Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
1-3. Fresh apostasy of Israel, and their consequent oppression by Jabin. Judges 4:4-5. Deborah, the prophetess. Judges 4:6-9. She summons Barak to deliver Israel, and accompanies him at his request. Judges 4:10. Army of Barak. 11. Heber the Kenite. Judges 4:12-13. Gathering of Sisera’s host. Judges 4:14-16. Their defeat. Judges 4:17. Flight of Sisera. 18-22. His murder by Jael. Judges 4:23-24. Complete triumph of Israel.
And the children of Israel again did evil in the sight of the LORD, when Ehud was dead.(1) Again did evil in the sight of the Lord.—“They turned their backs, and fell away like their forefathers, starting aside like a broken bow” (Psalm 78:57); see Judges 3:12.
When Ehud was dead.—See Judges 3:31.
And the LORD sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan, that reigned in Hazor; the captain of whose host was Sisera, which dwelt in Harosheth of the Gentiles.(2) Sold them.—See Judges 2:14.
Jabin.—The name means, “he is wise.” It may have been a dynastic name, like Abimelech, Melchizedek, Pharaoh, Hadad, Agag, &c.
King of Canaan—i.e., of some great tribe or nation of the Canaanite8. In Joshua 11:1 Jabin is called king of Hazor, and sends messages to all the other Canaanite princes.
Reigned in Hazor.—See Joshua 11:1. Hazor was in the tribe of Naphtali (Joshua 19:36), and overlooked the waters of Merom (Jos., Antt. v. 5, § 1). We find from Egyptian inscriptions of Barneses II., &c., that it was a flourishing town in very ancient days. Owing to its importance, it was fortified by Solomon (1Kings 9:15). Its inhabitants were taken captive by Tiglath-pileser (2Kings 15:29); and it is last mentioned in 1 Maccabees 9:27. (Comp. Jos., Antt. xiii. 5, § 7.) De Saulcy discovered large and ancient ruins to the north of Merom, which he identifies with this town. The Bishop of Bath and Wells (Lord A. Hervey On the Genealogies, p. 28) has pointed out the strange resemblance between the circumstances of this defeat and that recorded in Joshua 11. In both we have a Jabin, king of Hazor; in both there are subordinate kings (Judges 5:19; Joshua 11:1); in both chariots are prominent, which, as we conjecture from Joshua 11:8, were burnt at Misrephoth-maim (“burnings by the waters”); and in both the general outline of circumstances is the same, and the same names occur in the list of conquered kings (Joshua 11:21-22). This seems to be the reason why Josephus, in his account of the earlier event (Antt. v. 1, § 18), does not mention either Jabin or Hazor, though strangely enough he says, in both instances, with his usual tendency to exaggeration, that the Canaanites had 300,000 foot, 10,000 horse, and 3,000 chariots. It is again a curious, though it may be an unimportant circumstance, that in 1Samuel 12:9 the prophet mentions Sisera before Eglon. Of course, if the received view of the chronology be correct, we must make the not impossible supposition, that in the century and a half which is supposed to have elapsed since the death of Joshua, Hazor had risen from its obliteration and its ashes (Joshua 11:11; Jos., Antt. v. 5, § 4), under a new Canaanite settlement, governed by a king who adopted the old dynastic name. If, on the other hand, there are chronological indications that the whole period of the Judges must be greatly shortened, we may perhaps suppose that the armies of Joshua and Barak combined the full strength of the central and northern tribes in an attack from different directions, which ended in a common victory. In that case, the different tribal records can only have dwelt on that part of the victory in which they were themselves concerned. It is remarkable that even so conservative a critic as Bishop Wordsworth holds “that some of the judges of Israel were only judges of portions of Canaan, and that the years run parallel to those of other judges in other districts of the same country.” If there are difficulties in whatever scheme of chronology we adopt, we must remember the antiquity and the fragmentary nature of the records, which were written with other and far higher views than that of furnishing us with an elaborate consecutive history.
The captain of whose host.—In Eastern narratives it is common for the king to play a very subordinate personal part. In the last campaign of Crœsus we hear much more of Surenas, the general of the Parthians, than of Orodes (Arsaces, 14).
Sisera.—The name long lingered among the Israelites. It occurs again in Ezra 2:53, as the name of the founder of a family of Nethinim (minor servants of the Levites, of Canaanite origin, 2 Samuel 21; Ezra 2:43; 1Chronicles 9:2); and in the strange fashion which prevailed among some of the Rabbis of claiming a foreign descent, the great Rabbi Akhivah professed to be descended from Sisera.
