Yael, the Kenite, Kills Sisera
With the encouragement of the prophetess Deborah, Barak leads the Israelites to defeat the Canaanites in battle. The Canaanite general, Sisera, flees for his life on foot to the tent of Yael, the wife of Heber, the Kenite, whose household is allied with the Canaanite King of Hazor (Judg 4:17).
Yael initially plays the role of the homemaker, seemingly unconcerned about the war. She treats Sisera with deference—calling him אֲדֹנִי, “my lord,” and twice encouraging him to enter her tent—and she assures him that he is safe there:
שׁפטים ד:יח וַתֵּצֵא יָעֵל לִקְרַאת סִיסְרָא וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו סוּרָה אֲדֹנִי סוּרָה אֵלַי אַל תִּירָא וַיָּסַר אֵלֶיהָ הָאֹהֱלָה וַתְּכַסֵּהוּ בַּשְּׂמִיכָה.
Judg 4:18 Yael came out to meet Sisera and said to him, “Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; have no fear.” So he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a blanket.
When Sisera humbly pleads for water to quench his thirst, she gives him milk instead and again covers him (4:19). In his next statement, Sisera, hitherto submissive to Yael, becomes bolder and commands Yael in a masterful tone:
שׁפטים ד:כ וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלֶיהָ עֲמֹד פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל וְהָיָה אִם אִישׁ יָבוֹא וּשְׁאֵלֵךְ וְאָמַר הֲיֵשׁ פֹּה אִישׁ וְאָמַרְתְּ אָיִן.
Judg 4:20 He said to her, “Stand at the entrance of the tent. If anybody comes and asks you if there is anybody here, say ‘No.’”
The change in attitude suggests that Sisera has interpreted Yael’s welcome as more than mere hospitality. He reads her actions—offering him milk and covering him with a blanket—as intimate, hinting at her readiness to satisfy Sisera with the totality of her femininity. The scene thus aligns with the literary pattern in which a man erroneously supposes that a sexual act or overture endows him with mastery, while in reality it puts him in the woman’s hands. Sisera deludes himself that he is the master of this woman, and he allows himself to fall asleep (v. 21), because he is no longer suspicious of her.
The irony of Sisera’s life and destiny soon comes full circle: he had terrorized his neighbors by possessing advanced weapons of war—“nine hundred iron chariots” (4:3)—but he ends his life far from the battlefield, in a woman’s tent, slain in his sleep by a homemaker wielding a simple wooden tent peg (v. 21).
Deborah’s Poetic Account of Yael and Sisera
In her victory song after the Canaanites are defeated, Deborah uses exaggeration to highlight the seductive nature of Yael’s tactics with Sisera:
שׁפטים ה:כה מַיִם שָׁאַל חָלָב נָתָנָה בְּסֵפֶל אַדִּירִים הִקְרִיבָה חֶמְאָה.
Judg 5:25 Water he asked, milk she gave; she brought him curds in a lordly bowl.
She also employs sexual innuendo in her description of Sisera’s death, after Yael uses a mallet to pierce his head with the tent peg (v. 26):
שׁפטים ה:כז בֵּין רַגְלֶיהָ כָּרַע נָפַל שָׁכָב בֵּין רַגְלֶיהָ כָּרַע נָפָל בַּאֲשֶׁר כָּרַע שָׁם נָפַל שָׁדוּד.
Judg 5:27 Between her legs he sank, he fell, he lay still; between her legs he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell dead.
Though some translations interpret בֵּין רַגְלֶיהָ as “at her feet,” the phrase may be more sexually suggestive, as it literally means “between her legs/feet.”
Yael in Light of the Killer Foreign Woman in Proverbs
Yael is reminiscent of the “strange/foreign woman” in Proverbs. In an elaborate passage, the wise teacher watches a foolish young man being lured into a woman’s house (Prov 7:6–8). The woman, who should be indoors, is out on the street, and is described comically and sarcastically:
משׁלי ז:י וְהִנֵּה אִשָּׁה לִקְרָאתוֹ שִׁית זוֹנָה וּנְצֻרַת לֵב. ז:יא הֹמִיָּה הִיא וְסֹרָרֶת בְּבֵיתָהּ לֹא יִשְׁכְּנוּ רַגְלֶיהָ.
Prov 7:10 Then a woman comes toward him decked out like a prostitute, with hidden intent. 7:11 She is loud and wayward; her feet do not stay at home.
Like the Kenite Yael (Judg 4:18), the foreign woman steps out of her house and begins to lure the man: עַל־כֵּן יָצָאתִי לִקְרָאתֶךָ, “so now I have come out to meet you” (Prov 7:15). She invites the young man to her house with the promise of sexual pleasures, and, as in Yael’s circumstances, her husband is away:
משׁלי ז:יח לְכָה נִרְוֶה דֹדִים עַד הַבֹּקֶר נִתְעַלְּסָה בָּאֳהָבִים. ז:יט כִּי אֵין הָאִישׁ בְּבֵיתוֹ הָלַךְ בְּדֶרֶךְ מֵרָחוֹק.
