By Ann Burton
Jael is one of those Biblical figures that are easy to miss. Her story is told briefly in Judges 14: 17-24:
Now Sisera had fled away on foot to the tent of Jael wife of Heber the Kenite; for there was peace between King Jabin of Hazor and the clan of Heber the Kenite. Jael came out to meet Sisera, and said to him, 'Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; have no fear.' So he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. Then he said to her, 'Please give me a little water to drink; for I am thirsty.' So she opened a skin of milk and gave him a drink and covered him. He said to her, 'Stand at the entrance of the tent, and if anybody comes and asks you, "Is anyone here?" say, "No."' But Jael wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground he was lying fast asleep from weariness and he died. Then, as Barak came in pursuit of Sisera, Jael went out to meet him, and said to him, 'Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.' So he went into her tent; and there was Sisera lying dead, with the tent peg in his temple. So on that day God subdued King Jabin of Canaan before the Israelites. Then the hand of the Israelites bore harder and harder on King Jabin of Canaan, until they destroyed King Jabin of Canaan.
That’s all we know about her, but Ann Burton has taken the opportunity to flesh Jael out in this third installment of her Women of the Bible series. At nineteen, Jael is old for a first-time bride, but her father’s patience has paid off: Heber the Kenite has agreed to pay a fine bride price. For two cattle and a silver Baal statue, created by Heber himself, Jael is married and joins his household. A metal smith who makes tools and weapons as easily as he created the silver statue, Heber’s business is very successful, thanks to the assistance of his sons in his business and a close connection to Sisera, general of the Canaanites. Heber soon makes it clear that he purchased Jael for a wife to produce more sons, and until she does so she is worthless. His first wife Pigat warns Jael that Heber’s seed has no potency, but in his pride he does not realize this. If she wishes to produce children and stop Heber’s violence and cruelty, she’ll have to go to a certain priest of Baal for “special prayers.” But for Jael, a recent convert to the worship of Yahweh, seeking the arms of another man is impossible.
Burton’s Jael is kind and patient, willing to suffer years of abuse from a horrible husband rather than betray her principles. In many ways she is the model wife, quiet and submissive. It’s hard to picture such a good woman as the killer described in Judges. Burton does her best to explain this imbalance, but ultimately Jael’s big scene, the act that got her into the Bible, refuses to mesh with the woman in the rest of the novel. It doesn’t ruin the book, by any means; overall I enjoyed the reading and will dig up the rest of this series. But reflecting back, I don’t think I understand Jael’s motives anymore than I did before reading the novel.Buy the book on Amazon.com, or add it to your wishlist.