Harosheth.—The name means “wood-cutting.” The Chaldee renders it, “In the strength of citadels of the nations.” It was an ingenious and not improbable conjecture of the late Dr. Donaldson, that the town was named from the fact that Sisera made the subject Israelites serve as “hewers of wood” in the cedar-woods and fir-woods of Lebanon. The site of Harosheth has been precariously identified with Harsthîeh, a hill on the south-east of the plain of Akka. (Thomson’s Land and Book, ch. 29)
Of the Gentiles—i.e., of the nations; of mixed inhabitants; lying as it did in “Galilee of the Gentiles.” (Comp. “Tidal, king of nations,” Genesis 14:1, and “The king of the nations in Gilgal,” Joshua 12:23.)
And the children of Israel cried unto the LORD: for he had nine hundred chariots of iron; and twenty years he mightily oppressed the children of Israel.(3) Cried unto the Lord.—Judges 3:9; Judges 3:15; Psalm 107:13.
Nine hundred.—Josephus magnifies the number to 3,000.
And Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, she judged Israel at that time.(4) Deborah.—The name means “bee,” like the Greek Melissa. The names of Jewish women were often derived from natural objects, as Rachel, “a lamb,” Tamar,”a palm,” &c. It has been sometimes regarded as a title given to her as a prophetess, just as the priestesses of Delphi were called Bees (Pindar, Pyth. iv. 106); and priests were called by the title Malebee (Essēn). But the fact that Rachel’s nurse (Genesis 35:8) had the same name is against this supposition, though Josephus (Antt. v., § 5) accepts it. She had, as Cornelius à Lapide quaintly says, “a sting for foes, and honey for friends.” The pronunciation Debŏrah is now so deeply-rooted in England (possibly from the Vulgate, Debbora) that it would, perhaps, be pedantic to alter it; but properly the “ō” is long נביאה; LXX., Deborra and Debbōra).
A prophetess.—Literally, a woman, a prophetess; like Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Huldah (2Kings 22:14), Noadiah (Nehemiah 6:14), Anna (Luke 2:36), &c. She is the only female judge, or, indeed, female ruler of any kind in Jewish history, except the Phoenician murderess, Athaliah. She is also the only judge to whom the title “prophet” is expressly given. “Prophetess” (like the Latin Vates) implies the possession of poetic as well as of prophetic gifts (Exodus 15:20); and we see her right to such a title, both in her predictions (Judges 4:9), her lofty courage (Judges 5:7), and the splendour of her inspired song (Judges 5). She has modern parallels in the Teutonic prophetesses, Veleda and Alaurinia (Tac., Germ. 8), and Joan of Arc, the “Inspired Maid of Domremi.” Among the Jews prophetesses were the exception; among the ancient Germans they were the rule.
The wife of Lapidoth.—This is probably the meaning of the phrase, although some ancient commentators make it mean “a woman of Lapidoth;” as does Tennyson (Princess), “Like that great dame of Lapidoth.” The phrase closely resembles “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron,” “Huldah the prophetess, wife of Shallum.” The name Lapidoth, which occurs nowhere else, means “flames,” “lamps,” or “splendours;” and Rashi says that she was called “a woman of lamps,” from making the wicks for the lamps of the sanctuary; while others, with equal improbability, interpret it of her shining gifts and of her fiery spirit. The parallels which are adduced to support this view (Isaiah 62:1; Job 41:2; Nahum 2:5) are inadequate; as also is Ecclus. xlviii. 1, “The word of Elias burnt like a torch;” and the Midrash, which says of Phinehas, that “when the Holy Ghost filled him, his countenance glowed like torches” (Cassel). Perhaps there was a fancy that such a prophetess could only be a virgin. The name Lapidoth has a feminine termination, but this does not prove that it may not have been, like Naboth, Shelomith, Koheleth, &c., the name of a man. It is uncertain whether Deborah was of the tribe of Ephraim or Issachar (Judges 5:15; Ewald, ii. 489).
She judged Israel.—We see from the next verse that up to this time her functions had mainly consisted of peaceful arbitration and legal decision (Deuteronomy 17:8).