Prov 7:18 Come, let us take our fill of love until morning; let us delight ourselves with love. 7:19 For my husband is not at home; he has gone on a long journey.
The scenes fit each woman’s circumstances. The woman’s bed in Proverbs, covered with חֲטֻבוֹת אֵטוּן מִצְרָיִם, “dyed Egyptian linen” (7:16) and smelling of מֹר אֲהָלִים וְקִנָּמוֹן, “myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon” (7:17), is the antithesis of the austerity of Yael’s tent and its basic milk and blanket for a man exhausted and fleeing for his life. Further, while the woman in Proverbs seduces the man with חֵלֶק שְׂפָתֶיהָ, “the smoothness of her lips” (7:21), Yael reassures Sisera with simple language—סוּרָה, “turn in,” and אַל תִּירָא, “do not fear.”
In both cases, the sexual encounter ends in disaster for the man. Sisera’s killing is described in gory detail, and Yael’s darker side as the callous temptress-killer is sustained when she tells Barak that he will find Sisera in her tent, without telling him that Sisera is already dead:
שׁפטים ד:כב וְהִנֵּה בָרָק רֹדֵף אֶת סִיסְרָא וַתֵּצֵא יָעֵל לִקְרָאתוֹ וַתֹּאמֶר לוֹ לֵךְ וְאַרְאֶךָּ אֶת הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה מְבַקֵּשׁ וַיָּבֹא אֵלֶיהָ וְהִנֵּה סִיסְרָא נֹפֵל מֵת וְהַיָּתֵד בְּרַקָּתוֹ.
Judg 4:22 Then, as Barak came in pursuit of Sisera, Jael went out to meet him and said to him, “Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.” So he went into her tent, and there was Sisera lying dead, with the tent peg in his temple.
The young man of Proverbs is not actually murdered at the hands of the woman, but the encounter will nevertheless “cost him his life”:
משׁלי ז:כב הוֹלֵךְ אַחֲרֶיהָ פִּתְאֹם כְּשׁוֹר אֶל טָבַח יָבוֹא וּכְעֶכֶס אֶל מוּסַר אֱוִיל. ז:כג עַד יְפַלַּח חֵץ כְּבֵדוֹ כְּמַהֵר צִפּוֹר אֶל פָּח וְלֹא יָדַע כִּי בְנַפְשׁוֹ הוּא.
Prov 7:22 Right away he follows her and goes like an ox to the slaughter or bounds like a stag toward the trap 7:23 until an arrow pierces its entrails. He is like a bird rushing into a snare, not knowing that it will cost him his life.
Deborah: Yael’s Action is Part of a Divine Plan
Israel’s victory has been decisive, and Sisera is unarmed and on foot, with Barak closing in on him. In this context, Yael killing him seems particularly cold-blooded, as it is unnecessary since Sisera is unlikely to escape Barak. In her victory ode, however, Deborah praises and glorifies Yael’s action, mitigating the image of Yael killing a man who trusted her enough to enter her home, and dissociating her from the heinous archetype of the killer woman.
Deborah declares that the stars and the river fought on the side of the Israelites:
שׁפטים ה:כ מִן שָׁמַיִם נִלְחָמוּ הַכּוֹכָבִים מִמְּסִלּוֹתָם נִלְחֲמוּ עִם סִיסְרָא. ה:כא נַחַל קִישׁוֹן גְּרָפָם נַחַל קְדוּמִים נַחַל קִישׁוֹן תִּדְרְכִי נַפְשִׁי עֹז.
Judg 5:20 The stars fought from heaven; from their courses they fought against Sisera. 5:21 The torrent Kishon swept them away, the onrushing torrent, the torrent Kishon. March on, my soul, with might!
She continues by describing the angel of YHWH cursing the people of Meroz, who לֹא בָאוּ לְעֶזְרַת יְ־הוָה, “did not come to the aid of YHWH” (5:23). Yael, in contrast, she introduces as blessed:
שׁפטים ה:כד תְּבֹרַךְ מִנָּשִׁים יָעֵל אֵשֶׁת חֶבֶר הַקֵּינִי מִנָּשִׁים בָּאֹהֶל תְּבֹרָךְ.
Judg 5:24 Most blessed of women be Yael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, of tent-dwelling women most blessed.
Deborah implies that by killing Sisera, Yael came to the aid of YHWH Himself, and further, that she was aligned with the cosmic powers and natural forces, thus recasting her action in the framework of a sacred mission in a divine grand plan.
Deborah’s Description of the Killing
Deborah does not shy away from the horror of the killing:
שׁפטים ה:כו יָדָהּ לַיָּתֵד תִּשְׁלַחְנָה וִימִינָהּ לְהַלְמוּת עֲמֵלִים וְהָלְמָה סִיסְרָא מָחֲקָה רֹאשׁוֹ וּמָחֲצָה וְחָלְפָה רַקָּתוֹ.
