Judges 4.17-22 – The Rape of Sisera?

Mozaic of Yael at the Dormition Church
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Keep in mind, this is a rough draft of a first semester Seminary student.

Judges 4.17-22 is an extrapolation of a portion of Deborah’s Song, namely Judges 5.24-27, the oldest part of the Hebrew bible, and shows expansion rather than redaction as well as unfamiliarity with the cultural euphemisms of a previous generation’s language. At the center of the story is Jael, a woman of Hebrew decent, married to Heber the Kenite, a tribe who were allies with Jabin, Sisera’s king. It will be my contention that Jael’s murder of Sisera was out of line with oriental hospitality, would have betrayed her husband, and was thus unmerited as a course of action on its own; however it is equally my contention that Jael’s action was in response to her rape by Sisera and thus fully warranted. As my base text, I will use the New Revised Standard Version and the New English Translation of the Septuagint.  Further, I will attempt to provide several sources for my view, although they are limited as the space requires them to be.

According to John Koenig, ‘the Hebrew Scriptures contain no single word for hospitality, but the activity itself is prominent, especially in the patriarchal stories and accounts in the book of Judges (emphasis mine). Koenig goes on to cite the Levite and his concubine as an example of the breaking of this code but he obviously misses the story of Jael. As the IVP Old Testament Background Commentary states at Judges 4.17-22, Jael reversed the oriental hospitality and may have actually used the code as a means of deception, as some speculate, to kill Sisera. We see the dangers in being inhospitable in that those who abuse the system of hospitality (cf Genesis 19, Sodom and Gomorrah; Judges 19-20, the Levite and his concubine) generally meet with a disastrous end. Yet, Jael was spared and for many generations was memorialized in song as an agent of YHWH. She, and not Barack (nor Deborah for that matter), was the one credited with the victory over Jabin’s alliance. Not only did she use hospitality to lure Sisera in, but purposely gave him a sleeping aid (Josephus calls it yogurt, Ant 5.5.4). Then, while he was sleeping, she took her working tools, the tent peg, and drove the peg mercilessly through his temple. While Judges is filled with many bloody scenes, this one stands out because it is seen as God’s agent using deception to murder. Lockyer, quoting Hallet, writes “Hospitality was one of the most strictly adhered to of all desert obligations, and was a matter of honor among the Hebrews”. Lockyer goes on to call Jael’s act a ‘revolting cruelty… method of murder!” I contend that it wasn’t Jael who breached the hospitality code, but Sisera.

Deborah’s Song, Judges 5.1-31, has long been recognized as among the oldest portions of the Hebrew bible. It is conceivable that it forms the nucleus of the Deuteronomist’s thought for the first portion of Judges with later redactors expanding the song, along with oral tradition, to fill out the gaps of Israel’s history. There are differences, notably that Sisera is leading the army in Deborah’s song while Jabin (4.2,23) leads the alliance in the expanded history. Further, Jael is now a contemporary with Shamgar (cf 3.31-4.1; 4.6), although this may be easily explained by not allowing for a linear method of storytelling. But, for our purposes, the main difference is the method in which Jael kills Sisera. Where as in Judges 4, we find a dramatized version with action, Deborah sings it as such,

“Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, of tent-dwelling women most blessed. He asked water and she gave him milk, she brought him curds in a lordly bowl. She put her hand to the tent peg and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet; she struck Sisera a blow, she crushed his head, she shattered and pierced his temple. He sank, he fell, he lay still at her feet; at her feet he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell dead. (Jdg 5:24-27)

In the expanded history of Judges 4.17-22, Jael meets the general on the run and invites him into her tent. Ellie Assis notes, rightly I believe, that Jael’s request in v18 is filled with sexual innuendo. She posits that ילא הרוס is the provocative suggestion that Sisera find feminine comfort in Jael’s tent. Further, Assis notes that the multiple references to Jael’s covering of Sisera is equally related to sexual euphemism. Interesting enough is the two reclensions of the Septuagint as represented in the NETS. Reclension A reads ἔκνευσον while B reads ἔκκλινον. It may be that the later editor of the Septuagint recognized the moral situation of the story and inserted a more euphemistic wording. In Deborah’s song, as opposed to the expanded history, there is no request to sleep and thus no assassination. Where as in Judges 4, Jael initiates the overture of hospitality and thus suffers the crime of being inhospitable, Sisera asks for the water and finds himself at odds with his hostess.

Kaiser et al, calls attention to the possibility in Judges 5.27, that ‘‘feet’ serves the usual euphemism of genitals. ‘Not only may the word “feet” be a euphemism for one’s sexual parts, as it is in other parts of Scripture at times, but especially significant are the verbs “lay”, meaning “to sleep” or “to have sexual intercourse” (for example, Gen 19:32; Deut 22:23, 25,28; 2 Sam 13:14), and “to bow”, meaning “to bend the knee,” “kneel,” or in Job 31:10 to “crouch” over a woman.’’ The fact that Deborah’s song records the struggle, most likely a rape, removes the guilt that many assume Jael to have. It wasn’t Jael which violated oriental hospitality or the peace treaty between Jabin and the Kenites, but Sisera who attempted to violate Jael and thus deserved his punishment.