And she dwelt under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in mount Ephraim: and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment.(5) She dwelt under the palm tree of Deborah.—Similarly Abraham is said to have lived under the oak of Mamre (Genesis 14:13), and Saul under the pomegranate of Migron (1Samuel 14:2). “Such tents the patriarchs loved “(Coleridge). Dean Stanley (Jewish Chron. i. 318) draws a fine contrast between the triumphant “mother of Israel” (Judges 5 under her palm, full of the fire of faith and energy,and Judæa Captiva, represented on the coins of Titus as a weeping woman sitting under a palm-tree, “with downcast eyes and folded hands, and extinguished hopes.” The words “she dwelt” are literally she was sitting, which may merely mean that she took her station under this well-known and solitary palm when she was giving her judgment (comp. Psalm 9:3); just as St. Louis, under the oak-tree at Vincennes (Stanley, Jewish Chron. i. 218), and as Ethelbert received St. Austin and his monks under an oak. The tree won its name as the “Deborah palm” from her, and may also have originated the name Baal-Tamar, “the lord of the palm” (Judges 20:33). Near it was another very famous tree—Allon-Bachuth—the oak or terebinth of weeping; so called from the weeping at the burial of the other Deborah (Genesis 35:8), which is alluded to in 1Samuel 10:3, if the true reading there be “the oak of Deborah,” and not of Tabor, as Thenius conjectures.
In mount Ephraim.—The one secure spot in Palestine. (See Note on Judges 3:27.) The Chaldee prosaically amplifies this into “she lived in Ataroth (Joshua 15:2), having independent means, and she had palm-trees in Jericho, gardens in Ramah, olive-yards in the valley, a well-watered land in Bethel, and white clay in the king’s mount.”
Came up.—A technical term for going before a superior (Numbers 16:12; Deuteronomy 25:7). Deborah, unlike the German Veleda—who lived in a tower, in awful seclusion—allowed the freest access to her presence as she sat beneath her palm.
And she sent and called Barak the son of Abinoam out of Kedeshnaphtali, and said unto him, Hath not the LORD God of Israel commanded, saying, Go and draw toward mount Tabor, and take with thee ten thousand men of the children of Naphtali and of the children of Zebulun?(6) Barak.—The name means “lightning” (Jos., Antt.), as does Barca, the family name of Hannibal and Hasdrubal. So in Virgil, the Scipios are called “two lightnings of war.” (Comp. Boanerges, Mark 3:17.)
Kedesh-naphtali.—The name “Kedesh” means a holy city. There were, therefore, many towns of the name, as Kadesh-Barnea (Numbers 20:1; Joshua 15:23), and Kedesh in Issachar (Joshua 12:22). Jerusalem is called “the holy, the noble” (El kuds, es shereef). This sanctuary of Naphtali was a Levitical refuge city in Galilee (Joshua 19:35; Joshua 20:7; Joshua 21:32). Josephus says that it was not far from Phœnicia (Jos., Antt. xiii. 5, § 6). The site of it is probably at Kades, four miles north-west of Lake Merom. The reading of the Syriac and Arabic versions here—Rakam—is inexplicable. The fact that the fame of Barak had penetrated from the northern city to the southern limits of Ephraim shows that he must have been a man of great mark.
Draw.—The meaning of the word is uncertain. The Rabbis understand “the people,” others understand “thy steps,” referring to Genesis 37:21; Exodus 12:21 (Heb.). The LXX. has “thou shalt depart;” the Vulgate, “lead;” the Chaldee, “spread out,” as in Judges 20:37. There, however, our version gives in the margin the alternative “made a long sound with the trumpet,” and the verb is used in that sense in Exodus 19:13; Joshua 6:5, but there the substantive is added. The word probably implies that Barak is to draw his troops together in small contingents to prevent suspicion.
Mount Tabor.—The broad flat top of this strong, beautiful, and easily fortified mountain (which is nearly a mile in circumference) would serve the double purpose of a watch-post and a stronghold. It was in the district of Issachar, about six miles from Nazareth, and its peculiarities attracted notice in very early days (see Joshua 19:22; Psalm 89:12; Jeremiah 46:18). Josephus calls it Itaburion; he held it for some time successfully against Placidus and the Romans (Jos., B. J. iv. 1, § 8). Its huge truncated cone of limestone rises isolated from the plain to the height of nearly nineteen hundred feet, and its sides are clothed with oaks and terebinths. It is now called Jebel et Tur. It was long regarded as the scene of the Transfiguration, but it must yield this glory to Mount Hermon. But the sacred character of the hill seems to be distinctly intimated in Deuteronomy 33:19 : “They (Zebulon and Issachar) shall call the people unto the mountains; there they shall offer sacrifices of righteousness;” Jeremiah 46:18 : “As I live, saith the King, whose name is the Lord of Hosts, surely as Tabor is among the mountains . . . so shall he come.”
