Judges 4 recounts Jael's exploits, as does Judges 5's beautiful Song of Deborah. The song is ancient, most likely from the late twelfth century b.c.e., and it may be the first poem in the Hebrew Bible. Deborah sends Barak to battle the Canaanites in the prose narrative, and later she agrees to follow him. But first she urges him not to fear or hesitate, for God will go with them and fight their battles.
Deborah is one of the judges appointed by Moses to lead Israel in its struggle for survival after the conquest. She is called a prophetess, which means that she has had a revelation from God. As a judge, her role was to deliver decisive victories over the enemy so that future generations would know that the Israelites had been rescued by God when they were enslaved in Egypt.
In order for Israel to be freed from slavery, all the men must fight against the Canaanites. However, the women are not expected to take part in the war; rather, they are supposed to help the soldiers prepare for battle and care for the injured. In this way, they can also contribute to the victory of Israel.
In the Old Testament, there are many stories about women who fought against enemies, both physically and spiritually. For example, Deborah is said to have led several campaigns against the Canaanites during the time of the judges. She is also mentioned by name in the Song of Songs, where she is praised for her wisdom and bravery.
Near the beginning of the poem, Jael is linked with Shamgar, son of Anath, another early Israelite fighter hero (4:7; compare 3:31). In the narrative of her murder by Sisera, the poet requests that she be blessed by ladies in tents (NRSV, "most blessed of women"; 5:24).
Jael is a popular female given name in English. It is derived from the Hebrew word for moon, which may explain why some scholars see references to the full or new moon in the Old Testament.
Other names for Jael include Jehuel, Jehiel, and Zilpah.
King Jabin of the Canaanites brutally persecuted the Israelites for nearly twenty years during Jael's mature life. Jael had a front-row seat to the people of Israel's terrible cycle of worship and judgment, which included the devastation of the lands and the incorporation of heathen traditions. She saw how God delivered his people and urged them on to continue seeking him.
During this time period, all of Israel was threatened by Sisera, a commander in the army of Jabin's enemy, the king of Hazor. After Moses led the people into battle against their enemies, they were victorious! The only thing standing between Hazor and total destruction at the hands of Israel's warriors was a banquet table where sat the captive king. At that moment, a woman named Jael came up with a cunning plan to kill Sisera and end the war.
Jael went to bed with her husband every night after supper. When Sisera fell asleep at the table, Jael killed him with a hammer blow to the head. Then she wiped her hands clean of blood money and went home with her husband for dessert!
After hearing about Jael's treachery, Moses blessed her and her family and told them to be fruitful and increase in number because he expected Judah to be as numerous as the stars in heaven. (See Judges 4:16-17.)