – slain, not with sword or spear, but with a tent peg.

Barak receives honor in the catalogue of faith in Hebrews 11: “time will fail me to relate of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah…” (Heb. 11:32). The battle at the Kishon lives on in Israel’s memory as an archetype of the Lord’s victory for his people (Ps. 83:9). Yet Jael receives the praises, both of Deborah and of Barak (Judg. 5). She gets the glory: not only the glory of having defeated Sisera, but the glory of being the greater image of Christ in this third cycle of the book of Judges.

Here follows Deborah’s song. I’ll note that this is some of the strangest Hebrew poetry I’ve come across (having translated sections of Proverbs and Job, and large portions of the Psalter). A simple comparison of the KJV and ESV will indicate which lines, in particular, prove difficult for translators. I looked much more frequently than usual to these translations when making my translation.

Verses 24-31 are particularly beautiful poetry. While the entire song is marked with repetition, the repetition in these final verses causes us to dwell first on the victory of Jael over Sisera, and then on the faint-heartedness of Sisera’s mother as she waits forever for her son to return from battle. In verses 26-27, one can almost hear the hammer pounding as the words ring. The echoing words of verse 30 highlight the dying and empty hope of those who expect victory from the devil.

1 And Deborah sang, and Barak son of Abinoam, in that day, saying,

2 “That the leaders in Israel led, that the people volunteered:
Bless Yahweh!
3 Hear, O kings! Give ear, O rulers!
I to Yahweh, I will sing,
I will make music to Yahweh, the God of Israel.
4 O Yahweh, when you went out from Seir,
when you marched from the field of Edom,
the earth shook, yea, the heavens dripped,
And the clouds dropped water.
5 The mountains flowed before Yahweh,
This Sinai before Yahweh, the God of Israel.
6 In the days of Shamgar son of Anath, in the days of Jael,
the ways ceased to be,
And those who walked the paths walked on twisting ways.
7 The villagers in Israel ceased to be, they ceased to be,
Until I, Deborah, arose, when I arose as a mother in Israel.
8 He chose new gods; at that time war was in the gates,
Was shield or spear seen among forty thousand in Israel?
9 My heart is toward the commanders of Israel who volunteered among the people.
Bless Yahweh!
10 O you who ride on white donkeys, you who sit on the carpet,
And you who walk on the way: meditate on it.
11 From the voice of the archers between the watering places,
there they recount the righteous deeds of Yahweh,
the righteous deeds of his villagers in Israel.
At that time the people of Yahweh came down to the gates.
12 Awake, awake, O Deborah!
Awake, awake; utter a song!
Arise, O Barak;
and lead away your captives, O son of Abinoam!
13 At that time a remnant of the nobles of the people came down.
Yahweh came down for me against the mighty.
14 From Ephraim was their root against Amalek;
after you, O Benjamin, with your people.
From Machir commanders came down,
and from Zebulun those who muster with the rod of the scribe.
15 And the princes of Issachar were with Deborah,
and as Issachar, so also Barak:
into the valley he was sent down on foot.
Among the clams of Reuben were great searchings of heart.
16 Why did you sit among the sheepfolds
to hear the pipings of the flocks?
For the clans of Reuben there were great searchings of heart.
17 Gilead dwelt across the Jordan.
And Dan: why did he sojourn with the ships?
Asher sat at the shore of the sea and dwelt at his landings.
18 Zebulun is a people who scorned his life to death, and Naphtali,
Upon the heights of the field.
19 Kings came. They warred. At that time the kings of Canaan warred,
at Tanaach, by the waters of Megiddo.
Spoil of silver they did not get.
20 From heaven they warred:
the stars from their tracks. They warred with Sisera.
21 The stream Kishon swept them away,
the ancient stream, the stream Kishon.
My soul, you have trodden on strength!
22 At that time the hoofs of horse struck,
From the gallopings, the gallopings of his valiant ones.
23 ‘Curse Meroz!’ says the angel of Yahweh,
‘Curse, curse its inhabitants,
For they did not come to the aid of Yahweh,
to the aid of Yahweh against the mighty.’
24 Blessed more than all women is Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite!
More than all women in the tents is she blessed!
25 Water he asked, milk she gave:
In a noble bowl she brought curdled milk.
26 Her hand to the peg she sent, and her right hand to the workman’s hammer;
And she struck Sisera, she shattered his head;
and she smashed and pierced his temple.
27 Between her feet he bowed, he fell, he lay;
Between her feet he bowed, he fell;
where he bowed, there he fell: slain.
28 Out of the window she leaned: the mother of Sisera lamented through the lattice,
‘Why does his chariot delay to come?
Why do the hoofbeats of his war-chariots tarry?’
29 Her wise princesses answered;
Yea, she returned her words to herself:
30 ‘Have they not found, divided the spoil,
a womb, two wombs for each man,
spoil of dyed cloths for Sisera,
spoil of dyed cloths embroidered,
Dyed cloth twice-embroidered for the neck as spoil?’
31 Thus shall all your enemies perish, O Yahweh;
But those who love him are like the rising of the sun in his strength.”

And the land had rest for forty years.

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