Tag Archives: Deborah

Judges 5 The Song of Deborah and Barak

Luca Giordano, The Defeat of Sisera (1692)

Judges 5

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

Judges 4 Deborah, Barak, and Jael

Deborah beneath the Palm Tree, James Tissot or followers (1836-1902)

Judges 4 Deborah, Barak, and Jael

The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, after Ehud died. 2 So the LORD sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. 3 Then the Israelites cried out to the LORD for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly twenty years.

4 At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. 5 She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment. 6 She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you, ‘Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. 7 I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.'” 8 Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.” 9 And she said, “I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the LORD will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” Then Deborah got up and went with Barak to Kedesh. 10 Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh; and ten thousand warriors went up behind him; and Deborah went up with him.

11 Now Heber the Kenite had separated from the other Kenites, that is, the descendants of Hobab the father-in-law of Moses, and had encamped as far away as Elon-bezaanannim, which is near Kedesh.

12 When Sisera was told that Barak son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor, 13 Sisera called out all his chariots, nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the troops who were with him, from Harosheth-ha-goiim to the Wadi Kishon. 14 Then Deborah said to Barak, “Up! For this is the day on which the LORD has given Sisera into your hand. The LORD is indeed going out before you.” So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with ten thousand warriors following him. 15 And the LORD threw Sisera and all his chariots and all his army into a panic before Barak; Sisera got down from his chariot and fled away on foot, 16 while Barak pursued the chariots and the army to Harosheth-ha-goiim. All the army of Sisera fell by the sword; no one was left.

17 Now Sisera had fled away on foot to the tent of Jael wife of Heber the Kenite; for there was peace between King Jabin of Hazor and the clan of Heber the Kenite. 18 Jael came out to meet Sisera, and said to him, “Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; have no fear.” So he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. 19 Then he said to her, “Please give me a little water to drink; for I am thirsty.” So she opened a skin of milk and gave him a drink and covered him. 20 He said to her, “Stand at the entrance of the tent, and if anybody comes and asks you, ‘Is anyone here?’ say, ‘No.'” 21 But Jael wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground — he was lying fast asleep from weariness — and he died. 22 Then, as Barak came in pursuit of Sisera, Jael went out to meet him, and said to him, “Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.” So he went into her tent; and there was Sisera lying dead, with the tent peg in his temple.

23 So on that day God subdued King Jabin of Canaan before the Israelites. 24 Then the hand of the Israelites bore harder and harder on King Jabin of Canaan, until they destroyed King Jabin of Canaan.

In the previous chapter we met the first three judges: a model military leader, a trickster assassin, and a foreigner. In the story of Deborah, Barak, and Jael we have all three elements again with the surprising addition that two of the three main protagonists are women. Early in the book of Judges we have seen that women have names and can act on their own to secure their interests as Achsah, daughter of Caleb and wife of the first judge Othniel, does. (1:11-15) As the book of Judges continues women will have less agency and security and only one other woman is named in the book, even though several individual women and groups of women will be important if tragic parts of the story. We also see for the first time when a male character wants some additional guarantee to do their part in God’s deliverance of the people. This episode, like the crossing of the Red Sea, is captured in both narrative form and a poetic lyrical form in the following chapter. In the memory of the people it is a joyous recollection of God’s deliverance from an oppressive and militarily superior foe at the hands of two women and a man.

We are introduced to the two antagonists of the story that the people of northern Israel are cruelly oppressed by: King Jabin of Canaan who rules from Hazor and his general Sisera who lives in Harosheth-ha-goiim. The name King Jabin and the city of Hazor take us back to an earlier story in the book of Joshua where the northern Canaanite kings are rallied by King Jabin of Hazor roughly a century earlier. In this battle against these northern kings Hazor is burned to the ground and King Jabin is put to the sword. (Joshua 11: 1-15) It is possible that Jabin was a royal title, like Pharaoh or Elimelech, and that while he is from the same line that ruled the former city of Hazor he is exercising his power with his general from Harosheth-ha-goiim. Regardless of how we address the identical titles of King Jabin and the vanquished, according to Joshua, city of Hazor the real locus of power is in the military might of the military commander Sisera and his nine-hundred iron chariots. It is through this mobile and seemingly invincible technological advantage in the early iron age that the northern territory of Israel is subjugated and after twenty years calls they call out to their God once again.

In a patriarchal world, which the vast majority of the ancient world was, it may seem unusual for a woman to be a prophetess as well as one who judges the people. Yet, in a situation of oppression where women have relatively few rights they may initially be viewed by the oppressor as harmless and may be able to use their power of social connectedness to maintain the identity of their family and to work for change. A powerful example of this is the nonviolent movement of women in Liberia which began in 2003 and resulted in the ending of Liberia’s civil war. Deborah becomes a figure that helps the Israelites remember who they are and gives them some sense of their story and their calling. Although the action of Deborah judging the people and providing guidance as a woman is unusual in scripture there is no indication that her role was contrary to God’s intentions. She becomes one of the two women in this story who are instrumental in the deliverance of Israel and as the song will say in the next chapter she will become a ‘mother of Israel.’ She is a married woman, but it is she and not her husband, Lappidoth, who becomes one of the vessels in this story. She is the one who is able to understand the will of God in the situation.

