1 Then Deborah and Barak son of Abinoam sang on that day, saying:
2 “When locks are long in Israel, when the people offer themselves willingly — bless the LORD!
3 “Hear, O kings; give ear, O princes; to the LORD I will sing, I will make melody to the LORD, the God of Israel.
4 “LORD, when you went out from Seir, when you marched from the region of Edom, the earth trembled, and the heavens poured, the clouds indeed poured water.
5 The mountains quaked before the LORD, the One of Sinai, before the LORD, the God of Israel.
6 “In the days of Shamgar son of Anath, in the days of Jael, caravans ceased and travelers kept to the byways.
7 The peasantry prospered in Israel, they grew fat on plunder, because you arose, Deborah, arose as a mother in Israel.
8 When new gods were chosen, then war was in the gates. Was shield or spear to be seen among forty thousand in Israel?
9 My heart goes out to the commanders of Israel who offered themselves willingly among the people. Bless the LORD.
10 “Tell of it, you who ride on white donkeys, you who sit on rich carpets and you who walk by the way.
11 To the sound of musicians at the watering places, there they repeat the triumphs of the LORD, the triumphs of his peasantry in Israel. “Then down to the gates marched the people of the LORD.
12 “Awake, awake, Deborah! Awake, awake, utter a song! Arise, Barak, lead away your captives, O son of Abinoam.
13 Then down marched the remnant of the noble; the people of the LORD marched down for him against the mighty.
14 From Ephraim they set out into the valley, following you, Benjamin, with your kin; from Machir marched down the commanders, and from Zebulun those who bear the marshal’s staff;
15 the chiefs of Issachar came with Deborah, and Issachar faithful to Barak; into the valley they rushed out at his heels. Among the clans of Reuben there were great searchings of heart.
16 Why did you tarry among the sheepfolds, to hear the piping for the flocks? Among the clans of Reuben there were great searchings of heart.
17 Gilead stayed beyond the Jordan; and Dan, why did he abide with the ships? Asher sat still at the coast of the sea, settling down by his landings.
18 Zebulun is a people that scorned death; Naphtali too, on the heights of the field.
19 “The kings came, they fought; then fought the kings of Canaan, at Taanach, by the waters of Megiddo; they got no spoils of silver.
20 The stars fought from heaven, from their courses they fought against Sisera.
21 The torrent Kishon swept them away, the onrushing torrent, the torrent Kishon. March on, my soul, with might!
22 “Then loud beat the horses’ hoofs with the galloping, galloping of his steeds.
23 “Curse Meroz, says the angel of the LORD, curse bitterly its inhabitants, because they did not come to the help of the LORD, to the help of the LORD against the mighty.
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.
26 She put her hand to the tent peg and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet; she struck Sisera a blow, she crushed his head, she shattered and pierced his temple.
27 He sank, he fell, he lay still at her feet; at her feet he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell dead.
28 “Out of the window she peered, the mother of Sisera gazed through the lattice: ‘Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why tarry the hoofbeats of his chariots?’
29 Her wisest ladies make answer, indeed, she answers the question herself:
30 ‘Are they not finding and dividing the spoil? — A girl or two for every man; spoil of dyed stuffs for Sisera, spoil of dyed stuffs embroidered, two pieces of dyed work embroidered for my neck as spoil?’
31 “So perish all your enemies, O LORD! But may your friends be like the sun as it rises in its might.” And the land had rest forty years.
The song of Deborah and Barak is generally considered one of the oldest pieces of the Hebrew Scriptures, along with the song of Moses, due to its archaic Hebrew vocabulary and syntax, and like the song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32 it shares a distinctive form in the way the Hebrew text is presented. The song is assumed to be older than the narrative version of the story which formed the preceding chapter, and it gives several unique insights into the narrative. Yet, the song assumes a knowledge of the background narrative that it refers to and it was probably a way in which the narrative of Deborah, Barak, and Jael was not forgotten in the passage of time. It also highlights the contrast between the weakness of Israel and the powerful nature of the God of Israel.
The opening line, “When locks were long in Israel” is obscure and difficult to translate with any confidence, but the overall direction of the verse is clear referring to a time when the people were willing to offer themselves to the guidance of the God of Israel. The ‘locks being long’ may refer to a time when holy warriors, like the Nazirites (Numbers 6, Judges 13), didn’t cut their hair and dedicated themselves to God’s service. The NIV renders this this text as ‘when the princes of Israel take the lead’ but most other translations go in the same direction as the NRSV and this seems to be the most likely approach even if its full meaning has been lost to us now. Yet, the primary focus is not the people of Israel, it is the God of Israel whose power thy sing about. It is striking that the initial imagery of the God of Israel is very similar to the imagery that the Canaanites used for their deities, but most people in the ancient world would have assumed that their gods worked through signs like earthquakes and storms. Yet, the initial appearance of the God of Israel being seen in the earth quaking, the storm dumping water, and the mountains quaking prepare us for the action of the LORD in verses 20-21.
