She Crushed his head

“But Jael, Heber’s wife, picked up a tent peg and a hammer and went quietly to him while he lay fast asleep, exhausted. She drove (taqa’) the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died.” (Judges 4:21).

In my last post I referred to the Hebrew verb, taqa’, which is used to describe the pitching of a tent in Genesis 31:25. It brought to mind this dramatic moment in Judges 4:21.

I once bought a children’s bible and began reading it to my kids. If you want to get a quick sense of the ‘ratings’ standard for a children’s bible, then it’s worth seeing what they do with this passage in Judges 4. The fact that this children’s version included Jael taking a tent peg and hammering through Sisera’s head was an immediately indicator that this bible was more M than an easy-going G rating. It was sticking close to the biblical text! Parental guidance recommended!

The action of Jael is celebrated in Deborah’s song in the next chapter:

“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 noble’s bowl. She sent her hand to the tent peg and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet; she struck Sisera; she crushed his head; she shattered and pierced his temple.” (Judges 5:24-26).

It is interesting to note the reference to milk and curds in these verses. The same word for curds is translated butter in Psalm 55:21 – ‘his speech was smooth as butter’. The context is all about lies and betrayal. This is what Jael bravely does, though in the cause of righteousness of course, when she lures Sisera into her tent and ultimately betrays his trust while he slept.  It is plain that involved a lot of courage as well as deception. Imagine what it must have been like for her in that tent – what thoughts must have gone through her mind. Was her heart pounding loudly or was she cool as ice? The scene has stirred many through the ages. It has often been painted, or simply alluded to, as the Renaissance artist, Bartolomejo Veneto did in his portrait of a Jewish Venetian lady who happens to be holding a hammer.

I often imagine the English author, PG Wodehouse (Plum), listening in awe as a schoolboy to this narrative in a boarding school chapel service. Who knows whether he actually did hear it there but it certainly captured his imagination. Plum often delights to refer to it in his novels and his descriptions inevitably leave me chuckling. There is poor Bertie Wooster experiencing a hangover: “dreaming that some bounder was driving spikes through my head—not just ordinary spikes, as used by Jael the wife of Heber, but red-hot ones.” In his book, Cocktail Time, Wodehouse portrays the heroine herself when Frederick Twistleton describes a countenance as having ‘a look of ecstasy and exaltation such as Jael, the wife of Heber, must have worn when about to hammer the Brazil nut into the head of Sisera’. 

And PG lives on. In more recent times, I came across this short commendation by Russell Moore on the back cover of a book, Openness Unhindered:

“Like Jael of old, Rosaria Butterfield wields the tent peg of the gospel against deception and accusation. And, with this book, she nails it.”      

Now there’s a great way to blow the trumpet!

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