The military leader for the Israelites is Barak who is summoned and charged by Deborah to rally a large number from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun. Israel has no standing army at this time and so these ‘ten thousand,’ while numerically superior to the charioteers of Sisera, are not equipped or trained to stand against this type of force. When Barak requires Deborah to go with him it is possible to read this as either Barak’s failure to trust and because of his failure to trust God will deliver the glory that was originally to be his to a woman.[1] But the Hebrew is more ambivalent. It is equally likely that Barak is not negatively judged for wanting the presence of Deborah and that losing some glory to a woman is an exchange he is glad to make for the presence of a prophetess who can discern the movement and will of God. (NIB II:780) Deborah has summoned Barak and goes with him. Now Barak summons the ten thousand from Naphtali and Zebulun and goes to Mount Tabor.

In the middle of the narrative we have the introduction of the family of Heber the Kenite whose wife, Jael, will play a crucial role in the conclusion of the narrative. The Kenites were introduced earlier Judges 1:16 who had allied themselves with Judah and Simeon in their conquest of Southern Israel. Now we have an individual Kenite family group which has come into Northern Israel’s territory and made peace with the Canaanites in that region. Dennis T. Olson mentions the association of the Kenites with the descendants of Cain who in Genesis 4:22 are skilled in bronze and iron working and conjectures that Heber may be a craftsman responsible for building or helping maintain the iron chariot forces of these Canaanites, (NIB II:780-781) but while this is a plausible conjecture it still only a conjecture. What we can say in in the narrative Heber the Kenite has negotiated a peace for his clan with the military power of the area.

Picture of Mount Tabor in 2011, Attribution צילם: אלי זהבי, כפר תבור shared under creative commons 2.5

Barak and his ten thousand fighters from Naphtali and Zebulun and Sisera and with his 900 chariots and all his troops come together at the Wadi Kishon. The book of Judges narrates the battle of the Wadi Kishon from a theological perspective: the LORD has gone out to fight before the fighters of Israel and delivers this technologically superior force into their hands. The narrative also hints at how the technological advantage of the iron chariots is overcome. Terrain can play a critical role in ground combat and particular for armored forces. In modern warfare tanks which can be nearly invincible in the plains or desert become vulnerable in urban areas, forests, and swampy terrain. In ancient warfare iron chariots would be particularly vulnerable in areas where their wheels become mired in soft mud or uneven terrain. In a wadi, which is a stream bed or ravine which is dry except during rainy seasons, the recent presence of water can make the heavy chariot a liability like Pharoah’s chariots mired in the Red Sea which prevent their escape from the returning waters during the escape of the Israelites from Egypt. The presence of water is explicitly mentioned in the song in the next chapter.  Sisera is explicitly mentioned as abandoning his chariot and retreating on foot away from the Israelite horde descending upon them from Mount Tabor.

Sisera flees toward the tent of Heber the Kenite, presuming that it will be a safe space and he is greeted by Jael, Heber’s wife. Jael provides shelter and hides the fleeing general and the imagery for Jael’s action towards Sisera are initially described in a very maternal manner. Yet the language swiftly turns from maternal to violent once the general has been tucked under the blanket and given milk like a child, now his temple is penetrated in a stealthy strike which drive a stake through his head. Once again deception is involved in the elimination of a threat to Israel, and now Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite is the trickster like Ehud. Jael is definitely not an Israelite like Shamgur son of Anath at the end of the previous chapter. With the expectation of hospitality once you bring someone under your tent her actions are at best morally ambiguous and yet they are critical to a story that is a part of God’s action to end the oppression of God’s people. It is a story of reversals where a seemingly invincible commander is reduced to a child and eventually is killed not in combat but hiding under a rug by a woman. Sisera had instructed Jael to answer the question, “Is a man here”[2] and before Jael reduces him to a corpse he already tells her to claim there is ‘no man’ in here. Jael then goes to Barak and shows him ‘the man’ he is seeking is already a corpse.

Once the leadership of Sisera and the threat of the nine hundred chariots are removed the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun are able to continue their occupation of their territory. King Jabin without Sisera is no longer able to maintain control, these Israelites experience a time of expansion and peace, and God works through a prophetess, a man who can rally the tribes, and a foreign woman. Somehow all three fulfill the role of a judge. Story and morality in the bible can seem complicated, especially when you are looking at the experience of the oppressed. Tricksters often appear in the literature of the oppressed and when they triumph over the powerful they not only defeat them, but they humiliate them. This tale with all its moral ambiguity where Jael violates the expectations of hospitality probably functioned for the Israelites like the Brer Rabbit stories functioned for slaves in America.[3] Perhaps the primary point of the story is the humiliation of the powerful and not the morality of the trickster and perhaps the book of Judges helps us to accept the action of God through people who share different values, beliefs, and morality than we might.

[1] Hence the NIV translation of verse 9 “Very well,” Deborah said, “I will go with you. But because of the way you are going about this, the honor will not be yours, for the LORD will hand Sisera over to a woman.”

[2] The NRSV translates the Hebrew hayes poh ‘is as “is anyone here?” but this reflects the NRSV pattern of using inclusive language. The typical use of the pronoun here is for a man.

[3] See for example the treatment of the trickster in James C. Scott’s Domination and the Arts of Resistance (Scott 1990, 162-166)