Beginning in verse six we have a poetic illustration of the plight of Israel before the coming of Deborah and Barak to rally them and call them back to following the LORD. The mention of Shamgar (Judges 3:31) and Jael (4:17-22) points back to a time when the people of Israel are powerless in the face of a resurgent Canaanite threat. Shamgar may have been able to drive off a Philistine force, but the overall condition was desperate. Normal life was no longer possible. A leaderless Israel could not trade and travel could not be done safely on the main roads. The people of Israel are unable to defend themselves and even once Deborah arrives to be a ‘mother of Israel’ there are no weapons among the people: no spear or shield to defend themselves with. The poem attributes this lack of strength to the Israelites adopting new gods to worship, and probably the practice of adopting the practices and ways of the people already in the land. Before Deborah, Israel has forgotten who it is and how to protect themselves in a dangerous world where their oppressors have an organized and well-equipped fighting force.
Deborah the ‘mother of Israel’ probably begins the process of helping the tribes in her region begin to reclaim their identity and distinctive way of life. As mentioned in the previous chapter, as a woman she may have had more freedom to act without the Canaanites viewing her as a threat. Whatever shape her work among Israel took, her presence sets the foundation for the rallying of the tribes that do participate in the battle of Wadi Kishon under Barak. Yet, the poem also gives us an indication that Israeli is not unified: Reuben, Dan, Asher, and the half tribe of Manasseh and Gad (designated by the region they live in, Gilead) all fail to answer the rallying cry of Deborah and Barak even though they seem to be aware of it. Ephraim, Benjamin, Issachar, Zebulun, and Naphtali all in the poem offer forces. The narrative in chapter four indicates Zebulun and Naphtali being the primary contributors which is interesting if Deborah is from Issachar. The only forces that Deborah and Barak are able to rally consists of rag tag, poorly equipped force from roughly half of the summoned tribes. Israel on its own is poorly equipped to deal with the Canaanite forces that have made trade and normal life an impossibility for the previous eighteen years.
The weakness of the Israelites in the face of the kings of Canaan has been poetically illustrated. The title ‘kings of the Canaanites’ may harken back to the time of Joshua since the narrative version only points to King Jabin, but in contrast to an ununified Israel a consolidated Canaanite force approaches this rag tag resistance with the expectation of the annihilation and plundering of their enemy. Instead the LORD deploys the stars against Canaan. In the ancient world the stars were often viewed as deities or forces that controlled the weather and the unfolding of event, but now they are a part of the heavenly army of the LORD the God of Israel who are deployed against the chariots of Canaan bringing a torrential downpour which transforms the iron chariots from an insurmountable advantage into a liability for the Canaanites. The retreat of the horses of the Canaanites is captured by the Hebrew for ‘galloping, galloping’ daharot, daharot. Yet, instead of continuing the narration of the surprising scattering of the Canaanites the poem shifts to a curse of Meroz, presumably an Israelite clan or village that did not help pursue and cut off the Canaanite retreat and may have even aided the scattered forces.
Yet in contrast to the cursing of Meroz is the blessing of Jael. Where a group of Israelites failed to provide support, a non-Israelite woman brings down the commander of the Canaanites. The poem may give us a possible hint to Jael’s actions against Sisera when it refers to him ‘laying dead at her feet.’ The Hebrew here, ben rahleyha, also means ‘between her legs’ and is used elsewhere with sexual overtones (ex. Ezekiel 16:25) (NIB II:788) and it is possible that after offering shelter Sisera she is raped by the general and responds by killing him in his sleep. This is conjecture based on the slightest of hints in the poem and is not something that can be stated with any certainty, but it would give a motive for Jael to break the expectations of hospitality and the peace her husband Hobab had established with the Canaanites.
The final stanza of the poem imagines the mother of Sisera waiting for the return of her son. In imagining the cause of his delay this woman imagines that her son is delayed by his actions against other women. The Hebrew here is more explicit than the English translations, women are reduced to wombs so instead of a woman or two for each man it is merely women as sexual objects. That this justification is placed in the mouth of a woman indicates a culture that sees the objectification of women as sexual objects to be conquered by men as normal. This is not the world the Israelites were supposed to embody but it may have been the violent world they often inhabited. The ancient world was not a safe place for women, but here in this poem we have the strong contrast between the unnamed mother of the Canaanite general and Deborah the mother of Israel who calls the people to a different identity and Jael, the wife of Hobab the Kenite, who brings an end to the violent Sisera in her tent.
The poem ends by declaring “So perish all your enemies, O LORD! But may your friends be like the sun as it rises in might.” The poem is clear that the reason for the victory that Israel achieves through Deborah, Barak, and Jael in the righteous power of the LORD the God of Israel. The Canaanites with their chariots have become enemies of their God through their oppression and for the moment these Israelites rallied around Deborah and Barak are friends of God rising in might. Yet, Israel too can find itself as an enemy of God when it forgets God’s ways and adopts the ways of the violent and oppressive ways of the Canaanites. The judges that come after Deborah and Barak will be less successful in bringing the people back to following the God of Israel and the people will continue to reflect the practices of the nations which they were supposed to displace instead of the covenant vision that God handed on to Moses and Joshua. Israel instead of rising in might stands in danger of being eclipsed by its own unfaithfulness