Heroes and Villains Explored – Yael (Judges 4-5)
It is perhaps a sad fact of church life (and of church history), that very rarely do we hear the stories about the minor women characters of the Bible. So in this series, we will discover together something about the lesser known characters of the Bible as well as the more famous ones. These people from the Bible are like you and I, and we have lessons to learn from them, in order that God is glorified and honoured through our lives. They have a lot to teach us, so the first three in this series will be minor women characters, of whom you probably have never heard spoken about.
Yael (Judges 4&5)
Judges 5v24 – “Yael shall be blessed above women, the wife of Heber the Kenite; blessed shall she be above women in the tent. The first person we are going to look at is Yael. Yael is mentioned in one place and 5 times in all the Bible. Yet as was just read in Judges 5:31, she was accorded great honour and blessing? Why?
Yael’s name, like other Bible names, means more than just a name. It means goat, a graceful goat and the term implies that she was an attractive woman.. In the west, comparing your wife to a goat would be an insult, so most translations apparently use the word hind or deer. So we could quite properly, call Yael the name ‘Yael Doe’.
Yael was the wife of Heber the Kenite. The Kenites were not true Israelites, but were the descendants of Moses’ non Jewish wife. Because they were a roaming nomadic people they lived in tents. In the days of Deborah they had camped at the foot of Mount Tabor. In fact, they were situated very near the place where Barak and Deborah had destroyed Jabin’s mighty army, including his 900 chariots of iron. Jabin had permitted the Kenites to stay in his country because he hoped they would prove to be his ally against the Israelites whom he hated intensely. But they disappointed Jabin’s hopes. Perhaps from the beginning, because they remembered Moses’s great deeds, the Kenites had occasionally sided with Israel.
Yael was a friend of Israel. She rejoiced when she heard of Jabin’s defeat and would have wept when she heard that Sisera had defeated Israel with his chariots. Yael received the honour that Barak would like to have had. By her hand, as though by a judgement of God, Sisera, the enemy of Israel, was killed. Barak would have had that honour if he had not hesitated on the day Deborah had asked him to attack Jabin. But because he hesitated at that time, Deborah, as a prophetess, told him the word of the Lord in Judges 4v9: She said, “I will surely go with you: nevertheless, the journey that you take shall not be for your honour; for Yahweh will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.”
Sisera showed himself to be made of wiser stuff than his soldiers, or so it seemed at first. The survivor in any kind of work, sport or conflict is the person who can keep cool in a crisis and take rational action. Sisera abandons his chariot, which had made him an easily seen target for Barak, as well as of being no use in the mud when it rained, and so he disappears on foot in the direction of Barak’s own town which was perhaps the last direction Barak would look for him.
Near Kedesh, there was land which belonged to the Kenites. Their name likens them to Cain, whose family made all kinds of bronze and iron (Genesis 4:22). More recently they had become friends by marriage with the Israelites, through Moses’ marriage to a Kenite. But a nomadic group such as the Kenites survived by the friends and allies they made, and in this case with Jabin. Given their expertise, they would be natural chariot makers and repairers. These chariot experts had in the past been the key to Sisera’s success but are now the key to his failure.
Then Sisera meets Yael. When Sisera arrives at her home, he expected to be on friendly territory if these Kenites were true allies of his boss Jabin, he has travelled almost fifty miles. Yael comes out to greet him and offers him a warm and smooth welcome. There is a contrast to be seen here. At the time of Yael, when a woman alone, invites a man into her bedroom, in any other context, it would be the act of the seductress in Proverbs 7. Like Yael, she might well be expected to offer a man refreshing drink and comfort, invite him to lie down and relax, reassure him that everything will be all right, and that she will tell him no-one will know of his visit and then be the death of him.
