Most Blessed Warrior, Jael
It is my greatest pleasure to introduce you to Jael, a warrior woman who killed a man with a tent peg.
But first, because context is important, let me acclimate you to the Book of Judges. The Book of Judges is a very cyclical story. The Israelites, now living in the Promised Land (the original land promised to Abraham in Genesis but not acquired until Joshua), begin the cycle by first doing “something evil in the sight of the Lord” (usually worshiping another god, a big no-no in the Ten Commandments). Then, “God” raises up a nation against them. The Israelites cry out to God, asking for God to save them. And then God raises up a judge to deliver them from the hands of their oppressor - well at least until they worship another God or somehow otherwise disobey the covenant again. This cycle continues throughout Judges. And it is in the midst of this cycle that we meet Jael.
In Judges 4, a military commander enlists the help of the only female judge and prophet in the Hebrew Scriptures - Deborah. He is about to enter into a very important battle against Canaan so he begs for the assistance of Deborah and she agrees, with the caveat that a woman will actually bring the victory. The war is easily won but the Canaanite leader is able to escape; he does not perish in the battle. Instead, he wanders into the tent of Jael, a woman who he believes to be an ally. He asks for water, she gives him milk. He sort of curls up for a nap and asks her to keep watch. Instead, though, she takes a tent peg and a mallet and drives the tent peg into his head, killing him.
For the Israelites, this is a story of victory, because Jael is an example of a Canaanite person who chooses to follow the will of God, similar to Rahab in the Book of Joshua. She chooses God and God’s people over her own; this would have made her story of much significance for the Israelites - a story, in some ways, of conversion. But, how are we to read this story today?
This is certainly a gruesome tale and Jael has often been criticized for her act of violence. It is easy to vilify Jael but do we vilify David for his killing of Goliath? Although not quite as bloody, David launches a stone at Goliath’s head and it kills him almost instantly (1 Samuel 17). David is praised and goes on to become a King of Israel; Jael’s story is rarely told and when it is, she is labeled as evil. These acts of violence are in our scripture and they are presented as being part of God’s will. Perhaps we should contend with that, before we condemn certain characters (namely the women). The issue here is in the literal interpretations of the Bible, which we are not meant to do.
What’s even more is that the text itself does not condemn Jael’s actions. In fact, she is referred to (in Deborah’s song that is sung after the victory) as a “most blessed woman” (Judges 5:24). But, our tradition has vilified her, it seems simply because she is a woman.
If we look closer at Jael, we can see a woman who saved Israel in the same way that David saved Israel. We can see a woman who took matters into her own hands and was successful. We can see a courageous woman who confronted an opposing military leader. We can see her for her strength.
No, I will never encounter the general of an opposing army and need to take his life. Jael’s story isn’t a justification for murder anyway - remember, no literal interpretations necessary. But, we do need to fight injustices. Jael can be a model for us in that - her strength, her courage, her faith in God’s presence. Instead of a tent peg and a mallet, carry a pen or a microphone - use your words, your voice. Remember that Jael is with you, our warrior woman.