Jael Wife of Heber The Kenite: Midrash and Aggadah
The midrash praises Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite, and includes her among the devout women converts, together with Hagar, Asenath, Zipporah, Shiphrah, Puah, the daughter of Pharaoh, Rahab and Ruth (Yalkut Shimoni on Joshua, para. 9, from Midrash Tadshe). Jael was apparently beautiful, because merely hearing her voice would cause men to recall her and would arouse their lust (BT Megillah 15a).
The Biblical narrative is somewhat vague as to precisely what happened between Jael and Sisera in the tent before he fell asleep. Jud. 4:18 relates: “So he entered her tent”; is this Scripture’s euphemistic description of his having intercourse with her, or is the text simply to be understood literally?
There are two approaches to this question in Rabbinic literature. According to one, Sisera did not touch Jael. He fled to her and begged her: “Please give me some water,” and she opened the skin of milk and gave him some to drink. His evil urge was aroused, and he demanded that she sin with him. What did she do? She took the tent peg and drove it through his temple (Midrash ha-Gadol, Vayeshev 29:8 [ed. Margaliot], p. 663). Another midrash adds that by merit of Jael’s flight from sin, God included His name with hers, and publicized her innocence. The Rabbis deduce this from the words (Jud. 4:18): “and she covered him with a semikhah.” They note that semikhah is a hapax legomenon (a word that appears only once in the Bible), and seek to interpret it. Some Israeli Rabbis explain that Jael covered Sisera with a garment, while Babylonian Rabbis argue that she covered him with a large washing bowl, under which he would be concealed. A third view maintains that this unique word is meant to publicize Jael’s innocence, and is to be read with the letter shin, and as two words: shemi kan (My name is here)—God’s name attests that the wicked one did not touch Jael (Lev. Rabbah 23:10). This exegetical account clears Jael of any blame, and emphatically declares that nothing happened between her and Sisera when she brought him into her tent.
Another account, however, has Sisera lying with Jael, which is learnt from Jud. 5:27 (1917 JPS translation): “At her feet he sunk, he fell, he lay; at her feet he sunk, he fell; where he sunk, there he fell down dead.” The words “sunk,” “fell” and “lay” recur a total of seven times in this verse, from which these Rabbis derive that Sisera engaged in intercourse with Jael seven times during their encounter. This approach also clears Jael of any guilt, and establishes that “sin for Heaven's sake is greater than fulfilling a commandment that is not done for Heaven's sake.” This sinful intercourse in which Jael engaged with Sisera was for Heaven’s sake, in order to exhaust him so that she could then kill him. Accordingly, Jael’s action is greater than the performance of a commandment performed not for Heaven's sake. This is learned from the Song of Deborah (Jud. 5:24): “Most blessed of women be Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite, most blessed of women in tents.” The midrashic exposition understands the “women in tents” to be Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah, each of whom is mentioned in reference to a tent; Jael’s deed is more blessed than those of the four Matriarchs (BT Nazir 23b). One possible explanation of this midrash, that places Jael on a higher level than the Matriarchs of the Jewish nation, is that the latter engaged in sexual relations for pleasure and to produce offspring, while Jael acted with the sole aim of killing Sisera. Another explanation of the Talmudic dictum, by Rashi, is that the Matriarchs told their husbands to come to their handmaidens, intending this not for a sacred purpose, but because they were jealous of one another, and consequently Jael’s deed was greater than theirs.
Another exegesis understands “most blessed of women in tents” as a reference either to the four Matriarchs or to the women of the wilderness generation who dwelled in tents, for without Jael’s deed, their descendants would have been lost (Gen. Rabbah 48:15). According to this interpretation, the death of Sisera, Jabin’s military commander, proved decisive in the war and resulted in Israel’s victory over the Canaanites. Thus Jael’s deed ensured the continued existence of the people of Israel. Yet another exposition comments that Jael did her husband’s bidding when she seduced Sisera, thereby meriting to be the agent of the great deliverance (Seder Eliyahu Rabbah 12).
An additional midrashic teaching that demonstrates the Rabbis’ favorable attitude to Jael’s deed declares that “whoever undertakes to perform a commandment, that commandment shall not cease from his house.” Jethro took into his home Moses, the redeemer of Israel, who had fled from the hated Pharaoh who sought to kill him, and he therefore merited that his offspring would include Jael, who would receive in her home Sisera, the foe of Israel, who had fled from Barak son of Ahinoam, the military commander and redeemer of the Israelites, and would kill this Canaanite (Ex. Rabbah 4:4). This midrash links Jael wife of Heber the Kenite with Jethro, who is also called “Heber” and “Kenite” (and is mentioned in Jud. 4:11). Since hospitality was especially important among nomadic tribes, it might be argued that Jael sinned by harming a guest who came to take shelter with her: instead of granting him protection, she murdered him. The midrash, however, praises her actions, regards them as equally important as Jethro’s hospitality, and presents them as a mitzvah, a religiously commendable act.
The Rabbis categorized Sisera’s unique death as an instance of a measure-for-measure punishment. He had strongly oppressed the Israelites, and severely blasphemed and reviled [gadaf] them, and therefore died a gedufah [cursed or despicable] death, when the Lord gave him over to a woman, who (Jud. 5:26) “crushed his head, smashed and pierced his temple” (Num. Rabbah 10:2). Another midrash applies the verse from the Eshet Hayil (“Woman of Valor”) passage (Prov. 31:19): “She sets her hand to the distaff” to Jael, who did not kill Sisera with a conventional weapon, but with a tent peg, with the strength of her hands (Midrash Eshet Hayil 31:19 , Batei Midrashot, vol. 2.).
All the above midrashim, taken as a whole, teach that the Rabbis expressed their positive attitude to Jael, regardless of whether they explained that there was no sexual act between her and Sisera, or whether they understood that he had, in fact, lain with her. Her actions were guided by a clear goal, and even if this entailed a sin, she acted for the sake of Heaven, and thereby saved Israel from annihilation. Jael’s actions helped God to realize His plan by punishing Sisera measure for measure for his wicked deeds, and by affording Israel a military victory over their enemies.