The picture, if the passages are taken together, presents a reversal of circumstances which produces justice. Whereas in Judges 5, Jael is raped, in Judges 4, we might understand Sisera to be punished, metaphorically, in the same manner. First, he must surrender to a woman and relying on her deceiving the Israelites if they were to approach the tent. Yee uses Meike Bal as a backdrop, which I believe is an accurate picture of what is happening in Judges 4. Essentially, in verse 20 Sisera requires, presumably after the rape, that he be counted as a woman in Jael’s tent.

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלֶ֔יהָ עֲמֹ֖ד פֶּ֣תַח הָאֹ֑הֶל וְהָיָה֩ אִם־אִ֙ישׁ יָב֜וֹא וּשְׁאֵלֵ֗ךְ וְאָמַ֛ר הֲיֵֽשׁ־פֹּ֥ה אִ֖ישׁ וְאָמַ֥רְתְּ אָֽיִן׃

The Hebrew doesn’t lend itself to the notion of just ‘anyone’ but requires (according to Bal) that Jael say that no ‘man’ was there. Further, as Yee recounts, Sisera is plunged through with a tent peg, symbolizing the previous rape of Jael. There is no doubt that there is a  turnabout on the notion that the rape of women were a part of the spoils of war. Whereas Jael would have been part of Sisera’s spoils of war, he was quite clearly now part of Jael’s.  While there is much here, I believe, I think that it assumes that the passages were developed together, but it would seem that Judges 4.17-22 was actually developed after the Song of Deborah, but without cultural insights of the story of Jael. It would be interesting however, if it could be proved without a doubt that Judges 4.17-22 was about the rape of Sisera as it might show either a concerned hand of a male writer or a feminine writer.

While many interpreters seek to question the moral validity of Jael’s actions, we find by reading just a little bit further in Judges that Jael was more than justified in her actions towards Sisera. As many note, she broke the alliance between her husband and King Jabin as well as the code of hospitality so favored among the tribal peoples, or so we are led to believe. Further, in Judges 4.17-22, she is shown only to deceive almost from the very start, and yet is given credit for being God’s heroine. She alone is victor of the battle between Israel and Sisera, the one prophesied about by Deborah, which makes it much more difficult to digest because the cruelty of her actions. Yet, if the rape had occurred, as I believe it did, then she is absolved of her actions and indeed, is a symbol of the strength of a woman who is seeking immediate justice. Of course, the need for the rape which brought about God’s ultimate victory raises other questions concerning God’s motives and actions, but in the end, Jael and Israel received justice and rid the land of the violence of a man, preserving God’s bride Israel.

I will be using the ]], 4th Edition.

The NETS is based on the NRSV so the language should be interchangable.

]], ]] Vol. 3, Hospitality, Doubleday, 1992,

]], et. al., The IVP Old Testament Background Commentary, Intervarsity Press, Downer’s Grove, 2000

p70, Herbert Lockyer, All the Women of the Bible, Zondervon, 1967

See annotations at Judges 5.20, NOAB 4th edition.

Assis, E. (2005). “The hand of a woman”: Deborah and Yael (Judges 4). Journal of Hebrew Scriptures, 5Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

The NETS renders as such, A – Come aside, my lord, come aside to me; have no fear; and B – Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; have no fear.

Walter C. Kaiser, Hard Sayings of the Bible, 1996, Intervarsity Press, Downer’s Grove

Pg191, ibid

I find yee’s work better suited to explaining the situation as I see it, although I might not be as forceful in my language as the scholar.  See Yee, G. A. (1993). By the Hand of a Woman : The Metaphor of the Woman Warrior in Judges 4. Semeia, (61), 99-132. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Cf Deuteronomy 21.10-14 and Judges 5.30; 21.

For a later expansion of the story as well as a reapplication, see the Book of Judith which expands Jael’s victory greatly.

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6 Replies to “Judges 4.17-22 – The Rape of Sisera?”

  1. That’s a great post! Though I really, really like straightforward readings of biblical texts, I can’t deny that the Bible euphemizes sexual issues consistently (which is actually sort of nice if you’re reading a more traditional version at Christmastime with little kiddies listening).

  2. Excellent post. Glad to see you using the NRSV, for, as we know, the NLT would have tried to sugarcoat the literal meaning of the text, as it so often does. However, perhaps I would be more careful in the usage of the term “oriental.” Oriental, yes, but east to whom, what? Just some food for thought. I prefer Ancient Near Eastern but that is not without its problems as well.

    1. No, the NRSV is almost required, and the more so because I use the NETS for all Septuagint work in English. Further, the NLT reads about the same here, and frankly, they don’t ‘sugar’ coat, but thanks for trying.

      Everything is presented as a problem when you are trying to find one.

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