Yael knows the predicament she was in. As a married woman, though at the moment alone and vulnerable, with all the personal insecurity that that means in a time of ware, and as a Kenite wife, she would have been treated by the people of Israel as a traitor on the losing side. At this point, she behaves just like an independent woman, takes her destiny in her own hands, and acts in a way that brings the victory of Israel to its completion in the death of Israel’s enemy commander. Because she was a woman she easily won the confidence of Sisera. He relaxed, after being so careful on the run to Yael’s house, and it cost him his life. Like Barak, Sisera no longer wanted to be involved and was probably fed up of playing the tough macho hero guy. He was physically exhausted, but when he lets himself fall asleep, it is as if he wants to leave everything behind him for a short time. Perhaps he knew that Kenite people were a very caring people to strangers, because in the desert a mutual commitment to hospitality can mean the difference between life and death. He thought he could trust Yael. But perhaps Yael knew that sometimes this hospitality meant more than just sleep and food, and wanted a role reversal. Sisera made a mistake in telling Yael to lie if anyone asked if he was there. Being a wise woman, she concluded that Sisera was running from the battlefield, which meant that the Jews had won the battle and the Canaanites grip on the land was gone. If she protected Sisera, she would be in trouble with her Jewish relatives.
Yael gets together her woman’s weapons – gentleness and consideration, cooking, hospitality and courage. She also had a tent peg and hammer at hand, because it was the job of the woman to put up the tent. She probably gave him milk and not water, because warm milk is known to cause people to become sleepy. So when Sisera shortly falls into a deep sleep, she takes the tent peg & hammer and hits it through the head of Sisera as he sleeps. She must have used a lot of violent force in this horrid incident. Yael joins the role of honour of those who have acted for themselves, and either knowingly or unknowingly acted to free Israel. She becomes a deliverer too. Her story is to be remembered for a long time (Judges 5:31).
However, some questions naturally come to us.
1. Did God answer the prayers of Israel through this bloody and violent act? We don’t know from what the Bible says. Yael is in the Bible (so the prayer for her to be celebrated for a long time is answered) yet her story is not often read (so the prayer isn’t answered). It is not merely that the church has tended to prefer men’s stories in Scripture, though that is almost certainly a historical fact. It is that the violence of the story should make us feel uncomfortable. It makes us aware of the violence within each of us, which we prefer to avoid.
2. Should we bless or blame Yael for what she did? She invited Sisera into her tent, treated him kindly, and told him not to be afraid; so she was deceitful. The Kenites were at peace with Jabin, so she violated a national treaty. She gave Sisera the impression that she would guard the door, so she broke a promise. She killed a defenceless man, so she was a murderess. Yet Deborah sang, “Yael shall be blessed above women, the wife of Heber the Kenite; blessed shall she be above women in the tent.’ (Judges 5v24) So how are we to understand this question? To begin with, let us not read into the time of the Judges, the spiritual standards taught by Jesus and the apostles. Also let us keep in mind that the Jews had been under terrible bondage because of Jabin and Sisera; and that it was God’s will for the nation to be delivered from its enemies. Both Jabin and Sisera had been mistreating the Jews for years, and if the Canaanite army had won the battle, hundreds of Jewish girls would have been captured, raped and probably killed (Judges 5v30). Yael not only helped to deliver the nation of Israel from bondage, but also she helped protect vulnerable women from vicious enemies. She was a courageous woman, in the middle of a war, and she stopped being neutral and took her stand with the people of God.
3. How is God’s purpose realized in the world? It is achieved; through kings like Jabin who are involved in the fulfilment of God’s purpose, without them knowing, in ways they enjoy and in ways they wish they could escape; through the people of God crying out to God in the middle of their suffering (even when the suffering was deserved); through a woman of insight who become a woman of a violent act, using her female wiles to become a traitor and assassin. Yael succeeded because God was with her. She played a part in the purpose of God, and in the introduction of 40 years peace in the land, for the sake of which it might almost seem worthwhile to be a victim.
As we conclude, one question for you to think about and enact upon:
What principles and lessons for living as a Christian, can I learn from God, through the life of Yael?