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Jael Wife of Heber The Kenite: Midrash and Aggadah

by Tamar Kadari

The A type of non-halakhic literary activitiy of the Rabbis for interpreting non-legal material according to special principles of interpretation (hermeneutical rules).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 Lit. "scroll." Designation of the five scrolls of the Bible (Ruth, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther). The Scroll of Esther is read on Purim from a parchment scroll.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 Rabbinic ordinationsemikhah.” 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 Nazirite; person who vows to abstain for a specific period (or for life) from grape and grape products, cutting his hair, and touching a corpse.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 Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac; b. Troyes, France, 1040Rashi, 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 (Lit. "order." The regimen of rituals, songs and textual readings performed in a specific order on the first two nights (in Israel, on the first night) of Passover.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 A biblical or rabbinic commandment; also, a good deed.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.

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I do not believe that Sisera would have lain with Jael for several reasons.  First, he was on the run.  He had gotten his chariotte mired in mud and his army was being routed anyway, so he jumped from his charriotte and ran.  When Jael saw him, I'm sure he was filthy and exhausted and looking for someplace to hide.  Since her husband Heber had a friendly relationship with the current Jabin, I would imagine that Sisera kind of knew who she was and felt safe enough to take refuge in her tent since he had said to her that if any man should ask her if there was a man in the tent to tell them no.  He was intent on hiding, not having sex.  Also, he was extrememly thirsty and in heavy armor of the period.  Under those conditions I do not think lust would have been foremost in his mind and Jael was probably a very pios and upstanding woman.  She would not have entertained the thought of having sex with a dirty, smelly man whose filth would mess up the tapestries of her well made bed.  Also, she may have felt a strong allegience to Barak and Insreal and not to the Jabin so she already had in mind to act as an ally in the Campaigne and not a conspirator with Sisera.  He asked her for water but instead she gave him milk which I thought was curious, but on further thought, warm milk would have served to soothe and relax him and put him in a position to want to sleep as opposed to being refreshed, as what water would have done.  She needed him to sleep in order to carry out her assasination plot.

Question for you. Towards the end it says "Jael's actions helped God to realize His plan by punishing Sisera"
What do you mean by That? "Helped god realize his plan? I feel like I'm misunderstanding unless you are saying it litteraly as in she helped god realize his plan because he didn't know his own plan? He is all knowing. -Thanks

In reply to by Joshua

I can't speak for the author, but I understand the use of the word "realize" in this case to mean "to make real." In other words, Jael's actions helped facilitate God's plan, not that she helped him to understand or discover his own plan.

In reply to by Joshua

The God portrayed in the Hebrew Bible, though God's portrayal varies somewhat by book, is not the same as most people's modern conception of what God is. We tend to read into the biblical text what we believe God to be. However, there are several examples in the Bible itself that show that God is not "all knowing" in biblical theology. For example, when Adam is hiding in the Garden of Eden after eating the forbidden fruit, God asks "where are you?" and then proceeds to ask other questions to find out what Adam and Eve had done. The text is implying that God did not already know this information but had to ask in order to find out. This is just one instance but there are many more. That being said, I agree with Brian that when this article says "realize" it means that Jael carried out the plan that God had wanted to be carried out.

In reply to by Matt

@ Matt. God asked these questions of Adam not because he didn't already know the answer, but instead to give Adam a chance to 1. come willingly and contrite to his Creator, and 2. to confess his disobedience. It is the same today when we disobey or sin against God. He ALREADY knew they were going to disobey his command because when God is warning them not to eat of the tree's fruit, He also says, "for in the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die." Gen. 2:17b NKJ God knows full well what is in the hearts and minds of His creation even before we know it ourselves and He has already made provision for us NOT to sin by providing a way out if we choose to take it. That's why it says in I Cor. 10:13 "No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are abele, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it." Keep in mind, God created us all with 'free will' which He will not usurp, but if we live in a state of obedience to Him, we can avoid a lot of unnecessary stuff due to our own poor choices.

How to cite this page

Kadari, Tamar. "Jael Wife of Heber The Kenite: Midrash and Aggadah." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 21, 2019) <https://qa.jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/jael-wife-of-heber-kenite-midrash-and-aggadah>.

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