“Most blessed of women be Jael,
the wife of Heber the Kenite,
most blessed of tent-dwelling women.”
The sun was peeking over the edge of the mountain ridge when the rumblings started. Jael looked up from the fire she was kindling to bake the day’s bread. In the fringes of pink that touched the grey morning sky she could see no storm clouds. It would be another hot day in Zaanannim. Once again she was glad for the shade of the great tree.
Thank you, Yahweh, God of the people of Zaanannim and Lord of the ground on which I stand, she murmured.
With that, Jael puffed and blew at the embers from yesterday’s fire, watching them glow, then dim again. She inched the dried leaves she’d collected closer to the blackened wood. Then she blew again, harder. The leaves smoked and caught.
The rumbling continued. Jael looked toward the walled city in the distance. No clouds above it and no movement at the gate yet. It was too early for the gatekeepers to allow entrance to travelers and merchants. What was making that ceaseless noise?
Jael picked up her grain scoop and dipped it down into her basket. The wooden scoop struck the basket bottom without overflowing. She’d need to go to the market for more grain soon—a task she dreaded doing without the company of other women. The stares of the Israelites in Zaanannim were harder to ignore without the distraction of friends beside her.
If Heber hadn’t been so stubborn about coming up North alone.
She sighed and poured the grain into the bowl of her grinding mill and took up her position on the ground beside it. As she lifted the grinding stone, the ongoing rumble grew, expanding into the ground beneath her.
Beyond her tent Sethu, Heber’s horse, gave a disturbed neigh. Binti and Anat echoed his snorts.
“Steady, boy!” Jael called. “No worries, girls!”
The horses nickered and shuffled, then stilled in obedience.
Jael glanced at the sky beyond the great tree again. It bloomed brighter every minute, dispelling any question of potential storms. A cascading prick of realization ran down Jael’s arms, weakening her grip on the grinding stone.
An army, most likely King Jabin’s, was charging into battle. Jael’s stomach turned at the thought. She did not fear his army. Heber’s alliance with the king had assured that. But the destruction her husband’s decision had already wrought in her life, tearing her away from all that was familiar, was great enough. She pounded harder at the grain, though it had already reached the medium-coarse consistency she used for baking bread.
Suddenly one of the horses could stand the shaking earth no more. He reared up with a loud whinny, pulling his rope free from the ground, peg and all. Jael looked up from her grinding in time to see him cantering backward, away from the other horses. The rope and peg whirled through the air as the horse shook his mane.
Jael dropped the pestel into the bowl and darted to the horse’s side, taking care to stay clear of his bucking legs and the swinging peg.
“Shalom, my dear Sethu. Shalom,” she called out in her gentlest tone. As soon as she could safely reach him, she let her right hand glide over his bare back. She needed him to settle before he spooked the other horses. Then she remembered the grain clutched in her left hand and moved it near the horse’s nostrils. When he got a whiff he tucked his muzzle down into her hand and crunched at the grain. Jael caught hold of the rope and peg and led him back to his spot beside the mare and foal.
If only she hadn’t been so careless in driving the peg when they’d set up camp. She’d been too overwhelmed at their departure from the clan, and hopeful their stay under the great tree was temporary. She’d given a weak tap of her hammer, sending the sizable tent peg, a peg as long as a man’s head, barely into the ground—enough to convince the horse he couldn’t move, but not enough to hold him in place when startled or frightened.
Jael looped the stallion’s rope into a loose knot on the mare’s stake and hurried into her tent. The bag of tools lay tucked in the corner where she kept it and she quickly fished it out before the rumblings further spooked the horses and they all came free. When she returned to the trio, Jael set about securing first Sethu’s and then each of the other two stakes. It took a single strike, with Jael’s years of practice and strength built from regularly raising and packing tents, to send the long pegs several inches into the hardened ground. Now the horses could strain all they want and not budge the stakes.
Jael returned to her baking, mixing water she’d collected from the Kishon River the day before with the grain. She savored the spongy feel of it between her fingers as she formed it into loaves. Jael hummed as she worked, remembering the songs she and the other Kenite women sang as they worked together.
It had been so unfair of Heber to separate their family from all those they knew. And to side with the Canaanites against Israel! Jael’s mouth pursed into a tight line at the thought. Though their relation to the Israelites was distant, they still enjoyed fair treatment by God’s chosen people. Their freedom to camp under this oak and trade in Zaanannim were evidence of this. But if the people of Zaanannim were to hear of Heber’s alliance. His treachery…
Jael shuddered. All of Heber’s decisions of late left her uneasy. But there was so little she, a woman, could control. She let out her frustration with a pound to one of the balls of dough, flattening it to a round disc before nestling it among glowing coals, away from the flames of the fire itself.
