|Jael or Yael|
Jacopo Amigoni, Jael and Sisera, 1739
|Residence||Tent in the plain of Zaanaim, near Kedesh.|
|Spouse(s)||Heber the Kenite|
Jael was the wife of Heber the Kenite. The Kenites were a nomadic tribe, some of whom lived in close proximity to the Israelites. The Bible records a number of cases of intermarriage; the father-in-law of Moses was apparently a Kenite, but it is not clear if this was Jethro. The Kenites may have been a part of the Midianite group.
Heber the Kenite (Hebrew: חבר הקיני) was, according to the Book of Judges in the Bible, a descendant of Reuel the Midianite, the father-in-law of Moses. He had separated himself and his wife Jael from the other Kenites and pitched their tent in the plain of Zaanaim, which is near Kedesh in the tribal territory of Naphtali. Heber lived approximately during the 12th century BC in the Hula Valley (anciently known as Zaanaim) of northern Israel during the time of the Israelite judges. According to Jack Sasson, there are reasons to doubt whether the events narrated in Judges 4 ever occurred.
Deborah, a prophetess and judge, advises Barak to mobilize the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulon on Mount Tabor to do battle against King Jabin of Canaan. Barak demurred, saying he would go, provided she would also. Deborah agreed but prophesied that the honour of defeating Jabin's army would then go to a woman. Jabin's army was led by Sisera (Judg. 4:2). The armies met on the plain of Esdraelon, where Sisera's iron-bound chariots became hampered by the mud caused by a downpour during the night that caused the Wadi Kishon to overflow its banks. The Canaanites were defeated and Sisera fled the scene.
Sisera arrived on foot at the tent of Heber the Kenite on the plain of Zaanaim. Heber and his household were at peace with Jabin, the king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. Jael, however, sympathized with the Israelites because of the twenty-year period of harsh oppression inflicted on them by Jabin, his commander Sisera, and his nine hundred iron chariots. Jael (whose tent would have been separate from Heber's)  welcomed Sisera into her tent and covered him with a blanket. As he was thirsty, she gave him a jug of milk. Exhausted, Sisera lay down and soon fell asleep. While he was sleeping, Jael took a mallet and drove a tent peg into his temple, killing him instantly. The "Song of Deborah" (Judg. 5:24-26) recounts:
Extolled above women be Jael,
Extolled above women in the tent.
He asked for water, she gave him milk;
She brought him cream in a lordly dish.
She stretched forth her hand to the nail,
Her right hand to the workman's hammer,
And she smote Sisera; she crushed his head,
She crashed through and transfixed his temples.
Scholars have long recognized that the Song of Deborah, on the basis of linguistic evidence (archaic biblical Hebrew), is one of the oldest parts of the Bible, dating back to the 12th century BC.
Pseudo-Philo refers to Jael in the book, Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum:
Now Jael took a stake in her left hand and approached him, saying, "If God will work this sign with me, I know that Sisera will fall into my hands. Behold I will throw him down on the ground from the bed on which he sleeps; and if he does not feel it, I know that he has been handed over." And Jael took Sisera and pushed him onto the ground from the bed. But he did not feel it, because he was very groggy.
And Jael said, "Strengthen in me today, Lord, my arm on account of you and your people and those who hope in you." And Jael took the stake and put it on his temple and struck it with a hammer.
And while he was dying, Sisera said to Jael, "Behold pain has taken hold of me, Jael, and I die like a woman."
And Jael said to him, "Go, boast before your father in hell and tell him that you have fallen into the hands of a woman."
Judges 4:17 states that there was peace between the Canaanites and Heber's clan. They were familiar to the Israelites through the connection of Jethro to Moses, and their skill as metalworkers was welcomed wherever they camped. Both sides in the conflict would have considered the Kenites a neutral party. C.E. Schenk notes that Sisera was Jael's guest, "was in the sanctuary of her home, and protected by the laws of hospitality." According to Herbert Lockyer she may have acted out of practical necessity. Sisera was in flight and Barak in pursuit. It would not have been wise to allow Barak to find Sisera in her tent. She also knew that Sisera would be killed if captured, therefore she would kill him and thus cement a friendship with the victor. Biblical commentaries have viewed Jael as either a heroine or someone much less so. Newsom and Ringe consider her a survivor caught up in her husband's politics.
Medieval images of Jael, mostly in illuminated manuscripts, depicted her as both a defender of Israel and a prefiguration of the Virgin Mary. This can be seen in the Stavelot Bible, the Speculus Darmstadt, as well as several other texts. When not shown in the act of killing Sisera, she carries her hammer and sometimes the spike, making her easy to identify.
In the Renaissance the subject is one of the most commonly shown in the Power of Women topos, with other biblical women who triumphed over men, such as Judith or Delilah. Here she was used to show the risk for men in following women, in groupings including positive figures and scenes such as Judith beheading Holofernes, but mostly ones with female villains such as Phyllis riding Aristotle, Samson and Delilah, Salome and her mother Herodias an the Idolatry of Solomon. More positively, Jael was included in sets of the female Nine Worthies, such as the prints by Hans Burgkmair. Ladies sometimes chose to have their portraits painted as Jael, a transformation achieved by holding a hammer and spike.
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