Jael shows Sisera lying dead to Barak, James Tissot, 1896-1902
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.
Deborah, a prophetess and judge, advises Barak to mobilize the forces 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 an 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's wife Jael 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.
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.
Jan Saenredam engraving picturing Jael killing Sisera
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 identity.
In the Renaissance the subject is one of the most commonly shown in the Power of Womentopos, 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, The Idolatry of Solomon, and witches. More positively, Jael was included in sets of the female Nine Worthies, such as the prints by Hans Burgkmair. Ladies, who were presumably Jewish, sometimes chose to have their portraits painted as Jael, a transformation achieved by holding a hammer and spike.
In P.G. Wodehouse's novel The Code of the Woosters, the narrator Bertie Wooster mentions Jael in a description of hangover symptoms that he is experiencing: "Indeed, just before Jeeves came in, I had been dreaming that some bounder was driving spikes through my head—not just ordinary spikes, as used by Jael the wife of Heber, but red-hot ones."
Wodehouse also mentions "Jael the wife of Heber" in Galahad at Blandings. When Tipton Plimsoll shakes his head, the narrator remarks, "There are times when shaking the head creates the illusion one has met Jael the wife of Heber, incurred her displeasure and started her going into her celebrated routine."
Wodehouse also mentions "Jael, the wife of Heber" in Cocktail Time, when Frederick Twistleton describes the face of a member of the Drones Club with "...a look of ecstasy and exaltation such as Jael, the wife of Heber, must have worn when about to hammer the Brazil nut into the head of Sisera...".
“Jael the wife of Heber” also appears in The Small Bachelor. When George Finch meets his future mother-in-law for the first time she gives him a disapproving look. “It was the kind of look which Sisera might have surprised in the eye of Jael the wife of Heber, had he chanced to catch it immediately before she began operations with the spike.”
Booker Prize winner A.S. Byatt's 1998 collection of short fiction, Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice, contains a short story entitled "Jael", which is intricately related to the biblical story of Jael.
The central image of Aritha van Herk's novel The Tent Peg refers to the story of Jael and Sisera.
A chapter in Martin Sugarman's book Fighting Back: British Jewry's Military Contribution in the Second World War (Valentine Mitchell, 2010) is headed "Daughters of Yael: Two Jewish Heroines of the SOE". The author uses the name to illustrate the courage of ATS Denise Bloch and WAAF Muriel Byck of the Special Operation Executive, who were killed in action operating behind German lines in France.