When all of the rounds were settled in to bake, Jael stood up and brushed the remaining flour and dough from her hands. A movement on the horizon caught her eye. Something—or someone—was coming from the direction of the battle.
Jael glanced over her shoulder toward the wall of the great city. The gate was still shut fast. The citizens of Zaanannim must have heard the sounds of war. She felt more alone and vulnerable than ever. If the routine of previous days were any indication, Heber and their sons would not be back for hours. Jael stepped into the shadow of her tent to keep from being visible to the advancing figure.
By now whoever it was had drawn close enough for her to recognize as a man on foot. From the occasional glints of sunlight off his chest, he appeared to be wearing armor. Should she mount one of her horses and flee to the city in hopes they would open the gate for her before the stranger arrived? The citizens, with all their sideways glances, had nonetheless been hospitable toward Jael and her family.
But no, that would leave their camp and all of their belongings vulnerable. Heber would not be pleased should anything be lost. “Keep watch,” he ordered her sternly each morning as he departed.
Jael’s hands trembled as she fingered her skirt, wondering what to do. She could duck into her tent and hide, hoping the man would think the camp empty and pass on by. But the result would be the same as if she’d run to the city. Or worse. And besides, the baking bread would give her away.
Just like the day Heber announced he would be reclaiming their right to travel the countryside by striking a secret alliance with King Jabin, and like the day they departed their clan’s camp, and like every day after when Heber decided when they would eat and where they would stay—in fact, like almost every day Jael could remember in her life—at that moment, she had no choice.
She would have to follow the customs of her clan and welcome the stranger.
Yahweh, God of the Israelites, show me what to do, she whispered. Then she walked out to the road, head held high.
The man was tall, taller than Heber and darker-complected. Sweat ran down his dust-streaked cheeks and into his beard, shoulder-length hair clinging to his neck and temples. His armor, which he wearily shed in the road as he neared the camp, was that of a charioteer. But the sandals on his feet, the decorated belt at his waist, and the brightly woven loincloth he wore belonged to a man of position.
“Come,” she said to the stranger and pointed toward her tent.
“Heber, the Kenite?” he said. His voice was gravely and hoarse.
“Yes. I am his wife. Do not be afraid,” Jael said.
She pulled back the opening to her tent and motioned for him to enter. A pungent scent tickled Jael’s nose as the stranger stooped past her and collapsed with a thud onto the pile of straw and blankets she’d fluffed into place that morning.
Jael glanced once more toward the city before following him into her tent. The gates remained closed.
“I’m thirsty,” the man said, his tongue pronouncing the words with the guttural rasps of a Canaanite. “Bring water.” He reached one hand out toward her, before letting it fall to the ground.
Outside the tent Jael paused, eyes scanning the campsite. Her water jug stood where she’d left it open beside the fire. However, wine would be customary for a guest. But she spotted the wineskins Heber and their sons had emptied last night flattened in a pile beside one of the other tents. And this was no ordinary visitor. Instead Jael quickly retrieved a skin of fresh milk she’d gotten from their goats this morning and poured some into her finest bowl.
That would do in place of wine!
When she held the bowl to the man’s lips, he gulped eagerly, barely lifting his head so the milk dribbled across his cheeks and into his ears. He paid no notice.
“Stand in the doorway,” he said. “If someone comes by and asks if you’ve welcomed a guest, tell them ‘no.’” At this he closed his eyes.
Hunching in the doorway, Jael listened for his breath to even out in sleep. The sight of his body in her bed made her wince. She quickly shook the folds from one of her blankets, then lofted the end of it so it settled across the man’s body. He didn’t stir.
At this she ducked back outside. All was silent under the great tree. The ground no longer rumbled. Instead fear made Jael tremble. This Canaanite was, in truth, no guest of hers. Nor was he a friend to the people of Zaanannim. He was their enemy, bent on their destruction. And if Zaanannim fell, no treaty of Heber’s would help her.
Yahweh, Jael whispered again. What can I do? I am a mere woman. But this man is the enemy of your people.
The scent of bread baking rose off the fire and enveloped her in its cozy familiarity. She moved to check the loaves. As Jael neared the fire, her foot landed on something hard. It shifted underneath her and sent her pitching forward. Her hands and knees slammed the ground, inches from the burning embers.
Rubbing pebbles and dust from her palms, Jael scanned the ground to see what had tripped her. At her feet lay the offending object: her hammer! And beside it was an unused tent peg. A peg as long as a man’s head.
Perhaps Jael did have a choice. There was something she, a Kenite woman, could do.