Of the children of Naphtali and of the children of Zebulun.—The northern tribes would feel most painfully the tyranny of Jabin, and these were the two most energetic of them.
And I will draw unto thee to the river Kishon Sisera, the captain of Jabin's army, with his chariots and his multitude; and I will deliver him into thine hand.(7) To the river Kishon.—This word rendered “river” is nachal, which means rather “a torrent-bed” or “water-course,” the Arabic wady, the Italian fiumara—such as the bed of the Kedron and the Rhinocolura. (LXX. cheimarrous, Vulg. torrens.) The river is always prominently mentioned in connection with this great victory (Psalm 83:9), because the overwhelming defeat of Canaan was due in great measure to the providential swelling of the torrent-waters, which turned its banks into a morass and rendered the iron chariots worse than useless. It contributed in the same way to the defeat of the Turks in the battle of Mount Tabor, April, 1799. The river is now called the Mukatta, i.e., “the river of slaughter.” It rises partly in Mount Tabor and flows into the Bay of Acre, under Mount Carmel. (Comp. 1Kings 18:40.) The plain of Jezreel (Esdraelon), through which it flows, has been in all ages the battle-field of Palestine.
And Barak said unto her, If thou wilt go with me, then I will go: but if thou wilt not go with me, then I will not go.(8) If thou wilt go with me.—The enterprise seemed so daring and so hopeless, that if not for his own sake, yet for the sake of his army, Barak felt how much would be gained by the presence of the inspired prophetess. The LXX. has the remarkable addition, “Because I know not the day in which the Lord prospers the angel with me.” This is a sort of excuse for his want of perfect faith. He depends on Deborah to give him the immediate augury of victory. “In the Messenian war the soldiers fought bravely because their seers were present” (Pausan. iv. 16—Cassel).
And she said, I will surely go with thee: notwithstanding the journey that thou takest shall not be for thine honour; for the LORD shall sell Sisera into the hand of a woman. And Deborah arose, and went with Barak to Kedesh.(9) I will surely go with thee.—Literally-Going, I will go.
Shall not be for thine honour.—Literally, thy pre-eminence (LXX. “proterēma”; Luther, “der Preis “) shall not be on the path which thou enterest.
Of a woman.—To enter into the force of this we must remember the humble and almost down-trodden position of women in the East, so that it could hardly fail to be a humiliation to a great warrior to be told that the chief glory would fall to a woman. He may have supposed that the woman was Deborah herself; but the woman was not the great prophetess, but Jael, the wife of the nomad chief (R. Tanchum, and Jos., Antt. v. 5, § 4). Compare the feeling implied in Judges 9:24.
And Barak called Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh; and he went up with ten thousand men at his feet: and Deborah went up with him.(10) Called.—The word used is the technical word for summoning an army (2Samuel 20:4-5). Naturally Zebulun and Naphtali would be more difficult to arouse than the central tribes, because, though they felt the oppression most, they would have to bear the brunt of the vengeance in case of defeat. Ephraim and Benjamin (Judges 5:14), being more strong and secure, could raise their contingents without the personal help of Deborah, especially if that view of the chronology be admissible which avoids other difficulties by the difficult supposition that this event took place before the death of Joshua.
Zebulun and Naphtali.—(See Judges 5:18.) Of course it is only meant that in the first instance the leaders of those tribes were invited to a conference, like those of the Swiss on the Rütli in 1307.
Deborah went up with him.—A trace of this fact may yet be preserved in the name Debarieh, given to a village at the foot of Tabor.
Now Heber the Kenite, which was of the children of Hobab the father in law of Moses, had severed himself from the Kenites, and pitched his tent unto the plain of Zaanaim, which is by Kedesh.(11) Heber the Kenite.—See Judges 1:16; Judges 3:31; Numbers 10:29.
