In portraits, Jael's attributes are a tent peg and a hammer. These refer to the story in Judges 4:17-22. Jael is the wife of Heber the Kenite, an ally of the Israelites in their war against Jabin, king of Canaan. At Mount Tabor, the Israelite general Barak routs the army of Jabin's general Sisera. Fleeing from Barak, Sisera comes upon Jael's tent and asks her to shelter him. She takes him in and has him take a nap, but when he is asleep she kills him by driving a nail into his temple with a hammer. Later, in Judges 5:26, Barak sings a victory song with a line celebrating Jael's exploit (5:26).
In the victory song words for Jael's implements differ slightly from those in the narrative, and this leads to some differences in the images. The song calls Jael's hammer a malleus fabrorum, a carpenter or smith's hammer, which some artists reflect by picturing a hammer with claws, as in the first picture at right. But other artists may instead picture a maul, a possibility left open in the narrative in Judges 4, which calls it simply a malleus. The second picture at right is an example.
There is a similar ambiguity in the matter of the nail, which the song simply calls a clavus, "nail," but which the narrative calls a clavus tabernaculi, a "tent peg." In some images the thing looks more like a nail, as in the second picture at right; in others it looks more like a peg, as in the third picture.
The King James version of Deborah and Barak's song says Jael "smote off his head, when she had pierced and stricken through his temples," but decapitation is not in the Vulgate, which would have been the source for medieval images. I have seen only one image of Jael with a severed head, a privately held sculpture from Guatemala that appears to be from the era of Spanish rule. The head could refer to some variant reading of Judges 5:26, or more likely it is simply intended to emphasize Jael's similarity to Judith, who in a companion sculpture holds the head of Holofernes.
The artists often picture Jael as a richly dressed aristocrat of their own era, as in the first and second pictures at right.
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2021-07-31.