The Story of Deborah and Jael

14 And Deborah said to Barak, "Up! For this is the day in which the LORD has given Sisera into your hand. Does not the LORD go out before you?" So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with ten thousand men following him. 15 And the LORD routed Sisera and all his chariots and all his army before Barak at the edge of the sword; and Sisera alighted from his chariot and fled away on foot. 16 And Barak pursued the chariots and the army to Harosheth-ha-goiim, and all the army of Sisera fell by the edge of the sword; not a man was left. 17 But Sisera fled away on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite; for there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite. 18 And 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. 19 And he said to her, "Pray, 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. 20 And he said to her, "Stand at the door of the tent, and if any man comes and asks you, 'Is any one here?' say, No." 21 But Jael the 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, till it went down into the ground, as he was lying fast asleep from weariness. So he died. 22 And behold, as Barak pursued 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 in to her tent; and there lay Sisera dead, with the tent peg in his temple. (Jdg 4:14-22)

The book of Judges tells the story of Israel’s new life in the Promised Land and has a simple theme: Israel obeys God's covenant and all is well; Israel turns away from the covenant and foreign armies conquer them. When the latter occurred, Israel turned to God for help and in His mercy he sent them a great leader, a judge, who saved them from their oppressor. But, once free, Israel always turned to other gods and the cycle began again. Of the twelve judges in Israel's cyclic history, some are well known, e.g., Samson and Gideon (Gideon's trumpet). In our narrative above, the judge of the time was Deborah. (Yes, a woman was the leader of God's people.) She was more than a judge; she was a prophetess as well. At that time, Israel was oppressed by Canaan. The commander of Jabin's army was Sisera. The Lord told Deborah to bring out Israel's army (specifically, the armies of the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun) to Mt. Tabor and He would deliver Sisera into their hands. So they did; Israel's armies, under the command of Barak, routed Canaan's armies, under Sisera. As the story above says, Sisera was separated from his troops and he tried to hide in the tent of one Jael; she lulled him to sleep, then killed him. God conquered Israel's foe by the hand of a woman.

On the surface, this sounds like so many OT stories of conquest and violence. But, there is perhaps a deeper meaning. Let’s look at the commentary of a particular Father of the Church, Origin of Alexandria. He is known for always finding a mystic, anagogic sense to almost everything in the bible.

Origin notes that the Canaanite commander’s name, Sisera, means vision of the horse, that is, we are to think of a brute animal. And Sacred Scripture often notes that we are merely brute animals without the covenant; Sisera is, then, a type of humanity without the covenant. The name of our heroine is Jael, a Hebrew word meaning ascent or a certain type of mountain goat, which ascends easily on mountains. She is the image of the Church, which is the means by which we ascend to union with God. As we noted elsewhere, the Church is properly personified by a woman. So, we see in this narrative an image of the Church putting to death the image of ourselves without the covenant, our old selves when we were mere brute beasts led about by animal passions.

And how does the Church do this, this putting to death of our old nature? In the wooden tent peg, Origin saw the wood of the cross. And in what state was Sisera when the triumph of the cross put him to death? Asleep, for grace puts the brute beast passions to sleep in the Christian, before finally destroying them altogether. Note that Sisera asked for water, which is, of course, the image of Baptism. Then Jael gave him milk to drink; milk is the food mothers give to their children, and here typifies the Church feeding her children with the sacraments. As a last comment from Origin, Barak, the commander of the Israelite army, represents the old covenant before Christ – Barak was not the one who killed Sisera because he could not. Rather Jael, image of the NT Church, was the one who destroyed him.

After this victory over the Canaanite army, Israel was free. The judge Deborah sang a hymn of victory, and made an unusual comment regarding Jael:

24 Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, of tent-dwelling women most blessed. 25 He asked water and she gave him milk, she brought him curds in a lordly bowl. (Jdg 5:24-25)

The phrase “most blessed of women” certainly brings to mind a similar phrase regarding Our Lady, who is the primary type of the Church:

41 And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! (Lk 1:41-42)

Now let’s review a few smaller details. First, note how only the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun fought in this battle. They are mentioned together elsewhere in Scripture:

1 But there will be no gloom for her that was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. 2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined… 6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." 7 Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and for evermore. (Is 9:1-2, 6-7)

Here Isaiah prophesies that these two tribal regions are to be closely associated with the Messiah. In his gospel, Matthews shows us how:

13 And leaving Nazareth he [Jesus] went and dwelt in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15 "The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, toward the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles-- 16 the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned." 17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Mt 4:13-17)

This is where Jesus began His public ministry. So we can see why in Deborah’s day these two tribes were called on by the Lord to fight against Sisera’s troops: they were types of the Lord’s ministry. They worked in conjunction with Jael, the Church, who continues this ministry in the sacraments which are the means of giving us the power of Christ’s cross.

Next, let’s notice that Sisera went to the tent of Jael who invited him inside. Perhaps this seems innocent to us, but it was not – the only man allowed inside of a woman’s tent was her husband, and the only reason he would enter her tent would be for matrimonial reasons. We should understand that Sisera entering Jael’s tent hinted at a kind of sexual activity. In a similar way, the Church invites us into her tent, to enter into the nuptials of the covenant. But note that Jael covered Sisera, which was an euphemism for not having sex (see elsewhere); the nuptials of the Church are not for the brute animal passions, but for the soul which enjoys an intimate, spiritual union with the Lord. We are invited into the wedding tent to meet our beloved, but the animal passions must be ended if we are to enjoy true love.

This was an interesting exploration into an anagogic exegesis of an otherwise simple OT text. Believe it or not, there is still more to explore within this same text. The depths of Scripture are limitless.