Which was of the children of Hobab.—Rather, had separated himself from Kain,from the children of Hobab. Nomadic settlements are constantly liable to send off these separate colonies. The life and movements of the Kenites resembled those of gipsies, except that they had flocks and herds. To this day a small Bedouin settlement presents very nearly the same aspect as a gipsy camp.
The father in law of Moses.—Rather, the brother-in-law. The names for these relationships are closely allied. (See Note on Judges 1:16.)
Pitched his tent.—(Genesis 12:8, &c.) The “tents” of the Bedouin are not the bell-shaped tents with which we are familiar, but coverings of black goats’ hair, sometimes supported on as many as nine poles. The Arab word for tent is beit, “house.”
Unto the plain of Zaanaim.—Rather, unto the terebinth in Zaanaim. (See Joshua 19:33.) Great trees are often alluded to in Scripture. (Allon-Bachuth, Genesis 35:8, “the oak of Tabor”; 1Samuel 10:3, “the oak of the house of grace”; 1Kings 4:9, “the enchanters’ oak”; Judges 9:37; Joshua 24:26, &c.) This terebinth is again alluded to in Joshua 19:33; and the size and beauty of the terebinths on the hills of Naphtali, to which we find allusion in the blessing of Jacob, probably led to its adoption as the symbol of the tribe. “Naphtali is a branching terebinth” (Genesis 49:21). The word elon (אלון) is constantly rendered “plain” by our translators (Judges 9:6-37; Genesis 12:6; Genesis 13:18; 1Samuel 10:3, &c), because they were misled by the Targums and the Vulgate, which render it sometimes by vallis and convallis. They always render the cognate word allon by “oak,” and, in the looseness of common nomenclature, the “oak” and the “terebinth” were not always carefully distinguished. There is a large terebinth, called Sigar em-Messiah, six miles north-west of Kedes. The word Zaanaim (also written Zaannanim) means “wanderings,” or “unlading of tents,” with possible reference to this nomad settlement. The LXX. render it “the oak of the covetous,” because they follow another reading. In contrast with these “wandering tents” of the Bedouin, Jerusalem is called in Isaiah 33:20 “a tent that wanders not.”
Ewald, following the Targum, makes it mean “the plain of the swamp,” and this is also found in the Talmud, which seems to indicate this place by Aquizah hak-Kedesh (“swamp of the holy place”).
Which is by Kedesh.—Oaks and terebinths are still found abundantly in this neighbourhood; and such a green plain studded with trees would be a natural camping-ground for the Kenites.
And they shewed Sisera that Barak the son of Abinoam was gone up to mount Tabor.(12) They shewed Sisera.—The previous verse has been introduced by way of anticipation, that the reader—who has last heard of the Kenites in the south of Judah (Judges 1:16)—may not be surprised at Judges 4:17 to find them in Naphtali. It is not, therefore, necessary to suppose that the “they” means the Kenites. It may be an impersonal expression (as it is rendered in the LXX. and Vulg. “it was told”).
And Sisera gathered together all his chariots, even nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the people that were with him, from Harosheth of the Gentiles unto the river of Kishon.(13) All his chariots.—He saw at once that this very sudden revolt had assumed formidable proportions, and he would need all his forces to dislodge Barak from his strongly entrenched position on Tabor.
Harosheth of the Gentiles.—This is simply the name of the town Harosheth-haggoîm. (See Judges 4:2.)
And Deborah said unto Barak, Up; for this is the day in which the LORD hath delivered Sisera into thine hand: is not the LORD gone out before thee? So Barak went down from mount Tabor, and ten thousand men after him.(14) This is the day.—See the addition of the LXX. to Judges 4:8. The ancients attached the utmost importance to fortunate and unfortunate days, and Barak was guided by a prophetess, not by idle auguries.
Went down from mount Tabor.—As he had neither cavalry nor chariots it required no little faith in Barak to abandon his strong post and assume the aggressive against the kind of forces which struck most terror into the Israelites (Hebrews 11:32). Hence the emphatic addition, “at his feet” (Heb., and see Judges 4:10). If the beginning of the battle was at Taanach, the Israelites had to march thirteen miles along the caravan road. Probably the Canaanites watched this bold and unexpected movement with as much astonishment as the huge Persian host saw the handful of Athenians charge down from the hill-sides into the plain of Marathon.