Judg 5:26 She put her hand to the tent peg and her right hand to the workers’ mallet; she struck Sisera a blow; she crushed his head; she shattered and pierced his temple.
Thus, Deborah sanctions Yael’s act, employing the poetic techniques of hyperbole and parallelism to emphasize the woman’s cunning, power, and service to YHWH’s people.
Deborah’s Reflections on Women’s Roles
Deborah does not close her ode with the climactic moment of Yael’s valor. Rather, she introduces the imagined figure of Sisera’s mother as she waits for her son to return victorious from the battlefield:
שׁפטים ה:כח בְּעַד הַחַלּוֹן נִשְׁקְפָה וַתְּיַבֵּב אֵם סִיסְרָא בְּעַד הָאֶשְׁנָב מַדּוּעַ בֹּשֵׁשׁ רִכְבּוֹ לָבוֹא מַדּוּעַ אֶחֱרוּ פַּעֲמֵי מַרְכְּבוֹתָיו.
Judg 5:28 Out of the window she peered; the mother of Sisera gazed through the lattice: “Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why tarry the hoofbeats of his chariots?”
Why was this additional female figure necessary? While celebrating Israelite victory in her ode, Deborah takes the opportunity to comment on women’s lives, with three female figures representing different types of female existence. When introducing herself (in the third person), Deborah unabashedly credits her own courageous initiative in spurring the dispirited Barak to launch a military campaign amidst the Israelites’ frightened mood while terrorized by Sisera:
שׁפטים ה:ז ...עַד שַׁקַּמְתִּי דְּבוֹרָה שַׁקַּמְתִּי אֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל
Judg 5:7 …Until you arose, Deborah, arose as a mother in Israel.
Yet even the larger-than-life Deborah, who judges the people in the open space, under the palm tree, and travels to war with Barak, is conscious of her delicate role in a male-dominant culture, and therefore she gives Barak his due and diplomatically declares him an equal partner in the glory of victory by using poetic parallelism:
שׁפטים ה:יא עוּרִי עוּרִי דְּבוֹרָה עוּרִי עוּרִי דַּבְּרִי שִׁיר קוּם בָּרָק וּשֲׁבֵה שֶׁבְיְךָ בֶּן אֲבִינֹעַם.
Judg 5:12 Awake, awake, Deborah! Awake, awake, utter a song! Arise, Barak, lead away your captives, O son of Abinoam.
Deborah Castigates the “Woman at the Window”
In contrast to Deborah, Sisera’s mother is the woman confined indoors, passively looking “through the window,” and living vicariously through men. The aristocratic Canaanite mother is understandably hoping for her son’s victory, but she reveals excessive cruelty by taking comfort in the explanation that her son’s delayed homecoming is because he and his soldiers are raping the Israelite women, vulgarly referring to their victims as “uteruses”:
שׁפטים ה:ל הֲלֹא יִמְצְאוּ יְחַלְּקוּ שָׁלָל רַחַם רַחֲמָתַיִם לְרֹאשׁ גֶּבֶר.
Judg 5:30 “Are they not finding and dividing the spoil? A uterus or two for each man.”
By placing the imagined mother at the window, Deborah implies that the Canaanite woman’s constricted life has made her a traitor to her own gender and an accomplice in a culture that condones sexual violence toward women.
An Ode to the Ordinary Woman
The figures of Deborah and Sisera’s mother enclose, and thus highlight, the praise of Yael as an ordinary woman, a wife, with the “tent” emblematic of her existence. At a critical moment, she rises to great heights by defying her husband’s political alliance and making an independent, historic decision to use every tactic and tool available to her to help YHWH’s people.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
February 1, 2023
September 19, 2023
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Nehama Aschkenasy is Professor (emerita) of Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of Connecticut. She holds degrees in Hebrew and English Literature from the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from New York University. Aschkenasy is the author of Eve’s Journey: Feminine Images in Hebraic Literary Tradition (U. of Pennsylvania, 1987), a Choice selection and winner of the Present Tense Literary Award, and Woman at the Window: Biblical Tales of Oppression and Escape (Wayne State, 1998). She is the editor of Biblical Patterns in Modern Literature (with David Hirsch, Brown, 1984), and Recreating the Canon: The Biblical Presence in Contemporary Hebrew Literature and Culture (a dedicated volume of the AJS Review, 28:1, Cambridge, 2004). She has also contributed numerous chapters and articles to edited books and scholarly journals, and served as Associate Editor of the AJS Review. Her teaching and research focus on the reappearance of biblical patterns in Hebraic and English literary traditions, literary art in the Bible, women in Hebraic literary tradition, and politics and society in contemporary Israeli fiction. For more, see her UConn profile.
Essays on Related Topics: