In the middle of telling the story of Deborah and Barak (Judg. 4:1–16), the author of Judges tells us about a man named Heber the Kenite, introducing him seemingly out of nowhere (v. 11). The Kenites, we are told, were descendants of Moses’ father-in-law, and we know from Judges 1:16 that they had settled with the people of Judah, eventually becoming assimilated into Israel. This Heber, however, had left the Judahites in the south sometime before the war between Barak and the Canaanites, choosing to settle in the northern part of the promised land (4:11).
Today’s passage shows us why the author of Judges mentions Heber. He was married to Jael, who was responsible for the death of Sisera, the general of the Canaanites who served under King Jabin (v. 17; see v. 2). There may have been some compromise on the part of Heber, for as we see in 4:17, he was at peace with Jabin. In other words, Heber was not joining with the other people of Israel against the foe who was persecuting them. In any case, Jael knew which side she should be on. She deceived Sisera, bringing him into her tent with the promise of rest and secrecy. But while he was sleeping, she drove a tent peg into his head, killing him (vv. 18–22). As Deborah had prophesied, someone else got the glory in the conflict between Barak and the Canaanites, not Barak himself (v. 9).
Jael’s actions might seem troublesome given that she used deceit to kill the enemy. But this was a time of war, and the rules for war are somewhat different from the rules for peace, with spying and other forms of deceit acceptable in ways that they are not during times of peace (see Josh. 2, for instance). Moreover, we must remember that Sisera was no innocent man—he was a key leader over a people who had been committing great crimes against Israel. The oppression of the Canaanites led to the abandoning of the highways; that is, the enemy had made it impossible for normal commerce to take place among the Israelites, creating a desperate economic situation (Judg. 5:6). Furthermore, the Canaanites were also guilty of raping Israelite women (v. 30). Israel was in a desperate situation.
We also see in Jael a marvelous example of how the Lord uses ordinary people with ordinary skills. Jael was skilled with the tent peg because the women in her day set up and took down the tents. Driving tent pegs accurately and forcefully was second nature for her. And God worked through her to defeat the enemies of His people.