And the LORD discomfited Sisera, and all his chariots, and all his host, with the edge of the sword before Barak; so that Sisera lighted down off his chariot, and fled away on his feet.(15) Discomfited.—The same word as in Exodus 14:24; Joshua 10:10. The LXX. exestēse, and the Vulg. perterruit, imply the element of immediate Divine aid in the battle.
And all his host.—“Do unto them . . . as to Sisera, as to Jabin at the brook of Kison, which perished at Endor, and became as the dung of the earth” (Psalm 83:9-10). Considering the allusion to the swollen waters of the Kishon and the storm in Judges 5:20-22, it seems probable that Josephus is following a correct Jewish tradition when he describes the battle thus:—“They joined battle, and as the ranks closed a violent storm came on, and much rain and hail; and the wind drove the rain against the faces of the Canaanites, darkening their outlook, so that their archeries and their slings were rendered useless, and their heavy-armed soldiers, because of the cold, were unable to use their swords. But since the storm was behind the Israelites, it caused them less harm, and they further took courage from their belief in God’s assistance, so that, driving into the midst of the enemy, they killed many of them,” &c. (Antt. v. 5, § 4). The battle thus closely resembled that of Timoleon against the Carthaginians at the Crimessus (Grote, xi. 246), and the English victory at Crecy, as has been graphically described by Dean Stanley (Jew. Church, i. 329). We may add that similar conditions recurred in the battle of Cannæ, except that it was the storm of dust and not of rain that was blown in the faces of the Romans by the Scirocco (Liv. 22:46; Plut. Fab. 16).
Sisera lighted down off his chariot.—We find an Homeric hero, Idæus (Il. v. 20), doing the same thing. On this the frivolous critic Zoilus made the objection, “Why did he not fly in his chariot?” The answer is the same as here: Sisera would have far more chance of escaping into concealment if he left the well-known chariot of a general. Besides this, his chariot—like those of the Egyptians at the Red Sea—was probably struggling in the trampled morass. “It was left to rust on the banks of the Kishon, like Roderick’s on the shores of the Guadelete” (Stanley).
But Barak pursued after the chariots, and after the host, unto Harosheth of the Gentiles: and all the host of Sisera fell upon the edge of the sword; and there was not a man left.(16) There was not a man left.—The massacre in all battles in which the fugitives have to escape over a river and contend with a storm is always specially fatal. The memory of this terrible carnage was preserved for years, together with the circumstance that the soil was enriched by the dead bodies (Psalm 83:10). Similarly at Waterloo, the year after the battle a blaze of crimson poppies burst out over the plain, and the harvests of the subsequent years were specially rich.
“The earth is covered thick with other clay,
Which her own clay shall cover.”
The scene of the battle of Marius at Aquæ Sextiæ was long called Fourrières (a corruption of Campi Putridi) for the same reason; and the site of Cannæ is still known as Pezzo di Sangue.
Howbeit Sisera fled away on his feet 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.(17) Fled away on his feet to the tent of Jael.—In a different direction from that taken by his army, which fled towards Harosheth (Kimchi). The expression is probably used by anticipation. He could hardly have meant to fly to Jael rather than to Heber, until Jael came to meet him, unless there are circumstances unknown to us. Women had separate tents (Genesis 18:6), and these were regarded as inviolably secure. He thought that there he would lie unsuspected till the pursuers passed (comp. Genesis 24:67). The name Jael means “gazelle” (like Tabitha, Dorcas), “a fit name for a Bedouin’s wife—especially for one whose family had come from the rocks of Engedi, the spring of the wild goat or chamois” (Stanley).
For there was peace.—This enabled Sisera boldly to appeal to these nomads for dakheel—the sacred duty of protection. A poor strolling Bedouin tribe might well be left by Jabin to its natural independence; tribute can only be secured from Fellahîn—i.e., from settled tribes. Three days must have elapsed since the battle before it would be possible for Sisera to fly on foot from the Kishon to “the nomad’s terebinth.” It may well be conceived that the unfortunate general arrived there in miserable plight—a starving and ruined fugitive.
And Jael went out to meet Sisera, and said unto him, Turn in, my lord, turn in to me; fear not. And when he had turned in unto her into the tent, she covered him with a mantle.(18) Jael went out to meet Sisera.—This makes it probable that her design was already formed, unless we suppose that Jael as a chieftainess was placed above the ordinary rules which regulate the conduct of Oriental women. As nothing is said of Heber, he may have been absent, or he may have kept out of the way in order to further his wife’s designs.
Turn in to me.—Without that special invitation Sisera would not have ventured to violate every law of Oriental propriety by entering the privileged sanctuary of the harem.
Fear not.—Treachery is far too common among Bedouin tribes to render the exhortation needless.
She covered him with a mantle.—Rather, with the tent-rug. Evidently, the moment he was satisfied that her intentions were honest the weary and unfortunate fugitive flung himself down on the ground, or on a divan, to sleep. The word used for “mantle”—semîcah (Vulg., “pallio”; Luther, “mit einan Mantel”)—occurs nowhere else; from its root it probably means “a coverlet” (LXX., epibolaion, for which the Alexandrine Codex reads derrhis, “a skin”). A large “tent-rug” of goat’s hair is usually a part of the furniture of an Arab tent.
And he said unto her, Give me, I pray thee, a little water to drink; for I am thirsty. And she opened a bottle of milk, and gave him drink, and covered him.(19) Give me, I pray thee, a little water.—The request was natural enough; but, as he had not made it at first, we may suspect that he wanted to taste food in the tent, as a way of rendering still more secure the inviolable laws of Eastern hospitality. Saladin refuses to let Reginald of Chatillon drink in his tent, because he means to kill him.
A bottle of milk.—Rather, the skin of milk. The word “bottle” means, of course, a leathern bottle or skin. Josephus says that the milk was “already corrupted,” i.e., that it was butter-milk (Antt v. 6, § 5). This is quite probable, because butter-milk (lebban) is a common drink in Arab tents. When R. Tanchum adds that butter-milk inebriates, and Rashi that it produces deep sleep, and that it was her object to stupefy him, they are simply giving reins to their imagination. Josephus says, “He drank so immoderately that he fell asleep.” It might have been supposed that she would naturally offer him wine; but it is far from certain that even “must” or “unfermented wine”—much less fermented wine, which requires considerable art to make—would have been found in those poor tents; and, further, these Kenites may have been abstainers from wine, as their descendants the Rechabites were. ( Jeremiah 35:2.)
Again he said unto her, Stand in the door of the tent, and it shall be, when any man doth come and inquire of thee, and say, Is there any man here? that thou shalt say, No.(20) Stand.—The imperative here used has the masculine, not the feminine termination, but probably only because it is used generally.
That thou shalt say, No.—In that age, and among those nations, and under such circumstances, a lie would have been regarded as perfectly natural and justifiable; even under the Christian dispensation, many casuists declare a lie for self-preservation to be venial, though it is to be hoped that there are millions who, without condemning such a falsehood in others, would suffer any extremity rather than be guilty of it themselves. Under any circumstances, it would be very unfair to judge by the standard of Christianity the words and actions of ignorant nomads and idolatrous Canaanites, more than a thousand years before Christ. Sisera and Jael would have acted, without the faintest sense of conscientious scruple, on the heathen advice of Darius—“When it is necessary to lie, lie” (Herod. iii. 72).
Then Jael Heber's wife took a nail of the tent, and took an hammer in her hand, and went softly unto him, and smote the nail into his temples, and fastened it into the ground: for he was fast asleep and weary. So he died.(21) Then.—Many commentators have ventured to assume that at this instant Jael received a Divine intimation of what she was to do. To make such an assumption as a way of defending an act of assassination peculiarly terrible and peculiarly treacherous seems to be to the last degree unwarrantable. If any readers choose to adopt such methods for themselves they ought not to attempt the enforcement of such “private interpretations” on others. The mind which is unsophisticated by the casuistry of exegesis will find little difficulty in arriving at a fair estimate of Jael’s conduct without resorting to dangerous and arbitrary interpolations of supposition into the simple Scripture narrative.
Heber’s wife.—This addition, being needless, might be regarded as emphatic, and as involving an element of condemnation by calling prominent attention to the “peace between Jabin and the house of Heber,” which has been mentioned where last his name occurs (Judges 4:17). It is, however, due in all probability to the very ancient and inartificial character of the narrative.
A nail of the tent.—Probably one of the great tent-pegs used to fasten down the cords which keep the tent in its place (Exodus 27:19; Isaiah 22:23; Isaiah 54:2, &c). Josephus says an iron nail, but there is nothing to show whether it was of iron or of wood, and the LXX., by rendering it passalon (“a wooden plug “), seem to have understood the latter.
An hammer.—Rather, the hammer. The ponderous wooden mallet kept in every tent to beat down the cord-pegs. The word is Makkebeth, from which is derived the word Maccabee. The warrior-priests, to whom that title was given, were the “hammers” of their enemies, and Karl received the title of Martel for a similar reason.
Went softly unto him.—So as not to awake him. The description of Sisera’s murder is exceedingly graphic, but as far as the prose account of it is concerned, the silence as to any condemnation of the worst and darkest features of it by no means necessarily excludes the idea of the most complete disapproval. The method of the narrative is the same as that found in all ancient literature, and is a method wholly different from that of the moderns, which abounds in subjective reflections. Thus Homer sometimes relates an atrocity without a word of censure, and sometimes indicates disapproval by a single casual adjective.
Smote.—With more than one blow, if we take the poet’s account (Judges 5:26) literally.
Fastened it into the ground.—Rather, it (the nail) went down into the around. The verb used is rendered “lighted off” in Judges 1:14.
For he was fast asleep and weary.—The versions here vary considerably, but the English version seems to be perfectly correct. The verb for “he was fast asleep” is the same as in the forcible metaphor of Psalm 76:6 : “The horse and chariot are cast into a deep sleep.” The description of his one spasm of agony is given in Judges 5:27. There is no authority in the original for the gloss found in some MSS. of the LXX.: “And he was convulsed (ὰπηεσκάρισεν) between her knees, and fainted and died.” The words here used are only meant to account for his not being awakened by the approach or preparations of Jael (Kimchi), unless they involve a passing touch of pity or disapproval. Similarly it was, when Holofernes was “filled with wine,” that Judith “approached to his bed, and took hold of the hair of his head . . . and smote twice upon his neck with all her might, and she took away his head from him.” (Judith 13:2; Judith 13:7-8.)
And, behold, as Barak pursued Sisera, Jael came out to meet him, and said unto him, Come, and I will shew thee the man whom thou seekest. And when he came into her tent, behold, Sisera lay dead, and the nail was in his temples.(22) Behold, Sisera lay dead.—Thus the glory, such as it was, of having slain the general of the enemy passed to a woman (Judges 4:9). The scene which thus describes the undaunted murderess standing in the tent between the dead and the living chieftains—and glorying in the decision which had led her to fling to the winds every rule of Eastern morality and decorum—is a very striking one.
So God subdued on that day Jabin the king of Canaan before the children of Israel.(23) So God subdued.—The word used for God is here Elohim, while Jehovah occurs through the rest of the narrative. We are not yet in a position to formulate the law which regulates the interchange of these names. It need hardly be added that this attribution of the deliverance of Israel to God’s providence and aid does not necessarily involve the least approval of the false and cruel elements which stained the courage and faith of Jael. Though God overrules even criminal acts to the fulfilment of His own purposes, the crimes themselves meet with their own just condemnation and retribution. This may be seen decisively in the case of Jehu. His conduct, like that of Jael, was of a mixed character. He was an instrument in the hands of God to punish and overthrow the guilty house of Ahab, and in carrying out this Divine commission, he, too, showed dauntlessness and faith, yet his atrocious cruelty is justly condemned by the voice of the prophet (Hosea 1:4), just as that of Baasha had been (1Kings 16:7), though he, too, was an instrument of Divine retribution. To explain this clause, and the triumphal cry of Deborah—“So let all thine enemies perish, O Lord”—as Bishop Wordsworth does, to mean that “the work of Jael is represented by the sacred writer as the work of God,” is to claim Divine sanction for a wish that wicked or hostile powers should always “so” perish by cruel and treacherous assassination. At the same time, Jael must not be classed with women actuated only by a demoniacal thirst for vengeance, like Criemhild, in the Niebelungen; or even with Aretophila, of Cyrene, whom Plutarch so emphatically praises (On the Virtues of Women, p. 19, quoted by Cassel); but rather with women like Judith in ancient, or Charlotte Corday in modern times, who regarded themselves as the champions of a great and good cause.
And the hand of the children of Israel prospered, and prevailed against Jabin the king of Canaan, until they had destroyed Jabin king of Canaan.(24) The hand of the children of Israel prospered, and prevailed.—Literally, as in the margin, The hand. . . . going went, and was hard—i.e., “became heavier and heavier in its pressure.” The battle of the Kishon was the beginning of a complete deliverance of Israel from the yoke of the Canaanites.